This is another reflection I wrote almost two years ago, for my Modern Novel class.
The book, Slaughterhouse-Five, is rather indescribable. It's part autobiography (based on Vonnegut's experiences in WWII, particularly during the Dresden firebombing), and part fantastical science fiction. The book's main character, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time and abducted by aliens. Juxtaposed with these events, however, is the more intense absurdity of humans' actions against each other - death marches, death camps, and cities boiled in flame.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is less of a novel than a parable. A parable marked by its dreamlike attention to detail, and complete absence of any traditional plot. A parable that is not story, but interwoven bursts of history, nonsense, and character study. Bursts that are strung together into an overarching commentary on the presence, or absence, of meaning.
And that, it seems, is the book’s ultimate question, for itself and for the world — is there a point, or isn’t there? Is Slaughterhouse-Five a commentary on the deep significance of life, or the ultimate absurdity of it all? Is Vonnegut combining these fragments of truth and fantasy into a collage that celebrates meaning, even amidst the madness, or a shattered mural that undermines it? He tells us that the Trafalmadores believe that individual moments, seen all at one time, can “produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep” (84). Is this what Slaughterhouse-Five accomplishes (or attempts), or does Vonnegut intentionally fall short? Is the moral of the parable that meaning can be wrested from the ashes, or simply that it cannot? — and no amount of artful deception will ever turn the Dresden firebombing beautiful. This is a question for which there are no simple answers.
Slaughterhouse-Five is heavy with its recognition of humanity’s attempts to trivialize life and death. To minimize atrocity by building walls between “us” and “them". The good guys and the bad. Those who deserve to die, and those who don’t. But as Vonnegut writes in his preface, “the corpses could have been anybody, including me” (xii). His book cuts through the lines of separation, and presents humans as simply that, human. In all of their odd frailty. Creatures, who, if shown in the right light, make less sense than Billy Pilgrim’s aliens from Tralfamadore. Aliens who understand that death is irrelevant, not because people are irrelevant, but because time is. And in this way, the book is laced with irony. A calm, self-aware absurdity (in the form of flying saucers, time travel, and other fantastical non-events) that calls the reader’s attention to the more hysterical absurdity of actual reality. Firebombings. Girls boiled to death in water towers. Candles made from human fat. A man shot for stealing a teapot. British POWs performing Cinderella. Billy crying for a horse in pain, amidst the wreckage that once was Dresden. All so much more unbelievably ridiculous than time travel, and green Martians. Vonnegut writes (once again, in his preface) that Slaughterhouse-Five is meant to be a “nonjudgmental expression of astonishment” at what he experienced in Dresden (xii). And that it is. An astonishment that is mirrored through science fiction and the recounting of the fantastical.
But none of this really answers the question of meaning. Of hope. Billy recounts that the Tralfamadorians believe every moment to always exist — in the past, present, and future. And if every moment exists, always, then there is no potential for change. Billy sees his death, but never tries to stop it, just as the Tralfamadorians will never try to stop destroying the universe. It has already happened, always has happened, and always will happen. This fatalistic attitude is hardly heartwarming. Hardly conducive to transformation. So the question becomes, is Vonnegut’s work a tribute to that view (at least its power, if not its morality), or a violent mockery of it? Far from condoning this attitude of detached acceptance, Slaughterhouse-Five may be placing judgment on all who embrace it by viewing war as a necessary evil. Something that is hardly worth striving to abolish. Or Vonnegut may simply be recounting what he saw. What he experienced. And what, realistically, the world may always be — the absurd process of destruction. Us, against them. A truly “nonjudgmental” account (xii).