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First edition cover
|ISBN||0-385-31208-3 (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3572.O5 S6 1994|
First edition cover
|ISBN||0-385-31208-3 (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3572.O5 S6 1994|
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. Vonnegut's use of the firebombing of Dresden as a central event makes the novel semi-autobiographical, as he was present during the bombing.
The story is told in a nonlinear order and events become clear through various flashbacks (or time travel experiences) from the unreliable narrator who describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel.
Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight ("Billy wouldn't do anything to save himself"). He does not like war and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Billy's near death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character and bully, just out of childhood like Billy, who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm for war. When captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs in Luxembourg. While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary manages to convince another soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life."
At this moment, Billy becomes "unstuck in time", and he experiences moments from various points in his life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported to Luxembourg. By 1945, the prisoners are transported to Dresden to perform "contract labor". The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the bombing, the prisoners of war and German guards hide in a deep cellar. Because of their hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the firestorm caused by allied bombing between 13 and 15 February 1945. After the war in May 1945 he is transported from Germany to the United States, receiving an honorable discharge from service in July 1945.
A few months after the war ends, Billy is institutionalized with post-traumatic stress disorder and put into psychiatric care to recover. A man named Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Once Billy is released, he marries Valencia Merble. Valencia's father owns the Ilium School of Optometry, which Billy later attends. In 1947, Billy and Valencia's first child Robert is born, and two years later they have a daughter named Barbara. On Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet billions of miles away from Earth called Tralfamadore. On Tralfamadore, Billy meets a porn star, also abducted, named Montana Wildhack, who disappeared and is believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life.
In 1968, Billy and a copilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving to the hospital where Billy is being treated. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard history professor. Billy talks about the bombing of Dresden and the professor claims it was justified.
Billy's daughter takes him home to Ilium. He sneaks out and drives to New York City and checks in to a hotel. That evening he wanders around Times Square and visits a bookstore featuring pornography. Billy sees some Kilgore Trout books and reads them. That night he goes on a radio show where he starts talking about his time-travels to Tralfamadore and is kicked out of the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden where the book ends.
The story continually employs the refrain "So it goes" when death, dying, and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori, as comic relief, and to explain the unexplained. It appears 106 times.
As a postmodern, metafictional novel, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five, apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled," because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." As in Mother Night, but more extensively, Vonnegut manipulates fiction and reality. The first sentence says: "All this happened, more or less." (In 2010, that sentence was ranked No. 38 on the American Book Review's list of "100 best first lines") The author later appears in Billy Pilgrim's World War II as another sick prisoner, which the narrator notes by saying: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book".
The story repeatedly refers to real and fictional novels and fiction; Billy reads The Valley of the Dolls (1966), and skims a Tralfamadorian novel, and participates in a radio talk show, part of a literary-expert panel discussing "The Death of the Novel."
The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. The story itself begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, from Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.
The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, wherein he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age, and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads: Billy's experience of War (itself interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life), which is mostly linear; and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy's existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden's destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.
The narrator begins the novel telling of his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a self-description (of self and book), and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to the story of Billy Pilgrim: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", thus, the transition from the writer's perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient Narrator. The use of "Listen" as an opening interjection mimics the epic poem Beowulf.
Kilgore Trout, whom Billy Pilgrim meets operating a newspaper delivery business, can be seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, though the two differ in some respects. For example, Trout's career as a science-fiction novelist is checkered with thieving publishers, and the fictional author is unaware of his readership.
As in other novels, certain characters cross over from other stories, making cameo appearances, connecting the discrete novels as a greater opus. Fictional novelist Kilgore Trout, often an important character in other Vonnegut novels, in Slaughterhouse-Five is a social commentator and a friend to Billy Pilgrim. In one case, he is the only non-optometrist at a party, therefore, he is the odd-man-out. He ridicules everything the Ideal American Family holds true, such as Heaven, Hell, and Sin. In Trout's opinion, people do not know if the things they do turn out to be good or bad, and if they turn out to be bad, they go to Hell, where "the burning never stops hurting".
Other crossover characters are Eliot Rosewater, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Howard W. Campbell, Jr., from Mother Night; and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, from The Sirens of Titan. Mr Rosewater says that Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, contains "everything there was to know about life". Vonnegut references The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at one point when talking about William Blake, Billy's hospital mate's favourite poet.
It should be noted that while Vonnegut re-uses characters, the characters are frequently rebooted and do not necessarily maintain the same biographical details from appearance to appearance. Kilgore Trout in particular is palpably a different person (although with distinct, consistent character traits) in each of his appearances in Vonnegut's work.
In the Twayne's United States Authors series volume on Kurt Vonnegut, about the protagonist's name, Stanley Schatt says:
By naming the unheroic hero Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut contrasts John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" with Billy's story. As Wilfrid Sheed has pointed out, Billy's solution to the problems of the modern world is to "invent a heaven, out of 20th century materials, where Good Technology triumphs over Bad Technology. His scripture is Science Fiction, Man's last, good fantasy".
Slaughterhouse-Five speaks of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, and refers to the Battle of the Bulge, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights protests in American cities during the 1960s. Billy's wife, Valencia, wears a Reagan for President! bumper sticker on her car, referring to Reagan's failed 1968 Republican presidential nomination campaign. The bumper sticker was edited out of a broadcast version of the film which aired on at least one cable channel during or after the Reagan administration. Another bumper sticker is mentioned that says "Impeach Earl Warren."
The slaughterhouse in which Billy Pilgrim and the other POWs are kept is also a real building in Dresden. Vonnegut was beaten and imprisoned in this building during World War II, and it is because of the meat locker in the building's basement that he—and Billy—survived the fire-bombing. Today, the site is largely intact and protected. One can visit it and take a two-hour guided tour called "Kurt Vonnegut Tour".
The reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five have been largely positive since the 31 March 1969 review in The New York Times newspaper that glowingly concedes: "you'll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner." In its publication year, Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award and for a best-novel Hugo Award, 1970. It lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Slaughterhouse-Five eighteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It also appeared in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content.
In the novel, American soldiers use profanity; his language is irreverent; and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as "fairies," were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
In 1972 it was banned from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan. The circuit judge described the book as “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.”
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, [457 U.S. 853 (1982)], and concluded that "local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'" Slaughterhouse-Five is the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association's list of the "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999" and number forty-six on the ALA's "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009". Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis.
The bombing of Dresden in World War II is the central event mentally affecting Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist. Within, Vonnegut says the firebombing killed 135,000 German civilians; he cites The Destruction of Dresden, by David Irving. However, later publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000 and question Irving's research.
Critics have accused Slaughterhouse-Five of being a quietist work, because Billy Pilgrim believes that the notion of free will is a quaint Earthling illusion. The problem, according to Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl, is that "Vonnegut's critics seem to think that he is saying the same thing [as the Tralfamadorians]. For Anthony Burgess, “Slaughterhouse is a kind of evasion — in a sense, like J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan — in which we’re being told to carry the horror of the Dresden bombing, and everything it implies, up to a level of fantasy... ” For Charles Harris, “The main idea emerging from Slaughterhouse-Five seems to be that the proper response to life is one of resigned acceptance." For Alfred Kazin, “Vonnegut deprecates any attempt to see tragedy, that day, in Dresden... He likes to say, with arch fatalism, citing one horror after another, ‘So it goes’." For Tanner, “Vonnegut has... total sympathy with such quietistic impulses." And the same notion is found throughout The Vonnegut Statement, a book of original essays written and collected by Vonnegut’s most loyal academic “fans."."
A film adaptation of the book, also called Slaughterhouse-Five, was made in 1972. Although critically praised, the film was a box office flop. It won the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Hugo Award, and Saturn Award. Vonnegut commended the film greatly. Guillermo del Toro has confirmed his intention to remake the 1972 film, originally hoping to release it in early 2011; but due to his previous involvement with The Hobbit, the date of release for a film adaptation was pushed back. Although Guillermo del Toro has since dropped out of involvement with The Hobbit, the possibility of a new adaptation remains in question since it is not among several projects Del Toro is said to be working on as of summer 2013.
In 1989, a theatrical adaption premiered at The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, in the UK. This was the first time the novel had been presented onstage. It was adapted by Vince Foxall, and directed by Paddy Cunneen. In 1996, a theatrical adaptation of the novel was premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, IL. The adaptation was written and directed by Eric Simonson and included actors Rick Snyder, Robert Breuler, and Deanna Dunagan. The play has been performed in several other theaters including a January 2008 New York premiere production at the Godlight Theatre Company. The operatic adaptation by Hans-Jürgen von Bose, premiered in July 1996 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Billy Pilgrim II was sung by Uwe Schonbeck.
In September 2009 BBC Radio 3 broadcast a feature length radio drama based on the book which was dramatised by Dave Sheasby and which starred Andrew Scott as Billy Pilgrim and was scored by the group 65daysofstatic.