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7th April 2023

Slaughterhouse Five: The most thought-provoking novel of the 20th century

Rising out of the dust of the 1960s, Slaughterhouse-Five questions the meanings of war, and our own personal roles within it.
Slaughterhouse Five: The most thought-provoking novel of the 20th century
Photo: Jacob Folkard @ The Mancunion

Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical 1969 classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, stands out as one of the 20th century’s most unique and thought-provoking novels. In its exploration of themes of war, science-fiction, American culture, realism, and satire, Slaughterhouse-Five defies straightforward categorisation. Paired with Vonnegut’s purposeful, non-linear approach to storytelling, Slaughterhouse-Five makes for a truly compelling read.

A clear anti-war sentiment is prevalent throughout. Vonnegut rejected the glamourised, contemporary portrayals of war within pop culture, littered with accounts of bravery and heroic deeds. To provide the reader with an honest portrayal of war, we are placed in the shoes of American soldier Billy Pilgrim, whose experiences mimic Vonnegut’s own during the second world war.

Pilgrim finds himself drafted into military service part-way through optometry school. In his early twenties, having had little exposure to the outside world, he is thrust into the war front. Clueless, clumsy, and inexperienced, Pilgrim, like so many others, is vastly out of his depth. This observation is emphasised in the book’s alternate title The Children’s Crusade.

For Vonnegut, the most impactful moment of his military service was the Allies’ bombing of the German city of Dresden. Kept prisoner in an underground meat locker, he could hear what sounded like “giant footsteps from above” resonating throughout the shelter.

A moment that haunted Vonnegut for the following two decades, his description of the city following the attack is poignant. To see such a beautiful location reduced to nothing by a firestorm that “ate everything organic” weighed heavily on the author’s mind.

Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse-Five to process his own trauma and come to terms with man’s capability for destruction. His decision to tell Billy’s story in a non-chronological order allows the reader to witness the spill-over of Billy’s wartime experiences into his attitude to life’s other events, presenting the psychological consequences of war on daily life.

A pivotal moment on Vonnegut’s journey of coming to terms with his war trauma is Billy’s abduction by the Tralfamadorians; a race of green, two feet tall, aliens, shaped like a toilet plunger. The Tralfamadorians possess the ability to see in four dimensions. Billy is taught that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” Every moment is permanent, it is simply an illusion that one moment follows another.

Armed with this knowledge, Billy no longer laments death and loss, forming a philosophy of acceptance. Throughout the novel, Billy loses several friends and loved ones. Yet he does not grieve or mourn. He simply cites the three-word phrase “so it goes”, recognising death as but one inevitable moment, pointless to dwell on.

Thanks to the Tralfamadorians, Billy knows the exact date and cause of his demise. He does not attempt to alter or avoid his fate, instead welcoming death with open arms, understanding his role as a passenger to life’s events.

Vonnegut’s non-linear structure, fluctuating randomly between Billy’s time as a prisoner of war, his captivity on Tralfamador, and post-war domestic life as an optometrist, perfectly demonstrates the lack of control an individual has over their life.

Vonnegut took issue with the structure found in many traditional story arcs. Stories where the protagonist’s fortunes fluctuate between good and bad, all for the story to tie up in a neat, satisfying fashion were misleading.

For Vonnegut, the distinction between good and bad fortunes should not be so clear-cut as it is not reflective of reality. He believed life to be an untidy array of events, characterised by confusion and unpredictability. The protagonist should possess little agency, reacting to the cards dealt by life.

Slaughterhouse-Five may appear a bleak take on life. Vonnegut details a poignant reminder of the horrors of war and the heavy impact they can have on an individual. Billy’s war experiences seem to foster within himself an attitude of indifference towards the events of the rest of his life.

However, Vonnegut’s message is ultimately one of hope. Given Vonnegut’s purposeful implementation of a non-linear chronology, his decision to end the book the moment of Billy’s realisation that the war was over is all the more impactful.

Despite believing that he is powerless to alter life’s events, Billy is neither cynical nor nihilistic. Vonnegut, in gifting Billy with his philosophy of acceptance, offers the reader a blueprint for navigating life’s obstacles and difficulties.

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