Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

There is a substantial body of criticism on Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s work in general, and on Slaughterhouse-Five in particular. While critics have often found Vonnegut's fiction as a whole to be uneven in quality, they have frequently praised him for Slaughterhouse-Five, which is widely regarded as the author's finest work.

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The tone for much of the criticism that followed the book's release was set by Robert Scholes in his review of Slaughterhouse-Five, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review shortly after the novel's publication in 1969. Scholes praised Vonnegut's humor, noting that it ‘‘does not disguise the awful things perceived; it merely strengthens and comforts us to the point where such perception is bearable.’’ He asserted that the absurd elements of the novel are appropriate and necessary to deal with the absurdity of the world. He considered the novel to be ‘‘an extraordinary success … a book we need to read, and to reread … funny, compassionate, and wise.’’ The noted critic Granville Hicks, reviewing the novel in Saturday Review, compared Vonnegut to Mark Twain as both a humorist and moralist.

Much of the later criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five has emphasized the book's unusual and innovative structure. In Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels (1977), Richard Giannone observed that ‘‘Vonnegut the witness draws moral force by undermining conventional narrative authority’’ and ‘‘comments on the reality of Dresden by treating the problems of fiction.’’ In his 1990 study ‘‘Slaughterhouse-Five’’: Reforming the Novel and the World, Jerome Klinkowitz observed that the Tralfamadorian concept of time is also ‘‘the overthrow of nearly every Aristotelian convention that has contributed to the novel's form in English over the past three centuries.’’ And in an earlier study of Vonnegut, Klinkowitz links the author's experiments with narrative form to those of other experimental writers of the 1960s, such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon.

Several critics have also focused on Slaughterhouse-Five as a work of science fiction. Reviewing the novel in the New Republic, J. Michael Crichton compared it to works by such well-known science fiction authors as Robert A. Heinlein, J. G. Ballard, and Roger Zelazny, all of whom were, like Vonnegut, popular among the youth ‘‘counterculture’’ of the 1960s. James Lundquist spent a chapter of his 1977 study of Vonnegut examining Vonnegut's connections to science fiction, noting especially the character of science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout. Interestingly, critics from within the science fiction field are frequently uncomfortable with Vonnegut's use of science fiction devices. Thomas D. Clareson, writing in Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction, agreed with noted British science fiction novelist and critic Brian W. Aldiss that Vonnegut's use of time travel and other science fiction devices is ‘‘intrusive.’’

While the critical reception of Slaughterhouse-Five has been overwhelmingly positive, some critics have expressed reservations concerning the novel's apparent endorsement of passive acceptance as an appropriate response to evil. Crichton suggested that Vonnegut ‘‘refuses to say who is wrong … ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.’’ And Tony Tanner, in his 1971 book City of Words, worried that Vonnegut's vision is one of ‘‘moral indifference.’’ The overwhelming popular success of Slaughterhouse-Five has also been somewhat tempered by the fact that it is one of the novels most frequently banned from high school classrooms. This is presumably because of its unsparing violence and occasionally explicit language. Nonetheless, Vonnegut's novel has maintained a level of popular and critical success seldom achieved by any book. Most readers and critics have agreed with Tanner, who, despite his concerns about ‘‘moral indifference,’’ concluded that Vonnegut's most famous work is ‘‘a masterly novel’’ of ‘‘clarity and economy—and compassion.’’

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