Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, the son of accomplished German immigrants. His grandfather held the distinction of being the first licensed architect in Indiana; his father was also an architect, while his mother’s side of the family owned prosperous breweries. Prohibition’s outlawing of alcoholic beverages, which went into effect in 1919, had already curtailed the brewery business at the time of Vonnegut’s birth, but he enjoyed an affluent, privileged childhood nonetheless. Family finances suffered, however, during the Great Depression, as the demand for new building construction tapered off.
Vonnegut’s dramatic, tragic younger life greatly influences his fiction and establishes a framework for most of his themes. His immigrant family achieved the grandest of American dreams, only to have its success shattered by economic and political change. Traditional American values such as common sense, self-reliance, and practicality are juxtaposed in his fiction with the absurdity of fate and the folly of humankind. Such folly is epitomized by the bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, only a few months before the end of World War II. Dresden was an unarmed, historic city of no military importance, and the motive for the Allied decision to bomb it into oblivion is still a mystery. The two-hour bombing killed 135,000 people.
For many years categorized strictly as a writer of science fiction, Vonnegut has a propensity for mixing the ordinary and the otherworldly in his fiction. Structured in “the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,” Slaughterhouse-Five jumps backward and forward in time, and back and forth across the universe in setting. Snippets of events, seemingly unconnected either chronologically or geographically, follow one another; Vonnegut suggests that the cataclysmic devastation of modern warfare has deadened human sensitivity and that modern technology has outstripped the reach of human comprehension. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, who “has come unstuck in time,” to the battlefields of World War II, the slaughterhouses of Dresden, the suburban comforts of Ilium (modeled after Schenectady), and the zoos of distant Tralfamadore. In an age when progress frequently means destruction, the Tralfamadorian concept of time-which, essentially, states that all moments exist and always have existed, all at once-seems the only antidote to a maddening sense of helplessness.
A novel about man’s folly, Slaughterhouse-Five traces the wanderings through time and space of Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the fire bombing of Dresden. Billy marries an optometrist’s daughter, fathers two children, and finds himself a kidnap victim on the night of his daughter’s wedding. His kidnappers are green creatures from outer space who place him in a zoo and provide him with a mate, a luscious pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack. According to the Tralfamadorians, earthlings are the only creatures in the universe to believe in the concept of free will. Thus, although Billy adopts the Tralfamadorian notions about time and shuttles among past, present, and future events, he must come to terms with the knowledge that he has no control whatsoever over his immediate actions or his ultimate fate. His motto-”God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference”-points up the value of maintaining composure in the face of stark destiny.
Vonnegut’s title page statement that Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a “telegraphic schizophrenic manner” is a fairly accurate description of the novel’s stylistic approach. Drawing on the literary devices of “flashback” and “flash-forward,” Vonnegut ignores the restrictions of linear time and fixed space to fashion a novel that, despite its sometimes extraterrestrial setting, displays less affinity with science fiction than it does with psychological drama. Vonnegut, the writer-narrator, moves freely through narrative time, mixing descriptions of historic Dresden and his personal wartime experiences with Tralfamadorian fantasy and characters from his earlier fiction. Playing Tralfamadorian time against sequential Earth time allows Vonnegut to establish the psychic disorder of both Billy and the society that has produced him.
The 1960s produced a string of novels of the absurd that reflect the bleakness of a time when unabated optimism was checked by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. By the end of the decade, the Vietnam War had reached its height, and the mood of the country had sunk to one of abject pessimism. Many people believed that society had gone berserk and that a few world leaders exercised control over the destiny of millions. Vonnegut’s expressed theme in Slaughterhouse-Five is the madness of war. In his novel he uses the senseless bombing of Dresden as the symbol of such madness, but he has stated that his purpose in writing the novel was to make Americans more aware of the absurdity of the Vietnam War. Vonnegut consciously wanted to avoid writing a novel that glamorized the brutality of war and thus, as the subtitle suggests, portrays war as fought by young and uncomprehending innocents.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Describe the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life. How do the Tralfamadorians describe the fate of the universe? How do they react to this vision of the future?
Just as Vonnegut mixes history and fantasy in Slaughterhouse-Five, he also combines new material with characters and references to his earlier fiction in the book. The fictional city of Ilium is the setting for Player Piano; the Tralfamadorians are the central focus of The Sirens of Titan; Howard Campbell is the protagonist of Mother Night; and Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout return from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.