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.
Although Slaughterhouse-Five remains an enormously popular novel some two decades after its publication, it has not been without its critics. Some readers are offended by the book’s black humor and irreverent attitude, and charge that Vonnegut’s view of life is so slanted by his personal experiences that he is incapable of serving as a legitimate social critic. Vonnegut uses vulgar slang, but before condemning Vonnegut’s books parents and teachers should note that the vulgarity serves the stylistic purpose of interjecting humor and flippancy into discussions of dark situations.