The Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five
The moral of "Slaughterhouse-Five" is whatever you want it to be. That is the beauty of the book. However, in his typically dark, sarcastic way, Kurt Vonnegut gives us several possible themes to explore. One of the themes relates to the way in which Mr. Vonnegut presents the human life span
. Through his writing, Mr. Vonnegut poses an ancient question: Are we masters of our destiny, or are we simply pawns of fate? The medium through which Mr. Vonnegut presents this riddle is death. Death is the central point
to which all action in the book connects. The story is primarily about the death of 135,000 German civilians in the bombing of Dresden. The story is also about Billy Pilgrim, a man who experiences death from every viewpoint, a man who survives many life-altering experiences, and does not change at all. Through death, Mr. Vonnegut examines free will, and refutes it. He shows death as meaningless. The casual treatment of death demonstrates the futility of free will in human life.
The first mention of death occurs in the third sentence of the book. This same event is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. Technically, the event occurs several times. Edgar Derby, a man that the main character, Billy Pilgrim, and Mr. Vonnegut both know, is caught taking a teapot out of the rubble of Dresden. The three men's captives, the Nazi Germany Army, execute Mr. Derby. This happens after the bombing of Dresden. 135,000 German civilians, who had no real involvement with the war, were massacred all at once. Then one man is executed for taking a teapot. This kind of irony is the principal tool of Mr. Vonnegut.
The phrase "So it goes," is perhaps the most famous aspect of "Slaughterhouse-Five
." Each time a death occurs, "So it goes" is repeated. The phrased is used indiscriminately, without regards to the importance of or the number involved in the death. When Mr. Vonnegut mentions that Billy's father was killed in a hunting accident, it warrants no more attention than a random Pole that Billy saw hanged while he was in Dresden. The death of the 135,000 Dresden citizens calls for no more consideration than the death of a single hobo with whom Billy shares a train car as they and other prisoners of war ride to a prison camp. "So it goes" is a reminder that no matter how important we think our death or the death of a loved one is, there have been countless billions of deaths before.
The alternate title of "Slaughterhouse-Five" is "The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death."
One of the three main settings in the book is Tralfamadore, a planet to which short, plunger-shaped, one-eyed aliens take Billy to live in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians' concept of time is that all events are predetermined, and that time is not linear. All events happen at once. This is illustrated in the scene where Billy is first abducted.
"'Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,' said the loudspeaker. 'Any questions?'
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: 'Why me?'
'That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?'
Yes.' Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three lady-bugs embedded in it.
'Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.'" (Slaughterhouse-Five, p.76-77). This encounter demonstrates the Tralfamadorian concept of time and free will. Time is an illusion, and free will doesn't exist. In other point in the story, the Tralfamadorians address the concept of free will directly.
"If I hadn't spent so much time studying Earthlings," said the Tralfamadorian, "I wouldn't have any idea what was meant by 'free will.' I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."(Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 86)
Through the Tralfamadorians, Mr. Vonnegut gives us his views on free will: it is just an illusion. Without free will, there is no point in struggling in anything, because it will do no good. This is why Billy accepts everything that happens to him. This is why Billy isn't shaken up by death. It's going to happen anyway, there is nothing we can do to prevent or even change it, so why bother at all? Death is no more exciting than eating a bowl of oatmeal; a bowl of sub-par oatmeal.
Some people devote their lives to social reform. Others fight environmental causes. Mr. Vonnegut would say that these people are wasting their lives, because they put so much energy into fighting the predestined, and thus preventing happiness. He chooses, through the Tralfamadorians, to give us his own view of death. Page 27 of the book sums it up best: "When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes,'"
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.; Slaughterhouse-Five; or Children's Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death New York: 1971; Dell Publishing