Slaughterhouse Five

 

Slaughterhouse Five Slaughterhouse Five

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Contents
Table of contents

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Summary

    Slaughterhouse-Five opens with Kurt Vonnegut describing his intention to write a book about his time in a German prisoner of war camp and during the devastation of the Bombing of Dresden. Still haunted by the horrors he witnessed, Vonnegut pledges to portray war accurately.

    The book's central event, the Bombing of Dresden, occurred on February 13, 1945. Allied forces firebombed the culturally significant city of Dresden, Germany. The bombing created a raging firestorm that destroyed the city and caused more than 25,000 civilian deaths. Germany was on the verge of surrender, so the bombing had little strategic value.

    Vonnegut introduces Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier who has become unstuck in time. Billy is an optimistic optometry student drafted into the war from upstate New York. Assigned as a chaplain's assistant, he sees little nobility in the death and destruction of war. As Vonnegut tells Billy's experiences during the war, the narrative is interrupted by flashes from various points in Billy's life. Throughout the book, these moments flash from Billy's early childhood to his death. The book's fractured, non-linear storytelling suggests Billy may be an unreliable narrator.

    On the European front, Billy meets Roland Weary, a violent bully who relishes the opportunity to fight and kill. During the German counterattack known as The Battle of the Bulge, Billy's unit is surrounded. Just as the Germans close in, Billy is suddenly hurled through time. He witnesses all the events of his life, from his past through to his eventual death.

    Unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim visits his past and present future in a random, disjointed series. Pixabay.

    The captured troops are transported to a prisoner of war camp on a freight train where the German guards force Roland Weary to wear painful wooden clogs. The clogs cut deep wounds into his feet, which become infected. A dying Weary manages to convince another soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame for his death. Viewing revenge as the highest form of honor, Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary.

    At the camp, Billy suffers a breakdown and receives morphine which sends him slipping through time once again. As part of a work detail sent to the German city of Dresden, Billy works in a factory and sleeps in an abandoned slaughterhouse. The soldiers are able to survive the Bombing of Dresden by hiding in an underground bunker.

    What is the symbolism of the prisoners being stored in a slaughterhouse?

    After several days the men emerge to find the city destroyed. The fierce heat of the bombs has cratered the land to resemble the moon's surface. Days later, the prisoners are liberated when Russian forces arrive in the city.

    Back at home, Billy struggles to fit back into everyday life. Traumatized by the time shifts and the war, Billy displays symptoms of PTSD. While recovering in a mental asylum, Billy discovers an obscure sci-fi writer known as Kilgore Trout and uses his novels to escape the trauma.

    After leaving the hospital, Billy enrolls in the Ilium School of Optometry. In his final year, he marries Valencia Merble, the daughter of the school's owner. Valencia's father helps Billy to establish a successful and profitable practice. With his growing family, Billy enjoys a happy and privileged life in the American suburbs.

    On the night of their eighteenth anniversary, the sight of a barbershop quartet triggers Billy's memories of Dresden. That night, Billy is abducted by a flying saucer and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are two feet tall and shaped like toilet plungers, who view time from a fourth dimension perspective. While humans see time's passage as linear and progressive, Tralfamdorians see all events as occurring simultaneously and in a loop. To them, death is only a moment, a person continues to exist in all other moments. Instead of being sad or traumatized by death, they simply say, "so it goes." (Ch. 1)

    Why did Vonnegut choose to present an all-powerful race like the Tralfamdorians resembling toilet plungers?

    The Tralfamdorians are amused at Billy's human ideas of free will. They believe all events are predetermined and that people have no control over their future. In the entire universe, the people of Earth are the only species to believe in the outmoded idea of free will.

    For months, Billy lives in a glass enclosure acting as a zoo exhibit for the Tralfamadorians. His captors force him to breed with a beautiful actress, Montana Wildhack. Just as the couple falls in love and produces a child, Billy is sent back to Earth. Placed only a few moments after his abduction, Billy hasn't been gone long enough for anyone to miss him.

    In 1968, Billy survives a plane crash. On her way to visit him at the hospital, his wife crashes her car and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Billy's mental state deteriorates until his daughter has him placed under the care of a nurse. He escapes and visits New York City where he finds books by Kilgore Trout. One of the books perfectly describes Billy's abduction experiences.

    The fictional sci-fi author, Kilgore Trout, appears in many of Vonnegut's most famous works. Vonnegut based the character on his fellow sci-fi writer, Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985).

    Knowing his experiences must be shared with humanity, Billy attempts to tell the story on a radio show but is thrown out. That night, he falls asleep in his hotel room and is cast back to Dresden, 1945. He recalls a traumatic incident in the ruins of Dresden when the German guards executed one of his friends for stealing a teapot.

    In a final attempt to share his message, Billy makes a tape detailing his death. He forecasts an escalation of the Cold War which splits the U.S and leads to a full-scale war with China. While giving a speech to a crowded baseball stadium about his time-tripping, Billy is shot with a laser gun. Billy's killer is an assassin paid for by Lazzaro.

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, important social institutions and beliefs come under fire from Vonnegut's cutting satire. As well as organized religion, Vonnegut attacks patriotism and the commonly held belief that America's actions during WWII were morally correct. With its frank depictions of sex, strong language, and existential dread, it's no wonder Slaughterhouse-Five has faced constant threats of censorship and outright banning since it was published in 1969.

    Slaughterhouse-Five, Banned, StudySmarterFig. 1 - For decades, Slaughterhouse-Five has been a popular target for bans across the USA.

    The book has constantly appeared on the American Library Association's list of banned books. The association reported a 1973 incident where protestors in North Dakota burned copies of the book. The book has been labeled Anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and anti-American.

    The Supreme Court Case Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) involved a group of New York students suing their school board for banning the book. The students claimed that the move infringed upon their First Amendment Rights. They eventually won the suit, which limited the school board's ability to censor or ban books.

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Characters

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut is the narrator telling Billy Pilgrim's fantastical tale. Many of the war sections contain real-life figures Vonnegut encountered.

    Kurt Vonnegut/The Narrator

    Vonnegut serves as a character and narrator in his book. As a WWII Veteran, Vonnegut based many of Billy's experiences on his time in the war. He was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, served time in a prisoner of war camp, and witnessed the bombing of Dresden. As well as telling us Billy's story, Vonnegut also appears at several moments during the story; he is the incontinent soldier in the latrine in the POW camp.

    Billy Pilgrim

    The novel's protagonist is a mild-mannered optometry student who lived a sheltered life before being drafted. Reluctant to fight, Billy stands out from his comrades, who believe in the need for war. Billy is often presented as a comedic figure. He is issued a leftover stage costume due to a uniform shortage and charges into battle dressed in a shiny toga. This is an apt metaphor for his place in the war; entirely unprepared to be a soldier.

    The Tralfamadorians

    Billy's abductors are described as upside-down toilet plungers. With advanced technology, the Tralfamadorians visit far-off planets and compile reports. Similar to the German soldiers who imprison Billy during WWII, the aliens force him to strip and remove his free will.

    Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorian, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Tralfamadorians appear in several of Kurt Vonnegut 's works.

    The Tralfamadorian philosophy views time as a circular and recurring concept rather than a linear process. Because of this, they display an apathetic mood to most events and look down on human ideas of free will.

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Themes

    Although Slaughterhouse-Five contains a great deal of humor, it deals with some serious subject matter. Vonnegut's experiences in WWII left him with a disdain for conflict and suspicions of major belief systems.

    Effects of War

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut questions the need for conflict. While many depictions of WWII present the conflict as necessary, Vonnegut shows the true impact of death and destruction on civilians and soldiers. Billy enjoys a fruitful life during the postwar boom, but carries psychological scars and remains a stranger to himself and his family. The trauma often overwhelms him as he struggles to make meaning of the horrors he witnessed.

    Slaughterhouse-Five, PTSD, StudySmarterFig. 3 - While PTSD had not yet been recognized at the time of the book's publication, Billy Pilgrim displays many characteristics of the disorder.

    The book's fantastical elements can be interpreted as manifestations of Billy's traumatized mind. To make sense of his suffering, he escapes into fantasy which provides a coping mechanism. Vonnegut struggled with his war experiences and suffered from depression. He returned to the themes of war and death in many of his most famous works. Slaughterhouse-Five was his attempt to come to terms with the residual trauma he'd experienced in Dresden.

    Released in 1969, as protests against the Vietnam War swept through America, Slaughterhouse-Five's antiwar message connected with protestors and the counterculture movement. As American society grappled with the increasingly unpopular conflict, the book questioned the need for war. While historians saw the bombing of Dresden as a justified act against Nazi Germany, Vonnegut questioned the motivations behind the attack. He argued that the bombing had little strategic impact on the war effort and was motivated by revenge. This senselessness of this violence mirrors Billy's own death at the hands of a vengeful former comrade.

    Free Will and Time

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorian's philosophy to explore the religious and philosophical concept of free will.

    Free will is the philosophical and religious concept that humans have the ability to make choices free from divine influence or the restrictions of a predetermined fate.

    Most major religions believe in some version of free will, which gives humans a choice between good and evil actions. Since people are responsible for their actions, bad decisions in the present will result in negative consequences in the future. Instead of seeing time as a linear movement from past to present to future, Tralfamadorians see all events as occurring simultaneously in an endless loop.

    In Tralfamadorian philosophy all events are predestined and inescapable. The individual has no ability to change what will happen because it already has happened. This belief is best described as fate. Billy accepts this philosophy as the nature of reality because it frees him from having to make any decisions or take risks. This is reflected in Billy's detached and unemotional view of the world. He rarely judges people or takes moral stances on issues.

    Since Billy feels powerless in the face of his trauma, he reasons that nothing he does can change the outcome of events and remains a detached bystander. This sense of powerlessness is summed up by the Tralfamdorian motto, "So it goes". This disconnect from responsibilities furthers the idea that the book's fantastical elements may be Billy's coping mechanism to deal with his trauma. While recuperating in the mental hospital, Billy becomes immersed in the sci-fi works of Kilgore Trout and uses them as an escape.

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Literary Techniques

    With so many genres and techniques going on, it can be hard to categorize Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel contains elements of autobiography, history, sci-fi, and satire. Two of the most important literary techniques Vonnegut uses to tell the tale are irony and allusion.

    Irony

    Irony is the use of words or actions to express meaning opposite from their literal meaning. This disconnect results in humor or serves to ridicule figures or institutions.

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut uses irony to point out the insanity of war. Many works lionize soldiers as dignified, however, Billy is shown to be the antithesis of the idealized war hero. Whereas soldiers are often depicted as strong and brave, Billy is weak and cowardly. He has no interest in fighting the war and sees no nobility in fighting. He is the antihero of an antiwar book.

    An antihero is a protagonist who lacks the characteristics or motivations of a traditional hero. While heroes are presented as brave and fighting for the greater good, an antihero usually lacks these qualities but sometimes does the right thing for the wrong reason.

    When Billy charges into battle, dressed in a theatrical toga, making him a comedic figure. Ironically, he survives the action while the prepared and enthusiastic soldiers around him are killed instantly. Presented as child-like, Billy represents the brutality of forcing young, immature men to fight to the death. This is reflected in the book's subtitle, "The Children's Crusade," a historical reference to armies of children who were forced to fight in religious wars.

    Vonnegut includes many moments of dark irony throughout the novel. After Billy survives a deadly plane crash, his wife is killed in a car crash on the way to visit him in the hospital. The guards execute one of Billy's comrades for stealing a teapot from the devastated remains of Dresden. These ridiculous events are reported in a serious tone, further highlighting their absurdity. The contrasting elements of such moments help to create a darkly funny tone that undermines the serious subjects of war and death.

    Allusion

    An allusion is a reference to another person, event, or literary work with which the reader is familiar. Authors use allusion to develop characters by drawing comparisons to other works and figures.

    Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse-Five to explore many ideas of Christianity. Billy's surname, Pilgrim, suggests a person on a religious journey and he is assigned to be a chaplain's assistant. The Christian idea of free will believes God embodied humans with the ability to make their own decisions. Billy is portrayed as a Christ-like figure; he is persecuted and ultimately killed for trying to bring a message to the world.

    Vonnegut was skeptical of organized religion and questioned the influence of Christianity on American life. The Tralfamadorians inform Billy they are aware of Jesus Christ but consider him an unimportant figure. While this does hint at the existence of God, it is also Vonnegut's way of downplaying the importance of religion.

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Quotes

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses his unique blend of humor to expose the horrors of humanity. This humor is used to tackle many significant philosophical and moral concerns.

    All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war." (Ch.1)

    The book's opening line introduces the reader to the idea that this work will contain fiction and nonfiction elements. Though the book deals with traumatic incidents from Vonnegut's life and aspects of fantastical sci-fi, the writer grounds the work with his straightforward, matter-of-fact voice.

    All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is." (Ch. 4)

    The Tralfamadorian approach to time and destiny removes the idea of free will and responsibility. This philosophy appeals to Billy as a coping mechanism for his experiences during the war. As he grows older, Billy attempts to bring the Tralformadoiran belief system to the world.

    "... you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs." (Ch.1)

    In the beginning of the book, Vonnegut visits an old army buddy to interview him about the war. The man's wife criticizes Vonnegut's desire to write the book, as she fears it will glamorize war like most other works of the time. However, Slaughterhouse-Five became an important antiwar book and captured many Americans' discomfort with the Vietnam War.

    Slaughterhouse-Five - Key takeaways

    • Slaughterhouse-Five is a satirical sci-fi antiwar novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut.
    • The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier in prisoner of war, who becomes unstuck in time.
    • Vonnegut based elements of the story on his own experiences during WWII.
    • The novel explores ideas of free will and the impact of conflict on civilians and soldiers.
    • Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of Literary fiction that blends several genres and employs irony and allusion.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Slaughterhouse Five

    What is the main message of Slaughterhouse-Five?

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut's main message is a warning against the horror and futility of war. 

    How is irony used in Slaughterhouse-Five?

    Vonnegut uses irony to highlight the absurdity of conflict and the reasoning for war. The novel contains many examples of irony that undermine the idea of noble war. 

    Is Slaughterhouse-Five literary fiction?

    Yes, Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literary fiction as it combines several genres including sci-fi, satire, history, and autobiography to produce a work that focuses more on concept rather than plot.

    What happens at the end of Slaughterhouse-Five?

    At the end of the novel, Billy Pilgrim is assassinated after giving a speech about his time-tripping experiences. It is revealed that the hitman was paid for by Paul Lazzaro, a soldier who had promised to avenge Roland Weary. 

    Why did the author write Slaughterhouse-Five?

    As a veteran of WWII, Vonnegut witnessed the brutality of war up close. He wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as a warning against war.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five is ___________. 

    Billy Pilgrim is abducted by an aline race called the _____________. 

    Much of Slaughterhouse-FIve revolves around which historic event? 

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