Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. Vonnegut's use of the firebombing of Dresden as a central event makes the novel semi-autobiographical, as he was present during the bombing.
- 2 Characters
- 3 Major themes
- 4 Literary significance and reception
- 5 Allusions and references
- 6 Adaptations
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The story is not told in a particularly chronological order and things become clear through various flash backs (or time travel experiences) from the unreliable narrator Billy Pilgrim who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel.
Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier, one who refuses to fight ("Billy wouldn't do anything to save himself"). He does not like wars and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the bombing, the prisoners of war and German guards hide in a deep cellar. Because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm.
Billy's near death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character and bully, just out of childhood like Billy, who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm for war. When captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs. While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary manages to convince another soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life." In a flash forward (or time travel incident according to Billy) Lazzaro kills Billy with a laser gun after his speech on flying saucers and the true nature of time before a large audience in Chicago, in a balkanized United States on February 13, 1976 (an unlikely future at the time of the book's writing).
- Intrusive and recurring as a minor character, the narrator seems anonymous while also clearly identifying himself when he, the narrator, says: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book." Vonnegut was, in fact, captured by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and transported to Dresden; he and fellow prisoners did survive the bombing while being held in Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse #5). The narrator begins the story describing his connection to the fire-bombing of Dresden, and his reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five.
- Billy Pilgrim
- A fatalistic optometrist ensconced in a dull, safe marriage, in Ilium, New York. He randomly travels in time and is abducted by aliens from planet Tralfamadore, who see everything in the fourth dimension. In World War II he was a POW(Prisoner of War) in Dresden, which has a lasting effect on his post-war life. His time travel occurs at desperate times in his life; he re-lives events past and future, and becomes fatalistic (though not a defeatist) because he has seen when, how, and why he will die.
- Roland Weary
- A weak man dreaming of grandeur and obsessed with gore and vengeance, who saves Billy several times (despite Billy's protests) in hopes of military glory, but then gets them captured, leading to the loss of his winter uniforms and boots. Weary dies of gangrene in the train en route to the POW camp and blames Billy in his dying words.
- Paul Lazzaro
- Another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois, who takes Weary's dying words as a revenge commission to kill Billy. He keeps a mental list of his enemies, claiming he can have anyone "killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses".
- Kilgore Trout
- A failed science fiction writer who makes money by managing newspaper delivery boys and has received only one fan letter (from Eliot Rosewater; see below). After Billy meets him in a back alley in Ilium, New York, he invites Trout to his wedding anniversary celebration. There, Kilgore follows Billy, thinking the latter has seen through a "time window" (when he inexplicably becomes saddened by the barbershop quartet, later revealed as due to them reminding him of the four German guards trying and failing to vocalise the news of Dresden's destruction). Kilgore Trout is also a main character in Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions.
- Edgar Derby
- A middle-aged man who has pulled strings to be able to fight in the war. He was a high school teacher who felt that he couldn't just let his young students go off to war without himself also fighting. He is a fellow POW to Billy and Paul Lazzaro, and the only one who stands up to the traitor Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and defends American ideals. Though he appears to be unimportant throughout most of the book, he seems to be the only American before the bombing of Dresden to understand what war can do to people. German forces summarily execute him for looting a teapot after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Though it seems not to be the most pivotal death in the book, Vonnegut declares that this death is the climax of the book as a whole.
- Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
- An American Nazi. Before the War, he lived in Germany as a successful, famous, German-language playwright, and became a Nazi propagandist. In an essay, he connects the misery of American poverty to the disheveled appearance and behaviour of the American POWs. Edgar Derby confronts and challenges him when he tries to recruit American POWs into the American Free Corps to fight the Communist Russians on behalf of the Nazis. Campbell is the protagonist of an earlier Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, in which he is revealed to have been working for the OSS against the Germans, using his pro-Nazi persona as a cover. The Americans never reveal Campbell's true role after the end of the war, forcing him to lead a life of anonymity to avoid the disgrace. Eventually, Campbell surrenders himself to Israeli authorities, and hangs himself while in their custody.
- Valencia Merble
- Billy's obese wife and mother of their two children, Robert and Barbara. Billy is emotionally distant from her. She dies from carbon monoxide poisoning after an automobile accident en route to the hospital to see Billy after his airplane crash.
- Robert Pilgrim
- Son of Billy and Valencia. A troubled, middle-class boy, and disappointing son, who so absorbs the anti-Communist world view, he metamorphoses from suburban adolescent rebel to Green Beret sergeant.
- Barbara Pilgrim
- Daughter of Billy and Valencia. She is a "bitchy flibbertigibbet", from having had to assume the family's leadership at the age of twenty. She has "legs like an Edwardian grand piano," marries an optometrist, and treats her widower father as a childish invalid.
- The extraterrestrial race who appear (to humans) like upright toilet plungers with a hand atop, in which is set a single, green eye. They abduct Billy and teach him about time's relation to the world, as a fourth dimension, fate, and death's indiscriminate nature. Tralfamadorians appear in several Vonnegut novels. In Slaughterhouse Five, they reveal that the universe will be accidentally destroyed by one of their test pilots.
- Montana Wildhack
- A model who stars in a film shown in a pornographic bookstore when Billy stops by to check out the Kilgore Trout novels sitting in the window. She also appears on the cover of multiple magazines in the store. She is also abducted and placed in Billy's habitat on Tralfamadore, where they have sex and produce a child.
- "Wild Bob"
- A superannuated Army officer Billy met in the war. He is delirious and eventually dies of a fever. He tells the POWs to call him "Wild Bob", he thinks them his command, the 451st Infantry Regiment. "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob," is an inspirational phrase of his that Billy repeats to himself. He was based on William Joseph Cody Garlow (grandson of the famed Buffalo Bill Cody) who surrendered his unit to the German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.
- Eliot Rosewater
- A friend whom Billy meets in the veteran's hospital and who introduces him to the science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout (see above). Rosewater turns out to be the writer of the only fan letter Trout ever received. Rosewater, like Billy, has experienced a horrifying event in the war. The two feel that the Kilgore Trout novels they read help them to deal with the trauma of World War II. Eliot Rosewater also shows up in other books by Kurt Vonnegut, such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
- Bertram Copeland Rumfoord
- A Harvard history professor, retired Air Force brigadier general and millionaire, who shares a hospital room with Billy and is interested in the Dresden bombing. He is almost surely a relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a character in a previous novel by Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan.
- The Scouts
- Two American infantry scouts trapped behind German lines who found Roland and, later on, Billy. Although Roland considers himself and the scouts to be best friends and heroes (calling their group the "Three Musketeers"), the scouts are uncomfortable around him and later reveal that Roland is slowing them down as much as Billy, and abandon them both. Later on it is discovered that they were found and shot from behind by German troops while waiting in ambush.
- Mary O'Hare
- The character briefly discussed in the beginning to whom Vonnegut promised to name the book The Children's Crusade.
- Werner Gluck
- Werner is a sixteen-year-old German charged with guarding Billy and Edgar Derby when they first arrive at Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden. He does not know his way around, and as he tries to find the kitchen he accidentally leads them into a communal shower where some German refugee girls from the Eastern Front are bathing. Comments are made on how similar in appearance he is to Billy. Coincidentally, they are distant cousins, but they never discover this.
|||This section does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged andremoved. (September 2008)|
Slaughterhouse-Five explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he will next visit.
Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."
To the Tralfamadorians, everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut's true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think (the subject of Timequake). Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, "that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book," both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable.
Like much of Vonnegut's other works (e.g., The Sirens of Titan), Slaughterhouse-Five explores the concept of fatalism. The Tralfamadorians represent the belief in war as inevitable. In their hapless destruction of the universe, Vonnegut's characters do not sympathize with their philosophy. To human beings, Vonnegut says, ignoring a war is unacceptable when we have free will; however, he does not explicitly state that we actually have free will, leaving open the possibility that he is satirizing the concept of free will as a product of human irrationality.
This human senselessness appears in the climax that occurs, not with the Dresden fire bombing, but with the summary execution of a man who committed a petty theft. Amid all that horror, death, and destruction, time is taken to punish one man. Yet, the time is taken, and Vonnegut takes the outside opinion of the bird asking, "Poo-tee-weet?" The same birdsong ends the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Slaughterhouse-Five is framed with chapters in the author's voice, about his experience of war, indicating the novel is intimately connected with his life and convictions. That established, Vonnegut withdraws from the unfolding of Billy Pilgrim's story, despite continual appearances as a minor character: in the POW camp latrine, exiting the train at Dresden, the corpse mines of Dresden, when he mistakenly dials Billy’s telephone number. These authorial appearances anchor Billy Pilgrim’s life to reality, highlighting his existential struggle to fit in the human world.
The reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five have been largely positive since the 31 March 1969 review in The New York Times newspaper that glowingly concedes: "you'll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner." In its publication year, Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award and for a best-novel Hugo Award, 1970. It lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. In 1998, the Modern Library rankedSlaughterhouse-Five eighteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It also appeared in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
The story continually employs the refrain "So it goes" when death, dying, and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori, as comic relief, and to explain the unexplained. It appears 106 times.
As a postmodern, metafictional novel, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five, apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled," because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." As in Mother Night, but more extensively, Vonnegut manipulates fiction and reality. The first sentence says: "All this happened, more or less." (In 2010, that sentence was ranked No. 38 on the American Book Review's list of "100 Best First Lines from Novels.") The author later appears in Billy Pilgrim's World War II as another sick prisoner, which the narrator notes by saying: That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
The story repeatedly refers to real and fictional novels and fiction; Billy reads The Valley of the Dolls (1966), and skims a Tralfamadorian novel, and participates in a radio talk show, part of a literary-expert panel discussing "The Death of the Novel."
The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. The story itself begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, from Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.
The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, wherein he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age, and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads: Billy's experience of War (itself interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life), which is mostly linear; and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy's existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden's destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.
The narrator begins the novel telling of his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a self-description (of self and book), and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to thestory of Billy Pilgrim: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", thus, the transition from the writer's perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient Narrator. The use of "Listen" as an opening interjection mimics the epic poemBeowulf, the oldest-known English saga about the moral ambiguity of war.
Kilgore Trout, whom Billy Pilgrim meets operating a newspaper delivery business, can be seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, though the two differ in some respects. For example, Trout's career as a science-fiction novelist is checkered with thieving publishers, and the fictional author is unaware of his readership.
Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. In 1972, a circuit judge banned it on the grounds that it is “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” In the novel, American soldiers use profanity; his language is irreverent; and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as "fairies," were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
In the USA it has at times been banned from literature classes, removed from school libraries, and struck from literary curricula; however, it is still taught in some schools. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, [457 U.S. 853 (1982)], and concluded that "local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'" Slaughterhouse-Five is the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999. Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis.
The bombing of Dresden in World War II is the central event mentally affecting Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist. Within, Vonnegut says the firebombing killed 135,000 German civilians; he cites The Destruction of Dresden, by David Irving. However, recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000 and question Irving's research.
Critics have accused Slaughterhouse-Five of being a quietist work, because Billy Pilgrim believes that the notion of free will is a quaint Earthling illusion. The problem, according to Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl, is that:
Vonnegut's critics seem to think that he is saying the same thing [as the Tralfamadorians]. For Anthony Burgess, “Slaughterhouse is a kind of evasion — in a sense, like J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan — in which we’re being told to carry the horror of the Dresden bombing, and everything it implies, up to a level of fantasy... ” For Charles Harris, “The main idea emerging from Slaughterhouse-Five seems to be that the proper response to life is one of resigned acceptance." For Alfred Kazin, “Vonnegut deprecates any attempt to see tragedy, that day, in Dresden... He likes to say, with arch fatalism, citing one horror after another, ‘So it goes’." For Tanner, “Vonnegut has... total sympathy with such quietistic impulses." And the same notion is found throughout The Vonnegut Statement, a book of original essays written and collected by Vonnegut’s most loyal academic “fans."
As in other novels, certain characters cross over from other stories, making cameo appearances, connecting the discrete novels as a greater opus. Fictional novelist Kilgore Trout, often an important character in other Vonnegut novels, inSlaughterhouse-Five is a social commentator and a friend to Billy Pilgrim. In one case, he is the only non-optometrist at a party, therefore, he is the odd-man-out. He ridicules everything the Ideal American Family holds true, such as Heaven, Hell, and Sin. In Trout's opinion, people do not know if the things they do turn out to be good or bad, and if they turn out to be bad, they go to Hell, where "the burning never stops hurting".
Other crossover characters are Eliot Rosewater, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Howard W. Campbell, Jr., from Mother Night; and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, from The Sirens of Titan. Mr Rosewater says that Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, contains "everything there was to know about life". Vonnegut references The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at one point when talking about William Blake, Billy's hospital mate's favourite poet.
It should be noted that while Vonnegut re-uses characters, the characters are frequently rebooted and do not necessarily maintain the same biographical details from appearance to appearance. Kilgore Trout in particular is palpably a different person (although with distinct, consistent character traits) in each of his appearances in Vonnegut's work.
In the Twayne's United States Authors series volume on Kurt Vonnegut, about the protagonist's name, Stanley Schatt says:
By naming the unheroic hero Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut contrasts John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" with Billy's story. As Wilfrid Sheed has pointed out, Billy's solution to the problems of the modern world is to "invent a heaven, out of 20th century materials, where Good Technology triumphs over Bad Technology. His scripture is Science Fiction, Man's last, good fantasy".
Slaughterhouse-Five speaks of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, and refers to the Battle of the Bulge, the Vietnam War, and the Black racial riots in American cities during the 1960s. Billy's wife, Valencia, wears a Reagan for President! bumper sticker on her car, referring to Reagan's failed 1968 Republican presidential nomination campaign. The bumper sticker was edited out of a broadcast version of the film which aired on at least one cable channel during or after the Reagan administration. Another bumper sticker is mentioned that says "Impeach Earl Warren."
The slaughterhouse in which Billy Pilgrim and the other POWs are kept is also a real building in Dresden. Vonnegut was beaten and imprisoned in this building during World War II, and it is because of the meat locker in the building's basement that he—and Billy—survived the fire-bombing. Today, the site is largely intact and protected. One can visit it and take a two-hour guided tour.
A film adaptation of the book, also called Slaughterhouse-Five, was made in 1972. Although critically praised, the film was a box office flop. It won the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Hugo Award, and Saturn Award. Vonnegut commended the film greatly. Guillermo del Toro has confirmed his intention to remake the 1972 film, originally hoping to release it in early 2011; but due to his previous involvement with The Hobbit, the date of release for a film adaptation was pushed back. Although Guillermo del Toro has since dropped out of involvement with The Hobbit, the possibility of a new Slaughterhouse-Five adaptation remains in question since it is not among several projects Del Toro is said to be working on as of Summer 2013.'.
In 1989, a theatrical adaption premiered at The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, in the UK. This was the first time the novel had been presented onstage. It was adapted by Vince Foxall, and directed by Paddy Cunneen. In 1996, a theatrical adaptation of the novel was premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, IL. The adaptation was written and directed by Eric Simonson and included actors Rick Snyder, Robert Breuler, and Deanna Dunagan. The play has been performed in several other theaters including a January 2008 New York premiere production at the Godlight Theatre Company. The operatic adaptation by Hans-Jürgen von Bose, premiered in July 1996 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Billy Pilgrim II was sung by Uwe Schonbeck.
In September 2009 BBC Radio 3 broadcast a feature length radio drama based on the book which was dramatised by Dave Sheasby and which starred Andrew Scott as Billy Pilgrim and was scored by the group 65daysofstatic.