|by Kurt Vonnegut|
Perhaps Vonnegut's best work, Slaughterhouse-Five serves as the pinnacle point to the author's career. Vonnegut's career began with short stories, then he progressed to write about society in novel form only to be regarded as a Sci-fi writer after Quasi-sci-fi works of Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut's first novel of non-sci-fi nature, Mother Night, dealt with an issue that is focal to Slaughterhouse-Five, WWII. The doomsday novel Cat's Cradle followed Mother Night, but another "traditional" novel followed in the form of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which deals with an alcoholic WWII veteran who is hooked on Science Fiction. Two key figures from God Bless You appear in the subsequent novel: Slaughterhouse-Five. The beauty of Slaughterhouse-five lies with its ambiguity of whether or not it's science fiction based. The best indicator for a claim of serious literature is the simple fact that Billy Pilgrim is a sick individual.
In 1967, Vonnegut received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Dresden and gather material for the novel on that experience, which was to emerge as Slaughterhouse-Five. In the course of preparing the novel Vonnegut visited his old friend Bernard O'Hare, who had been a scout, then a prisoner, with him in Germany, and who was now an attorney in Pennsylvania, to see whether they could together uncover more specific recollections. It was then, as Vonnegut notes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, that Mary O'Hare objected to the conception of the story, which could have been turned into a movie starring John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Vonnegut recalls, "She freed me to write about what infants we really were: 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. We were baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don't think I had to shave very often. I don't recall that was a problem."
Later Vonnegut sought to put the Dresden experience into perspective, claiming that it had less influence on his life than Slaughterhouse-Five would suggest. Perhaps it was easier for him to make such a disclaimer after writing about the experience. Perhaps, too, his characteristic modesty urged him to back away from something he might have felt was being sensationalized. Nevertheless, the importance of the event for his fiction, if not his life, seems undeniable, as apocryphal disasters, visions that embody the symbolism of Dresden, haunt novel after novel. His resistance to exaggerating the importance of a short-term event does reinforce the point, though, that earlier, less dramatic experiences influence his fiction just as significantly. Despite Vonnegut's claim in the first chapter that the book is a failure, Slaughterhouse-Five succeeds remarkably well both in encompassing the personal trauma he experienced in Dresden and in emphasizing its universal human significance. To do so demanded an artistic innovation evolving from the form of the previous three novels that is most apparent in the unusual narrative perspective of the book. The novel is a first-person narration, although glancing at any page in the middle chapters may make it seem to be third-person omniscient. Vonnegut speaks as himself about his experiences and the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five not in a separate preface or introduction but in the first chapter. He returns in the tenth and final chapter. In between he declares himself periodically as someone present in the action of the novel by saying "that was me" or "I said that."
This narrative presence makes a crucial impact on the tone of the novel. Vonnegut's reminiscences and his openness in declaring his difficulties with the subject all authenticate his role as narrator. The narrative presence is established as an emotionally involved and compassionate one, recounting the story not with objectified detachment or stern moralizing but with an understanding yet urgent resignation. Injunctions such as "Listen" reveal the narrator's compulsion to tell his story, yet an apparent acceptance of the inevitable emerges in the repetitive, weary, but not unfeeling "So it goes," said whenever anyone or anything dies. The use of the first person affords Vonnegut the kind of direct expression necessary to authenticate the novel and doubtless to satisfy his need for catharsis. Yet clearly he wants the emphasis to fall not simply on himself, on his experience, or even on Dresden alone, but on the symbolic, universal meaning of Dresden. An omniscient third-person narrator might serve well the description and analysis of social aspects of the human condition, as it does in Player Piano. But that perspective remains too distant and detached to achieve the combination of the personal and the symbolic relevance of the event that he now wishes to portray. So Vonnegut creates a first-person frame to which he can allude throughout and that builds a narrative presence into the novel; he then has the narrator use an omniscient third-person voice throughout most of the story.
On the title page of Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut invites the reader to see the book as "a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore." With its short chapters and paragraphs, its short sets of sentences or paragraphs with spaces between them, the novel has a physical resemblance to the Tralfamadorian model. Many of the juxtaposed segments do not relate sequentially or thematically but together build a total impression like a montage. Events from two periods (1944-1945 and 1968) and from other points in the life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, are intermixed. His life is not revealed chronologically, by beginning in medias res, or by flashback; rather, the reader knows its end from the start, and the parts are filled in, from all segments of his life, as the novel progresses.
Vonnegut cannot use the traditional form of the novel in presenting life viewed in contemporary terms because the conventional novel conforms to assumptions of cause and effect and rigidities of time and sequence that he questions. For him the apparently pointless firebombing of Dresden, with its destruction of beautiful art and architecture and the killing of thousands of innocents, epitomizes the illogical. Consequently he needs a form that, while providing the reader with an intelligible account, does not appear to rationalize the events. In particular he needs a form that recognizes duration as a fourth dimension. He has sought to incorporate this view of reality into his fiction from the start. It means that each object or character is its history, not something that exists and has a history. In contrast to the portrayals of Proteus and Constant in Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, the nonlinear characterization of Billy Pilgrim emphasizes that he is not simply an established identity who undergoes a series of changes but all the different things he is at different times.
The same principles that govern characters govern events as well. Dresden is led up to, as it were, by events that precede and follow it. It is surrounded by allusions to other catastrophes and to other events with comparable victims. Its being is its history, so that it ceases to be a single event with a single explanation or meaning. It is as Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim see it, as the stunned German guards see it, as the weeping civilian couple sees it, in all the ambiguity this implies. The relationship between parts in the novel resembles relationships in life - relative, ambiguous, and frequently subjective.
Part of Vonnegut's artistry shows in his giving his peculiar brand of realism a strong pattern in its apparent randomness. The novel is described as "A Duty Dance with Death," which seems appropriate since there is a kind of sweeping circularity in its movement. Dresden, symbol of death, is always at its center; it begins where it ends, with the author speaking; and throughout characters appear and reappear like dancers circling the floor. In confronting in this novel the specter of death - the deaths of many others and his own near death - it is as if he is at last performing an obligatory "Dance with Death."
If war serves as his metaphor for the larger human condition and apocalypse functions as its ultimate consequence, in Dresden, Vonnegut finds the quintessential embodiment of these perceptions. It becomes the keystone of all he has to say about human behavior or the nature of human existence. The combination of personal involvement, historical authenticity, and symbolic meaning invests the Dresden of Slaughterhouse-Five with an impact more profound than any of his previous world-ending catastrophes. Slaughterhouse-Five integrates the personal and the public to achieve a unique richness; it remains its author's most intensely cathartic novel but also carries perhaps his most compelling social message.
That Slaughterhouse-Five appeared at a time when antiwar feeling over Vietnam was increasing in America no doubt helped its sales. The first printing in March 1969 ran to ten thousand copies, the first Delta printing a year later was twenty-five thousand copies, and the first Dell edition of 1971 was seven hundred thousand copies. The 1972 Universal Pictures film adaptation, directed by George Roy Hill, also contributed to the popularity of both book and author. Rather suddenly, twenty years into his career as a writer, Vonnegut found himself famous, prosperous, and even something of a guru figure to the Woodstock generation. Simultaneously he was at last earning the acclaim of academics, led by Leslie A. Fiedler, Tony Tanner, and Scholes, and of reviewers.
|Links Related Outside the Vonnegut Zone:|
|Literary Analysis:||Vees-Gulani, Susanne. 2003. Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Critique 44 (Winter): 175-184.|