Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut book cover
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is Kurt Vonnegut’s cult-classic war novel that deals with the Dresden bombings of World War II and the absurdity of war generally. In truly post-modern style, the first chapter is devoted to the novel’s narrator as he agonises over the writing of the story, and ponders the difficulty and futility of anti-war books, before starting on his protagonist’s tale. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is a child soldier – too green for war but sent to Germany to assist in the effort. Captured, he is put to work in Dresden as a Prisoner of War, and sees the allied bombing of 1945 (as Vonnegut himself did), which destroyed 15 square miles of the city and killed 25,000 people (less than a fifth of the number estimated in Slaughterhouse-Five, according to current figures). Billy has seen the arbitrary cruelty of humanity, and struggles to reconcile this knowledge with the normal life he is expected to lead when he returns home from war. His solution is to lose himself in science-fiction, literally. His chosen place of refuge is Tralfamadore, a planet many miles from Earth where Billy is kept in a Tralfamadorian zoo and forced to mate with Montana Wildhack, a fellow detainee, for the alien public. In the real world, Billy is an optometrist and lives a quiet suburban life, but his story drifts – he is “unstuck in time” – and, like the Tralfamadorians, Billy doesn’t view life as a linear series of events but rather sees all events of a life at once.

The reality of Dresden is sobering and highlights the confused moral standards during war. That Vonnegut was a PoW in Dresden at the time of the bombing in 1945, and worked at Slaughterhouse-Five only roots the novel more firmly in reality, no matter where Billy’s mind may take him. Indeed, Billy’s mind twists furiously as it tries to escape the guilt he feels not only for his survival of the massacre but for his complicity with the Allied bombers who wreaked the devastation upon Dresden. While Billy’s descent into delusion might appear a descent into madness it is, perhaps, a rational response to what he has witnessed, and it is the world around him, which reconciles the horrors that so traumatise Billy, which is the mad one. Either way, Billy’s travels through time and space are certainly a coping mechanism brought on as a consequence of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Slaughterhouse-Five it is the innocent who suffer; Billy and his companions are wrecks of men, the war ravaging their bodies through illness, lack of food, and poor hygiene. The soldiers are treated as (killing) machines by their country, sent out beyond their will to act as pawns in a game they have no control over. In war, violence is arbitrary and human life is devalued almost to the point of worthlessness. While the Dresden issue is undoubtedly complex, Slaughterhouse-Five represents the worst (/reality) of war; there is nothing heroic about Billy and his companions, and those characters that glorify war are those most sneered at.

Like Billy and the narrator, America itself suppresses the memory of Dresden (information on the bombings is still denied the narrator when he requests it). As with a PTSD patient who cannot look the root of their illness squarely in the eye, the narrator dances around the memory of Dresden, never engaging with, and relaying it fully. For Billy, returning to innocence and freeing himself of responsibility is hugely important. A particularly famous scene, in which Billy views bomber planes in reverse, scooping up their destructive discharge and returning home, emphasises Billy’s hopeless desire to return to a state of innocence. On Tralfamadore he is the only human male – special, unique – he embraces his body and the attention he receives from the Tralfamadorians and his fellow-detainee and sexual partner, Montana. She is his Eve, and the zoo itself is strongly reminiscent of Eden – another indication that Billy wishes to retreat back to a time before Knowledge. While interned in the zoo, Billy is expected to perform for the public who are in his thrall. Thus, as well as representing a safe cocoon away from responsibility for Billy, the zoo is also a comment on how humans treat ‘lesser’ creatures.

Following on from his war experience, Billy receives little to no support back in the USA. Vonnegut attacks the psychiatric profession by showing psychiatrists misdiagnosing the root of Billy’s mania and failing to look after him post-war, and it is clear that Billy desperately needs the support of someone who can help him cope with his PTSD. But Billy is alone – no one depends on him, and he depends on no one. Alone in time and space, he is unstuck not just from time but from humanity too. Indeed, many of Billy’s fantasies revolve around being accepted as part of a group, loved and cared for; they are desperate, internal cries for help. Billy is closed, emotionally, to the world. He lives a numbed existence where he does not react to things that happen around him. Instead he sees them off with the passive, emotionless mantra, “so it goes,” which marks every death in the book.

In the real world, he tries to find companionship and escape in marriage but Valencia, Billy’s wife, is distinctly unappealing despite being rich. She is a gluttonous consumer and Billy marries her in no small part to access her family wealth and the connections the match brings. But money is no solution to his problems; it is merely a temporary anaesthetic. A big part of the development and / or recovery from PTSD is the society which supports the sufferer. Billy’s descent is as much a comment on the community he returns to after the war as the city in Germany where the bombs fell. Many of the characters share Billy’s isolation, and Vonnegut here forces the reader to reflect on the fractured state of community, individuals caring too little for the collective. Interestingly, modern technologies and scientific advances are treated as barriers to humanity within Slaughterhouse-Five, whether it be the lack of real help the newly developing field of psychiatry can offer Billy, or the technology that allows for the great destruction of Dresden in the first place.

Tralfamadorian beliefs – that death, free will, and time do not exist as they are understood by humans – help Billy. Morality is a concept alien to the Tralfamadorians – without free will, there is no right or wrong to be aspired to, only the continual trudge through existence. Tralfamadorian philosophy essentially focuses on the good in the world and ignores the bad, deeming it impossible to change. It’s a comfortable escapism that suits Billy down to the ground. If, as with the Tralfamadorians non-linear view of time, all events have been decided then free will is an illusion – even though our perception is limited to the present, nothing we can do will alter our future. It’s a thought that simultaneously absolves Billy of all responsibility for himself and provides a suffocating structure under which to live.

The narrative perspective and tense shift at different points in the novel. Nevertheless, Billy’s future is in fact an interpretation of his past. As he flashes through time, the different stages of Billy’s life are placed beside one another, intermingling, and perhaps suggesting that there is less difference between his war experience and his experience of society than one might imagine on first thought. The timescale is as fragmented as Billy’s own personality. However, literature itself follows, almost by definition, a temporal order, if not in terms of plot then at least in terms of the reader’s consumption of the plot. Slaughterhouse-Five, though, creates more of a circular structure which wraps back on itself without reaching conclusions. This circularity reflects the theme of regeneration that runs throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut’s style is dry, both in humour and in prose. While more restrained than in many of his other works, here Vonnegut’s humour is at its blackest, and the sharp prose, too, which remains unadorned by expansive adjectives, highlights the simplicity and matter-of-factness of the state of things.

Vonnegut is not the disengaged narrator; he sits above, pondering a species who can look on death and repeat atrocities again and again. The writing of Slaughterhouse-Five was in itself a cathartic process for Vonnegut, and sets him apart from his main character, in that he chose to face the facts of Dresden and engage with the reality of its consequences. Slaughterhouse-Five does not suggest that escapism is the best way to cope with the horror of existence, but to engage and empathise with the world (indeed, nearly all the problems in Billy’s life are caused by quietism and an inability to empathise on someone’s part). This is how future atrocities, big or small, might be prevented.

Really enjoyed this - an interesting way of dealing with the effects of war on the individual, and more than that even.

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