The Catastrophe of War in Slaughterhouse-Five
Russian Prime Minister Joseph Stalin once said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The impersonalization of war and death that he shares is an realistic characterization of war; originally intending to improve the lives of people, yet inevitably leading to the destruction of human life. Author Kurt Vonnegut endorses this view in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five; he shows that war can never be justified as long as innocent life is lost. Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut explores the theme of free will in order to illustrate the absurdity of war. Vonnegut conveys this through setting, characters, structure, and style.
Vonnegut uses setting to convey the terrors of war by juxtaposing the hell-like Dresden with the heavenly Trafalmador. After the firebombing of Dresden, when the soldiers emerge out of a slaughterhouse, they find the entire city desolate and destroyed. As the soldiers wander out of the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut writes, "One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all. 135,000 civilians are killed in the raid, almost twice the number who would later die at Hiroshima" (Vonnegut 180). While in Dresden, the soldiers were surrounded by death, and even rode in a "coffin-shaped green wagon" (Vonnegut 194) through the ruins. The Dresden firebombing also exemplifies the absurdity of war because Dresden was an open city with no military significance, yet the Allies decided to bomb it anyways. In contrast with Dresden, while held captive on the far-off planet of Tralfamador, Billy Pilgrim lives an ideal life, in which he is sleeping with a beautiful movie star. Also, the Tralfamadorian view on free will releases Billy from any guilt he felt about the war. When describing wars, one Tralfamadorian claims, "There isn't anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments-like today at the zoo" (Vonnegut 117). While on Tralfamador, Billy lives in a dream world in which he only looks at pleasant moments and forgets about all of the horrible events of his life. Vonnegut uses the blissful Tralfamador in order to contrast and accentuate the horrors of Dresden.
Also, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, uses distancing behavior and in order to cope with the horrors of war. Throughout the course of the novel, Billy Pilgrim continues to alienate himself from his peers. His time travels prevent him from forming any strong continuous relationships with others ("Slaughterhouse" 264). One example of Billy's alienating behavior occurs when a black man taps on Billy's window to talk to him. After clearly seeing the man, "Billy Pilgrim did the simplest thing. He drove on" (Vonnegut 59). Billy's dislocation "serves as a metaphor for the sense of alienation and dislocation which follows the experience of catastrophic violence" ("Slaughterhouse" 264). Billy's condition is, "on one level, a symbol of the shock, confusion, dislocation, and desire for escape that result from the horrible experiences of war" (Cox 270). Billy is also distant and alienated because of his views on free will. Because Billy learns that he does not have free will and that all moments are preordained, he releases himself from any guilt he feels about the war. For example, "Billy was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do" (Vonnegut 60). Billy's indifference towards the war prevents him from being held accountable for events such as the Dresden firebombing. Billy Pilgrim's response to the horrors of war is not to attempt to create change but to become isolated and indifferent in order to avoid dealing with his past.
The Tralfamadorians also suggest the...
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