Slaughter-House Five #
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1969)
Salon’s Michael Schmidt writes about the way Vonnegut changed the war novel by using aspects of science-fiction:
Doris Lessing calls Vonnegut:
“moral in an old-fashioned way . . . he has made nonsense of the little categories, the unnatural divisions into ‘real’ literature and the rest, because he is comic and sad at once, because his painful seriousness is never solemn.”
“His acknowledgment and expression of the nuanced nature of experience makes him “unique among us; and these same qualities account for the way a few academics still try to patronize him.” As though what he does is easier than the resolved plotting of more derivatively artful novelists.
”After a school tried to ban this novel, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered 150 free copies of the book to students in Rockville, Missouri.
Salman Rushdie’s What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now:
“Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. Kurt Vonnegut does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Black humour is one way of coping with ineffable horror. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian.
As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city one night, killing almost everyone in it.
So it goes. (a refrain used whenever death occurs)
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” is humane enough to allow, at the end of the horror that is its subject, for the possibility of hope.
The truth is that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a great realist novel. Its first sentence is “All this happened, more or less.” In that nonfictional first chapter, Vonnegut tells us how hard the book was to write, how hard it was for him to deal with war. He tells us that his characters were real people, though he has changed all the names. “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.” And later, when his characters, the ones with the changed names, arrive at Schlachthof-Fünf—Slaughterhouse Five, whose name he has not changed—he reminds us that he’s there with them, suffering right along with them: Billy looked inside the latrine. The wailing was coming from in there . . . an American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, “There they go, there they go.” He meant his brains.
That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
At one point Vonnegut quotes a conversation he had with a filmmaker called Harrison Starr, who would achieve a kind of modest renown as the executive producer of Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie about American hippies, “Zabriskie Point,” which was a huge commercial flop.
[Harrison Starr] raised his eyebrows and inquired,
“Is it an anti-war book?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
On a visit to a war buddy Bernard O’Hare, he finds his wife chilly – “Mary didn’t’ like me”. Later Mary expresses her anger. She is afraid they are going to write another glamourous, war-loving for dirty old men instead of the truth – our babies killed in wars, encouraged by books and movies.
They read from Charles Mackay, 1841 book, Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds about the Children’s Crusade of 1213.
History in her solemn page informs us that the crusaders were but ignorant and savage men, that motives were those of bigotry unmitigated, and that their pathway was one of blood and tears. Romance has dilated upon their piety and heroism and portrays in her most glowing and impassioned hues, their virtue and magnanimity, the imperishable honor they acquired for themselves, and the great services they rendered to Christianity.
Now what was the grand result of all these struggles? Europe expended millions of her treasures and the blood of two million of her people, and a handful of quarrelsome knights retained possession of Palestine for about one hundred years.
Innocent III was thrilled, but the Children, shipped out of Marseille, where half of them drowned in shipwrecks, and the other half sold as slaves in North Africa.
Vonnegut’s point here is that most of our soldiers are mere children, many enlisting before they are 18. At the end of the Second World War, Hitler was regularly sending young teenagers into battle. One of Vonnegut’s guards is a fifteen year old holding a gun.
The Second World War, as Vonnegut reminds us, was a children’s crusade.
Billy Pilgrim is an adult to whom Vonnegut gives the innocence of a child. He is not particularly violent. He does nothing awful in the war or in his prewar or post war life.
Psychological Effects #
Vonnegut’s novel is about that, about the inevitability of human violence, and about what it does to the not particularly violent human beings who get caught up in it. He knows that most human beings are not particularly violent. Or not more violent than children are. Give a child a machine gun, and he may well use it. Which does not mean that children are particularly violent.
Most of the privates on Billy’s car were very young – at the end of childhood. But a former hobo was forty years old, who kept repeating: “I’ve hungrier than this, and I’ve been in worse places than this. This ain’t so bad.” Later he was killed in Dresden.
Celine was a brave French soldier in the First World War – until his skull was cracked open. After that he couldn’t sleep and there were noises in his head. He became a doctor, treating poor people in the daytime and he wrote grotesque novels all night.
No art is possible without a dance of death.
Billy’s mother was a substitute organist for several churches, determined to choose a church as soon as she could decide which one. She did have a hankering for a crucifix and like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made some sense from things she found in gift shops.
While watching a performance of Cinderella, when the clock struck twelve, the male actor laments:
“Goodness me, the clock has struck- Alackday, and fuck my luck.”
Billy found the couplet so comical he not only laughed, he shrieked until he was carried out into a shed where the hospital was, put to bed and tied down and given morphine. Billy found life meaningless because of what he had seen in war – the greatest massacre in European history, the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. His friend, Rosewater, tells a psychiatrist: “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”
Roland Weary carries a dirty picture of a woman attempting sexual intercourse with a Shetland pony. This becomes a crude recurring image throughout the novel.
“Earthlings do associate sex and glamour with war.”
Billy has a framed prayer on his office wall that kept him going.:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage for the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr.
Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future. He questions the principle of Free Will.
Billy finds a Gideon’s Bible in his hotel room and reads about Lot:
The sun was risen upon the erth when Lot entered in Zo-ar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
So it goes.
Visitors from outer space made a serious study of Christianity to learn why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. The Gospels teach people to be merciful, even to the lowest low, but the Christians taught this: If you are going to kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.
Billy was a Chaplin’s assistant; he was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. Billy becomes deranged, and is mostly thought of as crazy, or as a near-simpleton. But he has a characteristic in common with many of the characters Vonnegut wrote throughout his career, and it is this characteristic that allows us to care for him, and therefore to feel the horror that he feels.
Billy’s marriage #
In his dreams Billy travels to his wedding night with the former Valencia Merble. He had been out of the Veteran’s hospital six months. He was all well. He had graduated from Ilium School of Optometry…
Now he was in bed with Valencia in a delightful studio apartment …. Billy was on top of Velencia making love to her. One result of this act would be the birth of Robert Pilgrim, who would become a problem in hight school, but who would also straighten out as a member of the famous Green Berets.
While Billy was making love to her, Valencia imagined she was a famous woman in history. She was being Queen Elizabeth I, and Billy was supposedly Christopher Columbus. Billy made a noise like a small, rusty hinge. He had just emptied his seminal vesicles into Valencia, had contributed his share of the Green Beret.
Now he rolled off his huge wife, whose rapt expression did not change…. He was rich now. He had been rewarded for marrying a girl no one in their right mind would have married. His father-on-law had given him a new Buick Roadmaster, an all electric home, and had made him manager of his most prosperous foffice, where Billy could make thirty thousand a year.
His father had only been a barber.
Later she thanks him before beginning to cry.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m so happy.”
“I never thought anybody would marry me.”
“Um” said Billy.
Billy had already seen a lot of their marriage, thanks to time travel, knew that it was going to be at least bearable all the way.
Valerie questioned her funny-looking husband about the war. It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate sex and glamor with war.
He seldom talks about even when she questions him about the horror and atrocities he has seen, - The German firing squad executing old Edgar Derby. He tries to avoid talking about it.
Billy and the Co-pilot were the only two survivors of a plane crash taking a group of optometrists, including his father-in-law to a convention.
Outside the plane, his wife Valencia, eating a Peter Paul Mound Bar had waved him good-bye. In a private hospital, a brain surgeon operated on him for three hours.
While recuperating, Valencia drove to see him but died of carbon-monoxide poisoning when rear ended by a Mercedes. Billy does not seem to be overly distraught.
While in hospital, his room-mate, Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, working on a one volume history of the United States Army Air Corps inj World War Two , receives books about the War – including President Harry S. Truman’s justification of dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Another book was The Destructn Dresden by David Irving. The total death count of the Japanese atomic bombing was 150,000, the Dresden count of conventional bombs in one night were 135,000. And Kurt Vonnegut was damned lucky he was safely hiding in the basement of Slaughter House Five.
Billy Pilgrim is lovable.
If he were not lovable, the book would be unbearable. One of the great questions that faces all writers who have to deal with atrocity is, is it possible to do it? Are there things so powerful, so dreadful, that they are beyond the power of literature to describe? Every writer who faced the challenge of writing about the Second World War—and the Vietnam War, in fact—has had to think about that question. All of them decided they needed to come at the atrocity at an angle, so to speak, not to face it head on, because to do that would be unbearable.
It tells us that wars are hell, but we knew that already.
It tells us that most human beings are not so bad, except for the ones who are, and that’s valuable information. It tells us that human nature is the one great constant of life on earth, and it beautifully and truthfully shows us human nature neither at its best nor at its worst but how it mostly is, most of the time, even when the times are terrible.