|March 31, 1969|
|ISBN||0-385-31208-3 (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3572.O5 S6 1994|
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a science fiction-infused anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut about the World War II experiences and journeys through time of Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, to postwar and early years. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work. A central event is Pilgrim’s surviving the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war. This was an event in Vonnegut’s own life, and the novel is considered semi-autobiographical.
The story is told in a nonlinear order, and events become clear through flashbacks (or time travel experiences) from the unreliable narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes he was held in an alien zoo and has experienced time travel.
Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army during World War II, is an ill-trained, disoriented, and fatalistic American soldier who refuses to fight (“Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself”). He does not like war and is captured in 1944 by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy approaches death due to a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a patriot, warmonger, and bully (just out of childhood like Billy), who derides the soldier’s cowardice. When Weary is captured, the Germans confiscate everything he has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies in Luxembourg of gangrene caused by wounds from the stiff clogs. While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary convinces fellow soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame for his death. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary’s death by killing Billy, because revenge is “the sweetest thing in life.”
At this moment, Billy becomes “unstuck in time” and has flashbacks from his former life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported by the Germans to Luxembourg. By 1945, the Germans transport the prisoners to Dresden to work in “contract labor” (forced labor). The Germans hold Billy and his fellow prisoners in an empty Dresden slaughterhouse, “Schlachthof-fünf,” “slaughterhouse five.” During the extensive bombing by the Allies, German guards hide with the prisoners of war in a deep cellar. This results in their being among the few survivors of the firestorm that raged in the city between 13 and 15 February 1945. After V-E Day in May 1945, Billy is transferred to the United States and receives his honorable discharge in July 1945.
Soon, Billy is hospitalized with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and placed under psychiatric care. A man named Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. After his release, Billy marries Valencia Merble. Valencia’s father owns the Ilium School of Optometry that Billy later attends. In 1947, Billy and Valencia’s first child, Robert, is born. Two years later their daughter Barbara is born. On Barbara’s wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet light-years away from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are described as seeing in four dimensions, simultaneously observing all points in the space-time continuum. They universally adopt a fatalistic worldview: Death means nothing but “so it goes”.
On Tralfamadore, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome exhibit in a zoo; the dome represents a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians later abduct a movie star named Montana Wildhack, who had disappeared and was believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean. They intend to have her mate with Billy. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to relive past or future moments of his life.
In 1968, Billy and a copilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving to visit Billy in the hospital. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard history professor. They discuss the bombing of Dresden, which the professor claims was justified, despite the great loss of civilian lives and destruction of the city.
Billy’s daughter takes him home to Ilium. He escapes and flees to New York City. In Times Square he visits a pornographic book store. Billy discovers books written by Kilgore Trout and reads them. Later in the evening, when he discusses his time-travels to Tralfamadore on a radio talk show, he is evicted from the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep, and time-travels back to 1945 in Dresden, where the book ends.
Due to the non-chronological story telling, other parts of Billy’s life are told throughout the book. After being evicted from the radio studio, Barbara treats Billy as a child and often monitors him. Robert becomes starkly anti-Communist and a Green Beret. Billy eventually dies in 1976 after giving a speech in a baseball stadium in which he predicts his own death and claims that “if you think death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.” Billy is soon after shot by an assassin with a laser gun, commissioned by the elderly Lazzaro.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American writer. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his darkly satirical, best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnegut attended Cornell University but dropped out in January 1943 and enlisted in the United States Army. As part of his training, he studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee. He was then deployed to Europe to fight in World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was interned in Dresden and survived the Allied bombing of the city by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. After the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children. He later adopted his sister’s three sons, after she died of cancer and her husband was killed in a train accident.
Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. The novel was reviewed positively but was not commercially successful. In the nearly 20 years that followed, Vonnegut published several novels that were only marginally successful, such as Cat’s Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964). Vonnegut’s breakthrough was his commercially and critically successful sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The book’s anti-war sentiment resonated with its readers amidst the ongoing Vietnam War and its reviews were generally positive. After its release, Slaughterhouse-Five went to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, thrusting Vonnegut into fame. He was invited to give speeches, lectures and commencement addresses around the country and received many awards and honors.
Later in his career, Vonnegut published several autobiographical essays and short-story collections, including Fates Worse Than Death(1991), and A Man Without a Country (2005). After his death, he was hailed as a morbidly comical commentator on the society in which he lived and as one of the most important contemporary writers. Vonnegut’s son Mark published a compilation of his father’s unpublished compositions, titled Armageddon in Retrospect. In 2017, Seven Stories Press published Complete Stories, a collection of Vonnegut’s short fiction including 5 previously unpublished stories. Complete Stories was collected and introduced by Vonnegut friends and scholars Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield. Numerous scholarly works have examined Vonnegut’s writing and humor.