Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2285
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: a history professor writing on Dresden
Lily Rumfoord: Rumfoord’s trophy wife
After she hears Billy’s airplane has crashed, the hysterical Valencia rushes to the hospital, ripping the exhaust system off her car in an accident en route. Immediately after arriving, she is overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning. Shortly thereafter, she dies.
Billy is still unconscious. He is sharing a room with Bertram Rumfoord. Rumfoord’s wife, Lily, brings Bertram books for the history of the United States Army Air Corps in World War II that he is writing. Rumfoord makes Lily read Truman’s statement on the necessity of bombing Hiroshima.
Although Billy finally regains consciousness, he says little and is believed to be a vegetable. Rumfoord finds him to be disgusting and wonders out loud why the doctors don’t let Billy die.
Rumfoord is having problems with his book because the parts on Dresden are going to be new. The Air Force and the American government had previously attempted to keep their success in Dresden a secret from the American public. After Rumfoord expresses his frustration to Lily, Billy says that he was there.
For a long time Rumfoord refuses to acknowledge that Billy is addressing him instead of echoing him. Billy finally speaks to him after a long silence, but Rumfoord doesn’t believe Billy was in Dresden.
Billy time travels to Dresden, where he is riding around in a wagon with some other Americans, looking for souvenirs. Billy is supremely happy dozing in the wagon. He is awakened by the voices of a middle aged German couple crooning to the abused horses. They get Billy out of the wagon and show him the horses’ miserable condition. This makes Billy cry for the very first time in the war.
After questioning Billy, Rumfoord finally accepts that Billy was in Dresden. Rumfoord attempts gruffly to sympathize with Billy, while maintaining the necessity of Dresden’s destruction. Billy agrees with everything Rumfoord says, adding that he learned that everything has to happen the way it does while he was on Tralfamadore.
Barbara takes Billy home later that day. He sneaks out and goes to New York City with the intention of spreading the good news about Tralfamadore. While he is there, Billy is drawn into an adult book store by some books by Kilgore Trout displayed in its window. The one Billy first reads turns out to be one he read long ago. It is about a man and woman who are kidnapped from Earth and put on display in an extraterrestrial zoo.
Billy also picks up an old girly magazine with a story about Montana Wildhack. Billy knows Montana is back in the zoo with their baby and not dead, as the magazine says she is.
That night, Billy manages to get on the panel of a radio show. When he finally is allowed to speak, he talks about his outer space adventures.
Back at his hotel, after being kicked out of the studio, Billy travels to Tralfamadore. He tells Montana, who is feeding their baby, about his trip to New York. She notices that the Tralfamadorians are playing with the clocks again. The chapter ends with an illustration of Montana’s necklace and its enigmatic slogan.
Vonnegut resumes the narrative, ticking off the deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, numerous Vietnamese, and his father. Vonnegut says that he would not be overjoyed if Billy was right and it were true that everyone really lives forever. He’s glad he has so many nice moments to visit. High among them is his trip back to Dresden with Bernard O’Hare.
Billy travels back to Dresden, where he, as well as O’Hare and Vonnegut, is pressed into service by German soldiers to dig out bodies from the rubble. They find many little pockets full of well-preserved corpses. Eventually the condition of the corpses deteriorates, and instead of being removed they are cremated on the spot.
During this time, Edgar Derby is shot for the theft of a teapot.
Finally, World War II is over. Billy is free. He walks out into the spring air. A bird chirps to him.
Chapters Nine and Ten bring Slaughterhouse-Five to an enigmatic conclusion. Structurally, it is a confusing ending because it seems that the book has reached a predictably happy ending in Chapter Nine, which ends with Billy at home with his family on Tralfamadore. The idea that this forms the conclusion of the fictional section of Slaughterhouse-Five is supported by Vonnegut’s initial domination of Chapter Ten, which seems like a disguised postscript matching the introductory Chapter One.
The moment of peace is shattered, though, as Billy is reinserted in the story at the very moment Vonnegut seems as if he is going to reminisce about his trip to Dresden with Bernard O’Hare. However, the climax of the book has not yet been reached, according to Vonnegut’s outline in Chapter One: Edgar Derby has not yet died at the hands of a firing squad. More action seems ready to follow.
However, the rest of Chapter Ten is quite relaxed. The moment of Derby’s death receives no attention; it just happens, and is not described. It is difficult to conceive of this short paragraph as the climax of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Has Vonnegut, then, tossed out the climax along with the other elements of the novel? Although an argument could be constructed in support of this statement, Slaughterhouse-Five does reach a climax. The exact point is a matter of some dispute. Stanley Schatt makes a strong argument in favor of the climax occurring when Billy finally recollects the firebombing after the sight of the barbershop quartet affects him so strangely. As Schatt explained, “It is only after Billy has faced the past that he is able to return to Dresden and live through the holocaust once more.”
Yet Schatt’s interpretation seems to assume that Billy’s recollections of Dresden appear in his life after the war in the sequence that they occur in the novel; that is, that Billy has been moving toward remembering the entire period of his imprisonment, but has only been able to proceed toward the firebombing. This is contradicted when Valencia mentions on her wedding night that she had overheard Billy discussing with her father Derby’s death, which happened after the firebombing.
Billy has completely suppressed his memory of the war in order to continue his life. He denies his memories to Valencia and, as time goes by, to himself. He has completely lost himself in “trying to construct a life that made sense from things [he] found in gift shops.” Valencia accepts that Billy gives her rings instead of real intimacy, because she, too, is hopelessly materialistic.
Schatt is right to say that “the firebombing is at the center of Billy’s consciousness and is much more real to him than his shallow life as an optometrist in Ilium, New York.” For this reason, Billy needs to accept his memories to make himself whole. This need is shown in Billy’s fantasies about Tralfamadore and the sexy wife he has there. Montana, who is able to accept Billy’s time-travelling (which is how he understands what he is experiencing), provides a rapt audience for Billy’s war experiences. In contrast, Valencia would have been disappointed to find they are not glamorous.
Billy’s memories have been trying to fight their way back to his conscious mind for years, as his inexplicable weeping fits show. Billy’s first move toward wholeness would therefore be to acknowledge his experiences. He finally manages to do so (with a real person) when he tells Bertram Rumfoord, “I was there.” This is the climax of the book. Unfortunately, the effort to integrate so much cruelty into a unified system of understanding life is more than Billy can undertake, and he instantly retreats into Tralfamadorian fatalism (read: insanity) because of his inability to integrate his experiences with his gentle personality. Like Derby, Billy becomes a character in a moment of confrontation. It is a point that shows he has grown as a person. While he may also be mad, his future popularity shows that there are many people who may turn to such a simplistic philosophy to explain a world so inexplicably cruel.
Does Slaughterhouse-Five have a moral to match its climax? Vonnegut’s own comments in the first chapter argue against the existence of a moral to this story. He says that there is “nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The birds’ chirping says “all there is to say,” which must be, according to the preceding sentence—nothing.
Or is it? “Poo-tee-weet” is used in Vonnegut’s fiction a number of times. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, it is like an exclamation point attached to the protagonist’s sudden realization of how to extract himself from the trap set for him by his family and their lawyer. Schatt says that in this instance, and in every other, the bird’s chirp represents “the cool, detached way to deal with a catastrophe.” This is the same interpretation that many critics have given to the phrase, “So it goes.” This interpretation holds that the moral of Slaughterhouse-Five is to remove oneself from feeling the pain of the world, as there is nothing one can do to stop it.
Robert Uphouse, however, points out the contrast of the bird’s song with the destruction that lies around it. Given Billy’s need to cushion himself from horror in later life, Uphouse finds “Poo-tee-weet” to be a reminder of the human capacity for dealing with death through the imagination, as Billy and Vonnegut do.
Yet this explanation also seems unsatisfactory, since Billy’s imagination leads him astray. It seems better to turn for an interpretation to Vonnegut himself, who says in Chapter One that after so much horror has been wrought in the world, “everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.” But the birds’ still cheerful songs show the dogged, perhaps even irritating, persistence of life amidst death. Their presence contradicts the finality of the situation, much as Billy’s wagon contradicts its coffin shape by being green. “Poo-tee-weet,” explained in The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut, cannot help but be a sign of hope within a “never-ending cycle of regeneration and destruction.”
Does Vonnegut have a moral? He might say he does not, but his frequently quoted statement that the role of an artist is to be a “canary in a coal mine” encourages the reader to probe the text for its message. A message can indeed be found, one that was most relevant when one remembers that this book was written during “the nadir of America’s self-confidence during the Vietnam war years,” as stated in Klinkowitz’s Kurt Vonnegut. The message is found by examining the ideas expressed by a few of Vonnegut’s cardboard characters and keeping in mind that the characters themselves are designed to express ideas more than Vonnegut’s mastery of psychological insight.
The character which enables Vonnegut to give a message to his story is Bertram Rumfoord. Rumfoord is the best-developed of a series of characters who glorify war, such as the Marine major, Roland Weary, and the British prisoners. Vonnegut makes Rumfoord a very unsympathetic man. Rumfoord is the kind of man who uses people as objects without regard for their feelings. He married his wife to show the world that he is a “superman,” and he thinks that Billy should be turned over to a “veterinarian or a tree surgeon,” implying that they would do the right thing by killing him.
Most damning is Rumfoord’s attitude toward Dresden. Vonnegut has described it as a fairy city, as enchanting as Oz, full of people that the reader feels are as human as him or herself. When Rumfoord defends its destruction, the reader cannot help but be appalled. Like the former lieutenant colonel Vonnegut describes in Chapter One, Rumfoord is unlikely to have done much actual fighting or suffering, and he certainly has little feeling of kinship towards other humans. This allows him to see the Dresden raid as a “howling success” while ignoring its cost. Like the robots in Trout’s The Gutless Wonder, Rumfoord has “no conscience, and no circuits which would allow [him] to imagine what would happen to people on the ground.” He is the embodiment of the “myopic morality of all apologists for war,” according to Schatt.
Vonnegut puts the lie to the statement “it had to be done.” Coming out of the mouth of a despicable man like Rumfoord, the words are as foul as vomit. Billy’s acquiescing response that everything has to be done as it is done—as the little green men taught him—slaps Rumfoord’s ridiculous logic back in his face. It is clear that nothing has to be the way it is, whether in Dresden, Hiroshima, Dachau, or Vietnam. Choices are made at every point along the way that should be made with humanity, rather than excused with empty phrases.
“The real horror is that events such as Dresden continue to occur and no one seems appalled,” as stated in Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. The message of Slaughterhouse-Five, then, is to reject the lie “it has to be done,” in war or elsewhere. Vonnegut is a canary in a coal mine, warning us that to let this attitude pass unchallenged, to deny that there are moral questions to be asked, to passively accept that history cannot be altered is to let atrocities happen again and again.
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