Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was written as a general statement against all wars. Vonnegut focuses on the shock and outrage over the havoc and destruction man is capable of wreaking in the name of what he labels a worthy cause, while learning to understand and accept these horrors and one's feelings about them. Through his character, Billy Pilgrim, he conveys not only these feelings and emotions, but also the message that we must exercise our free will to alter the unfortunate happenings that might occur in our lives.
Vonnegut had tremendous difficulty writing this novel. He says, "I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen" (Vonnegut 2). He did not count on his emotions interfering with his attempts at a factual and logical report of such atrocities. It took Vonnegut twenty years to directly face his private demon of the firebombing of Dresden in the form of this novel. He had trouble recalling any memories of substance about his time in Dresden. It could be said that he was blinded by the firebombs of Dresden. It was not until Vonnegut returned to the sight of the bombing twenty years later, along with one of his war buddies, that he was able to recall the disastrous and horrific incidents in Dresden. The novel served as a form of therapy for Vonnegut; it enabled him to examine the events of the past that impacted on his life, and to come to terms with them. Vonnegut chooses to focus the novel on events surrounding the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. As James Lundquist explains:
"The bombing of Dresden was a surprise raid. It wasn't expected because the city was militarily unimportant. The population of the city had been doubled by prisoners-of-war and refugees. On February thirteenth, 1944, American bombers dropped high-explosive bombs followed by incendiaries, which caused a firestorm that could be seen more than two hundred miles away. On February fourteenth, the Americans carried out a second raid, which completed the destruction of the city. More than two-hundred thousand people were killed outright, burned to death, or died after. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were herded with other prisoners-of-war into the storage area of a slaughterhouse and later emerged to find the once beautiful city looking like the surfa...
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...nti-war book. Vonnegut toys with the notion that war is inevitable, but he leaves the possibility that wars can be stopped; he still knows that death is unavoidable.
Vonnegut ultimately rejects the Tralfamadorian theory of life that is so common throughout the novel. He knows that he will never understand man's cruelty, but he does know that it is not inevitable; he knows that it can be stopped. He knows that one day the world will stop sending its babies off to fight and that constant war is not the fate of the universe. A prayer in the novel that is stated both in Billy's Tralfamadorian world, as well as in his real world, goes as follows:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference" (60, 209).
This prayer summarizes Vonnegut's message to his readers. Parts of life are inevitable and must be accepted, but many parts of life can and must be changed. As human beings, we do have free will. We have control of our lives and what we want to make of them. We must learn to see what is beyond our abilities to change and also what we must have the strength and perseverance to alter.
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