Friday, October 1, 2010

Critical Essay on Slaughterhouse Five

Critical Essay on Slaughterhouse Five

The novel Slaughterhouse Five, also know as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, is an Anti-war novel. It is also a historical fiction, science fiction, and a semi-autobiographical fiction as well. The historical aspect of the book takes place during World War II, which is based on the author’s own experiences. The author’s main purpose in writing this book is not to stop wars, because as he puts it, “he might as well write an anti-glacier book because you can’t stop those either”, but more to inform readers on the destruction war causes.

Billy Pilgrim is a World War II veteran who survives the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Germany, which took the lives of more people than both of the atomic bombings on Japan combined. Billy is a wealthy optometrist married with a daughter and a son. Throughout this book Billy says he has become “unstuck in time”. He lives his life both in random order and all at once, in a fourth dimension of time travel. This concept, he says, is explained by alien beings called Tralfamadorians.

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Tralfamadorians are shaped like plungers with a hand at the top holding an eyeball. They teach Billy their concepts of time when they abduct him on his daughter’s wedding night. They believe that time is non-linear and rather it occurs randomly. For example they think that it’s stupid that human’s cry when someone dies. They believe that just at that particular moment the person is in bad shape, but in another random part of their life they are just fine. This is why when Billy or the author mentions a death it is followed by: “So it goes”. It is because of Billy being “unstuck in time” that the novel follows no chronological order, no cause and effect, and things just happen randomly.

The first time Billy becomes “unstuck in time” he is brought back in time to where he is captured behind enemy lines in World War II. This scene does not last very long because he soon shifts in time only moments later. However, as he continually is brought back to the war we learn he is a weakling, taught as chaplain’s assistant when he was drafted. After being captured, along with an eighteen-year-old anti-tank gunner named Roland Weary, he is transported in a crowded railway boxcar to a POW camp. While on the boxcar Roland Weary dies, but not before convincing a car thief to avenge his death by killing Billy. Thirty years later the car thief keeps his promise and kills Billy. Billy sees this event happen through his constant time traveling.

After arriving at a camp, treated to a feast, having a nervous breakdown, getting shot with morphine that sends him time tripping, he arrives at the beautiful city of Dresden, Germany. Here, the prisoners work for their keep at various labors. Their camp occupies a former slaughterhouse. One night, Allied forces carpet bomb the city, then drop incendiary bombs to create a firestorm that sucks most of the oxygen into the blaze, choking or incinerating roughly 130,000 people. Billy and his fellow POWs survive in an airtight meat locker. They come out to find a moonscape of destruction, where they are forced to dig corpses out of the rubble. Several days later, Russian forces capture the city, and Billy's goes back home.

During this time he is constantly time tripping going back and forth through various times in his life and visiting the planet Tralfamadore. There he is a zoo exhibit and is mated with a porn star. While on earth he writes letters about these visits and talks on radio shows.

Kurt Vonnegut is a World War II veteran on which this book is based on. He states in the first line of the book that, “All of this happened, more or less”. He describes this novel as “so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. (Which is very true this book is very complex and confusing.) He makes this comment in the first chapter of the book where he ties himself into the story of the novel by making him a sub-character. By doing this, it leads me to continually ask if the events that are taking place in the story, really did happen in his life or in Billy’s, or if Kurt Vonnegut is really the character Billy Pilgrim. I also wonder by Vonnegut saying that the book is mostly true, is he crazy, is he trying to symbolically connect his sci-fi adventures with his anti-war stand, or is he just trying to fill up space because there is “nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”.
In chapter one where the author is talking about how he is planning to write this book, he promises that he would not glorify the war and make the characters look like heroes, but instead what they really were, “babies”. He achieved this goal, he did not make the characters try to fight the whole German army single handedly, and he portrayed the characters as equals and victims of circumstance.

Because of the author’s constant time traveling it made the novel really confusing. This also made this book difficult to describe and made it hard for me to gather my thoughts on it onto a piece of paper. However, I do think the author did a good job overall and taught me a lot about the firebombing of Dresden, about how no matter how many anti-war books are out there will still be wars, and that we can’t glorify them because “babies” are fighting and “babies” are dying. So It Goes.

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