Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five as an Antiwar Novel
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War can affect and inspire people to many degrees. Kurt
Vonnegut was inspired by war to write Slaughterhouse-Five,
which is a unique book referred to sometimes as a science
fiction or semi-autobiographical novel. But, if facts are
inferred in the novel, like the similarity of Vonnegut to
Billy Pilgrim, facts about other characters (specifically
the Tralfamadorians), and the themes and structure of the
novel, another way of viewing ;this book can be seen that is
as an anti war piece of writing. In fact, Vonnegut
demonstrates his own antiwar sentiments throughout the
This novel's main character, Billy Pilgrim is like
Vonnegut in many ways. Kurt Vonnegut is an American novelist
from Indianapolis, Indiana, born in 1922. A very important
part of Vonnegut's life was when he served in WWII, and was
a prisoner of war (POW) in Dresden, Germany. During that
time he experienced the firebombing of Dresden, which
affected him greatly. This event had around 135,000
causalities, which is about twice the number killed in
Hiroshima by the atomic bomb (1969 Kurt Vonnegut's
Slaughterhouse-Five). Many claim that his involvement in the
war is what made him write Slaughterhouse-Five. When
Vonnegut created Billy Pilgrim, he made Billy subject to the
experience of war. In fact, Billy experiences it almost
exactly the same as Vonnegut himself had, including the
experiences of being a POW and in the firebombing of
Dresden. But in Billy's case, Vonnegut writes it with
a particular point of view, which is against war. For
example, when Vonnegut writes of the ways Billy views
things, especially in the war, he makes Billy's view
"slanted, which makes the reader perceive the war as
something absurd, grotesque, macabre--in any case, not quite
real" (Mayer 6 March). Making Billy so much like himself,
Vonnegut uses Billy to "tell" the reader his own views.
According to Vonnegut, " I have always rigged my stories to
include myself" (American Writers 753).
Vonnegut not only talks about Billy Pilgrim's life
during the war, but also Billy's post-war life on Earth. It
is known that Billy does struggle after the war to start up
his life, which indicates the hurtfulness of war, but if one
looks further, to Billy's profession as optometrist, a theme
can be seen: the importance of sight (Lichtenstein). This
theme relates to the idea that Billy has sight before he
goes to war, then goes to war and goes insane, thus losing
his own "true-sight." But he ironically tries to correct the
vision of others in his profession as an optometrist. Along
those lines Jesse Lichtenstein says, "Vonnegut may be
commenting on the futility of life and the destructiveness
of war: the one employed to correct the myopic view of all
his patients may be the most blind of all" (Lichtenstein).
With this, the use of irony shows Vonnegut's anti-war
Kurt Vonnegut also incorporated elements of science
fiction into this book with the Tralfamadorians, who act as
another way for Vonnegut to show his feelings against war.
The Tralfamadorians are aliens that abduct the protagonist,
Billy Pilgrim. They can observe a fourth dimension, free
from time itself, which, "contains all moments of time
occurring and reoccurring endlessly and simultaneously"
(Lichtenstein). Because of this ability, they have a totally
different mentality from those on earth, and criticize the
beliefs' of those on earth. This unique concept of time that
the Tralfamadorians possess has been described by Jerome
Klinkowitz in Reforming the Novel and the World as "the
overthrow of nearly every Aristotelian convention that has
contributed to the novel's form in English over the past
three centuries" (Novels for Students 269). The
Tralfamadorians are another way Vonnegut tells his feelings.
With their unique views, the Tralfamadorians comment on
all that is awry on earth, and mention war in these
comments. They say how, "only on earth is there talk of free
will" (Novels for Students 265). That then relates to the
notion that since earthlings believe in free will, not
fatalism (the belief that there is no free will and
everything that happens is fate) like the Tralfamdorians do,
they believe that earth is corrupt (Classic Notes). Free
will, the Tralfamadorians explain, is on earth because
humans believe that time progresses in a linear fashion,
rather than having already occurred, as it has in the fourth
dimension for the Tralfamadorians. Thus, the Tralfamadorians
believe that free will is non existent. According to an
article on this, the Tralfamadorian's idea of fatalism
"attempts to justify the irrationality of war" (Classic
Notes). The Tralfamadorians also believe that there will
always be war on earth, since humans are designed that way.
With that, Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to criticize
the fact that there is war on earth.
The existence of the Tralfamadorians themselves is
another way Vonnegut shows his feelings against war. In an
article about the novel, Jesse Lichtenstein comments on how
the abduction of Billy Pilgrim by the Tralfamadorians is
a hallucination that could be "a way to escape a world
destroyed by war" (Lichtenstein). Similarly, Classic Notes
says that Billy Pilgrim "escapes" there when he is stressed,
from his experiences of war on earth. These aliens, as
a "product of an escapist mind" (Mayer 6 March), are
a vehicle for Billy's mind to escape upon, out of a world
plagued by war. In many ways, Vonnegut's own personal
feelings in opposition to war are translated into the
Tralfamadorian views. For example these views of the
Tralfamadorians are said to also reveal Vonnegut's
fatalistic views, which are naturally against the ideas of
free will. Vonnegut shows how free will is mistaken with
Billy Pilgrim's life experiences, like being rescued from
the bottom of the pool against his free will and being
drafted into war. Or, as his survival as a soldier, that is,
"a testament to the deterministic forces that render free
will and allusion" (Lichtenstein). Also, the incorporation
of the abduction into the story shows Vonnegut's feelings
against war, as "many of Vonnegut's books employ science
fiction and fantasy techniques to communicate his concerns
about the destructive capabilities of technology" (Encarta).
This demonstrates how the Tralfamadorian views can be taken
a step further to show how their feelings actually reflect
those feelings of their creator, Vonnegut.
The novel Slaughterhouse-Five is truly unique in style
and structure, which ends up further upholding the anti-war
theme. This book employs many elements of literature,
including black humor, or dark comedy, which is a type of
humor that amuses the audience with something that would
normally be inappropriate to laugh at. In this case, war
would serve as the means. Black humor is seen in describing
the main character as a "filthy flamingo" or when Billy
attempted to publish his encounter with the Tralfamadorians.
Both are slightly satirical, and when this style is employed
in parts of the book about war, it enforces a sense that
these ideas are, "nothing tragic, but inexplicable and
absurd" (Novels for Students 270). On the same token, Donald
G. Marshall, a professor of English at the University of
Illinois, Chicago, claims that Vonnegut uses this black
humor to, "satirize the self-satisfaction they felt resulted
from the war." Consequently, the slightly sarcastic element
of dark humor is yet another way for feelings against war to
The novel, "about war and the cruelty and violence in
war" (Vit), is written in no particular flow from one event
to the next in reference to time, which can also serve as
a metaphor for Vonnegut's feelings against war. Billy is
"unstuck in time," and the novel jumps from one event to the
next, in no particular order (Novels for Students 264).
According to Novels for Students, this being unstuck in time
is "a metaphor for the sense of alienation and dislocation
which follows the experience of catastrophic violence (World
War II)" (264), and also is "a metaphor for feeling
dislocated after war" (264). The feeling of alienation and
loneliness is just one of the many themes in the book. These
multiple themes are said to be linked together by one common
theme: "the common thread between all of Vonnegut's themes
is war" (Dunstan). Since the predominant theme in the book
is war, it is evident that "the theme that Kurt Vonnegut
wanted everyone who read his book to know just how bad war
Vonnegut's writing in the novel has been criticized as
hard to understand and bewildering, but Vonnegut himself
feels that this shows his feelings against war. In the
article "Critics on Slaughterhouse-Five," it claims that the
novel is confusing and lacks smooth transitions. But, the
article goes on to relate these faults with modern man's
life, being confusing and lacking smoothness. Also, F. Brett
Cox, an English professor at Gordon College, claims Vonnegut
uses Slaughterhouse-Five to come to terms with his own war
experiences, the firebombing or Dresden. And more
importantly, he quotes Vonnegut's comments on the novel
being that, "it is so jumbled and jangled, Sam, because
there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre"
(Novels for Students 270). Even the novel's faults show
Vonnegut's anti-war sentiments.
The anti-war message is upheld further with the ironies
that Vonnegut provides in the book. For example, when one of
the soldiers, a POW, survives the fire-bombing, but dies
afterward from the dry heaves because he has to bury dead
bodies, Vonnegut uses irony to give show a message against
war (Classic Notes). With this, we can also see how,
"Vonnegut wants people to know the atrocities of war, and
that it should never happen again" (Quinn). Another example
of irony is when Billy Pilgrim and Ronald Weary join the two
infantry scouts. Classic Notes again points out that it is
ironic that the trained infantry scouts are killed, but not
the untrained Billy or Ronald. Perhaps the best example of
an irony is shown in the words of a bird. When the bird says
"poo-tee-weet?" to Billy, it serves a big purpose, in that
it shows that "there is nothing to say about an unnecessary
massacre as in Dresdon, and that war is illogical, like the
bird's words. This is ironic, since the theme of the novel,
which should be the clearest message derived from the story,
is summed up in the incoherent words of a bird" (Classic
Notes). This shows an irony that not only can provide comic
relief, but acts as a vessel for Vonnegut's feelings.
Kurt Vonnegut was subject to the life-changing effects
of WWII, as a soldier and POW in Dresden, Germany. The many
aspects of war, namely the firebombing of Dresden,
influenced Vonnegut greatly. Because of these events, Kurt
Vonnegut was inspired to write Slaughterhouse-Five, where he
explains his feelings against war. Vonnegut transmits these
feelings to his audience through many methods, but mainly
through the novel's main ;;character, Billy Pilgrim the
Tralfamadorians and in the themes, writing style, and
structure of the book.
Vonnegut's feelings against war seem to be consistent
both in the book and in his life. For example, according to
Novels for Students, Vonnegut claims that "anyone who seeks
glory and heroism in war is deluded" (265). Also, according
to Brittany Dunstan, Vonnegut's war experience has given him
a caution against unchecked science and technology, and led
him to ponder the very value of science. That value he
stated as, "I am the enemy of all technological progress
that threatens mankind" (Dunstan). Dunstan also quotes from
Vonnegut that he told his sons that " 'they are not under
any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the
news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with
satisfaction or glee,' and they should not work for,
'companies that make massacre machinery' " (Dunstan).
Through these quotes it is evident that Vonnegut carries his
anti-war feelings shown in his writing through to his
personal and moral values.
Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five can be viewed in many
ways. It can be seen as a semi-autobiographical novel,
science fiction novel, and as an anti-war piece of writing.
Or, it can be seen as a unique combination of science
fiction and autobiographical elements to support the
author's own anti-war feelings. In any case, many agree that
war influenced Vonnegut to write this book, and that its
message is not based solely upon only WWII, but rather many
wars and the thinking of the time. This also suggests that
the contentions of the book about war can also be applied
for wars to come.
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