‘Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death’ is a 1969 satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim.
The work is also known under the lengthy title: ‘Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.’
Chaplain’s Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier. He does not like wars and he is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse (although there are animal carcasses hanging in the underground shelter) in Dresden. Their building is known as ‘Slaughterhouse number 5.’ The POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.
Billy has come ‘unstuck in time’ and experiences past and future events out of sequence and repetitively, following a nonlinear narrative. He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories.
As Billy travels—or believes he travels—forward and backward in time, he relives occasions of his life, real and fantasy. He spends time on Tralfamadore, in Dresden, in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his mundane post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the moment of his murder.
Billy’s death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character and bully, just out of childhood like Billy, who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm toward war. At their capture, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary manages to convince another soldier, petty thief Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge Weary’s death by killing Billy, because revenge is ‘the sweetest thing in life.’ Time-traveler Billy already knows where, when, and how he will be killed: he is shot with a laser gun after his speech on flying saucers and the true nature of time before a large audience in Chicago, in a balkanized 1976 United States (in the future at the time of writing).
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he will next visit (re-live) — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time, an experience often mingled with his other experiences.
Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, ‘I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.’ The story’s central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must.
To the Tralfamadorians, everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think (the subject of ‘Timequake,’ Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical work). Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, ‘that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book,’ both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable. This concept is difficult for Billy to accept, at first.
Like much of Vonnegut’s other work (e.g., ‘The Sirens of Titan’), ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ explores the concept of fatalism. The Tralfamadorians represent the belief in war as inevitable. In their hapless destruction of the universe, Vonnegut’s characters do not sympathize with their philosophy. To human beings, Vonnegut says, ignoring a war is unacceptable when we have free will; however, he does not explicitly state that we actually have free will, leaving open the possibility that he is satirizing the concept of free will as a product of human irrationality.
This human senselessness appears in the climax that occurs, not with the Dresden fire bombing, but with the summary execution of a man who committed a petty theft. Amid all that horror, death, and destruction, time is taken to punish one man. Yet, the time is taken, and Vonnegut takes the outside opinion of the bird asking, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’ The same birdsong ends the novel ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.’
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is framed with chapters in the author’s voice, about his experience of war, indicating the novel is intimately connected with his life and convictions. That established, Vonnegut withdraws from the unfolding of Billy Pilgrim’s story, despite continual appearances as a minor character: in the POW camp latrine, exiting the train at Dresden, the corpse mines of Dresden, when he mistakenly dials Billy’s telephone number. These authorial appearances anchor Billy Pilgrim’s life to reality, highlighting his existential struggle to fit in the human world.
The book continually employs the refrain ‘So it goes.’ when death, dying, and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori (a reminder of human mortality), as comic relief, and to explain the unexplained. It appears 106 times.
The Narrator introduces ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ with the novel’s genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. In the first chapter Vonnegut reports being confronted by his old war buddy’s wife: ’You were just babies then!’ she said. ‘What?’ I said. ‘You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!’ I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. ‘But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.’ This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation. ‘I — I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Well I know,’ she said. ‘You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.’ So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies. So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: ‘Mary,’ I said, ‘I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. ‘I tell you what,’ I said, ‘I’ll call it The Children’s Crusade.’ She was my friend after that.
The story itself begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, from Billy Pilgrim’s point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut’s writing usually contains such disorder.
The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, wherein he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age, and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads: Billy’s experience of War (itself interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life), which is mostly linear; and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy’s existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden’s destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.
The narrator begins the novel telling of his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a self-description (of self and book), and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to the story of Billy Pilgrim: ‘Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,’ thus, the transition from the writer’s perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient Narrator.
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is structured like a Tralfamadorian novel, the literature Billy Pilgrim encounters on Tralfamadore (Tralfamadore being the planet to which Billy is taken when abducted from Earth). The only Earth reading available to Billy is a popular novel, ‘Valley of the Dolls’ (1966); asking his captors what they read, he is handed thin booklets with symbols. The Tralfamadorians tell him the symbols represent pleasing thoughts and events. When they are all simultaneously read, as do the Tralfamadorians, it creates an emotion in the reader’s mind. Billy’s time-tripping juxtaposes his life’s events — war, wedding night, travel to father’s funeral — mixing black humor, tragedy, and happiness in few paragraphs.
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. In the novels, American soldiers use profanity; and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as ‘fairies,’ were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.