From Ancient Greek playwright, Euripides, (“To die is a debt we must all of us discharge” (Fitzhenry 122)) to renowned Nineteenth Century poet, Emily Dickinson, (“Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me -/ The carriage held but just ourselves/ And Immortality” (Fitzhenry 126)) the concept of death, reincarnation, rebirth, and mourning have been brooded over time and time again. And with no definite answers to life’s most puzzling question of death being given, it only seems natural that this subject is further explored.
Kurt Vonnegut is one of many modern writers obsessed with this idea and spends many of his novels thematically infatuated with death. His semi- autobiographical novel, dealing with his experiences in Dresden during WWII, named Slaughterhouse Five, The Children’s Crusade or A Duty Dance With Death, is no exception to his fixation. “A work of transparent simplicity [and] a modern allegory, whose hero, Billy Pilgrim, shuffles between Earth and its timeless surrogate, Tralfamadore” (Riley and Harte 452), Slaughterhouse Five shows a “sympathetic and compassionate evaluation of Billy’s response to the cruelty of life” (Bryfonski and Senick 614).
This cruelty stems from death, time, renewal, war, and the lack of compassion for human life; all large themes “inextricably bound up” (Bryfonski and Mendelson 529) in this cyclically natured novel that tries to solve the great mystery of death for us, once and for all. Billy’s life had revolved around these ideas from the time he was a child. At the age of twelve Billy “had undergone the real crises of his life, had found life meaningless even if he could not then articulate that concept, and was in desperate need for reinventing himself and his universe” (Bryfonski and Senick 615).
These feelings stayed with Billy throughout the strange occurrences of his life. When still a baby in the eyes of many people, Billy was sent off to death’s symbiotic partner war, fighting World War II in Europe. Here he is a depressed soldier who has seen too much death and destruction in order to function like a human being and wants to die, but like many other incidents in his life, he ironically manages to maintain his life while those around him, who want to live, die.
It is perhaps during this time that Billy first visits Tralfamadore, a neighboring planet with a time warp “so that he could be on Tralfamadore for years, and still be away from Earth for only a microsecond” (Vonnegut 26). From them Billy learns: 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, future, always have existed, always will exist It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when [Billy himself] hear[s] that somebody is dead, [he] simply shrug[s] and say[s] what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes. ” (Vonnegut 26-27) “Death [becomes] an occurrence [that] is neither good nor bad, it just happens” (Butt 2). Learning this, Billy becomes unstuck in time, no longer living life in consecutive order, and time travels back to the war where he witnesses all sorts of deaths.
Deaths of friends, deaths of people he has known for years. Dresden is fire-bombed causing a 135,000 person massacre. And how does he react? “So it goes” (Vonnegut 188), Billy says as he goes on with his daily affairs. He spends much of the rest of his life “actively disseminating that philosophy, first preaching it orally on the all-night radio program and then writing letters to the Ilium New Leader” (Bryfonski and Senick 615). But Vonnegut disagrees and “rejects the Tralfamadorian philosophy [and] Billy’s total “incapacity to understand the significance of the death of human beings” (Bryfonski and Senick 615).
In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut has 103 people die all of whose deaths are followed incompassionately by the Tralfamadorian phrase “so it goes”. Vonnegut has a problem with those who are not concerned with individual death and has to use this phrase repeatedly to get his point for compassion across. To add to this Vonnegut tells a quick tale of working in a newspaper where he is forced to call a woman and tell her of her husband’s death and to get her reaction because the newspaper unemotionally wants a good article.
Even when Billy traveled back in time to Jesus’ death he simply says: “The Son of God was dead as a doornail. So it goes” (Vonnegut 203). With his “wild black humor mixed with his innate pessimism and particular brand of compassion [in his writing], Vonnegut [goes on to] ask his readers not to give up on their humanity” (Shepard 5) either. When this is given up, the pain always stays, and “the condition it exemplifies leads men to take myths that declare meaning and purpose” (Riley and Harte 453) which lead to the human stupidity Vonnegut is trying to wage battle against.
This happens to Billy when he starts following all of the Tralfamadorians beliefs. He “becomes completely quiescent, calmly accepting everything that happens as happenings exactly as it ought to (including his own death)” (Bryfonski and Senick 607). Vonnegut rejects this. He wants people to think on their own and not fall into a pattern of going along with others because that leads to only seeing things in black and white like a “conflict between good and evil [It] keeps people busy, takes their minds off their moral and economic misery” (Riley 503) but makes them terrible, incompassionate human beings.
During his time back as a prisoner of war Billy finds himself caged up with many men like himself on grueling train rides. So many men that they cannot move and when someone dies, which happens frequently, it takes days before he is located and even longer before the corpse is taken out of the train. He and the other stoic soldiers are viewed as “ridiculous [American] creatures” (Vonnegut 150), “incapable of concerted action on their own behalf” (Vonnegut 131).
The Germans are “filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another [person] so far from home, and why the victim should laugh” (Vonnegut 51). The lack of compassion or care for death continues after Dresden is destroyed, when “absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody moved in it represented a flaw in the design” (Vonnegut 180). This incident in Dresden “becomes to Vonnegut, the example of the horror of the war, the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man, and the terrible pain with which life confronts the human being” (Riley and Harte 453).
Now Billy is left shameless to clean up the corpses who can “never say anything or want anything ever again” (qtd. in Shepard 5) in “a terribly elaborate [and sanguinary] Easter egg hunt” (qtd. in Shepard 4). Vonnegut laconically describes all of this in a dry but brutal way which emphasizes his disagreement with war. But even though he feels this way he still understands that “there [will] always be wars [and] they [are] as easy to stop as glaciers [And] Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death” (Vonnegut 3).
The Tralfamadorians agree. They know that there isn’t anything that they can do about war so they “simply don’t look at them. [They] ignore them. [They] spend eternity looking at pleasant moments [They say to] Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones” (Vonnegut 117). Aside for wars death tends to occur in the most ironic and often unfair ways which leaves the reader questioning what the significance of human suffering is and “whether life has any intrinsic meaning or [if it] is simply haphazard” (Bryfonski and Senick 614).
Edgar Derby, for example, is killed for stealing a teapot: “The irony of it is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then an American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad. (Vonnegut 5) Another soldier is depicted as being “shot for cowardice” (Vonnegut 45), shot for not killing enough people while fighting in a war.
Later, when Billy is in the hospital, after again being the sole survivor (his wife even died in a car accident on her way to visit him), this time of a terrible plane crash, he witnesses a man die who had ironically been a marathon runner. All of these unfair deaths juxtapositioned with Billy’s survival makes one wonder what decides who will die when. “The ability to go on, to escape fixity by motion in time” (Bryfonski and Mendelson 529) plus “fate, and a feeble will to survive,” (Vonnegut 151) responds Vonnegut through Slaughterhouse Five.
Billy is “bleakly ready for death” (Vonnegut 32), for a long time and even resents a man who saves his life during World War II. When death finally happens to him, he is stupidly killed by someone seeking revenge on him for making his friend mad during the war. To Billy “it was all right somehow, his being dead” (Vonnegut 148), and he tells everyone, “it is time for me to be dead for a while- and then live again” (Vonnegut 143) as he has learned from the Tralfamadorians. During his life there already were a few times when he didn’t know whether he “was still alive or not” (Vonnegut 90).
How nice- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive” (Vonnegut 105), Billy would be told by people who metaphorically described how someone missing so many key human emotions could still live and be called a human. His final death he described as a “violet light. There wasn’t anybody else there, or anything. There was just a violet light- and a hum” (Vonnegut 43). Death was a good thing, ending the suffering and cruelty of life, and one could still live on enjoying the good moments over and over again just as one had before.
Even scholar “Charles Darwin [had] taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements” (Vonnegut 27). “Truth is death” (Vonnegut 21) says Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five and no one will know the truth behind death until one dies, he realizes throughout the novel, and the book shifts from a search of the meaning of death to a “statement of hope” (Riley and Hart 452). But Vonnegut does offer some suggestions. Perhaps no one ever dies and instead lives on repeating his life forever like the Tralfamadorians think.
Perhaps death is an improvement like Darwin thought. Perhaps it does all boil down to fate and a strong will to survive. Anything is possible. Maybe even one day glaciers and wars will end altogether even though right now they cannot be stopped. But this is not the point of the novel. All Vonnegut is saying and knows for sure is to be compassionate and kind. He wants people to stop looking for meaning and to not fall into the Tralfamadorian trap of viewing individual death as unimportant and meaningless.
“Poison their minds with humanity” (qtd. Gurton and Stine 445), says Vonnegut and hopefully he will be able to convince everyone to be kind and caring and treat life and death with concern. “He started his account of the adventures of [Billy] Pilgrim with the single word- ‘Listen’. This is to alert us. We are being messaged” ( Bryfonski and Senick 607). “This is what his book keeps whispering in its quietest voice: Be kind. Don’t hurt. Death is coming to all of us anyway” (Riley and Harte 451). So perhaps Vonnegut couldn’t find out any more about death than the others who have tried, but does he really care? The quest will probably go on. So it goes.