BARRON'S BOOK NOTES
In 1968, the year Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was writing Slaughterhouse-Five, the war in Vietnam was at its height. Each evening it invaded millions of American living rooms on the television news, and what viewers saw of the conflict night after night made them worried and uneasy about what was taking place. Opinion polls showed that most Americans were then in favor of the war, but a wave of antiwar protest had welled up across the country, mainly on college campuses. Peaceful demonstrations gave way to riots as hostility deepened between prowar and antiwar factions.
And there was violence of another kind that year. In the spring, two prominent figures were assassinated: first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspirational leader of the civil rights movement, then Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the leading Democratic candidate for president, who was running on an antiwar platform. Americans were shocked by these brutal killings, and they began to share with the war protesters a general mood of anger and frustration.
For Kurt Vonnegut in 1968, the atrocities of the war in Vietnam had a deeper significance. Twenty-three years earlier, he had been a soldier in the last months of World War II. As a prisoner of war, he was in Dresden, Germany, on the night of February 13, 1945, when Allied bombers attacked so fiercely that they created a great fire-storm that incinerated the entire city. Some 135,000 people died in the raid, perhaps twice the number of people killed in Hiroshima when the first atom bomb was dropped there about six months later.
Vonnegut spent that night with other POWs and their guards in an underground shelter. When it was possible to leave the shelter the next afternoon, he saw the aftermath of the fire-storm. The city looked like a desolate moonscape: nothing moved anywhere.
For years Vonnegut wanted to tell the story of his Dresden experience, and in Chapter I of Slaughterhouse-Five he describes the difficulties he had in trying to write about it. By 1968 America's escalation of the war in Vietnam and the growing protest against the war had added to his sense of urgency about completing the book. Vonnegut's other writings show that he identified strongly with the younger generation's antiwar and antiestablishment attitudes. If ever he was going to write his antiwar book, 1968 was surely the time to do it.
Vonnegut's "modern ideas" go all the way back to his childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was born--appropriately--on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922. His parents came from three generations of prosperous and cultured German-Americans, and they instilled in their youngest child their own values of pacifism and humanistic
atheism. From his mother Kurt learned a love of the arts, but he tried to follow his father's advice that science was the career of the future. His older brother was already a successful physicist when Vonnegut went to Cornell in 1940 and majored in biochemistry. But then America entered World War II, and in 1943 Vonnegut joined the army. After a brief study of engineering at Carnegie Tech, he was sent to Europe. There he served as an infantry scout until he was captured by Germans following the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut's experience as a prisoner of war forms the basis of Billy Pilgrim's Dresden story in Slaughterhouse-Five.
After the war, Vonnegut married a childhood sweetheart and enrolled in the University of Chicago graduate school to study anthropology. Apparently he still believed he wanted to be a scientist. He wrote a master's thesis on the stories of different peoples of the world, showing that many of these stories were similar in structure even though the people who wrote them couldn't possibly have known anything about each other. The thesis was rejected, and Vonnegut quit school to go to work for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. His job in public relations involved explaining and justifying to the public the work of a large scientific corporation. Much of what Vonnegut considers the hypocrisy involved in presenting a good image (the main function of public relations) appears in Slaughterhouse-Five as "official" rationalizations for disasters such as Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden.
While he was at General Electric, Vonnegut began writing fiction, and in 1950 he "dropped out" to become a full-time writer. His first novel, Player Piano (1952), is a futuristic satire of the dog-eat-dog mentality of the corporate world he had tried to fit into for three years.
Thus began what Vonnegut calls his "scrawny years," when he supported his family (and financed his novel-writing) by selling short stories to popular magazines. He admits that many of these stories--most of them are science fiction--are slick, built around a clever gimmick, yet they always uphold such solid American values as the nuclear family and the good guys winning in the end.
His second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959), is also in the science fiction mold, but it is so far-fetched that it is a parody of mainstream science fiction. In it, aliens manipulate all of human history in order to deliver a spare part to one of their stranded astronauts. The home planet of the aliens is Tralfamadore, one of the principal settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut's third novel, Mother Night (1961), hasn't a trace of science fiction in it. It's the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (who also turns up in Slaughterhouse-Five), a brilliant Nazi propagandist who is actually an American spy. While barely mentioning Dresden, Mother Night profiles the "military manner" of thinking that Vonnegut encountered as an American soldier in World War II, and he returns to this subject in Chapter 9 of Slaughterhouse-Five.
None of his early novels brought Vonnegut much attention or helped much to support his family. By now he had moved his family to Cape Cod, where he supplemented his income from writing by selling cars and doing odd jobs. In 1957 his sister Alice died of cancer at the age of forty, just two days after her husband was killed in a train wreck. (The two catastrophes coming so close together perhaps inspired Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, to have the death of Billy Pilgrim's wife occur while he is in the hospital recovering from the plane crash.) The Vonneguts adopted three of Alice's children, adding them to their own family of three children. The increased financial strain, coupled with the lack of recognition as a writer, must have been enormously discouraging.
The next two novels began to change all that. Cat's Cradle (1963), a grim fantasy about the end of the world, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in which the Slaughterhouse characters Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout first appear, at least earned some attention from a handful of critics. And enough of Vonnegut's fellow writers now admired him that he was invited to lecture at the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. Finally, he won a Guggenheim fellowship, and it enabled him to revisit Dresden in 1967--a trip he describes in the first and last chapters of Slaughterhouse-Five. He finished the book the following year, and it was published early in 1969.
Before Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's books had been popular mainly on college campuses and among the liberal communities of New York and San Francisco. This allowed most "experts" on American fiction to dismiss him as a "cult" author. But the appearance of Slaughterhouse-Five set off a frenzy of critical appraisal that treated Vonnegut as a serious writer for the first time. Long articles appeared in major magazines and newspapers across the country. Book clubs scrambled to get their hands on the novel. Hollywood optioned the film rights. Vonnegut's five earlier novels were reissued, and critics began to chart the development of his artistic vision through his works.
Not all the appraisal was positive. One reviewer dismissed Vonnegut's writing as "a series of narcissistic giggles," while others deplored his pacifism as being adolescent or downright un-American. But the majority of critical opinion was favorable, and it remains so today. Many critics claim that Vonnegut's most lasting contribution to American fiction is his innovative style, the
"telegraphic-schizophrenic manner" of storytelling he developed for
Slaughterhouse-Five. Others believe he is more important as a satirist of American life, and they rank him with Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain. For these reasons, Vonnegut is generally regarded as among the most influential (and popular) American novelists to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s.
^^^^^^^^^^SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: THE PLOT
Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran well--a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in Vietnam--you will almost always find that his war experience was the single most important event in his life. The sights and scars of war remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories of death and killing help to shape whatever future career he may make.
The same is true for Billy Pilgrim. What he saw and did during his six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of his war experiences.
Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He reorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context of his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy's prewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was many years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but the real story of the novel is the story of Billy's wartime days. All the other events in Billy's life are merely incidental to his time as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events that come to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in Europe.
Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of "time-travel." Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn't live his life one day after another. He has become "unstuck in time," and he jumps around among the periods of his life like a flea from dog to dog.
When you meet him in Chapter 2, it is December 1944 and Billy and three other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemy lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in the future: it's 1965 and he is visiting his mother in a nursing home. He blinks, the time changes to 1958, then 1961, and then he finds himself back in the forest in December 1944.
Billy doesn't have much time to wonder about what has just happened. He's captured almost immediately by German soldiers and put onto a train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great adventure in the future: on his daughter's wedding night in 1967, he is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him in a zoo.
Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.
Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in 1948, where he's visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in business as an optometrist by Valencia's father. Billy is introduced to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout's writing is terrible, but Billy comes to admire his ideas.
Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billy because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.
Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy can say much about it, he's back there himself.
The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an "open city" (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, while almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there's nothing worth bombing there--no troops, no weapons factories, nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housed in building number five of the Dresden slaughterhouse.
Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968. A few years before that, he meets Kilgore Trout. And on Tralfamadore he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden.
Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day, Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is moving anywhere.
After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have disappeared. The war is over and they are free.
One way to keep straight the many characters in Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appear in Billy Pilgrim's life.
There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and
Professor Rumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (the Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).
A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and actual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O'Hare. Some of the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night, and the Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O'Hares, you meet all of these characters only when they interact with Billy Pilgrim.
^^^^^^^^^^SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: BILLY PILGRIM
Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When you first see a character's name, you usually know something about that character even before you read about what he or she has done. Billy Pilgrim's last name tells you that he is someone who travels in foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious or spiritual aspect.
Otherwise Billy doesn't appear very promising as the hero of a novel. Physically, he's a classic wimp. He's tall, weak, and clumsy, with "a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches" and the overall appearance of "a filthy flamingo."
He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child and his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to the bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by the Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and companionship, yet he keeps saying, "You guys go on without me." After the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupid and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his daughter bully him constantly.
In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five Billy is a sheep among wolves. Some readers regard him as a kind of Christ figure who sojourns in the wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peace for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy's assassination by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus' martyrdom on the cross.
But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his "meek faith in a loving Jesus" makes everybody else sick. His pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billy look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.
Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to him, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragile personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is such a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he has no answer.
Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to turn the other cheek
rather than put up a fight. This may be his weakling attempt at "the imitation of Christ," but to many readers it looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable him to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heart people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness never lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it's his imagination that saves him.
Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to science fiction, Billy's fantasies are aimless and childish. Then, in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who not only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions of reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasy world.
In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana Wildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy must become "innocent" again,