Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse Five

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim is Kurt Vonnegut’s unwitting conspirator in condemning war despite the acknowledged futility of his endeavor. In order to achieve his critique of war and its veneration he sketches the tragic life of an unwitting fool, a savant thrust unarmed and helpless into combat, who is given insight and perspective he can put to no real use.

Billy’s life is cursed. The perspective that he gains from living out of sync with time, unstuck in its flow, does not change the events he must revisit or the conclusion that the novel reaches the senselessness of war.  The insights he is given by the Trafalmadorians lend him no agency to transcend time or death but rather affirm that, ironically, he is stuck in a moment, in thousands of them, like an insect in amber. Billy’s lot is a cursed one because he must relive tragic and revolting moments alike, time and again, with foreknowledge of what is to come and the inability to change them. He must relive the War, his imprisonment, and his reintegration to society as not only a disgraced veteran but the survivor of a tragic plane crash and brain damage. He is not blessed with precognition. He is not free to change his lot or better understand it, bereft of free will; he copes as best as he can and takes shelter in the revelations of a Trafalmadorian delusion. The possibility that these beings might be real or that Billy might be truly unstuck in time are both moot: his curse is to relive his life without the ability to intervene or remain still in time.  In this curse there is, however, the small blessing – more to the benefit of the reader than for Billy- of a unique exploration of the human condition, morality, and time.

This exploration suggests that in war all participants shed their humanity, its inherent compassion and morality, in favor of cruelty and depravity, regardless of how society may portray them in the aftermath of conflict or the safety of distance. Billy’s curse provides the reader with a fertile intellectual ground for questioning zealous patriotism, war enthusiasm and the veneration of its participants. Billy’s disjunction with time affords the reader a view of men like Roland Weary, abused by life and in turn made abuser, devoted to violence and obsessed with its implements. It provides us with a glimpse, an artistic rendering, into the stark cruelty of the German soldiers with their captives in internment, and the needless slaughter by fire that the Allies rained on Dresden…

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