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.
The mass destruction of Dresden by Allied forces serves as Vonnegut’s metaphor for the absurdity of life. An underlying theme is the extent to which technology has magnified humankind’s capacity for cruelty; Vonnegut is appalled by the idea that a bombing raid could destroy a civilization hundreds of years old and kill 135,000 people in less than two hours. At a deeper level the novel explores the moral vacuum in which contemporary human life exists. Vonnegut’s outrage is compounded by the lack of public attention given the Dresden bombing. He subtitles his book “The Children’s Crusade,” implicitly comparing Billy and his fellow soldiers to the twenty thousand children who set out from France during the summer of 1212 with the expectation of walking to the Holy Land and peacefully reclaiming it for Christianity. Most of the children died en route or were captured and sold into slavery; none reached their destination.
At the heart of the novel’s theme is the question of free will versus determinism. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy that events, such as death, represent only one moment in time’s continuum, and that to dwell on any particular moment is to miss the point. The novel suggests that moments of serenity exist regardless of an individual’s ability to conjure them up or to direct the flow of time. Life for Billy is not futile-it may be senseless, but it is not without its pleasures. If the novel contains any message other than a condemnation of war, it is that people must come to peace with themselves by knowing how to respond to the moment.
The narrator of the novel, presumably Vonnegut himself, states that there are no characters and no dramatic confrontations because “most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” That is to say that the narrator believes personality is crushed by larger forces, such as war. But the writer-narrator himself develops into a character, with each of the novel’s players representing a fascinating side of his personality; his individualism is not obliterated as long as his imagination remains active.