In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, the story of Billy Pilgrim is used to explore various themes about life and war. Vonnegut’s tragic war experiences in Dresden led him to write on the horrors and tragedies of war. Vonnegut’s connection with Billy and the other characters allows him to discuss human reactions to death and traumatic events. Vonnegut uses his characters, in particular Billy Pilgrim, to portray his beliefs. An antiwar feeling, shown through numerous characters, dominates the entire novel from the opening to the closing. Vonnegut also brings to question the ideas of free will and predestination. Billy has a deep belief in predestination and quietism, but Vonnegut disagrees with these views and ideals. Vonnegut uses Billy as an example of the possible dangers of believing in predestination and quietism. Vonnegut’s antiwar feelings create a major theme that emerges from Slaughterhouse Five. While talking to O’Hare in the opening chapter of the novel, Vonnegut says “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (19). And as Cox explains, the novel is “not an answer to the tragedy of war, but a response” (3). Vonnegut uses the characters he creates to express his reaction to the war. Billy Pilgrim is used to show the terrible consequences of war. Billy’s time in the war greatly affected him and his outlook on the world. From his imprisonment Billy has come to feel that nothing constructive comes from war. He believes that “. . .war is not a heroic contest between the forces of good and evil but a senseless slaughter with many victims and no villains” (Marvin 113). When Billy comes home from the war, he does not often speak about what he saw or how he felt. He tries to distance himself from the war as much as possible. Billy uses the rest of his life as an escape from the war just as he tried to use death as an escape from the war when he first arrived in the Battle of the Bulge. When Weary tries to rescue him, Billy responds with little care for his life saying, “You guys go on without me. I’m all right” (Vonnegut 47). Billy shows no care for saving his own life. Vonnegut uses “Billy’s innocence and passivity to help Vonnegut [to] focus the reader’s attention on the brutality of war (Marvin 124). Vonnegut appeals to the readers, attempting to make them feel empathy for Billy. The reader sees the sad figure of Billy Pilgrim suffering through a war he believes is pointless and the reader begins to see the horrors of war that Billy is feeling. Vonnegut also uses other characters to portray his antiwar theme. Marvin says that “He [Edgar Derby] is the most admirable character in the book, which makes his senseless death all the more lamentable” (126). Vonnegut uses Derby’s death to compound the reader’s feeling that war is pointless. Derby was a forty-four year old teacher with a wife at home, and his only crime was taking a teapot. But, for this simple act he loses his life after surviving the entire war, a prisoner of war camp, and the firebombing of Dresden. Another character used by Vonnegut is Roland Weary. Weary is eager to wage war against the Nazis. Weary’s passion for war “is the prime example of how stories that glorify war shape the attitudes of young boys and make them eager to fight” (Marvin 125). Vonnegut’s novel is the opposition to the stories that make war Section IV: Sample Freshman Composition Essays 79
seem great. Slaughterhouse Five shows what can happen to the zealous boy ready to fight for his country. He can die as Weary did of gangrene on a train car overflowing with soldiers on his way to a prisoner of war camp. The most blatant antiwar discussion in the novel occurs in the opening between Vonnegut and Mary O’Hare. She fears that the book will glorify war as so many books and movies have in the past. She fears that the book will portray the “babies” fighting in the...
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