“Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

I just finished reading “Slaughterhouse Five” for the first time.  I should have read it years ago; in fact, I attempted to read it my freshmen year of high school, but then was mildly traumatized after reading that a soldier in the novel carried around a picture of a girl attempting intercourse with a Shetland pony.  I put the book down for a few years, but now that I’m older and wiser, I appreciate Vonnegut’s humor.

Vonnegut opens the novel with himself narrating, stating that what is to follow is mostly true.  He explains that he is writing a novel about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, drawing upon the example of the Children’s Crusade to describe the horrors of war.  It is a story within a story, which is pleasantly meta.  Speaking of which, I’m not entirely certain when the word “meta” changed, because during the past few years it seems to me that it has lost it’s second half.  Normally one would talk about meta-literature, metaphysics, etc.  Now it’s appropriate to just call something meta.  That statement, for example, was meta.

The inner story is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war.  Billy claims to have been kidnapped by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians, and to have become unstuck in time.  According to the Tralfamadorian worldview, time is nonlinear and an illusion, but rather each moment exists eternally and one can choose to visit the happy moments when one wishes.  This also means that free will is an illusion.  The narrative alternates between Billy’s middle-class life and his war experiences in a pattern that follows Billy’s own thought process.

There are two different ways of reading the novel.  One can assume that Billy is insane, and that the Tralfamadorian worldview is his way of coping with the things that he saw in the war.  One could also assume that Billy is indeed sane, and really was kidnapped by aliens and put in their zoo.  I don’t think that it makes much of a difference whether or not he is sane, because either way, he is still struggling to cope with his experiences.  Billy has a different perspective than most, but he’s also pretty harmless, and his beliefs follow a logical pattern.  A more important question might be whether the war itself is sane.  Billy’s character is a perfect way to point out the absurdities of war from a naive point of view.

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Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on ““Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. I enjoyed your perspective on this book. I was first exposed to this book (and Vonnegut in general) while I was in college. The professor absolutely insisted that the incident with Billy Pilgrim with the Tralfamadorians had to be a fantasy of his mind because he had hit his head earlier in the novel. But who really knows with Vonnegut. I like the ambiguity.

    If you want to experience more “meta” in one of his books, read Breakfast of Champions! That books is pretty much all about Kilgore Trout.

  2. Enjoyed your review — I read this book recently and expected to be so confused by it. I think there’s a lot I didn’t fully understand but loved Vonnegut’s perspective. Knowing he was actually part of the war made the book more interesting for me

    • Yes. I also liked the way that Vonnegut’s character provided a grounding force. Billy’s character being unstuck in time reminded me a lot of Benjy from Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” It was way more confusing reading from Benjy’s perspective because there was no character that was relatively in touch with reality to explain things until close to the end of the novel. Having Vonnegut’s character to put Billy into perspective made “Slaughterhouse Five” more readable and enjoyable.

  3. Nice review. I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five when I read it the first time, and I enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s books in general. Try his other books if you haven’t yet, like Cat’s Cradle and Hocus Pocus.

  4. Good post. If you’re interested, I blog about being Vonnegut’s biographer at “Writing Kurt Vonnegut” http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November)

    • That sounds quite interesting; I’d like to read your book. I like knowing a bit about the authors that I am reading, as it gives a lot of insight into their work.

  5. I’m a veteran (1969-73) and could find no grace in war, although you can find truths there. I think we love war so much because we are a disaster animal. We need emergency to stir us. The ice age pushed us to become hunters, the black death enabled the enlightenment. Nothing creates innovation and progress like the war effort. This is sad, but I think true.

  6. I like your question: can war be sane? Was there ever a case for a sane war? I’m not saying that WWII should not have been fought. Hitler needed to be stopped. But war is hell and while living in hell can the people involved stay sane?

    • Thanks! I think that war has often been taken for granted as just a part of life, but it changes people, and far too many innocent people get caught up in the bloodshed.

      • And not just the ones at the battle front. Those at home were also changed forever.

        • Quite true.

          • I’ve never understood the excitement to go to war. Of course I grew up post-Vietnam. But I still see remnants of this excitement for war in today’s world. However, I studied history in college and WWII was my field, so I’ve read so many disturbing accounts. When people talk about going to war or invading a country I cringe about all the horror that will happen to everyone.

            • Richard

              War was seen as a adventure or a grand tour up until the the first World War. Going to other lands and meeting people and exploring. Often taken mainly for the empires of the British and French. Most armies have at the core a age group of young people, often exploiting their poverty and education and their aggressive nature.

              War is the ultimate sport for kings. Peasants can have football and bread.

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