Slaughter House Five Essay
Like Vonnegut, who speaks in his own voice in several places to confirm that much of the novel is based on his wartime experiences, Billy Pilgrim lives through the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. From the beginning of the book, war is presented as both comically and horrifyingly absurd. Billy and his comrades, American and German, are ludicrously inept as soldiers. As the subtitle of the novel indicates, they are children on a gamelike crusade, manipulated by inscrutable forces.
Yet the game is deadly: The destruction of Dresden, a city of no strategic importance, populated only by Germans too old or weak to fight and prisoners of war such as Billy, is senseless but inevitable. Because of the shock of this event, Billy becomes a perpetual prisoner of war, returning again and again in his mind to this scene. Vonnegut’s message is especially powerful as he reminds the reader that the destruction of Dresden is no isolated occurrence: Slaughterhouse-Five was written during the Vietnam War era and alludes frequently to a new generation of Billy Pilgrims and Children’s Crusades.
More than simply a war novel--or, more precisely an antiwar novel--Slaughterhouse-Five is a captivating science fiction story. Scenes from World War II alternate with Billy’s life on exhibition in a kind of zoo on the distant planet Tralfamadore. What little solace or pleasure Billy experiences comes at the hands of the Tralfamadorians, whose calmly fatalistic philosophy seems wise when compared to normal human stupidity and irrationality.
Vonnegut’s style is disjointed and the novel is composed of short vignettes and fragments rather than a fully developed sequential narrative, but this style is purposely unsettling and helps Vonnegut accomplish several key objectives. Billy Pilgrim’s time traveling, his habit of jumping quickly from present to past to future as if they were all simultaneously existing moments, makes him seem odd, even crazy, at first glance. But as the novel progresses, the reader acknowledges more and more that this is the natural way the human mind works. Everyone daydreams, remembers, and fantasizes, and these activities become especially important when a person lives in a world that is highly in need of such imaginative remaking.
Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Astute reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, marking the biblical references and Vonnegut’s personal testimony. Devotes similar attention to other novels by Vonnegut.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Explains Slaughterhouse-Five as one of Vonnegut’s “personal” novels, as opposed to the earlier ones that adhere to the stricter forms of science fiction. Draws correlations among the Vonnegut novels.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A complete study of the novel. Criticism is taken from sources that reviewed Slaughterhouse-Five when it was published. Numerous passages of Slaughterhouse-Five are explained in depth, as well as Vonnegut’s philosophy as it was seen by the reviewers of his time.
Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A short book with considerable insights into Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels by Vonnegut. The wit, sarcasm, and style of Vonnegut is prominent in the writing of this text.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Explores the construction, plot, and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five and considers Vonnegut’s sense of aesthetic distance from the work. Chapters include the contribution of Slaughterhouse-Five to the genre of science fiction and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.
Slaughterhouse Five: A Cycle of Self-Destruction
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is an antiwar novel that reveals the glorification of war and its effects. In this account of the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut exposes the American war paradigm through supporting characters, such as Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the Tralfamadorians. Edgar Derby, a very normal and poor high school teacher, gives his life meaning by fighting bravely in the war. Kilgore Trout is an odd science fiction writer who communicates his beliefs through novel. The tralfamadorians are small green creatures who Vonnegut uses to ironically communicate his beliefs, such as free will. Together with these characters, Vonnegut uses Campbell’s monograph, an essay about the American war paradigm written by an American traitor, to more literally portray his message. Through this paradigm, Vonnegut reveals the cycle which makes poor Americans hate themselves, purposefully benefiting the rich; a cycle created by patriotism and the dependence on money for selfworth. In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses supporting characters Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the tralfamadorians in partnership with Campbell’s monograph to develop the American war paradigm, revealing the emotionally selfdestructive cycle created by patriotism and financial selfworth which deliberately preserves the unhappiness of the poor to benefit the American elite.
Along with Campbell’s monograph, Vonnegut uses Edgar Derby as an archetype for the American soldier to demonstrate patriotism in lower classes, a force which glorifies war and consequently recruits poor men to join. Edgar Derby holds the characteristics of a normal American man; a kind, lowerclass High School teacher whose monotonous life has consisted of not more than his job and family. During the war, Derby proved himself the only soldier brave enough to answer Campbell, saying, “Poor Edgar Derby, the doomed high school teacher, lumbered to his feet for what was probably the finest moment of his life” (Vonnegut 164). Vonnegut emphasizes Derby’s normality before this moment, and the juxtaposition of his portrayal then and now reveals the importance of his bravery in the way he is received. The emphasis on this patriotic moment as the “finest” in his life suggests that the war gives his life meaning, glorifying it. When Derby confronted Campbell, Vonnegut says, “Derby spoke movingly of the American form of government, with freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for all. He said there wasn’t a man who wouldn’t gladly die for those ideals” (Vonnegut 164). Here, Derby does not speak for himself alone, but for all low class Americans, demonstrating patriotism in these classes. By upholding such loyalty that he would die for these ideals, he embodies the idea of patriotism as the classic American war hero. Campbell speaks further about this widespread patriotism in lower classes, saying, “There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register” (Vonnegut 129). Nationalism reveals itself in their everyday lives, showing that it has become common sense to support America not only ideologically but in war. People in poorer classes, like Edgar Derby, do not have much to believe in other than their country. This is the first step of an emotionally self destructive cycle in the American war paradigm, where such apparent patriotism glorifies war, making it seem like the only way to achieve greatness. This “spotlight” recruits men from lower classes to join the war, much like money.
Vonnegut uses Campbell’s monograph along with Kilgore Trout’s “The Money Tree” as a metaphor to reflect the poorer class’ dependence on money for self worth, revealing its emotionally selfdestructive effects and how they benefit the rich. In Campbell’s monograph he speaks about the irony of American economics, saying, “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves” (Vonnegut 128129). This dynamic glorifies war because the poor think that war marks an exit from poverty and selfhatred. When they go to war and experience its bloody and unpleasant qualities, they do nothing but continue to hate their conditions and consequently themselves. The poor never win yet they allow this cycle to continue. Campbell speaks further about this, saying, “Those who have no money blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.” (129). This cycle of emotional selfdestruction of the poor proves becomes never ending because the people in power, the rich, will not change it as long as it continues to benefit them. Some of these benefits include the poor continuing to fight in wars, doing the “dirty work” so that the rich do not need to. Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout’s book, “The Money Tree”, as a metaphor for this cycle. He says, “Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twentydollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit were diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and it made very good fertilizer.” (167). The money, government bonds, and diamonds on the tree symbolize the money that the rich have, which attracts the poor. Those poor then go on to hate themselves and the people around them, and their hatred creates “very good fertilizer”, letting the cycle continue. The tree symbolizes America, specifically the rich, who need the poor’s selfhatred to survive, and glorifies things such as money and war to ensure that. The poor never end up benefitting, while the rich always do.
Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorian idea that “humans are machines” paired with Kilgore Trout’s “The Gutless Wonder” to parallel the American poor, revealing that they are “machines” to the war paradigm which sets them up to loathe themselves and consequentially each other. The American war paradigm sustains itself not only through the rich’s failure at changing it, but also because the poor fail to do the same. Vonnegut uses Tralfamadorians to show this, writing, “Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the universe is a machine” (Vonnegut 154). By creature, Vonnegut means specifically poor American people, saying they are machines, doing exactly what they are told without second thought. Told to glorify their betters, they selfloathe allowing the cycle of emotional selfdestruction to continue. Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout’s book “The Gutless Wonder” to enforce this idea. He explains what happens in the book, saying, “It (burning jellied gasoline) was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground. Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being and could talk and dance and so on” (Vonnegut 168). These robots also parallel the American poor, who are blind of the damage their selfhatred causes. They uphold the cycle unintentionally because they do not realize its existence, and therefore can not feel guilty about it. Campbell shows the negative effects of this paradigm in his monograph, saying, “(The poor) have no one to blame for their misery but themselves…They do not love each other because they do not love themselves” (Vonnegut 130). The poor fill themselves with so much hatred that then reflects onto others, creating an unhappy society from an emotionally destructive cycle.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses supporting characters Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the tralfamadorians in partnership with Campbell’s monograph to develop the American war paradigm, revealing the emotionally selfdestructive cycle created by patriotism and financial selfworth which deliberately preserves the unhappiness of the poor to benefit the American elite. Emotionally selfdestructive cycle meaning it consists of continuous selfhatred in which the poor look to war, which is glorified, to take them out of their misery. This prevents the rich from having to fight in wars, and giving them a lasting advantage over the poor not only economically but emotionally. Patriotism in poorer classes and a dependence on money for selfworth create this cycle, in which humans act as machines to the paradigm, allowing it to continue. Now the question is: why does this matter? This war paradigm still exists today and not only in America. In today’s society, war is advertised and glorified through politicians, which causes unemployed or poor people to join in hopes of a better life. Vonnegut’s may have based his writing on events that happened over 60 years ago, but his ideas prove themselves relevant today.
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