I had never heard about Dresden, I had never heard about Kurt Vonnegut though I think I had heard the book’s name somewhere (I am not so sure) before I watched the Crash Course Literature videos on Slaughterhouse Five. At the end of those two videos, I felt I must read the book.
The first chapter of the book which seems like a preface or the background, is about Vonnegut trying to write a book on Dresden for more than 23 years. He thinks he can do it but cannot pull it up. While still writing the preface, he also adds a case of dialing a wrong number, which we know later on, had been received by Billy Pilgrim–the main character of the novel. After he meets O’Hare’s wife Mary, he promises that he would not glorify war and call it the Children’s Crusade. Therefore, the Slaughterhouse Five is also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
Billy Pilgrim’s Plot (Summary and Analysis)
Billy Prilgrim is a prisoner of war (POW) in Germany but he can time-travel. He can be in the moments of past, present and the future. Vonnegut says, “Billy has come unstuck in time.” The life of Billy Pilgrim is not shown in chronological order. In one moment he is a soldier, in another he is a twelve-year-old boy and quickly, he becomes an old optometrist who lives with his daughter in Ilium. He sees his infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age and even death.
On the day of his daughter’s wedding, he says he had been abducted by the toilet plunger-like aliens known as the Tralfamadorians. Billy says that he had been to the alien planet for years but nobody missed him because the aliens had warped the time in such a way that years would become less than seconds on the earth. The Tralfamadorians are able to see the fourth dimension–time and they can go to the moments again and again. The linear concept of time is absurd to them. On free-will, a Tralfamadorian says:
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
–Chapter 4, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The Tralfamadorians believe that what has to happen will happen. They cannot change the moments that have happened and will happen. They can see every moment that will occur but they can’t change the bad moments. They look for the good moments and find peace in it.
Billy Pilgrim himself has no free will. When he is twelve, he does not want to swim but his father forces him into the swimming pool. He does not want to come out of the water but it pulled out. He did not imagine marrying Valencia, yet he does. He wanted to die in the war but he survives instead of the characters around him who wanted to survive.
Billy Pilgrim also tries to find moment of happiness and solace but he never finds such an instance. In all the above examples, he is unhappy. Even in the moments he tries to be happy, he is reminded of the war and deaths. As the story progresses, we know that Billy cannot speak about the war to anyone and that has resulted in a mental disorder.
Billy’s mental instability is the result of the losses of his mother, his wife, his father-in-law and most of all, his experience during the war in Germany and in addition to that the fictions of Kilgore Trout. Despite his psychological imbalance, he is saner than the people who thought that bombings on Dresden were justified. Dresden was not a strategic point for warfare, there were no industries that produced weapons and hence, there was no logic behind the attack. Thousands of lives were lost for the show of unnecessary pride.
“So it goes”
This is a repetitive phrase throughout the novel. According to Nick Greene (2014), the phrase is repeated 106 times. Whenever death and destruction are mentioned, the phrase comes up. It is in accordance with the Tralfamadorian concept of time, life and death. The death is inevitable but there is nothing to worry about it. In other moments a dead person would always be alive.
I found this “Tralfamadorian” concept similar to the Bhagavad Geeta where Lord Krishna says to Arjun that there is no need to worry for someone’s death. The death is pre-determined. It’s not in the hands of humans to change it. And there is no need for regretting that.
Billy Pilgrim, too tries to take things as his fate and accepts that he had no power to change them. But it’s too difficult to get out of the trauma he feels. “So it goes”, might give him solace for a while but it is not a statement he wants to follow. It’s been dictated upon him by fate.
Some Memorable Quotes:
“Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
–Chapter 3, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
“Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.”
“It was peaceful in the ruins.”
“American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving down there. They saw Billy [who was also an American] and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed.”
“The blind innkeeper said that the Americans could sleep in his stable that night, and he gave them soup and ersatz coffee and a little beer.
“Good night, Americans,” he said in German. “Sleep well.””
[Americans had destroyed Dresden only two days ago. These lines brought tears to my eyes.]
SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Slaughterhouse-Five. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/slaughter/
Greene, N. (2014). 15 Facts About Slaughterhouse-Five. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/58888/15-things-you-may-not-know-about-slaughterhouse-five/