A critical approach

Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indiana in the United States.  He secured for himself a strong place in the literature world. His novels often emphasized the comic absurdity of people.  ‘The Slaughterhouse-Five; or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death’ is a typical Vonnegut novel in the sense it has all the elements of black humor, science fiction and satire that the author is so famous for. The novel focuses on the bombing of Dresden in World War II and dwells on the impact it had on the people, especially those who witnessed it.  Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war captured by the Germans and forced to live in the Slaughterhouse. Through the novel’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim, the author narrates his own experiences after seeing the after effects of the bombing. A city of beauty was transformed into a city of chaos and destruction. Only with a deep insight into the life of the author can this work be appreciated.

The novel is about Billy Pilgrim, who is taken as a prisoner of war and housed in an old slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden  and is exposed to all sorts of violence and atrocities. These incidents leave a permanent scar in his memory and he often travels erratically into the world of fantasy to escape reality. The use of satire is found in abundance in this novel.  The helplessness of human beings is successfully explained when Billy, kidnapped by the aliens from Tralfamadore planet, asks the Tralfamadorians why he of all people was kidnapped.  The reply is, of course, a message for the readers.  The Tralfamadorians remark that that question was a typical Earthling question, and say that there is no question as why.  Another remark in a lighter form talks about the free will of human beings.  The Tralfamadorians at one point tell Billy that they have visited around thirty-one inhabited places and read about a hundred such places but only the inhabitants of Earth, the human beings, talk about free will.

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The author also goes to explain how some may tend to gain from a war like in the case of the Englishmen, who because of a typing error got to have 500 parcels from the Red Cross instead of 50 every month.  He even expresses the German’s liking for the Englishmen because they found the war stylish, realistic and enjoyable. At some places the raw reality of sex is explicit and so is anti-Christianity, this being the reason why the book is banned in some schools although it is found in the school curriculum in many other schools. Vonnegut through the protogonist Billy Pilgrim relays his own war experiences .

Billy’s skips between real life and fantacy life makes the reading qutie confusing at times. Nethertheless, the author’s simple style keeps the readers glued to the book.  Another characteristic feature of the novel is that it is so unpredictable.   The readers are at a loss as to what is to follow.  The bombing of Dresden whch brought about the death of thousands of innocent people was what forced Vonnegut to write this novel.  The frequent use of the phrase “so it goes” to describe the death of a person undermines death.  This shows the effect of war on a person, how the exposure to much violence can bring down the intensity of suffering.  The confusion of the author and the change in his perspective of life cannot be better described. The author’s yearning to escape the realities of life and move into some place for respite is clearly depicted in Billy’s frequent hop into the world of fantasy. This in fact is the author’s desire to escape from the cruel realities of the world, the horrors of the bombing of the Dresden city.

It can even be considered a coincidence that Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist by profession prescribing corrective lens to enable people to see better himself learns to see time in a new dimension.  It is as though his own vision has found a new dimension. He learns to see time the way the Tralfamadorians see it.  There is no death there.  They merely continue to live in another realm of time – the past. The novel is more about the psychological impact of time.

Though the author speaks of the evils of war, the novel cannot, in any way, be termed as an anti-war novel.  When the Tralfamadorians say they just ignore wars, the author’s views are quite different on this.  He takes a fatalistic stance and says all these things are predestined and that they are unavoidable.  His strong view is that war is unexplainable. This expression of fatalism is indeed a source of rejuvenation because it enables the novel to move on in spite of the abundance of death. Vonnegut, using complex methods of narration, gives a vivid picture of the horrors of the war thus making the readers live the war. His adeptness in handling and merging themes of history and science fiction is really noteworthy.  The irrationality of the war cannot be portrayed better.  That such a grave subject can be told with some comic elements in between is indeed surprising and dilutes at least at some places, the anguish and agony of war.  The insanity and absurdities of the war are effectively expressed in a satirical manner.  Yet the author does not impose his views blatantly on the readers. He does not impose his decision on the readers. He leaves it to the readers to decide.  The end of the novel is dramatic with the bird singing as Billy and his friends come out of the slaughterhouse. Billy is not able to comprehend the message of the bird; maybe the author wants to say even war is something like the song of the bird, meaningless and unexplainable.  The author’s style is seen in his ability to bring in diversity in the dictions of the characters. This makes the reading more interesting.  The novel is very complex in that it is neither fiction nor non-fiction in total.  The merging of these is done in an effective way which is typical of Vonnegut.