Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five
Vonnegut uses the imaginary Billy Pilgrim’s life experiences to explore his own experiences in World War II and his imprisonment in Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden, Germany. Billy floats through his own life, a passive character seemingly without value except as comic relief marching through Dresden in a lady’s muff coat (120), blue toga, and silver shoes (134) near the end of the war. Vonnegut simply says that the he was there when the Americans were gathered into boxcars (64), giving a sense of reality to the imagined Pilgrim’s life.
Vonnegut comments on humanity by examining Billy’s life before, during, and after his experiences in Dresden. Vonnegut clearly informs his reader that he is against war. He has told his sons not to take part in massacres (22) and not to work for companies that manufacture massacre machinery (23). So it goes, Vonnegut often writes, as if to say that the world and its machinations simply continue whether or not one actively participates in life. Vonnegut thought he would easily be able to write a book about the bombing of Dresden since he was there, but for twenty-three years he had been unable to frame the narrative (8). Instead, he writes of Billy Pilgrim’s passivity and Pilgrim’s enjoyment of his time travel between World War II, his captivity by Tralfamadorians, and his civilian life. Vonnegut explores the absurdity of war and life’s interconnectedness as he transports Pilgrim to different places on Pilgrim’s timeline. So it goes, Vonnegut says. But the birds respond, “Poo-tee-weet?” (190) as if to say, “And this is all life is. Does it even matter?”
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Delacorte Press, 1969.