by Alexander Clark
American author Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark novel Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, is currently part of our IB SL English One curriculum here at Stuart; sophomores and seniors alike, many of our students recall reading, annotating, and analyzing this novel. “It was unusual,” said senior Zayd Fazelyar, who passed IB SL One last year, “but that’s part of what made it so interesting. Definitely my favorite book from that class.”
As this is a review, I’ll cut to the chase; the novel’s good. I read it, I liked it, and I didn’t have any serious complaints. As far as coursework reading is concerned, Slaughterhouse Five is one of about three things I’ve ever actually appreciated being introduced to.
It’s got an interesting premise, an interesting structure, and interesting characters. If you’re up for a read, and appreciate semi-abstract narratives full of thinly veiled social commentary, go for it. The book is short, so it really won’t take up much of your time.
Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, in part, to give commentary on the bombing of Dresden, a populous German city of little strategic importance, during World War II. This bombing took place in 1945, and made use of incendiary devices; the resulting firestorm destroyed much of Dresden’s infrastructure and caused civilian casualties in the tens of thousands. At the time of the bombing, Vonnegut was a prisoner of war, held captive in a defunct slaughterhouse with other such prisoners, by the Nazis.
The narrative of Slaughterhouse Five blends fact with fiction as its complex and disjointed narrative follows the fictionalized character Billy Pilgrim, whom Vonnegut based loosely upon one of his compatriot prisoners of war. While Vonnegut and Pilgrim share many experiences, the characters are distinct; Vonnegut himself appears in the novel only sparingly, instead taking the role of a narrator, providing commentary on Pilgrim’s experiences.
Pilgrim is described as being “unstuck in time,” and his consciousness travels through time at intervals throughout the novel; Pilgrim has no control over this, and never knows which part of his life he’ll see next. Vonnegut’s commentary follows the time jumps with fluidity, never skipping a beat; it is this approach to a nonlinear chronology which gives the narrative of Slaughterhouse Five its unique structure. Pilgrim takes the jumps in stride, as well, the character having come to simply accept that he has no way of controlling his life, resolving to go with the flow, as it were.
“The chaotic nature of the narrative often obfuscates Vonnegut’s intended message,” said IB English student Marta Cabellos, “but, if anything, this simply enhances the artistic integrity of the novel.”
Pilgrim is faced with death and hostility in extreme measure. During the war, Pilgrim sees the very worst of humanity; men butchered in the streets, packed together on trams, or forced to survive the conditions of Nazi prison camps. Pilgrim shrugs this off, more or less. Death means little and less to Pilgrim, whose outlook is parodied by the narrator’s repetitious and sardonic comment “So it goes,” written after each instance of death or tragedy throughout the novel.
Pilgrim’s friends and family are taken from him constantly, each connection severed shortly after its conception. Pilgrim himself, even, is murdered by a hired assassin, just after he finishes a well-received public speech about how death really isn’t such a big deal.
Pilgrim’s death occurs about half-way through the novel, he is alive again some eight words later, and, in fact, he knew quite well that he was about to die. In his travels through time, he’d been there before, made the speech before, and thus, died before. In Dresden, before the attack, characters around Pilgrim commented on how safe the city was, how unlikely of a target Dresden was, given the city’s strategic insignificance. Even as Pilgrim heard these comments, he already knew that Dresden would burn, half of everyone making these comments would die miserably, and that he himself would survive the massacre, only to die pointlessly at the hands of an assassin many years later. The narrator comments upon all this, flatly. So it goes, eh?
Given the interpretative nature of Slaughterhouse Five, I’ve heard some conflicting reports as to the inherent meaning of the novel, the message Vonnegut meant to send, and so forth. Personally, I’m convinced it’s Vonnegut’s take on a satirically light-hearted social commentary, meant to chastise the way many American and English citizens allowed the attack on Dresden to be swept under the rug and ignored, while similarly rebuking widespread desensitization to such horrific events. I’ve heard others say it’s quite the opposite, that the novel warns against the dangers of focusing on abhorrent occurrences, stating that society should do its best to move on after such things take place, never looking back. I completely disagree with that outlook, but to each their own where literary abstraction is concerned.
When asked for their take on the novel’s meaning, IB English student Avash Bajgain said that “Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five to be an anti-war novel which details the horrors of war, as well as the impact these horrors have upon the human psyche.”
In closing; Book’s good, ‘bit hard to follow at points, but it’s worth checking out if you’ve got the time. Heartily recommend it to any would-be readers.