The life of Kurt Vonnegut was filled with great accomplishments and great tragedies. The biggest tragedy that he faced had to be the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II. This is the topic of his book Slaughterhouse-Five. The book talks about one of Vonnegut’s friends who slips in and out of reality, having flashbacks of the experience at Dresden. Kurt Vonnegut was born in November of 1922 in Indianapolis. This is where he eventually met and married Jane Cox. Vonnegut’s life has been a struggle, starting with his mother’s constant bouts with depression.
In 1943, when Vonnegut enlisted, his other’s depression grew deeper. Because of that Private Vonnegut asked permission to visit home to surprise her on Mother’s Day. She overdosed on sleeping pills the night before he arrived (Walker 206). Surprisingly, this tragedy was overshadowed by another incident in his life that happened just a year and a half after his mother’s death, the fire bombing of Dresden. In late 1944, Vonnegut was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
On the night of February 13, 1945 exactly 100 American P. O. W. s and five German soldiers took shelter in a meat locker while the Royal Air Force joined by U. S bombers attacked and successfully annihilated the city of Dresden in one of the most vicious air raids ever. The firestorm left over 130,000 people dead and many more missing. This event became a major influence in his writing career (“The Biographies of Kurt Vonnegut” 775). Vonnegut started writing novels in 1947, when he went to work for General Electric Research Laboratory. The job gave him the storyline for his first novel Player Piano.
In 1951, he resigned from his job at G. E to pursue a full time writing career. He wrote many short stories, which in 1969 were assembled into a collection called Welcome o the Monkey House. The next novel was Cat’s Cradle in 1963, then The Sirens of the Titans and God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater in 1965 (Litz, 758). 3 In Sluaghterhouse-Five, Vonnegut conveys the message that World War II was fought by children. He makes the vivid image of 17 and 18 year old boys in a far away place fighting for their country. That is the reason for the popular alternative title for the book, The Children’s Crusade.
Vonnegut was one of the oldest men in his unit at 20 years old. He tells how he got captured by three German soldiers, one 25 and the other two 12 and 13 years old. At the end of the book as Vonnegut and the other men walk through what used to be Dresden, he doesn’t know how to feel, having just been bombed by his own country (Litz 768). The book is not just about the war, but mostly about an outcast of society named Billy Pilgrim who travels through time from the present to the past, all in his own head, though it all seems very real to him.
He believes that he has this ability because of his abduction by aliens called Talfamadorian’s. These aliens hold him on their planet and then release him later. The ingenious narration of the book makes us actually believe that we ravel from 1965, back to Dresden in 1944. Billy Pilgrim’s problems in the present obviously stemmed from his horrific experience in Dresden. In the book, he later becomes an optometrist and while flying to a convention with 30 other optometrists, the plane crashes and everyone dies except him.
While he is recuperating in the hospital from a fractured skull, his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Billy Pilgrim is a protagonist who Vonnegut modeled after himself. The name Billy Pilgrim itself implies that he represents an ordinary man in a different sort of pilgrimage,” as you see him at every stage of his life. It is obvious by the second chapter of the book that Billy Pilgrim, is in fact, a type of Pilgrim going into places he has never been before, for a cause he believes in enough to be willing to sacrifice his life.
Just like Vonnegut did in 1943, by dropping out of college to join the military. 3 The innocence, vulnerability, and eagerness, to please is likened to Adam and Eve. Several times Billy’s description appears in terms of allusions to Jesus Christ, particularly as a silently suffering victim. Pilgrim is more autobiographical than any other character Vonnegut has come up with, yet is also profoundly different (Reed 774). One tool that is most fascinating about Vonnegut’s writing is his use of recapitulation, which is an important part of the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut himself best sums up the novel on the title page, as “a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore” (Slaughterhouse- Five). The main idea of the Tralfamadorian is that they see everything at the same time. They can see the past, present, or future. Their form of writing is based on a clump of symbols in a brief, urgent message, describing what is going on. They don’t read one at a time, yet all at once. In this fascinating way, Vonnegut portrayed a life that has no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, and no effects (“The Biography of Kurt Vonnegut” 201).
Vonnegut emphasized that Pilgrim is not simply an established identity who undergoes a series of changes, but all the different things he is at different times. The same principles that govern the person also governs the act as well. Vonnegut states that Dresden is led up to, as it were, by events that precede and follow it. ” It is surrounded by allusions that lead up to other devastating events in history (Reed 205). The historical allusions that Vonnegut uses are very repetitious. War seems to be a type of metaphor for the condition of people in the world and Dresden is the end result.
It is Vonnegut’s basis for what he thinks about society and human behavior. His cynical approach to war makes the book somewhat funny, yet every joke had a profound meaning. The narration doesn’t start until the second chapter, which he starts off by aying “Listen. ” This is a crucial attention getter because Pilgrim and his platoon are soon swept into a raging battle and then captured. 3 When Slaughterhouse-Five first came out in 1969, it became very popular especially among college students. The sales, and the movie based on it, assured Vonnegut’s success.
He started getting invitations to speak at places like Brown University and to the graduating class at Bennington University. He was also invited to teach creative writing at Harvard University. Vonnegut won many awards for Slaughterhouse-Five including an honorary L. H. D degree from Indiana University and the Literature Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (Litz 759). The reason the book was so popular among younger people was because of it’s strong antiwar message at a time when war wasn’t too popular because of Vietnam.
It was mandatory reading in some Universities, yet some schools and libraries banned it from their shelves. He was one of the most popular authors of the late 60’s (Reed 770). The experience in Dresden was the reason that Vonnegut started writing stories. He couldn’t write about it until 1969 partly because he didn’t have a publisher but also ecause it was too terrible to talk about it right after the war. All his books that he wrote before Slaughterhouse-Five had to do with some aspect of war or had a protagonist like Billy Pilgrim in them.
Vonnegut wrote “It seemed categorical imperative that I write about Dresden, the firebombing of Dresden, since it was the largest massacre in the history of Europe and I am a person of European extraction and I, a writer, had been present. I had to say something” (“The Biography of Kurt Vonnegut”). Vonnegut was also quoted as saying “the Dresden book wouldn’t have been as big a deal if it wasn’t so popular. I think that the book wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had come out in the late 40’s up to the late 50’s instead of when it did.
Timing of the book was perfect for this book. Young People wanted a book telling about the devastation of war and Vonnegut provided that. 3 Vonnegut was 46 when Slaughterhouse-Five came out. Most men in their 40’s were strongly for the war, yet Vonnegut took a stand against all wars in this book. What is interesting about this book is that, in it, he never says war is bad or it shouldn’t happen, because by just describing the devastation in Dresden you get a vivid picture of what he is rying to get across, and how much suffering goes on.
He wrote the book in such a way that you could actually imagine the anguish that the P. O. W. ‘s were going through at Slaughterhouse-Five. In conclusion, Slaughterhouse-Five is not just an interesting book that is enjoyable to read, but a book that makes a statement. It shows what war is like from a soldiers point of view and how it can affect them for the rest of their lives. That’s what it did for Billy Pilgrim and also for Kurt Vonnegut, who just couldn’t stop thinking about a war that happened 24 years earlier.