Kurt Vonnegut is an American novelist from Indianapolis, Indiana, born in 1922. A very important part of his life was when he served in WWII where he was taken as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans on December 14, 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge (Biography). He was kept in Dresden with other POWs to work in a syrup factory. When Dresden was bombed on February 13, 1945, he survived while hiding in a cellar of a slaughterhouse where the POWs were living. Vonnegut was finally able to come home in May of 1945. He discusses his struggle to write about his experiences of at the beginning of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five and was unable to publish the book until 1969.
Vonnegut created Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of the story, in order to express his own views about war. One critic mentions that "no characters in contemporary fiction are more traumatized and emotionally damaged than those of Kurt Vonnegut" (Broer 121). Billy and Vonnegut carry many similarities throughout the novel. Just like Billy, Vonnegut was taken as a POW and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden (Vees-Gulani 175). During Billy's time in Dresden he meets a German guard named Werner Gluck. Even though the reader knows that Gluck is actually Billy's cousin, Billy never learns this. This kinship can further connect Billy and Vonnegut together. Since Vonnegut is a fourth generation German, it is possible that Vonnegut could also have a cousin that was a Nazi soldier (Biography). Though it may be a far stretch, a further connection the two have is the name of their hometowns. Billy was from the town of Illium, Illinois and Vonnegut was from Indianapolis, Indiana. The correlation between the two cannot be ignored. Billy could very easily be a way for Vonnegut to show the emotions that he felt during the war to the rest of the world.
The anti-war message is upheld further with the ironies that Vonnegut provides in the book. One example is "when one of the soldiers, a POW, survives the fire-bombing, but dies afterward from the dry heaves because he has to bury dead bodies" (Vit). When Billy and one of his comrades join to other scouts the Vonnegut portrays as well trained, Vonnegut displays irony by killing the skillful scouts and allows the less competent Pilgrim and Roland to survive. Roland does eventually die because he is forced to walk around in wooden clogs that turn his feet to pudding. The greatest example of irony is seen in what Vonnegut claims to be the climax of the story. He explains the situation before the story even begins. He is referring to the: execution of poor old Edgar Derby the irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And this one American foot soldier is arrested [and subsequently executed] for taking a teapot. (Vonnegut 164) Derby has survived the firebombing but when he is caught by the Germans for stealing a small tea pot, he was shot. While Slaughterhouse-Five is primarily a fiction novel, Vonnegut uses some science fiction to help prove his point. The Tralfamadorians are aliens that abduct Billy on a clear night 1967. "These aliens live with the knowledge of the fourth dimension, which, they say, contains all moments of time occurring and reoccurring endlessly and simultaneously" (Lichtenstein). The aliens believe they have no control over what is going to happen because they can see what is about to happen and know that they have no control over it. "Because of this ability, they have a totally different mentality than earthlings and criticize Earth's beliefs" (Vit). The aliens talk of the problems that they see on earth. The Tralfamadorians explain to Billy that they have no free will and free will is on earth because humans have no dimension of time. For this reason the
Tralfamadorians believe that free will does not exist. They "also believe that there will always be war on earth, since humans are designed that way" (Vit). This is how Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to criticize war. The Tralfamadorians also serve as an escape for Billy when he is stressed from his experiences on Earth. These aliens allow Billy's mind to flee from stressful situations such as the war and the death of his wife. While Billy was in a mental institute, he begins reading science fiction books. His obsession with science fiction could have lead the Tralfamadorians to being a hallucination, but Vonnegut never clarifies this. Besides the use of science fiction, the novel also uses some humor. The humor used is referred to as dark humor, a type of humor "that amuses the audience with something that would normally be inappropriate to laugh at" (Vit). In this case of this novel it is war. This comedy is seen in describing Billy as a "broken kite" (Vonnegut 220). When applied to parts of the book that are pertaining to war it reinforces the idea that war is absurd and "despite its absurdities, the novel is anchored in the grim reality of the pointless destruction of Dresden" (Rasmussen 125). The slightly sarcastic component of dark humor is just another way Vonnegut shows his feelings against the war. Along with the dark humor the novel is truly one of a kind in structure. "Slaughterhouse-Five is an absurdist time-travel story in which mild-mannered Billy Pilgrim is jerked back and forth between past and future"(Rasmussen 125).
Being pulled through time could make a person feel alienated and Billy definitely shows feelings of be alone in the world. This is the kind of feeling that can be experienced by a person after witnessing a violence such as war. "The narrative is a series of traumatic events, and the psychological interest of the novel is the attempt of Pilgrim to comp with the shadows of horror" (Berryman 96). Billy loses a lot through the story, from his comrades in battle to his wife in an accidental plane crash. The fact that these events do not happen in chronological order can make the story hard to understand. Vonnegut did not intend for this story to be easy to read because it discusses war, something that is very complicated for many people to understand.
Vonnegut's strong emotions against war can be seen in the comparison between himself and Billy Pilgrim, the Tralfamadorians, dark humor, and the arrangement of the novel. Vonnegut's experience with war left him bitter and he employs many objects in his novel to prove to his point. After discovering what Vonnegut had to go through while in Germany during the way it is easy to see why he feels the way he does. Witnessing the unnecessary destruction Dresden would leave anyone with a taste of bitterness toward war. Even though the novel can be slightly hard to read it is still one of the greatest novels written to this day. Vonnegut's ability to keep a person entertained through such a severe topic as war is truly amazing. Slaughterhouse-Five really is an amazing story.
Berryman, Charles. "After the Fall: Kurt Vonnegut" Critique Winter 1985: 96-102. "Biography of Kurt Vonnegut" Classic Notes. 18 April 2005. [www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Authors/about_kurt_vonnegut.html]. Broer, Lawrence R. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Rev. ed. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1994. Lichtenstein, Jesse and Douthat. "SparkNote on Slaughterhouse-Five." 2 May. 2005 [www.sparknotes.com/lit/slaughter/]. Rasmussen, R. Kent. "A Duty Dance with Death." Library Journal 15 July. 2004: 125. Vees-Gulani, Susanne. "Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five." Critique Winter 2003: 175-184. Vit, Marek. "War in Slaughterhouse-Five" Kurt Vonnegut Essay Collection. 17 April 2005 [www.geocities.com/Hollywood/4953/kv_sh5_war.html?20052]. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.