That was a really very strange book about how war is hell while managing to fit in possibly hallucinated aliens (in my interpretation, at least?)
When I first finished it, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would rate it, or even if I really liked it. However, as I wrote this post and I began analyzing the book, I started to like it more and more.
Book Review and Analysis: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
About the Book
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: classics, SFF, historical
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Blurb (from Goodreads):
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
(Oh, so it’s one of *those* blurbs is it.)
The History Behind the Book
“All this happened, more or less.”
Slaughterhouse-Five is based on Vonnegut’s own experience in WW2, specifically witnessing the bombing of Dresden.
The firebombing of the German city of Dresden by the Allies on February 13-15, 1945 is one of the most notorious events of the war; Dresden had a large civilian population and no munitions factories, and by that point, Nazi Germany was already beginning to fall apart, so many questioned why it was necessary to completely destroy the city. An estimate of 25,000 civilians were killed. The American and British governments claimed that the bombing was justified because Dresden was a communications hub.
Vonnegut had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge– Germany’s last-ditch attempt to regain their footing at the end of 1944– and was a POW in Dresden at the time of the Allied attack. He was assigned to live in a slaughterhouse–Slaughterhouse-Five.
It’s written as a kind of “story within a story.”
The main character is the fictional Billy Pilgrim, a young American soldier, but Vonnegut pops in to break the fourth wall from time to time and say “I was there too”, and the novel opens with him talking about how he’s going to write a book about the war before the real narrative begins. It’s a pretty interesting setup.
There’s a lot to unpack from this book.
Predeterminism and Slaughterhouse-Five
There’s an Einstein quote that says, “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This book took that idea and made it crushingly depressing.
Predeterminism– the idea that all events are set in stone and you cannot change the future– fate, essentially, is a large theme of the book.
War is treated as an inevitable event, and the unrelenting repetition of “so it goes” (which did get irritating after a bit) was there to reinforce the idea that we are all pretty much powerless to change anything. Billy, as well as all of the other men in his regiment and the people of Dresden, were simply cogs in a larger machine.
The book outright says as much: “One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.“
This is driven even further home with the whole aliens-and-time-travel situation– Billy is at the mercy of a large force beyond his control, seemingly omniscient aliens who know things that he will never know and don’t care about the well-being of humans, or of anyone.
“Well, here we are… trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
I was confused, though, as to whether we were supposed to think the aliens and the time travel actually existed in this story. I thought they were supposed to be, you know, metaphysical. But then, this book is labeled as sci-fi.
The Other Title
One of the things I learned upon finishing the book is that there is actually a longer title: Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death— which just spells out the point of the book even more clearly.
There’s a part of Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut is talking to his friend about the war and he says he wants to title his book The Children’s Crusade, after the event, because, as his friend’s wife pointed out, they were just children during the war. There is a lot of commentary on the glorification of war and the naïveté of all the kids who sign up thinking they’ll be heroes.
Cynicism and Dark Humor
As you can probably tell based off what I’ve already talked about, Slaughterhouse-Five definitely is one of those humans-are-evil books.
It also has some of the most cynical metaphors I have ever read:
“Trout… had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer. So it goes.”
The only word I can use to describe the humor in this novel is “empty.”
I don’t mean empty as in devoid of meaning or skill, but empty as in it makes you feel empty.
It is there to reveal to you the absurdity of how horrible the book’s events are. Something ironic will happen, and you will crack a smile, and then the book will say to you, “why are you laughing at this?”
“… there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead… everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?'”
This is one of those classics that everyone and their mother tells you to read, and now I’m going to tell you to read it too.
Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five? What did you think of it? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Feel free to leave a comment!
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6 comments on “Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Pacifism, Predeterminism, and Alien Abductions?”
Wow, that’s such a powerful review and now I have to read this.
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Thank you! I hope you do get to it soon
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