Slaughterhouse Five is one of those books that encourages thought long after you finish reading it. This book has been banned from public schools in the past for its controversial themes. It is a notorious anti-war book. How can a person learn of the horrible destruction of innocent life in Dresden, Germany and not see how devastating and ugly war can really be. Some people think war is glorious. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the veterans who “hated the war the most, were the ones who’d really fought” (Slaughterhouse Five, 11).Those who have truly lived through war do not find glory in it.
The story line is all over the place: World War II Dresden, present day (1960’s when written), and on the extraterrestrial planet, Tralfamadore. Here is the book’s description from Wikipedia because I wouldn’t be able to explain it better.
Chaplain’s Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier. He does not like wars and he is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse (although there are animal carcasses hanging in the underground shelter) in Dresden. Their building is known as “Slaughterhouse number 5”. The POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.
Billy has come “unstuck in time” and experiences past and future events out of sequence and repetitively, following a nonlinear narrative. He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories.
As Billy travels—or believes he travels—forward and backward in time, he relives occasions of his life, real and fantasy. He spends time on Tralfamadore, in Dresden, in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his mundane post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the moment of his murder by a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro.
Billy Pilgrim asks ‘why?’ Why does war occur? Why does anything happen? Kurt Vonnegut uses Billy’s trip to outer space to discuss this matter. The aliens insist that the idea of free will is unique to earth and that all other planets accept destiny as unquestionable truth. Billy questions why war must exist. This question is never really answered, but the conclusion discovered is that even without war death still comes for all making it an event in one’s life not so dissimilar to any other event in anyone’s life.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five 26-27).
This concept cannot be discussed lightly. Although the science fiction aspect makes the book somewhat hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read it, I thought taking this approach makes the reader have to expand their imagination enough that just maybe they will also be more conducive to contemplating their own purpose and death. To get the average person reading a fiction novel to think about these things is ingenious. Vonnegut was obviously successful; this book was banned for quite a while to protect impressionable school children from the evils of anti-war philosophy. Rated 4/5 stars.