In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut published his critically acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse Five. The novel follows the life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, as he becomes “unstuck in time,” meaning he is free to travel between moments of his life- though he is unable to change anything He’s become aware of the fourth dimension, where everything from birth to death happens simultaneously.
Slaughterhouse Five is a semi-autobiographical novel about Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War II. The first chapter of the book recounts his efforts to write about Dresden and his struggle in doing so. He explains that the bombing of Dresden was nothing but a massacre; it was a civilian town and the majority of the 25,000 casualties were civilians. Vonnegut says that there is nothing intelligent to say about war, and the format of the novel is a representation of that. Everything is “jumbled and jangled,” it’s chaotic- like a battlefield.
The rest of the book follows Billy Pilgrim and his journey with the Tralfamadorians, an alien species who abduct Billy so they can study the human species, who introduced him to the fourth dimension. Billy claims to have been abducted by the Tralfamadorians on his daughter’s wedding night; they kept him for weeks as an exhibit in a zoo where they watched him mate and they told him about their planet and their cultural customs. He returned to Earth after only having been gone for a microsecond. Billy describes his experience on Tralfamador as overwhelmingly positive, he writes letters to newspapers to try and spread what he learned. The most important thing he learned was that time is not linear. We, as humans, can only move forward in time- however, the Tralfamadorians are able to see everything simultaneously. He gives an example: in Tralfamador, they don’t see corpses, they just see a moment in time where someone isn’t doing well. They are still very much alive in the past. This is where the famous phrase “so it goes” comes from.
Billy’s sporadic travels through time are an allegory to the effects of war on veterans. Billy Pilgrim very clearly suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that term hadn’t been coined when this book was written. It would have been referred to as “shell shock.” Billy would often be taken back to WWII by certain triggers, he’d fall asleep and he’d wake up during the war.
Slaughterhouse Five is as relevant today as it was in 1969 when it was written. The Tralfamadorians make war out to be noxious phenomenon that has always happened, and always will. Even knowing what will transpire at any given moment in time can’t prevent war and destruction from happening- it’s inevitable. We can protest and express our contempt all we want, but as Vonnegut puts it “even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.” This comparison works well because like glaciers, death is something we can’t stop.. War speeds up the process of dying up just like global warming melts the glaciers. It may seem bleak, but, if you look at time the way the Tralfamadorians do, you can look back and see that somewhere there is good. We all carry the past within ourselves, it’s how we avoid making the same mistakes and it’s how we grow. If there is any one thing to take away from Slaughterhouse Five it’s that the past is important and our memories can live on with us forever.
Slaughterhouse Five is an eye opening novel about the impact of war on its survivors. Vonnegut blends his first hand experiences of the war with science fiction , and by doing so he opens the experience up for all of us- not just fellow war veterans. Its full of dark humor and interesting historical anecdotes, both good for young adult and mature readers.
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