The Intricately Woven Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five

The Intricately Woven Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five

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The Intricately Woven Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five


At first glance Slaughterhouse-Five appears to be
a simplistic story. It is a short account of a man's
experiences in World War II and the effects the war had on
his life. But by taking a deeper look into
Slaughterhouse-Five we see intricately woven themes,
contrasts, and morals. Vonnegut has disguised a great
lecture against war and an acceptance of death through the
idiocy and simplicity of Billy Pilgrim.

Vonnegut begins the novel with a warning. His first
chapter subtly warns us that Slaughterhouse-Five has been
difficult for him to produce. "This one is a failure," he
writes, "since it was written by a pillar of salt" (22; ch.
1). The irony of this statement is that by looking back in
time Vonnegut accuses himself of idiocy, like Billy Pilgrim.
Yet one of the main themes of the entire work is the "bugs
in amber" or the existence of the past, present, and future
all at once. In the opening chapter he also humbles his work
by telling us how it begins and ends, stressing the
succeeding theme.

Billy Pilgrim is a master of disguise. He serves as
a superb mask that Vonnegut hides behind in order to get his
messages across without scaring readers away with boring
lectures. Vonnegut wants us to accept life as it is and to
understand that death is inevitable and something we must
not fear. He indirectly lets us know that this is
a realization that he has come to in his own life, most
likely through the war experience, and invites us to follow
in his footsteps. Through his humor and lightheartedness he
does not force these ideas on us but helps us to open our
minds to new ways of perceiving our lives. As the king of

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repetition, one of Vonnegut's various echoes throughout
Slaughterhouse-Five is the prayer "God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change..." (60; ch. 3, 209;
ch. 9). Religious themes are woven in here as an invitation
to face and reconcile ourselves with death. He offers us
religion, science, fantasy, and human experience as doors
for us to open. It also opens our minds to another theme:
the concept of time.

We are immediately told that Billy Pilgrim "has come
unstuck in time" (23; ch. 2). He moves backward and forward
through time throughout the novel as if time itself were
some sort of photo album. He goes from the war to
Tralfamadore and back again to his childhood. We begin to
wonder if Pilgrim is sane or if his experiences could be
reality. Are we really "bugs in amber"? Billy's time lapses
also present us with the cyclical feeling of
Slaughterhouse-Five. There is a continuing cycle of death
and renewal throughout Billy's story. "So it goes", found
over one hundred times, plays an important role in the
continuation of the novel. Each time a death occurs "so it
goes" helps us to accept the death, that there is nothing we
can do about it, and move onto renewal and reentry into the
living. This expression ties many aspects of the story
together, helping the entire work to keep dying and renewing
itself again. Billy learned this from the Tralfamadorians.
They saw the world as a portrait, laid out and finished with
all experiences present at once. "All time is all time. It
does not change," they tell him (211; ch. 10). They believed
that death is predestined and cannot be avoided. Billy also
learned this acceptance from the Tralfamadorians. Just as
Vonnegut has come to see death in a new light, we too are
witnesses to Billy's changing perception of life. "I, Billy
Pilgrim,...will die, have died, and always will die on
February thirteenth, 1976" (141; ch. 6). Billy dies and
renews his life repeatedly, enforcing the cyclical nature of
the book.

Another aspect of this cycle is Vonnegut's use of
repetition. "So it goes" is the most used phrase in the
book. Pilgrim is often saying "um" while Vonnegut's personal
narration repeats phrases such as "mustard gas and roses"
and "listen". Ideas are also repeated in order to stress
morals and messages that the author wants to convey. The
"pillar of salt" emphasizes and mirrors Vonnegut's own
recollection of the war as well as his reflection on the
stages he went through in order to achieve his current
perceptions that "all time is all time." The "poo-tee-weet"
of the birds found in the beginning and end of the book
reflects Vonnegut's own "so it goes." He tells us that after
massacres there are only the sound of birds. There is
nothing to say about the death, only the birds can say
"poo-tee-weet" (19; ch. 1). Later in the novel Pilgrim is
accused of having echolaia, a "mental disease which makes
people immediately repeat things that well people around
them say" (192; ch. 9). The audience could also accuse the
author of the same disease in a metaphorical sense. This is
just one of the incidents connecting the two narrations and
perspectives in the novel: Vonnegut's and Pilgrim's.

As Vonnegut tells us in his introductory chapter: "All
this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are
pretty much true" (1; ch. 1). Vonnegut uses Billy as
a spokesman for his experience and often Billy reflects
Vonnegut's progression through time and understanding of
self. Both continually reinvents themselves through writing
Slaughterhouse-Five. Each are able to manipulate their
realities in order to grow and to cope with the past,
present, and future. Vonnegut connects himself to Pilgrim
through the presence of Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction
writer. Trout writes about similar experiences that Pilgrim
has had, such as his visit to Tralfamadore. Vonnegut is
doing the same thing. Kilgore questions Billy's time travels
just as Vonnegut questions the very theories of time and
death that he presents to his own audience (174; ch. 8). "Am
I as irrational as Billy?" he asks us. Billy thinks the
world of Trout though many others do not. Trout's
unpopularity parallels Vonnegut's humble perception of his
own abilities. He continues to write despite the fact that
he doesn't think highly of his works. Just as in the
introduction, he tells us that this book is a failure.
Vonnegut's humbleness implies another underriding theme of
religion and humanity.

Vonnegut is inspired by the Biblical story of Lot's
wife looking back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He
loves "her for that, because it was so human" (22; ch. 1).
He begins to teach us a moral lesson of war: it's wrong and
stupid but we must accept it in order to go on with our
lives. Just looking at the subtitle of the book, "The
Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death" we peer into
Vonnegut's personal view of life, death, and war. Soldiers
are not soldiers but children that have an obligation, or
"duty", to go to war, the "dance of death." "We were
baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don't think I had to
shave very often," Vonnegut tells us. God and Jesus Christ
are mentioned from time to time throughout the novel. They
help us to justify and understand the awful situations that
we put ourselves into. The Tralfamadorians serve as
a surrogate God, teaching Billy and the reader that war and
death are meant to be. God does not leave us but has planned
these things in order for us to learn. We are also taught by
the Tralfamadorians not to be proud, a sin associated with
Christian belief. They tell Billy that earth is just a small
bit of the universe and we shouldn't take ourselves so
seriously (116-7; ch. 5). Applying this to the reader,
Vonnegut reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves
either, just as he continually humbles himself and his work.

Tied in with Vonnegut's religious themes is the time
structure of the entire book. He questions us, as well as
himself. What really does life look like from a bird's eye
view? Are we and the events that occur in our lives already
planned out? Are we part of that big portrait that the
Tralfmadorians believe in? The entire text is scattered,
shifting from one place and time to another, giving us
a feel of this new "bugs in amber" concept. We have trouble
discerning just what is happening in the story. Vonnegut's
subtlety shows us glimpses of the randomness of our own
lives. We have no control over our past, present, and future
and at times do things we feel we are drawn towards. Billy
samples his own predestination through his unwanted marriage
to Valencia. He didn't want to marry her but he felt
compelled to do so. "Everything is supposed to be quiet
after a massacre," is another example of predestination
concepts throughout the work. Vonnegut often used phrases
such as "supposed to be" and "had to be" to back up his
concept. The author himself tells us he had to write this
book. His subtitle "A Duty-Dance with Death" also takes on
a personal aspect. Vonnegut had to reconcile himself with
the war, the death, and its impact on him. What exactly
propelled him to do so, is a question that remains
unanswered.

The Tralfamadorians play a big role in Billy's thought
development. Not only do they teach him the phrase "so it
goes", but they also help Billy to come to grips with the
war. "When a person dies he only appears to die. He is still
very much alive in the past," they teach him (26; ch. 2).
Billy becomes an educational tool for the
Tralfamadorians. By caging him up the creatures begin to
study human behavior. Humans are very animalistic in nature.
This may be another of Vonnegut's subtle lessons in
morality. He may be warning us of our self-destructive pride
while helping us to ask ourselves some questions. Could
Earthly life simply be an experiment made by God? Could God
be putting us in cages and observing us too? Kilgore
Trout's novel The Gospel from Outer Space tells the story of
an alien who visited Earth and "made a serious study of
Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it
necessary to be cruel" (108; ch. 5). Again we see Vonnegut's
use of Trout as a tie-in to his personal presence in the
book. Vonnegut too is writing of a journey to understand
Christianity, to understand life.

The caging of Billy in outerspace mirrors Vonnegut's
own caging as a prisoner of war. They experience the
devastation of being restrained animals yet both have
invented a pleasant reflection on it: the Tralfamadorian
cage. As the aliens taught Billy we can "look at any moment
that interests [us]" so are these former prisoners
reinventing their pasts (26; ch. 2).

Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut used many
symbols to hint at notions he has on those ideas he subtly
wants to share with the reader. Note the character's names.
Billy Pilgrim is really a man on a journey through time,
a pilgrim. His wife Valencia's name comes from a few
sources, all adding to her character. Valencia is rooted in
the name valerian, a flower known for its sedative
properties. Billy often finds her boring and put to sleep by
her. Her name can also be rooted in the word valence, having
to do with the combining capability of atoms. Billy feels
drawn to marry her, though he does not know why. Could it be
her "valency"? Billy's hometown of Ilium can be linked to
the word ileum which labels the lower part of the intestine.
Billy never did have a strong bond with his hometown. It can
also be rooted in a Latin word having to do with illusion.
Billy's entire life is an illusion. If said slowly Roland
Weary can sound like "roll on weary". Roland was a sad,
pathetic man who kept plugging away despite his weariness.
Montana Wildhack adds to our image of her "mountainousness"
like the state of Montana. Her last name is an obvious
compound word describing her as a free spirited person in
search of work (i.e. an actress). Not only are names but
other images in the text are symbolic. The destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah can be linked to the destruction of
Dresden. Both were blown up with "brimstone and fire" (21;
ch. 1). Vonnegut's repetition of the phrase "mustard gas and
roses" echoes the mixture of the horrors of war and the
beauty of humanity, a consistent theme throughout the novel.
Billy's career reflects truths about his own state of mind.
Ironically his optometry enables others to see when he
can't see for himself. It also parallels his need to
"comfort so many people with the truth about time" (28; ch.
2). Like the catcher in the rye, Billy wants to save people
by helping them see.

Vonnegut's true motives for writing Slaughterhouse Five
may be remain unanswered. We could say he is being that
catcher in the rye, trying to save us from our own limited
thinking or our loss of humanity at times. Whatever the
reasons, Vonnegut has produced a powerfully neurotic novel
that has proven itself to be both timeless and amusing.
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