Book - Get Lit on Lit: Slaughterhouse-Five

They say you learn something new every day. Thanks to our resident teacher, Mr Ames, you can tick off today's lesson and rediscover a classic book as he encourages us to get lit on Lit. and discusses Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five...

Back again with another edition of Getting Lit on Lit, otherwise known as the Teacher’s Corner. This week, I thought we could dissect parts of an amazing novel, one of my favorites, for all those who may have loved the work but never really understood the end of the novel. This week we look at Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five.

This novel is full of Vonnegut’s trademark wit and contains incredible lines of dialogue. I will share some throughout but what I really want to focus on today is the author’s use of the distorted and disorganized timeline. If you have ever read this novel, you know that events take place completely out of order and we are sort of thrust into each scene never truly knowing where we are at. Luckily Vonnegut does provide us with a topic sentence to explain what year the jump takes us to and what our hero, Billy Pilgrim, is doing at this particular time.

First, let’s start by prefacing this whole article with a giant SPOILER ALERT! I will be talking about different parts of this novel and I don’t want to ruin what is an incredible literary work for someone who wants to engage it at their own pace and on their own terms.

For a little bit of background, Kurt Vonnegut was a soldier in World War II, was captured and became a POW, and was being held prisoner in Dresden, Germany when the entire city was destroyed by Allied Fighters in what many consider to be one of the greatest military atrocities outside of the Atomic Bombs. Dresden was a non-military city full of classic architecture and an almost completely civilian population and between February 13th and 15th of 1945, there were four raids which firebombed and leveled 1600 acres of the city center. There were two more raids on later dates that destroyed what was listed as the strategic target, a major railway station, and in the end casualties have been listed as anywhere from 22,000 to over 100,000. They were not able to extricate many of the bodies from buildings and so those were simply burned to ash. I won’t comment on whether or not the firebombing was justified as this isn’t the appropriate theater for such a conversation but suffice it to say the event shaped Vonnegut as a person and a writer. Slaughterhouse-Five is, at its core, a very anti-war book.

Throughout the novel there are incredible lines that detail Vonnegut’s emotions regarding the war.

“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.”

“The nicest veterans...the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought.”

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living.”

Vonnegut understood that the war, while necessary, was incredibly brutal and destroyed the humanity in people, especially in those young men who were forced to fight while still basically children. This is one reason for the subtitle of the book: Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. In fact, the first chapter of the book is all about Vonnegut struggling to write the novel in question. There is a portion where the wife of an old friend yells at him, telling him not to glorify the war and declaring, “You were just babies.” The book itself doesn’t really begin until Chapter 2.

Over the course of the book, we see different moments in Billy Pilgrim’s life. He is taken prisoner, spurned by everyone who was supposed to be on his side in the war. We are treated to the senseless death of a man who, having survived so many terrible events during the war, was executed for stealing a teapot. We get to see Pilgrim meet and marry his wife, have a child, become obsessed with Aliens who have abducted him, see his wife die while he is in the hospital after surviving a plane crash, and more. His life is full of events which do not seem to phase him.

The Tralfamadorians, the aliens who abduct Billy, teach him that life is not linear. It is a series of moments: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects…All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They help to explain some of the feelings we see and don’t see throughout Billy’s life. In fact, there is an amazing exchange between himself and the aliens which really hits home their view of life and helps us to determine some things about the novel:

-“Why me?”
-“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
-“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

This goes a long way to explaining why, throughout all of these events, Billy stays relatively the same and doesn’t really seem to lose himself to any emotion. That will all come back to play a vital role later on. But, as we jump from place to place in Billy’s timeline, the burning question that remains is why construct a narrative in this fashion. What could possibly be achieved through this?

Well, simply stated, the timeline is there to represent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or at least that is how I have always interpreted this function. People suffering from PTSD will often have flashbacks, lose track of where they are, and then come right back. The use of flashing forward and backward in time is simply a manifestation of where the damaged soldier’s mind is as he attempts to survive in a world that left him behind. Once again, we will deal with this and the overall meaning of the work in just a moment.

We can tell that Vonnegut is not whole anymore after his experiences in the war but that he needs to complete the writing of this book to survive and to finally be okay with himself. He references Lot’s Wife, the biblical character, discussing why she turned and how that caused her to become a pillar of salt. He says he thought her turning was the most human thing of all and then shortly after, he says, in regards to this book, “This one is a failure and had to be because it was written by a pillar of salt.” He understands that the book can’t be a great success because of the tragedy of the event, although a great success is really what it became. There is an amazingly introspective moment in the novel when he writes: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” We can tell that he needs to move on and this book is giving him the power to do so.

Now, for the final scene of the novel. In the beginning of the work, Vonnegut tells us that the book ends with “Poo-tee-weet.” This is true. We flash back to the war, right after the bombing of Dresden, when Billy was free. Below is the text:

There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn't smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.

So it goes.

The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up.

So it goes.

So a new technique was devised. Bodies weren't brought up any more. They were cremated by soldiers with flamethrowers right where they were. The soldiers. stood outside the shelters, simply sent the fire in.

Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.

So it goes.

And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. The Second World War in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, 'Poo-tee-weet?'

Now over the course of the novel, the phrase “So it goes” appears after every single mention of death, showing the almost apathetic feeling that Vonnegut has towards death. That being said, the emotions in the work are anything but apathy. “So it goes” simply shows that so much death has happened and will continue to happen and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The world will go on, even if we feel like we can’t. That raises questions about the bird and its simple question. Vonnegut tells us that there is nothing that can be said about a massacre. It simply is and so asking a nonsensical question like this makes as much sense as the massacre did.

Why does he end the book in this fashion, flashing back to the description of the bodies and the death that was witnessed? Think about what we know of the novel and its timeline. He suffered great emotional distress from is experiences in the war and it unhinged his mind forever. The reason Vonnegut ends the novel in this flashback is because this-this is when Billy truly dies. He may live on but this is the moment that his sanity and his innocence and really all that made him human and alive died. This event destroyed what was left of his humanity and so, after the massacre and the death and the senselessness, the only thing we can end with is the nonsensical utterings of a bird. To Billy, and possibly even to Vonnegut, that was what made him the man he was. That event destroyed his life and so it seems most appropriate to end on—war is hell and it destroys and corrupts and disrupts life. To end this article and really drive home the point of the work, I think we should let Vonnegut shine some light:

Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, 'Is it an anti-war book?'

'Yes,' I said. 'I guess.'

'You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?'

'No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?'

'I say, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?"'

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

If you haven’t ever read this before, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It is incredible in its scope and power. 

Follow David Ames on Twitter @TheDavidMAmes

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