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Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969) is an anti-war science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim.

Plot summary

Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim, a disoriented, fatalistic, ill-trained American soldier, is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and taken to a prison in Dresdenmarker. The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse, known as "Slaughterhouse number 5". The POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

Billy has come "unstuck in time" and experiences past and future events out of sequence and repetitively, following a nonlinear narrative. He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They believe in predestination. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the correctness of their theories.

As Billy travels—or believes he travels—forward and backward in time, he relives occasions of his life, real and fantastic. He spends time on Tralfamadore, in Dresden, in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his mundane post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s, and in the moment of his murder by Lazzaro.

Billy's death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm toward war. At their capture, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary manages to convince Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life". Time-traveler Billy already knows where, when, and how he will be killed: he is shot with a laser gun after his speech on flying saucers and the true nature of time before a large audience in Chicago, in balkanized United States on February 13, 1976 (in future to the date of writing).

Characters

Narrator: intrusive and anonymous, recurring as a minor character, and as Kurt Vonnegut, himself, when the narrator says: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
The narrator begins the story describing his connection to the fire-bombing of Dresden, and his reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim: A fatalist optometrist ensconced in a dull, safe marriage, in Ilium, New York. He randomly travels in time and is abducted by the "four-dimensional" aliens from planet Tralfamadore. In WWII, he was a POW in Dresden, which has a lasting effect on his post-war life. His time travel occurs among disparate times of his life, re-living events past and future, and, so, becomes fatalistic (though not defeatist), because he has seen when, how, and why he will die.


Roland Weary: A weak man dreaming of grandeur and obsessed with gore and vengeance, he "saves" Billy several times (despite Billy's protests) in hopes of military glory, leading to their capture, and the loss of their winter uniforms and boots. In the event, Weary dies of gangrene in the train en route to the POW camp; he blames Billy in his dying words.


Paul Lazzaro: Another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois, who takes Weary's dying words as a revenge commission to kill Billy. He keeps a mental enemies list, claiming he can have anyone "killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses."


Kilgore Trout: A failed science fiction writer who manages newspaper delivery boys, and has received only one fan letter. After Billy meets him in a back alley in Ilium, New York, he invites Trout to his wedding anniversary celebration. There, Kilgore follows Billy, thinking he has seen a time window. That incident is triggered, not by Billy's time traveling, but by a repressed war memory. Kilgore Trout is also a main character in Vonnegut's novel "Breakfast of Champions".


Edgar Derby: A middle-aged man who has pulled strings to be able to fight in the war. He was a high school teacher who felt that he couldn't just let his young students go off to war without also fighting himself. He is a fellow POW to Billy and Paul Lazzaro, and the only one who stands up to Howard W. Campbell Jr. and defends American ideals. Though he appears to be unimportant throughout most of the book, he seems to be the only American before the bombing of Dresden to understand what such war can do to people. German forces summarily execute him for looting a teapot after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Though it seems not to be the most pivotal death in the book, Vonnegut declares that this death is the climax of the book as a whole.


Howard W. Campbell, Jr.: An American Nazi; before the War, he lived in Germany as a successful, famous, German-language playwright, and became a Nazi propagandist. In an essay, he connects the misery of American poverty to the disheveled appearance and behaviour of the American POWs. Edgar Derby confronts and challenges him when he tries recruiting American POWs into the American Free Corps to fight the Communist Russians on behalf of the Nazis. He is the protagonist of Mother Night, an earlier Vonnegut novel.


Valencia Merble: Billy's obese wife, and mother of their two children, Robert and Barbara; he is emotionally distant from her. She dies from carbon monoxide poisoning after an automobile accident en route to the hospital attending Billy after his airplane crash.


Robert Pilgrim: Son of Billy and Valencia; a troubled, middle-class boy, and disappointing son, who so absorbs the whitebread culture's anti-Communist world view, he metamorphoses from pampered, suburban adolescent rebel to hardcore Green Beret soldier.


Barbara Pilgrim: Daughter of Billy and Valencia. She is a "bitchy flibbertigibbet", from having had to assume the family's leadership at the age of twenty. She has "legs like an Edwardian grand piano," marries an optometrist, and treats her widower father as a childish invalid.


Tralfamadorians: The extraterrestrial race who appear (to humans) like upright toilet plungers with a hand atop, in which is set a single, green eye. They abduct Billy and teach him about time's relation to the world as a fourth dimension, fate, and death's indiscriminate nature. Throughout the novel it is hinted that the Tralfamadorians may not really exist.


Montana Wildhack: A pornographic model who stars in a film shown in a pornographic bookstore when Billy stops by to check out the Kilgore Trout novels sitting in the window. She is also abducted and placed in Billy's habitat on Tralfamadore, where they have sex and produce a child.


"Wild Bob": A superannuated Army officer Billy met in the war; he is delirious and eventually dies of a fever. He tells the POWs to call him "Wild Bob"; he thinks them his command, the 451st Infantry Regiment; "if you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob," is an inspirational phrase of his that Billy repeats to himself.


Eliot Rosewater: A friend of Billy Pilgrim who introduces him to science fiction novels while he is in the mental hospital. Rosewater, like Billy, has experienced a horrifying event from the war. The smart Rosewater and Pilgrim together create a fantasy universe built around the Kilgore Trout Novels they read that helps them get through the grief of World War II. Eliot Rosewater also shows up in other books by Kurt Vonnegut.


Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: a Harvard history professor, retired Air Force brigadier general, and millionaire, who shares a hospital room with Billy and is interested in the Dresden bombing. He is almost surely a relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a character in a previous novel by Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan.


The Scouts: Two American infantry scouts trapped behind German lines who found Roland and, later on, Billy. Although Roland considers himself and the scouts to be best friends and heroes (calling their group the "Three Musketeers"), the scouts are uncomfortable around him and later reveal that Roland is slowing them down as much as Billy, and abandon them both. Later on it is discovered that they were killed in a skirmish with German troops while going back to Allied territory. So it goes.


Major themes

Slaughterhouse-Five explores Fate and Free Will and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he next will visit (re-live) — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time, an experience often mingled with his other experiences.

Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will; an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is inconsequential; they do what they do, because they must.

To the Tralfamadorians, everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut's true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think (the subject of Timequake). Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, "that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book," both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable. This concept is difficult for Billy to accept, at first.

Author Vonnegut's other novels, e.g. The Sirens of Titan, suggest that the Tralfamadorians, in Slaughterhouse-Five, satirize fatalism. The Tralfamadorians represent the belief in war as inevitable. In their hapless destruction of the universe, Vonnegut does not sympathize with their philosophy. To human beings, Vonnegut says, ignoring a war is unacceptable when we have free will.

This human illogicality appears in the climax that occurs, not with the Dresden fire bombing, but with the summary execution of a man who committed a petty theft. Amid all that horror, death, and destruction, time is taken to punish one man. Yet, the time is taken, and Vonnegut takes the outside opinion of the bird asking, "Poo-tee-weet?" The same birdsong ends the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, as the protagonist gives away his fortune to the plaintiffs of hundreds of false paternity suits brought against him — a Dada observation of human absurdity.

Slaughterhouse-Five is framed with chapters in the author's voice, about his experience of war, indicating the novel is intimately connected with his life and convictions. That established, Vonnegut withdraws from the unfolding of Billy Pilgrim's story, despite continual appearances as a minor character: in the PoW camp latrine, the corpse mines of Dresden, when he mistakenly dials Billy’s telephone number. These authorial appearances anchor Billy Pilgrim’s life to reality, highlighting his existential struggle to fit in the human world.

Literary significance and reception

The reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five have been mixed since the 31 March 1969 review in New York Times newspaper that glowingly concedes: "you'll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner". In its publication year, Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award and for a best-novel Hugo Award, 1970. It lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. It appeared in the Time magazine list, 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923.

Literary techniques

The story continually employs the refrain So it goes . . . when death, dying, and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori, as comic relief, and to explain the unexplained. It appears one hundred and sixteen times.

As a postmodern, metafictional novel, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five, apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled", because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". As in Mother Night, but more extensively, Vonnegut manipulates fiction and reality. The first sentence says: "All this happened, more or less", then appears in Billy Pilgrim's WWII, then followed by the narrator's note: That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

The story repeatedly refers to real and fictional novels and fiction; Billy reads The Valley of the Dolls (1966), and skims a Tralfamadorian novel, and participates in a radio talk show, part of a literary expert panel discussing "The Death of the Novel".

Form

The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. The story itself begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, of Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.

The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, wherein he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age, and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads, Billy's experience of War (itself interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life) is mostly linear; and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy's existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden's destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.

Point of view and setting

The narrator begins the novel telling his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a self-description (of self and book), and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to the story of Billy Pilgrim: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", thus, the transition from the writer's perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient Narrator.

Kilgore Trout, whom Billy Pilgrim meets operating a newspaper delivery business, can be seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, though the two differ in some respects. For example, Trout's career as a science fiction novelist is checkered with thieving publishers, and the fictional author is unaware of his readership.

Slaughterhouse-Five is structured like a Tralfamadorian (Tralfamadore being the planet Billy is taken to when abducted from Earth) novel, the literature Billy Pilgrim encounters on Tralfamadore. The only Earth reading available to Billy is a popular novel, Valley of the Dolls (1966); asking his captors what they read, he is handed thin booklets with symbols. The Tralfamadorians tell him the symbols represent pleasing thoughts and events. When they are all simultaneously read, as do the Tralfamadorians, it creates an emotion in the reader's mind. Billy's time-tripping juxtaposes his life's events — war, wedding night, travel to father's funeral — mixing black humor, tragedy, and happiness in few paragraphs.

Censorship controversy

Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. In the novels, American soldiers use profanity; his language is irreverent (The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty); and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as "fairies", were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

In the USA it is frequently banned from literature classes, removed from provincial school libraries, and struck from literary curricula; however, it is still taught in some schools. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries due to its content in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, [ ]. Slaughterhouse-Five is the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999.

Criticism

The fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II is the central event mentally affecting Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist. Within, Vonnegut says the firebombing killed 135,000 German civilians; he cites The Destruction of Dresden, by Holocaust denier David Irving. However, recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000 and question Irving's research.

Critics have accused Slaughterhouse-Five of being a quietist work, because Billy Pilgrim believes that the notion of free will is a quaint Earthling illusion. The problem, according to Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl, is that:

Vonnegut's critics seem to think that he is saying the same thing [as the Tralfamadorians]. For Anthony Burgess, “Slaughterhouse is a kind of evasion — in a sense, like J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan — in which we’re being told to carry the horror of the Dresden bombing, and everything it implies, up to a level of fantasy. . . . ” For Charles Harris [see excerpt above], “The main idea emerging from Slaughterhouse-Five seems to be that the proper response to life is one of resigned acceptance." For Alfred Kazin, “Vonnegut deprecates any attempt to see tragedy, that day, in Dresden. . . . He likes to say, with arch fatalism, citing one horror after another, ‘So it goes’ ." For Tanner, “Vonnegut has . . . total sympathy with such quietistic impulses." And the same notion is found throughout The Vonnegut Statement, a book of original essays written and collected by Vonnegut’s most loyal academic “fans."


Allusions and references

Allusions to other works

As in other novels, certain characters cross over from other stories, making cameo appearances, connecting the discrete novels as a greater opus. Science Fiction novelist Kilgore Trout, often an important character in other novels, in Slaughterhouse-Five is a social commentator and a friend to Billy Pilgrim. In one case, he is the only non-optometrist at a party, therefore, he is the odd-man-out. He ridicules everything the Ideal American Family hold true, such as Heaven, Hell, and Sin. In Trout's opinion, people do not know if the things they do turn out to be good or bad, and if they turn out to be bad, they go to Hell, where "the burning never stops hurting".

Other crossover characters are Eliot Rosewater, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Howard W. Campbell, Jr., from Mother Night; and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, from The Sirens of Titan- the Rumfoord family appears in Vonnegut's works. Mr Rosewater says that Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, contains "everything there was to know about life".

It should be noted that while Vonnegut re-uses characters, the characters are frequently rebooted and do not necessarily maintain the same biographical details from appearance to appearance. Kilgore Trout in particular is palpably a different person (although with distinct, consistent character traits) in each of his appearances in Vonnegut's work.

In the Twayne's United States Authors series volume on Kurt Vonnegut, about the protagonist's name, Stanley Schatt says:

By naming the unheroic hero Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut contrasts John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress with Billy's story. As Wilfrid Sheed has pointed out, Billy's solution to the problems of the modern world is to "invent a heaven, out of 20th century materials, where Good Technology triumphs over Bad Technology. His scripture is Science Fiction, Man's last, good fantasy".


Allusions — historic, geographic, scientific

Slaughterhouse-Five speaks of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, and refers to the Battle of the Bulge, the Vietnam War, and the Black anti-poverty racial riots in American cities during the 1960s. Billy's wife, Valencia, wears a Reagan for President! bumper sticker on her car, referring to Reagan's failed 1968 Republican presidential nomination campaign. The bumper sticker was edited out of a broadcast version of the film which aired on at least one cable channel during or after the Reagan administration.

Adaptations

A film adaptation of the book, also called Slaughterhouse-Five, was made in 1972. Although critically praised, the film was a box office flop. It won the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festivalmarker, as well as a Hugo Award, and Saturn Award. Vonnegut commended the film greatly. Guillermo del Toro has confirmed his intention to remake the 1972 film, with a view to releasing it in early 2011.However this date now seems unlikely due to del Toro's involvement with The Hobbit.

In 1996, a theatrical adaptation of the novel was premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Companymarker in Chicago, ILmarker. The adaptation was written and directed by Eric Simonson and included actors Rick Snyder, Robert Breuler, and Deanna Dunagan.The play has been performed in several other theaters including a January 2008 New York premiere production at the Godlight Theatre Company.

The operatic adaptation by Hans-Jürgen von Bose, premiered in July 1996 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Billy Pilgrim II was sung by Uwe Schonbeck.

On 20 September 2009 BBC Radio 3 broadcast a feature length radio drama based on the book which was dramatised by Dave Sheasby and which starred Andrew Scott as Billy Pilgrim.It was scored by the Sheffield band 65daysofstatic.

See also



References

  1. TIME All-Time 100 Novels
  2. Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. 22.
  3. He first time-trips while escaping the Germans, in the Ardennes forest, exhausted, he falls asleep, against a tree, and begins re-living events from the rest of his life.
  4. 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999
  5. The consensus among historians is that the number killed was between slightly under 25,000 to a few thousand over 35,000. See: * Evans, Richard J. David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial: Electronic Edition, [(i) Introduction. * Addison (2006), p. 75. * Taylor, Bloomsbury 2005, p. 508. * http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,581992,00.html * All three historians, Addison, Evans and Taylor, refer to: ** Bergander, Götz (1977). Dresden im Luftkrieg: Vorgeschichte-Zerstörung-Folgen. Munich: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, who estimated a few thousand over 35,000. ** Reichert, Friedrich. "Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit," in Dresden City Museum (ed.). Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit. Die Zerstörung Dresdens 1945. Altenburg, 1994, pp. 40-62, p. 58. Richard Evans regards Reichert's figures as definitive. [http://www.holocaustdenialontrial.org/trial/defense/evans/520di#evans_520di7p512n52]. For comparison, the 9-10 March, 1945 Tokyo raid by the USAAF, the most destructive firebombing raid in WWII, 16 square miles (41 km²) of the city were destroyed, and some 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the firestorm. [1]
  6. Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos, in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1978, p 67.
  7. Stanley Schatt, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Chapter 4: Vonnegut's Dresden Novel: Slaughterhouse-Five.", In Twayne's United States Authors Series Online. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999 Previously published in print in 1976 by Twayne Publishers.
  8. w:de:Hans-Jürgen von Bose


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