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Slaughterhouse Five      Dresden

 

"In Slaughterhouse Five, -- Or the Children's Crusade, Vonnegut  delivers a complete treatise on the World War II bombing of Dresden. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a very young infantry scout* who is captured in the Battle of the Bulge and quartered in a Dresden slaughterhouse where he and other prisoners are employed in the production of a vitamin supplement for pregnant women. During the February 13, 1945, firebombing by Allied aircraft, the prisoners take shelter in an underground meat locker. When they emerge, the city has been levelled and they are forced to dig corpses out of the rubble. The story of Billy Pilgrim is the story of Kurt Vonnegut who was captured and survived the firestorm in which 135,000 German civilians perished, more than the number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Robert Scholes sums up the theme of Slaughterhouse Five in the New York Times Book Review, writing: 'Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them.' The reviewer concludes that 'Slaughterhouse Five is an extraordinary success. It is a book we need to read, and to reread.' "The popularity of Slaughterhouse Five is due, in part, to its timeliness; it deals with many issues that were vital to the late sixties: war, ecology, overpopulation, and consumerism. Klinkowitz, writing in Literary Subversions.New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism, sees larger reasons for the book's success: 'Kurt Vonnegut's fiction of the 1960s is the popular artifact which may be the fairest example of American cultural change. . . . Shunned as distastefully low-brow . . . and insufficiently commercial to suit the exploitative tastes of high-power publishers, Vonnegut's fiction limped along for years on the genuinely democratic basis of family magazine and pulp paperback circulation. Then in the late 1960s, as the culture as a whole exploded, Vonnegut was able to write and publish a novel, Slaughterhouse Five, which so perfectly caught America's transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age. '"Writing in Critique, Wayne D. McGinnis comments that in Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut 'avoids framing his story in linear narration, choosing a circular structure. Such a view of the art of the novel has much to do with the protagonist . . . Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who provides corrective lenses for Earthlings. For Pilgrim, who learns of a new view of life as he becomes "unstuck in time," the lenses are corrective metaphorically as well as physically. Quite early in the exploration of Billy's life the reader learns that "frames are where the money is.". . . Historical events like the bombing of Dresden are usually 'read' in the framework of moral and historical interpretation.' McGinnis feels that the novel's cyclical nature is inextricably bound up with the themes of 'time, death, and renewal,' and goes on to say that 'the most important function of "so it goes" [a phrase that recurs at each death in the book] . . . , is its imparting a cyclical quality to the novel, both in form and content. Paradoxically, the expression of fatalism serves as a source of renewal, a situation typical of Vonnegut's works,for it enables the novel to go on despite -- even because of -- the proliferation of deaths.'"

 

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