by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Vonnegut’s Anti-War Theme

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In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had already published five novels and two short story collections, but he was not especially well-known or commercially successful. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in that year was an artistic and commercial breakthrough for Vonnegut. According to the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, one of the leading authorities on Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut’s ‘‘first bestseller. [It] catapulted him to sudden national fame, and brought his writing into serious intellectual esteem.’’ Other critics have noted the novel as a summation of many of the themes of Vonnegut’s work: the dangers of unchecked technology, the limitations of human action in a seemingly random and meaningless universe, and the need for people, adrift in an indifferent world, to treat one another with kindness and decency. Almost thirty years later, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s most discussed and widely admired novel.

Many critics and scholars have suggested that Vonnegut’s breakthrough in Slaughterhouse-Five occurred because here, for the first time, he addressed directly the pivotal event of his own life. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and, while a prisoner of war, witnessed the firebombing of the German city of Dresden—an ‘‘open city’’ with no significant military targets. On the night of February 13, 1945, Allied bombers dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed an estimated 135,000 people, almost all of them civilians. This was nearly twice the number of people killed by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Dresden bombing remains the single heaviest air strike in military history.

Vonnegut’s effort to come to terms with such an overwhelming—and, in the view of many historians, unnecessary—catastrophe took the form of a novel with a highly unusual structure. Rather than employing a conventional third-person ‘‘narrative voice,’’ Slaughterhouse-Five is narrated by the author himself. The first chapter consists of Vonnegut discussing the difficulties he had in writing the novel, and Vonnegut himself appears onstage as a character several times later in the book. In a sentence directed to his publisher, Vonnegut said of the novel, ‘‘It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.’’

The novel’s ‘‘short and jumbled and jangled’’ structure reflects the condition of its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Like Vonnegut, Billy is taken prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the Dresden firebombing. Billy’s response, however, is not to write a novel but to become ‘‘unstuck in time.’’ Beginning during this captivity behind German lines, Pilgrim finds himself liable at any time, suddenly and without warning, to travel to any given moment in his own past or future. Although the novel follows Billy’s war experiences in more or less chronological order, a scene of Billy in a German prison camp may be followed immediately by a scene of his wedding night, or a time when his father taught him to swim as a child.

Billy’s condition is, on one level, a symbol of the shock, confusion, dislocation, and desire for escape that result from the horrible experiences of war. His time travels could, perhaps, be interpreted as the delusions of an emotionally unstable man. It is important to remember, however, that several of Vonnegut’s earlier novels, such as Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, were science fiction novels. Billy’s time travel may be symbolic, but it may also be interpreted as an actual event, an example of science fiction’s ability to make metaphors concrete.

The most overtly science-fictional element in Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, Billy’s abduction by aliens from the...

(This entire section contains 1592 words.)

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planet Tralfamadore on his daughter’s wedding night many years after the war. In using an alien civilization as a vehicle for commenting on humanity, Vonnegut is again using the traditions of science fiction. The Tralfamadorians also appear in Vonnegut’sThe Sirens of Titan. During his captivity on Tralfamadore—where he is displayed naked in a cage and, eventually, mated with a movie actress from Earth named Montana Wildhack—Billy learns of the aliens’ philosophy of time and death. It is a philosophy that explains his own condition.

For Tralfamadorians, time is not a linear progression of events, but a constant condition—‘‘All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.’’ Like Billy, the aliens can travel back and forth to different moments in time. They do not consider death a significant event, since when a person dies he or she ‘‘is still very much alive in the past.’’ Billy does, in fact, know when he is going to die, and is unconcerned. At the moment of his death, he finds himself returning to an earlier point in his life. The Tralfamadonan response to death is ‘‘So it goes’’—a phrase Vonnegut writes at every point in the novel where death is mentioned. All beings exist in each moment of time like ‘‘bugs in amber,’’ and there is nothing that can alter that fact: ‘‘Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.’’ Accordingly, the Tralfamadorians advise Billy ‘‘to concentrate on the happy moments of life, and to ignore the unhappy ones.’’

Such a philosophy can, of course, lead to being passive and resigned rather than trying to oppose evil and make the world better. Some critics have noted this tension in the novel and worried that it could be read not as moral outrage but as, in the words of the critic Tony Tanner, ‘‘culpable moral indifference.’’ A possible answer to this charge may be found in one of Vonnegut’s direct comments to his readers: ‘‘There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.’’ There are certainly characters and dramatic situations in Slaughterhouse-Five, but the characters are fragile, wounded people at the mercy of forces completely beyond their control.

Those characters who claim to have some degree of control are, almost without exception, clueless, or cruel, or both. Roland Weary, the soldier who torments Billy while they wander behind enemy lines, believes he is a great warrior. Along with the two scouts with whom he and Billy find themselves, he considers himself one of ‘‘The Three Musketeers,’’ a closely-bound fighting unit. In fact, Weary is a sadistic, incompetent bully whom the experienced scouts abandon. ‘‘Wild Bob,’’ a colonel on the prison train with Billy, delivers a speech in which he assures his nonexistent troops that they have the Germans on the run and invites the troops to a reunion in his hometown after the war: ‘‘If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!’’ Shortly thereafter, ‘‘Wild Bob’’ dies of pneumonia. The British prisoners of war, who make a great show of thriving in adverse conditions, owe their prosperity to a clerical error which causes the Red Cross to send them extra supplies. Years after the war, Billy shares a hospital room with Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord, an Air Force historian who has no patience with ‘‘bleeding hearts’’ and tries to convince Billy that the Dresden raid was justified. Billy responds by quoting another person with delusions of control: ‘‘‘If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,’ said Billy Pilgrim behind his white linen screens, ‘just ask for Wild Bob.’’’ Confronted by the inexplicable horrors of war, and by a world in which people like Weary and Wild Bob and Rumfoord find glory in wholesale death and destruction, Billy’s passivity is, perhaps, understandable.

Slaughterhouse-Five is, then, not an answer to the tragedy of war, but a response. The novel’s innovative structure, distinctive prose style, and skilled use of humor and satire have all been much commented upon by critics. But it is the horror of war, as represented by the Dresden firebombing, and the attempts of decent people to come to terms with those horrors, that lie at the heart of the book and provide its most memorable scenes. One such scene is when the American POW’s emerge from the meat locker under Slaughterhouse-Five to see the charred wreckage left after the bombing:

… the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon.… The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them learned that they were treacherous, jagged things.… Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead.… There were to be no moon men at all.

Slaughterhouse-Five was published during the height of the Vietnam War, a point in history when many Americans were beginning to think their country had made a terrible mistake. It is perhaps no surprise that a novel which faced head-on the horrors of war (and American responsibility for some of those horrors), while at the same time suggesting that the only proper response to these horrors was to maintain a degree of ironic distance while being kind to victims, struck such a chord with the reading public and made its author a cultural icon. That Vonnegut’s novel has remained a classroom staple is a tribute to both its artistic achievement and the power of its message. Slaughterhouse-Five is, in the words of Tony Tanner, ‘‘a masterly novel’’ of ‘‘clarity and economy—and compassion.’’

Source: F. Brett Cox, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Cox is an assistant professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia.

Time, Uncertainly, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: A Reading of <i>Slaughterhouse-Five</i>

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Carefully read, Chapter One [of Slaughterhouse-Five] emerges as a functional and illuminating part of the novel as a whole. For the chapter contains passages that suggest three important facts crucial to a proper understanding of Vonnegut's novel: (1) the novel is less about Dresden than about the psychological impact of time, death, and uncertainty on its main character; (2) the novel's main character is not Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut; and (3) the novel is not a conventional anti-war novel at all, but an experimental novel of considerable complexity.

Billy Pilgrim, the putative protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not even appear in this chapter. Instead, the focus is on Vonnegut, the author-as-character. Emerging is a portrait of the artist as an aging man, ‘‘an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.’’ He is a man of nostalgia who makes late-night drunken phone calls to almost-forgotten acquaintances, calls that seldom make connection. He reminisces about his days as a university student and police reporter in Chicago, as a public relations man in Schenectady, and as a soldier in Germany. The wartime memories, particularly as they concern the mass deaths at Dresden, especially haunt his reveries and of course form the basis of plot for the subsequent nine chapters.

Yet for one so apparently obsessed with the fleeting nature of time—he even quotes Horace to that effect—Vonnegut seems at times curiously vague and indefinite about time. He cannot remember the exact year he visited O'Hare and, upon returning to bed after a night of drinking and telephoning, cannot tell his wife, who ‘‘always has to know the time,’’ what time it is. ‘‘Search me,’’ he answers. His forgetfulness seems a shield, a defense against a medium that oppresses him.

The Vonnegut of Chapter One appears simultaneously obsessed with and oppressed by time, the past, and death—particularly death. His preoccupation with death is reflected in the various figures he employs in Chapter One and throughout the novel. Among the most prominent of these is the flowing-frozen water metaphor. Vonnegut has used this motif before, especially in Cat's Cradle, when ice-nine, dropped accidentally into the ocean, ossifies everything liquid. But it recurs in a subtler though perhaps more pervasive way in Slaughterhouse-Five. Early in the novel, Vonnegut, on his way to visit Bernard V. O'Hare in Philadelphia, crosses the Delaware, then appropriates the river as a metaphor in his reflections upon the nature of time. ‘‘And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.’’ Even before this association of time and the river, however, Vonnegut associates death with ice, frozen water. ‘‘Even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers,’’ he writes, ‘‘there would still be plain old death.’’ Extending this metaphor throughout the novel, Vonnegut repeatedly portrays living humanity as water flowing, dead humanity as water frozen. ‘‘They were moving like water,’’ he describes a procession of Allied POW's, ‘‘ … and they flowed at last to a main highway on a valley's floor. Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans.’’ One of the POW's, a hobo, is dead, therefore ‘‘could not flow, could not plop. He wasn't liquid anymore.’’ Later, Billy Pilgrim sees the dead hobo ‘‘frozen stiff in the weeds beside the track,’’ his bare feet ‘‘blue and ivory,’’ the color of ice. The phrase ‘‘blue and ivory’’ occurs seven times in Slaughterhouse-Five, twice to describe the frozen feet of corpses, five times to describe the feet of Billy Pilgrim, who, though still in the land of the flowing, is marked as mortal.

A similar figure applies to Vonnegut himself. Twice in Chapter One he refers to his breath as smelling of ‘‘mustard gas and roses.’’ The phrase appears again in Chapter Four when Billy Pilgrim receives a misdialed phone call from a drunk whose breath, like the drunken ‘‘telephoner’’ of Chapter One, smells of mustard gas and roses. The full implication of the image becomes clear only on the next-to-the-last page of the novel. In the ‘‘corpse mines’’ of Dresden, as the dead bodies begin to rot and liquify, ‘‘the stink (is) like roses and mustard gas.’’ Like Billy Pilgrim's ‘‘blue and ivory’’ feet, Vonnegut's breath marks him as mortal. This, the image suggests, is what time does to us all, not only when we lie dead like the Dresden corpses, but while we breathe. Life is a state of gradual but perpetual decay.

Time, then, is the enemy harrowing the brow of the first character we meet in the novel. It is important to recognize that the Vonnegut of Chapter One is, indeed, a character in Slaughterhouse-Five. Of course he is very much like Vonnegut the author, has the same experiences, but he remains nonetheless the author-as-character. Moreover, he becomes the first-person narrator for the remainder of the novel, a fact obscured by the Billy Pilgrim plot, which is often read as the novel proper rather than the novel-within-the-novel-proper. Vonnegut-as-character introduces himself in Chapter One, informs us of his procedures in gathering materials for his novel, and confesses the difficulties he has had over the past twenty-three years in writing his story. Then, starting with Chapter Two, he begins narrating his novel, that is, the novel by the author-as-character within the novel by Vonnegut the author.

It is not until the Tenth and final chapter that Vonnegut-as-character again ‘‘appears.’’ He has not changed much since Chapter One. He again remembers conversations with O'Hare, he is still confused about time, placing the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King only a month apart; and he still harbors thoughts of death. The most significant aspect of this chapter, however, is that in describing the Dresden ‘‘corpse mines’’ the narrator shifts for the first time in the novel to first person plural:

Now Billy and the rest were being marched into the ruins by their guards. I was there. O'Hare was there. We had spent the past two nights in the blind innkeeper's stable. Authorities had found us there They told us what to do. We were to borrow picks and shovels and crowbars and wheelbarrows from our neighbors. We were to march with these implements to such and such a place in the ruins, ready to go to work. (italics added)

The shift in number insists, however subtly, that the story just related is not merely Billy Pilgrim's story, but the narrator's as well. He, too, had suffered capture and malnutrition and the devastating firebombing. He, too, worked in the corpse mines and saw a friend shot for ‘‘plundering’’ a teapot from the ruins.

And so, we realize, did Vonnegut the author. Indeed, many autobiographical similarities linking Billy Pilgrim to his ‘‘creator,’’ Vonnegut-as-character, extend even more to Vonnegut himself. Both Pilgrim and Vonnegut were born in 1922, had fathers who hunted, are tall; both were captured in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, were sent to Dresden, where they stayed in Schlachthoffunf, worked in a plant that manufactured malt syrup for pregnant women; both survived the Dresden holocaust and helped dig up the corpses afterwards; both were discharged in 1945, returned to college, and were married soon afterwards. Billy thus becomes a dual persona, a mask not only for Vonnegut-as-character (who is already a mask of sorts for Vonnegut), but for Vonnegut the author as well. Vonnegut has thus removed himself at least twice from the painful Dresden experience. By including himself as a character in his own novel, he achieves the distance that must exist between author and first person narrator, no matter how autobiographically based that narrator is. The further inclusion of Billy Pilgrim as protagonist of the novel-within-the-novel removes Vonnegut yet another step from the scenes he is recreating.

Nowhere is this need for distance more evident than when Vonnegut relates the actual firebombing itself. Since this scene constitutes the novel's raison d'etre, one might expect an extended and graphic presentation. The scene, however, is not only brief, but is couched in indirection, layered with multiple perspectives. At least one reviewer has criticized the scene's failure to describe more fully the Dresden catastrophe. But Vonnegut did not see the firebombing, he heard it, from within Slaughterhouse-Five. So does Billy Pilgrim.

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked.… A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

Most significant about this scene is not its indirection, however, but the fact that it is a remembered scene. For the first time in the novel, Billy Pilgrim remembers a past event rather than time-travelling to it. Time-travel, it seems, would have made the event too immediate, too painful. Memory, on the other hand, supplies a twenty-year buffer. But if the firebombing, only indirectly witnessed, was distressing, the totally devastated city confronted the following day by the one hundred prisoners and then: four guards must have been almost overwhelming. To relate that scene Vonnegut-as-narrator requires even more distance than memory can provide. So the scene is revealed through a story Billy remembers having told Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore.… Vonnegut-as-character removes himself as much as possible from the scene he narrates, cushioning it with multiple perspectives, constructing what is finally a story within a memory within a novel. (Vonnegut the author removes himself yet one step further, achieving a story within a memory within a novel within a novel.) Moreover, before relating this important scene, Vonnegut-as-narrator withdraws to the protective fantasy of Tralfamadore. Only from the perspective of that timeless planet can he at last come to artistic terms with a scene that has haunted him for twenty-three years.

Source: Charles B. Harris, ‘‘Time, Uncertainly, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five,’’ in Centennial Review, Summer, 1976, pp. 228-43.

Pilgrim's Dilemma: <i>Slaughterhouse-Five</i>

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The reader's central problem in comprehending Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five lies in correctly understanding the source of Billy Pilgrim's madness. Vonnegut continually undercuts our willing suspension of disbelief in Billy's time travel by offering multiple choices for the origin of Billy's imbalance: childhood traumas, brain damage from his plane crash, dreams, his shattering war experiences, and plain old fantasy. Yet if, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, only a ‘‘first-rate intelligence’’ has the ‘‘ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’’ an inquiry into the two opposed philosophical systems that Pilgrim holds in his mind—Tralfamadorianism and Christianity—may lead us to the fundamental cause of Billy's breakdown. Clearly, Billy is no ‘‘first-rate intelligence,’’ and he hardly can be said to ‘‘function’’; he simply cracks under the strain of his dilemma. For some critics, however, Vonnegut's method of juxtaposing two explanatory systems, seemingly without affirming one or the other, becomes a major flaw in the novel.… I would argue that, on the contrary, Vonnegut's position is clear; he rejects both Tralfamadorianism and divinely oriented Christianity, while unambiguously affirming a humanly centered Christianity in which Jesus is a ‘‘nobody,’’ a ‘‘bum,’’ a man.

In the autobiographical first chapter, Vonnegut introduces the opposed ideas, which the narrative proper will develop, evolving from his twenty-three-year attempt to come to terms with the horror of Dresden. The Christmas card sent to Vonnegut's war buddy by a German cab driver, expressing his hope for a ‘‘world of peace and freedom … if the accident will,’’ dramatizes, in miniature form, a central tension in the novel. Human history is either divinely planned—Christmas signifies God's entrance into human history—and historical events are meaningful, or human history is a series of random events, non-causal, pure ‘‘accident,’’ having no ultimate meaning as the Tralfamadonans claim. Both viewpoints deny free will; man is powerless to shape events.… Either position allows one serenely to wash his hands of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim washes his hands, so to speak, and becomes reconciled to his Dresden experience under the tutelage of the Tralfamadorians: ‘‘‘[Dresden] was all right,’ said Billy. ‘Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.’’’

The Tralfamadonans provide Billy with the concept of nonlinear time, which becomes the foundation for a mode of living: ‘‘‘I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber.’’’ Although men on earth are always ‘‘‘explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided,’’’ Billy learns that ‘‘‘there is no why.’’’

In short, Tralfamadorianism is an argument for determinism. Yet, this is a determinism without design, where chance rules. The universe will be destroyed accidentally by the Tralfamadorians, and wars on earth are inevitable.… The upshot of the Tralfamadorian philosophy finds expression in a cliche: ‘‘Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.’’

When Billy, full of revelations, returns to Earth ‘‘to comfort so many people with the truth about time,’’ the implications of Tralfamadorianism become apparent. Although Billy's first attempt to ‘‘comfort’’ someone, a Vietnam war widow's son, fails, Billy blossoms into a charismatic national hero at the time of his assassination in 1976. The public appeal of Tralfamadorianism is obvious. Simply, it frees man from responsibility and from moral action. If all is determined, if there is no why, then no one can be held accountable for anything, neither Dresden nor My Lai. In his personal life, Billy's indifference and apathy toward others are clearly illustrated. Chapter Three offers three consecutive examples of Billy's behavior: he drives away from a black man who seeks to talk with him; he diffidently listens to a vicious tirade by a Vietnam Hawk at his Lions Club meeting; he ignores some cripples selling magazine subscriptions. Yet the Tralfamadonan idea that we can do nothing about anything fully justifies Billy's apathy. When Billy preaches this dogma as part of his ‘‘calling,’’ he does a great service for the already apathetic by confirming their attitude; he provides them with a philosophical base for their apathy. If one ignores the ghetto or the Vietnam War, neither exists. By exercising one's selective memory, by becoming an ostrich, one may indeed live in a world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Perfect. No wonder Billy is a successful Comforter; he has fulfilled Eliot Rosewater's request that ‘‘new lies’’ be invented or ‘‘people just aren't going to want to go on living.’’

If Tralfamadorianism is a ‘‘new lie,’’ it recalls an ‘‘old lie’’—God. There is little difference between God's will and accident's will in the novel. For Vonnegut, man's belief in an all-powerful Creator, involved in human history, has resulted in two great evils: the acceptance of war as God's will; the assumption that we carry out God's will and that God is certainly on our side, which justifies all atrocities. Sodom, Gomorrah, Hiroshima, Dresden, My Lai IV—all victims of God's will. Vonnegut directs his rage in Slaughterhouse-Five at a murderous, supernatural Christianity that creates Children's Crusades, that allows men to rationalize butchery in the name of God, that absolves men from guilt. Since, for Vonnegut, all wars are, finally, ‘‘holy’’ wars, he urges us to rid ourselves of a supernatural God.

While Vonnegut indicts Tralfamadorianism and supernatural Christianity as savage illusions, he argues in Slaughterhouse-Five for a humanistic Christianity, which may also be an illusion, but yet a saving one.

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut associates Billy Pilgrim with Bunyan's Pilgrim and with Christ. A chaplain's assistant in the war with a ‘‘meek faith in a loving Jesus,’’ Billy finds the war a vast Slough of Despond; he reaches Dresden, which ‘‘looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim,’’ only to witness the Heavenly City's destruction. Often, Vonnegut's Christian shades into Christ Himself. During the war, Billy hears ‘‘Golgotha sounds,’’ foresees his death and resurrection, ‘‘‘it is time for me to be dead for a little while—and then live again,’’’ identifies himself fully with Christ: ‘‘Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically. Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross.’’ After his kidnapping in 1967 by the Tralfamadorians, Billy assumes the role of Messiah: ‘‘He was doing nothing less now, he thought, than prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore.’’ Vonnegut has created a parody Christ whose gospel is Tralfamadorian, who redeems no one, who ‘‘cried very little although he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol.’’ Indeed, Pilgrim's dilemma is that he is a double Savior with two gospels—a weeping and loving Jesus and a Tralfamadorian determinist. His opposed gospels drive him mad, render him impotent, result in his crackpot letters to newspapers and in his silent weeping for human suffering. Possibly Billy could have resolved his dilemma if he had paid closer attention to the human Christ in the novels of Billy's favorite writer—Kilgore Trout.

While Vonnegut often mentions Trout's books and stories for satiric purposes, Trout, ‘‘this cracked messiah’’ who has been ‘‘‘making love to the world’’’ for years, also serves as Vonnegut's spokesman for a humanistic and naturalistic Christianity. In Trout's The Gospel from Outer Space, a planetary visitor concludes that Christians are cruel because of ‘‘slipshod storytelling in the New Testament,’’ which does not teach mercy, compassion, and love, but instead: ‘‘Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected.’’ Trout's visitor offers Earth a new Gospel in which Jesus is not divine, but fully human—‘‘a nobody.’’ When the nobody is crucified: ‘‘The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity.’’ What Vonnegut suggests here is that Christ's divinity stands in the way of charity. If the ‘‘bum’’ is Everyman, then we are all adopted children of God; we are all Christs and should treat each other accordingly.

As mentioned earlier, both Tralfamadorian determinism and the concept of a Supreme Being calling every shot on Earth nullify human intention, commitment and responsibility. But Vonnegut's humanistic Christianity in the face of a naturalistic universe demands moral choice—demands that we revere each other as Christs, since all are sons and daughters of God. Not surprisingly, Vonnegut's position echoes that of Stephen Crane.… The correspondent's insight that we are all in the same boat adrift in an indifferent sea, and that once we realize that we have only each other, moral choice is ‘‘absurdly clear,’’ is Kurt Vonnegut's insight as well. (Vonnegut mentions The Red Badge of Courage.) The courage, sacrifice, and selflessness in The Red Badge appear in Slaughterhouse-Five also.

While Vonnegut offers several versions of ideal brotherhood in his works—the Karass, the Volunteer Fire Department, and, despite Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s assessment of American prisoners, moments of brotherhood in Slaughterhouse-Five—he also suggests an alternative for the individual, a slogan that becomes a way of living. On the same page where Vonnegut says, ‘‘Billy was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do,’’ appears the following prayer and Vonnegut's comment:


Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

The Serenity Prayer, sandwiched between episodes concerning Vietnam, is Vonnegut's savage indictment of Billy Pilgrim. In short, Billy lacks the ‘‘wisdom’’ to see that Dresden is of the past and cannot be changed, but that the bombing of North Vietnam lies in the present and can be changed. However, to protest the bombing requires moral ‘‘courage,’’ a quality obviated by his Tralfamadorian education.

The seemingly innocuous Serenity Prayer, the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous, appears once more in a most significant location—on the last page of Chapter Nine. The truth of Raymond M. Olderman's observation in his Beyond the Waste Land that ‘‘Vonnegut is a master at getting inside a cliché’’ is verified when we consider that Vonnegut has transformed the AA motto into a viable moral philosophy. Vonnegut knows that we have to accept serenely those things that people cannot change—the past, linear time, aging, death, natural forces. Yet the Prayer posits that, through moral courage, there are things that can be changed. War, for example, is not a natural force like a glacier, as Harrison Starr would have it. While Billy believes that he cannot change the past, present, or future, Vonnegut suggests that in the arena of the enormous present, we can, with courage, create change: ‘‘And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’’

If there is a broad moral implication in Slaughterhouse-Five, it is aimed at America. Vonnegut, like his science fictionist Kilgore Trout, ‘‘writes about Earthlings all the time and they're all Americans.’’ Vonnegut's message for America is this: America has adopted the Tralfamadonan philosophy, which justifies apathy. We have lost our sense of individuality; we feel powerless, helpless, and impotent; we consider ourselves the ‘‘listless playthings of enormous forces.’’ What Vonnegut would have us do is develop the wisdom to discriminate between what we can or cannot change, while developing the courage to change what we can. We have met Billy Pilgrim and he is us.

Source: David L. Vanderwerken, ‘‘Pilgrim's Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five,’’ in Research Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 147-52.


Critical Overview