by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the United States, Europe, and on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore from 1922 to 1968; published in 1969.
Billy Pilgrim, who claims that aliens once abducted him and who time-travels to various moments of his life, finds himself reliving the World War II bombing of Dresden, Germany, which he survived.
Born in 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written five books before Slaughterhouse Five catapulted him to international recognition as one of the brightest, most imaginative authors of contemporary American fiction. Regarded as one of the best antiwar pieces ever written, the novel chronicles the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, an event not only considered the worst air raid in history, but in retrospect proven to be strategically unnecessary. A blend of science fiction and historical fact, Slaughterhouse Five’s story unfolds through an innovative writing style. It features a nonlinear mode of storytelling in which the main character time-travels through all the significant points in his life, though not necessarily in chronological order.
World War II
The United States entered World War II in December 1941, after the Japanese bombed a naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Joining the key Allied forces of Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, American troops battled the major Axis powers—Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. When U.S. troops landed in Normandy, France, in June 1944, the Allied forces gained a greater advantage in the war. The Battle of the Bulge, the last major offensive by the German army, was fought in December 1944. In the battle, Allied troops set out to invade Nazioccupied Belgium, but encountered a major Nazi counterattack. The Germans penetrated the Allied defenses in a bulgelike pattern—hence the name of the battle. A long stretch of poor weather protected the Germans from air attacks, as did the slow reaction time of Allied ground forces; both factors enabled the Germans to push their battle line deep into Allied territory. Though the battle was ultimately a victory for the Allies, there were many casualties on both sides. The Germans took approximately one hundred American prisoners of war and transported them by train in cattle boxcars to Dresden, a city located on the Elbe River in southeastern Germany.
The city of Dresden has been called “Florence on the Elbe” because before World War II it was regarded as one of the most beautiful urban centers in the world, renowned for its architecture and great art treasures. This baroque German city is spread along the Elbe River valley, to the north of which lie the Lossnitz ridges, the woods of the Dresdener Heide, and the steep slopes of the Lausitz granite plateau; to the south are the foothills of the Erzgebirge Mountains. Dresden has several world-famous museums and galleries, most notably the Zwinger Palace, which houses a number of valuable collections. In a square north of the Zwinger sits a Renaissancestyle building that is home to works of art by Antonio Allegri da Corregio, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and Rembrandt van Rijn. Dresden also has a great opera tradition. Composers such as Johann Strauss and Richard Wagner performed in the city’s beautiful opera house overlooking the Elbe.
The Yalta Conference
By January 1945, the defeat of Germany by Allied forces was imminent and final plans for the end of the war were being laid out. On February 4, 1945, British prime minister Winston Churchill, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin met in Yalta in the southern Soviet Union to discuss the end of the war and its aftermath. The leaders agreed on a plan to cause final damage to Hitler’s army by initiating a massive strategic air attack on the German cities of Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz. It was believed that these attacks would cause severe confusion among civilian refugees as they evacuated the cities, thus hampering the movement of Nazi troops from the west, and that it would also knock out numerous systems of communication in Germany. The plan went by the code name “Thunderclap.” At the time, Dresden was a city overcrowded with refugees from Russia, prisoners of war, evacuated children, and forced laborers. Its population had more than doubled, and many homeless people were living in the streets of the beautiful city. Although Dresden was listed at the Yalta conference as a point of attack, it was not a major industrial or communications center, since it contained no railways, bridges, stations, or factories.
On February 13, 1945, the initial attack from the Allied forces hit Dresden. The first wave of 244 British Lancaster bombers was followed by another 500, which dropped 4000-to-8000 pounds of bombs that were designed to blast the roofs from buildings and expose them to the firebombs that followed. It became the heaviest air raid in history and created a firestorm that was absolutely unstoppable, encompassing an area of forty miles in diameter. Shortly after midday on February 14, 1945, the Americans staged the third wave of the attack with 300 B-17 bombers that dropped 771 tons of bombs on an already devastated city. An estimated 130,000’ to 250,000 people were killed in the air raid, almost all of them civilians. Later that year in the war against Japan, the United States would drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the consequent death toll would be considerably less than the estimated casualties from the bombing of Dresden. The ultimate irony was that there was no real reason for the raid, as it had no effect on the subsequent defeat of Germany. The bombing of Dresden, to this day, remains a subject of great controversy.
Slaughterhouse Five begins with matter-of-fact description: during World War II in December 1945, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a prisoner of war captured after the Battle of the Bulge and taken as a forced laborer to the city of Dresden, Germany. Remarkably, he and other prisoners managed to survive the worst air raid in world history.
In preparing to write his book about Dresden, Vonnegut visits a friend, Bernard V. O’Hare, who was with him as a prisoner of war in Dresden. Together they return to Germany for a visit. At this point it becomes evident that the fiction segment of the work begins. Vonnegut introduces Billy Pilgrim, a man who time-travels—or, as he puts it, becomes unstuck in time. Billy has no control over this ability to time-travel and lives in a constant state of fear because he never knows what part of his life he will be acting out next. Four segments of his life are exposed—his childhood, his World War II years, his postwar life as a family man and optometrist in New York, and his capture by aliens who come from the planet Tralfamadore.
In 1968 Billy Pilgrim is a successful forty-five-year-old optometrist who owns his own practice in Ilium, New York. Billy’s wife, Valenica, died a few years earlier, and he has two grown children. No longer able to maintain a consistent mental presence, Billy seems, from his daughter Barbara’s point of view, to be going insane. He has been calling in on radio talk shows and lecturing to UFO enthusiasts on the Tralfamadorians, aliens who he says kidnapped him and took him to their planet for observation.
In the novel, Billy visits various points in time, revealing scenes of his life from 1922, the year he was born, to the present day in 1968. The Tralfamadorians have explained to him that life is one continual present, a series of ever-existing moments with no beginning, no middle, and no end. Unlike Billy, the Tralfamadorians are able to pick and choose in which moments of their lives to live, and so they choose the most pleasant ones. They are not concerned with the effects of war or other random acts of violence because they hold a larger view of the universe as a whole entity and know how and when it will cease to exist. When Billy questions why they do not change the outcome of a bad situation, knowing how it came about to begin with, the Tralfamadorians reply that they cannot change what is. Moments are structured a certain way and cannot be altered. This view of life is accentuated in the phrase that Vonnegut uses throughout the novel after the announcement of a death: “and so it goes....”
Billy, unlike the Tralfamadorians, has no control over his time-travels and so ends up in some of the most frightening and unpleasant times of his past, such as the occasion when his father threw him into a swimming pool even though he was a small child and unable to swim. Billy walks through one door in 1968 then comes out another door in a different place and time of his life, be it 1944, 1955, or 1961. Among the moments Billy relives are those on the planet of Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants keep him in a zoo where humans are encased in glass domes; they also mate him with a beautiful movie actress.
Most of all, Billy relives his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II. He and one hundred or so other soldiers had been taken prisoner after becoming lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. One moment, for example, has Billy making love to his wife on their wedding night, and when he gets up and turns on the bathroom light, he enters a room in the prison where he was kept in 1944 after his capture by Germans. Billy travels from Dresden to moments in his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. As he returns to Dresden off and on throughout the novel, readers are able to piece together his total experience in the war—from being frightened on the battlefield, to being transported by cattle boxcar to Dresden, to hiding in the basement of an abandoned meat slaughterhouse with his fellow prisoners while firebombs destroyed the beautiful city above and killed thousands of people.
Though we experience no chronological order to the events in Billy’s life, the novel reveals that after the war he marries, has two children, and works as an optometrist. His wife dies because of a car accident on the way to see him at the hospital after he has been hurt in a plane crash. Billy survives, leaves the hospital, and time travels back to Dresden again. It is 1945, and the war is suddenly over when the novel ends. By this time, we are able to view Billy’s life as a whole, perhaps in the same way the Tralfamadorians would.
In the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut tells of his visit with his good friend, O’Hare, who served with him in the United States Army during World War II. They were prisoners of war together during the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Vonnegut asks O’Hare to return with him to Germany and share all that he remembered about those days in World War II. At this point, O’Hare’s wife, Mary, becomes angry at Vonnegut, fearing that his book will end up being adapted like other novels and books that glorify war:
You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs [their own children].
(Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, p. 14)
This sentiment is echoed in the fourth chapter of the novel. Billy Pilgrim’s daughter gets married in the afternoon. That night Billy waits to be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians while watching an old war movie on television. He imagines seeing the film backwards. The bombs dropped by fighter planes fly back up inside of them and the planes fly backwards returning to their base:
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.... The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
(Slaughterhouse Five, pp. 74-5)
Chapter 5 further develops the antiwar sentiment as Billy Pilgrim discusses war with the Tralfamadorians. He tells them of the atrocities he has seen and experienced during World War II and asks them the secret to peace so that he may communicate it to his fellow Earthlings. The Tralfamadorians reveal that they view wars on Earth as trivial events in the grand scheme of the universe. Still, Billy expresses fear of nuclear weaponry, and the desire to obtain peace and live on Earth with no more wars.
Antiwar sentiment is thus conveyed throughout the novel, not only in its vivid description of life as a prisoner of war and the horrific sights of Dresden after the firebombing, but also in comments and observations by various characters, including Vonnegut himself as the writer/narrator of the novel. It is mainly, though, by portraying the horror of a senseless bombing during World War II that the novel develops its antiwar sensibility. In doing so, it promotes an ideal that was embraced by the generation of the 1960s, many of whom expressed opposition to the ongoing U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.
Vonnegut draws on his personal experience as a prisoner of war during the Dresden bombing in spinning the fictional part of Slaughterhouse Five. The character of Billy Pilgrim takes on some of Vonnegut’s own characteristics: Both were born in 1922, served in the United States infantry during World War II, fell into German hands after the Battle of the Bulge, and found themselves being sent to Dresden via cattle train to work as forced laborers in the city. The novel even mentions Vonnegut as one of Billy’s fellow prisoners during a scene at the prison latrine: “An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains.... That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (Slaughterhouse Five, p. 125).
According to Jerome Klinkowitz’s Slaughterhouse Five: Reforming the Novel and the World, Vonnegut could not later recall a letter he had written home shortly after the war’s end, though his family kept it. In the letter he describes his experience of being taken prisoner in the same detail devoted to Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the novel. The letter describes the same cattle boxcars being stuffed with soldiers who had to take turns standing and sleeping since there was no room for everyone to lie down at once. It mentions how Vonnegut, with fellow prisoners and four German guards, hid in the basement refrigerator of an old meat slaughterhouse and survived the devastating firebombs that destroyed Dresden and killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours. The letter also describes the city in the aftermath of the bombing as looking like the moon, with craters everywhere. Finally the letter recounts how Vonnegut and other soldiers found a horse and cart and went into Dresden and the surrounding areas to rummage through the demolished houses for souvenirs, which is what Billy and his colleagues do in Slaughterhouse Five.
There is another character in the book, Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction novelist, who also acquires some of Vonnegut’s personal traits. One scene in the novel has Billy passing a bookstore with a display in the window of Trout’s past science fiction novels, which have collected a fair amount of dust. Vonnegut had published five novels before Slaughterhouse Five but only gained a reputation as a brilliant writer after its publication. Also, Trout wrote books whose contents resemble episodes in Slaughterhouse Five in that his characters interacted with aliens, the way Billy does with the Tralfamadorians.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War raged from 1954 through 1975 between communist North Vietnam and the noncommunist South Vietnam. As a result of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Americans entered the war on the side of South Vietnam. An escalating number of American troops were sent there, peaking at 543,000 in 1968, the year Slaughterhouse Five was written.
United States involvement in the war was extremely controversial. Some supported it wholeheartedly while others opposed it by protesting in mass demonstrations and by taking extraordinary measures to avoid being drafted into the military. The antiwar protesters were dismissed as troublemakers at first, but in time their sentiments were echoed by many among the general population and within the nation’s leadership as well. Among these political figures were several contenders in the 1968 presidential race, including Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Meanwhile, outside the White House, antiwar protesters screamed accusations such as “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” referring to the current president, Lyndon Baines Johnson; Johnson ultimately saw that his chances for reelection had been ruined by his role in the war and withdrew from the race.
In the novel, Billy Pilgrim recounts the periods of time he spent on the planet Tralfamadore, where he was taken by aliens who abducted him from his home. These science-fiction sequences in the novel refer to unearthly beings and space travel to and from another planet. While the 1960s saw the advancement of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Apollo program, which sent the first astronauts to the moon in 1969, there also existed a somewhat related controversy in America revolving around the possibility of another kind of space travel—that of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). Since 1947 there had been waves of sightings from numerous corners of the globe. The first rash prompted an official investigation by the U.S. Air Force as well as the formation of several special-interest groups seeking more knowledge about UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Subsequent reports of flying saucers occurred periodically through the 1950s and 1960s, leading to great controversy over a series of incidents in the mid-1960s, just a few years before Slaughterhouse Five was published. Between 1965 and 1967, the Air Force received nearly 3,000 reports of UFO sightings. Although not as numerous as reports that referred to simply sighting a UFO, there were also instances in which people claimed that they were abducted and taken aboard these unidentified spacecraft. These reports were too infrequent to warrant serious investigation at that time. Still, a great deal of media attention was paid to the subject, with articles on UFOs appearing in Saturday Review, Look, and Atlantic Monthly.
THE FACTUAL WITH THE FICTIONAL
Throughout the novel, Vonnegut draws upon the historical events of his life to date (1922-68), which is also the lifespan of his character Billy Pilgrim. At various moments, when Billy Pilgrim is experiencing his life in the present day, Vonnegut mentions current events such as the role of the Green Berets in the Vietnam War. Billy’s son Robert is a Green Beret. At the end of the book, Vonnegut also mentions the real-life assassinations of Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who were both killed in 1968.
In 1966 the public clamor about the unexplained sightings prompted congressmen Weston E. Vivian and Gerald R. Ford to call for a congressional hearing on the matter. Unable to give a clear explanation, the U.S. Air Force sought outside help from a scientist, Edward U. Condon of the University of Colorado, to study the phenomenon. Condon concluded, after a committee analyzed ninety-one reports, that his staff found “no direct evidence whatever of a convincing nature... for the claim that any UFOs represent spacecraft visiting Earth from another civilization” (Jacobs, p. 242). Reaction to these findings was heated, and critics charged that the study had been biased against the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence and had not investigated many important reports of UFO sightings. Whether Vonnegut was influenced by all this controversy or not, clearly his writing reflected a public preoccupation during the late 1960s with the possibility of life forms existing outside the earth’s atmosphere.
When Slaughterhouse Five was published in March 1969, it immediately met with a favorable reception from critics and the public alike. It became a bestseller and established Vonnegut as a public spokesman for a generation of youth who identified with his antiviolence stance in Slaughterhouse Five and subsequent works.
Slaughterhouse Five struck critics as a work of immense social importance. A review written by J. Michael Crichton for the New Republic comments on Vonnegut’s unique talents: “He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves”; Crichton further points out that Vonnegut does so in “an absurd, distorted, wildly funny framework” (Crichton, p. 35). In an article for the New York Times Book Review, Robert Scholes declares Slaughterhouse Five an enormous success: “It is a book we need to read and to reread.... The humor in Vonnegut’s fiction is what enables us to contemplate the horror that he finds in contemporary existence.... Art, as Picasso has said, is a lie that makes us realize the truth. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a true artist” (Scholes, p. 1).
Crichton, J. Michael. “Sci-Fi and Vonnegut.” New Republic 160, no. 17 (April 26, 1969): 35.
Jacobs, David M. The UFO Controversy in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Slaughterhouse Five”: Reforming the Novel and the Word. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987.
McKee, Alexander. Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.
Scholes, Robert. Review of Slaughterhouse Five. The New York Times Book Review (April 6, 1969): 1.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Delacorte, 1969.