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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

afrady781, May 4, 2010

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (the Children’s Crusade), there is a successful balance between hidden symbols, the search for life’s answers, and the destructiveness and the impacts of war. This book is different from anything I have ever read. It is so unusual in its plot and purpose that it’s a step above most things I have read. It starts off introducing the main character Billy Pilgrim and his ability to travel through time. We learn that he has been traveling through time for years upon years, an ability similar to that of the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians are the aliens that will one day abduct Pilgrim to take them to their planet to live in on display inside their zoo. The Tralfamadorians see the world differently than humans, and they are able to teach Pilgrim about their sight of the world. Although the novel is constantly traveling through time, much of it takes place as Pilgrim is a prisoner of war in World War II. One of the main events of Pilgrim’s life being his survival of the bombing of Dresden.
Author Kurt Vonnegut has effectively written an anti-war novel with a fantastic plot. Vonnegut has direct ties to WWII where he was actually a prisoner of war in the bombing of Dresden. He has taken his own personal experience and applied it to Billy Pilgrim’s life. Vonnegut’s literature, Slaughterhouse-Five included, seem to follow the same guidelines. This novel attempts to cope with a world filled with tragic disparities – a part of human life. He gives his own possible answers for the way the world works and why terrible things happen to everyone.
Tralfamadorians see the world in a different way than you and I. They see in four dimensions. It was explained to Pilgrim that, “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance” (26-27).Although this seems like a simple concept, the things the aliens are able to see and experience are hard for humans to wrap their mind around. Another ideal of the Tralfamadorians would be the concept of the phrase, “so it goes”. This is a strong reoccurring motif that will usually be stated after a tragic event, such as death. It is a way to remember that that moment has always happened, and always will happen, because that’s just how it is. It means that this person’s death should not be mourned because they are still very alive in the past.
The destructiveness of war is very present within this anti-war novel. Within the first chapter it is stated about the novel about Dresden that, “you’ll pretend you were mean instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs” (14). This concept that war is fought by babies, that it’s a children’s crusade, is a central theme within the book. Although Pilgrim survived the bombing of Dresden, it has forever been destructive over his life. As if he has never grown out of been a young man in war. For example, continuing to go by Billy rather than William even as an adult. In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut embraces the idea of the physical destructiveness of war, but emphasizes the emotional destructiveness of it.
Vonnegut includes symbolism into this anti-war book about the struggles of humanity. The first being the bird that says “poo-tee-weet”. When first reading this book the bird seems nonsensical, like a random aspect of the book. But it’s not. The bird is a symbol for the absurdity of war, the answer for the unanswerable questions of war. In Pilgrim’s final vision of the city, “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 wagan was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘poo-tee-weet?’” (215). Another important symbol are the colors blue and ivory. Billy’s bare feet are very often described as blue and ivory, which are cool, corpse like hues. This represents the fragility between life and death (or worldly and otherworldly experiences). Before he was abducted, “Billy got out of bed in the moonlight. He felt spooky and luminous, felt as though he were wrapped in cool fur that was full of static electricity. He looked down at his bare feet. They were ivory and blue” (72). This blue image reoccurs with Pilgrim’s wife Valencia’s sudden death emphasizing again the fragility of life and death . “She was a heavenly azure” (183), is how she was described upon her surprising and sudden demise.
Although I have never read another anti-war novel, I have got to image Slaughterhouse-Five is different from any other. It takes such a controversial subject such as war and adds alien abduction and some of life’s greatest questions and stirs them together. This is why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. If one were to read this as a purely plot novel, they would get nothing out of the experience. It is to be viewed as a statement of humanity. I am going to take away a great deal from this novel. Although Tralfamadorian ideas seem to be a little out there, they are quite applicable to human life. Vonnegut affectively demonstrates an attitude for life that involves just taking it as it comes, and not dwelling on the aspects that we can’t change.
In the end, this book will stay with me for many years to come. Of course for Vonnegut’s entertaining plot, but also for his perspective on life.
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