Slaughterhouse-Five; or The Children;s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death is surely the best achievement of Kurt Vonnegut and even one of the most acclaimed works in modern American literature.
It is a very personal novel which draws upon Vonnegut;s own experience in World War Two. He was an advance scout with the 106th Infantry Division, a prisoner of war and a witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden on 13th February 1945. 135,000 people died in the ruins of Dresden, which means that it was the greatest man-caused massacre of all times (71,379 people were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.) Vonnegut manages to tell the reader many things and it is hard to decide, what exactly is the main theme. It is a novel about war, about the cruelty and violence done in war, about people and their nature, their selfishness, about love, humanity, regeneration, motion, and death. I will try to explore the novel in a greater depth and try to say which of the themes mentioned characterizes the book to the greatest extent.
. The book has two narratives. One is personal and the other is impersonal. The latter is the story of Billy Pilgrim who, similarly to the author, fights in World War Two, is taken prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the fire-storming of Dresden. The personal narrative is Vonnegut;s own story about writing a book about the worst experience of his life. It appears mostly in the first chapter, and describes his temptation to write a book about Dresden and his efforts to finally produce it. The p ersonal view also appears in the tenth (and last) chapter and surfaces twice in the Billy Pilgrim;s story (;That was I. That was me.
That was the author of this book.; – Vonnegut 1969 p.125, 148). This can assure the reader of particular identity of the author with Billy. Billy Pilgrim has a unique ability to become ;unstuck in time;, which means that he can uncontrollably drift from one part of his life to another ;and the trips aren;t necessarily fun,; (ibid p.23).
The whole book is organized in the same way Billy moves in time. It consists of numerous sections and paragraphs strung together in no chronological order, seemingly at random. The whole narration is written in the past tense, so that the reader cannot identify where the author;s starting point is. This aspect of the book is identical with the Tralfamadorian type of books: ;There isn;t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
; ( p.88). I think that this describes Slaughterhouse-Five quite fully. After having read about Billy being an optometrist, another explanation of why the book has no frame occurs. The last sentence of the paragraph about optometry reads: ;Frames are where the money is,;(p.24). Wayne McGinnis has pointed out that historical events, like the destruction of Dresden, are usually ;read; in a framework of moral and historical interpretation and that is where this book differs from other books of its kind (Bryfonski 1978 p.529).
In my opinion, however, the narration is linear. One period of Billy;s life is told in a line – Billy;s story from the war. I admit that the line of narration is broken by many other events, but every time a war story begins, it takes up the narrative at the moment when the previous war story ended. It seems that Vonnegut, who had wanted to write a war novel, now wanted to avoid writing about it. The war seems to have been a great tempting magnet for him, and Vonnegut was trying to escape its power. He managed to do so, to some extent, but every now and then the story falls back into World War Two.
The first theme of Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the most obvious, is the war and its contrast with love, beauty, humanity, innocence etc. Slaughterhouse-Five, like Vonnegut;s previous books manages to tell us that war is bad for us and that it would be better for us to love one another. To find the war;s contrast with love is quite difficult, because the book doesn;t talk about any couple that was cruelly torn apart by the war (Billy didn;t seem to love his wife very much, for example.) V onnegut expresses it very lightly, uses the word ;love; very rarely, yet effectively. He tries to look for love and beauty in things that seemingly are neither lovely nor beautiful. For example, when Billy was captured by the group of Germans, he didn;t see them as a cruel enemy, but as normal, innocent people.
;Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old.