Vonnegut’s Anti-War Theme
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 planet Tralfamadore on his daughter’s wedding night many years after the war. In using an alien civilization as a...
(The entire section is 5,326 words.)