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Vonnegut's method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to follow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelated anecdotes. To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in this section begins with a brief overview of the chapter's structure.
Let's look at some of those problems the author complains about.
These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until he visited the O'Hares. You should look at this anecdote in some detail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen through the eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend. To them the world is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls to stop and wonder at. The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with the purpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if that time of destruction and death were "the good old days."
O'Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seems intent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, moves furniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut off he too is embarrassed because he realizes he's been thinking and acting like a fool about his "famous book on Dresden."
Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting the O'Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book "The Children's Crusade." Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallize his thinking on a subject or get him going in the right direction. This seems to happen to Vonnegut.
NOTE: THE CRUSADES
Note how Vonnegut puts together two ideas that ought to be totally contradictory: holy and war. The book is full of such ironic juxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them.
The senselessness of the historical Children's Crusade provides Vonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And he learns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. The quote from the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) conveys Vonnegut's view. The caretaker of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is showing the undamaged dome to his young visitor. This is what our great architect did, he tells Goethe. Then he gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, that is what the enemy did!
Vonnegut's visit to the O'Hares has been fruitful, and on the way home he finds additional material. At the New York World's Fair he and the girls see "official versions" of the past and future that make him wonder about the present: "how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep." This suggests one of the major subjects of the book, the nature of time and how it works.
Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country. And he gets a three-book contract. Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. He finishes the book.
NOTE: VONNEGUT'S SELF-DEPRECATION
Before concluding his account of the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut takes us back to Dresden in 1967. (You remember he mentioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter.) Underneath the rebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O'Hare are having so much fun, "there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground." Bone meal is a fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouse animals. The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from the sterile ground of "the moon" (what Dresden looked like after it was bombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones.
The final anecdote in Chapter 1, Vonnegut's "non-night" in Boston, shows him "locking in" on the main ideas that Slaughterhouse-Five will embody. The first idea he presents has to do with the difference between time as we think of it and time as we experience it. Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking at the Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at a steady rate in one direction, from the past through the present toward the future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to the future (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the "time" in between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time. And not only can it feel as though it takes a year for a second to pass, but a lifetime can seem as though it's over in a second. Vonnegut may be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us than the external time of clocks and calendars.
Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leads inevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die. We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internal time is a different matter. Don't we do exactly what Celine wants to do- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn't that what Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?
NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had a reputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America. But in the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and a Nazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as a war criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine had a great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explains what Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much. He is willing to forgive what he calls Celine's "racism and cracked politics" because he was a great and inspiring writer: "...in my opinion, Celine gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously vulnerable common women and men."
Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the American poet Theodore Roethke's poem, which implies that we are not masters of our destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of life by doing what circumstances force us to do.
NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT
Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of "good story" Vonnegut doesn't want his Dresden book to be. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared because they are good. But there's a wrinkle in this otherwise typical "tale of great destruction": Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she might never have thought of looking back until she was told not to. (You know the feeling of wanting something only after you've been told you can't have it.) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she might have had: "Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because she was so human."
Does this remind you of Mary O'Hare? Vonnegut often gives the values he admires most to the women characters in his books, implying that women are more humane than men. Some see Vonnegut's preference for women's values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According to this interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity by taking a man's job, while Mary O'Hare retained hers by staying home with the babies. Vonnegut seems to support this argument when he says, "The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who'd gone to war." On the other hand, the war made it necessary for women to leave home and go to work- and men started the war.
Even if you think that Vonnegut is a "closet male chauvinist," others say that his main point is not that a woman's place is in the home but that a human being's place is not in a war.
Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time," that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits to all the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often more than once. But notice the two words "he says." Vonnegut uses them three times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy says may not always be fact.
Billy's "official biography" condenses Billy's life into the space of a couple of pages. It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for his Dresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on the back of a length of wallpaper. And the biography serves the same purpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at a glance.
The thumbnail sketch of Billy's life provides a framework into which you can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel. Clearly Slaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another "good story." For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there is the event itself, how it is experienced, how it is remembered afterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told.
NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE
Billy's biography ends in 1968, the "present," and Billy is writing to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped him the year before.
Are the Tralfamadorians "real"? Vonnegut speaks of them as though Billy's account is to be taken seriously. But he's already cast doubt on Billy's credibility with those repeated "he says." Notice, too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after the plane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imagined them in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, has released vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could mean that Billy's "coming unstuck in time" didn't happen in 1944, as it seems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked. Certainly this is his daughter's interpretation of her father's stories. And not only has he gone soft in the head, he's determined to disgrace both himself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world!
In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provide exposition- background information to help you understand what's going on- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life. Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegut holds up the development of the story to indicate what he's doing as a writer.
The second plot line opens in the Luxembourg forest, where Billy and his companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner Roland Weary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will first "come unstuck in time."
It's hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim than Roland Weary. In different circumstances these two might remind you of an incongruous comedy team. To the scouts, who are "clever, graceful, quiet" (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren't funny, they're dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise, Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. If this were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expert soldiers- would probably be the main characters, Billy and Weary the comic relief. But Vonnegut is more interested in the clowns than in the good soldiers, perhaps because to him the clowns behave more like real people would. He is also preparing us for the irony in the next chapter, when the good soldiers will be killed and the clowns spared.
NOTE: ALLUSIONS AND PARODIES
The scene in the Luxembourg forest also parodies the conclusion of the medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland. (Vonnegut even tips you off to the allusion in Roland Weary's name.) In that war tale the protagonist and his best friend die heroically defending Western (i.e. Christian) civilization against attack by Muslim Saracens. The parody is quite detailed. The medieval Roland has a horn that he refuses to blow until he's really in trouble, while Weary has a whistle he won't blow until he is promoted to corporal. Roland is a true Christian fighting the infidel (non-believing) Saracen. Weary, a smelly footsoldier who doesn't know what he's fighting for, is up against the Nazis, the modern-day infidels.
Vonnegut makes it clear that Roland Weary can't help being an obnoxious jerk any more than Billy Pilgrim can help looking like a filthy flamingo. Weary's life has been a disaster because people are always "ditching" him, so he compensates by fantasizing an adventure in which he is a hero. Some readers see in this a parallel to Billy's fantasy of the Tralfamadorians, who choose him to represent the human race in their zoo. But it's also just common psychology. How many times have you felt "left out" and dreamed of doing something extraordinary that would "show" the people who snubbed you?
Notice the difference between Weary's "Three Musketeers movie" which is full of violence, triumph, and manly camaraderie, and Billy's gentle, noncompetitive fantasies. Billy wins friends by sock skating and influences people by taking a public-speaking course.
Left to himself, Billy would have frozen to death days ago. So it may be stress that brings on his first slip in time. Many people who have come back from the brink of death have described the experience of having their whole life flash before their eyes. This comes pretty close to Vonnegut's description of Billy's "coming unstuck." Billy passes into death, moves backward to pre-birth, reverses direction again, and stops at the memory of a traumatic experience in his childhood. Then too he almost died because he wouldn't do anything to save himself.
Billy's next three stops in time are definitely in the future- Vonnegut even gives the dates. You're now inside Billy's experience of time, and it's perfectly real to him. You'll need to treat it as real from now on, or you'll miss a lot.
Billy is snapped back to the "present" by Roland Weary, for whom the dreaded moment has come. The scouts have abandoned him. Billy Pilgrim must now fulfill the destiny Weary has been keeping him alive for, that of sacrificial victim to Weary's "tragic wrath." The speech Weary makes while he's beating Billy up echoes speeches in The Song of Roland and other heroic epics. (Notice also the machine imagery Vonnegut uses to describe Billy's body: his spine is a tube containing all of Billy's important wires.)
Before Weary can kill Billy for ruining his "movie," the Germans appear.
NOTE: To keep track of Billy's travels, you may want to do what Vonnegut did with his crayons and wallpaper: draw a diagram. To do this for each chapter, just skim through it to find out where Billy goes, then plot his time jumps on a graph. (See illustration.)
At each location, put in a key word or two to remind you of what happens in that scene. This will not only give you the big picture of each chapter, it may help you to find connections between images or events you hadn't seen before.
You may have noticed in Chapter 2 that each scene Billy visits is related in some way to the one he has just left. He's near death in the forest, then he jumps to another scene in which he nearly dies. His father is in one scene, his mother is in the following one. This process resembles stream-of-consciousness thinking: one idea somehow leads to another. Everyone has experienced this process, if only while daydreaming.
When you're worried or upset, certain images or scenes keep returning to your mind, either to replay themselves over and over or to pick up where you left off. When you're only daydreaming, two thoughts or scenes may be related by analogy (something in one scene is the same as or like something in the next) or by contradiction (something in one scene is the opposite of something in the next).
In the worried variety of stream-of-consciousness thinking, some images exert more pressure than others. They keep recurring even when you've drifted far away. Some of Billy's time jumps have a whimsical quality that indicates that they are of the carefree variety. But many times Billy returns to a moment in his life as if to finish out the scene. In such cases you can be pretty sure that it's psychological pressure that sends Billy there.
The Germans who capture Billy and Roland Weary in the creek bed aren't at all what you'd expect. They're a ragtag handful of ill-clad teenagers and old men with no teeth. Even their dog seems incompetent. But they have the guns, and they strip Weary down until he looks as embarrassing as they do. In the distance other German soldiers take care of the American scouts with "three inoffensive bangs."
Billy seems to find the whole scene comforting, even beautiful, but then he's almost freezing to death and hallucinating wildly. After being marched to a stone cottage where he immediately falls asleep, Billy pays a brief call on the future. It's almost as though he's on reconnaissance, looking for a nice time in his life to visit. The year 1967 is peaceful enough in Ilium: it's business as usual in his office in the shopping center. The only excitement comes when the siren goes off. Billy thinks it's World War III, but it's only noon.
NOTE: The imagery in almost every scene in this chapter is ironic. Every time he wakes up in peaceful Ilium in 1967, he's reminded of war (the siren, the devastated ghetto, the speech about Vietnam by the Marine major, the crippled veterans), yet each time he returns to World War II in 1944, everything looks beautiful, and the togetherness of the POWs is genuinely comforting to him. Vonnegut may be hinting that war has its good aspects, just as peace has its disadvantages.
He returns to 1944 and lets some German soldiers take pictures of him. This is kind of fun, but something about 1967 has snagged him, and he drifts back. Perhaps it's a premonition of the destruction he's about to see in the war, for Billy wakes up in his car in the middle of the Ilium ghetto, surrounded by burned-out buildings and crushed sidewalks. The area looks "like Dresden after it was firebombed- like the surface of the moon."
Billy is on his way to a luncheon at a popular American men's club that has for its symbol the most ferocious beast of the jungle, the lion. There he hears a Marine major talk of "bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason." Billy isn't bothered because he has a prayer that keeps him from getting too upset about things:
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.
This "Prayer for Discernment" was composed by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), a German-American theologian. It is also the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose members say they find it as comforting and useful as Billy's patients do.
NOTE: Vonnegut may be using the prayer here because it reinforces our impression of Billy Pilgrim as a passive character. He may also be making a veiled reference to his own alcoholism, which he hints at in Chapter 1. (Vonnegut no longer drinks, by the way.) The prayer will turn up again near the end of the book.
We learn now that Billy has a troubling problem that belies his outward serenity: he has fits of weeping that he can't explain. Something is bothering Billy Pilgrim that all the riches and respect in his life cannot cure. If you suspect that it has something to do with his war experience, you're probably right.
As if to confirm this suspicion, Billy returns to the war. And now you understand another aspect of Billy's time-travel: when he can't bear to look at something that is happening at one time in his life, he dodges into another. In 1967 Billy is confronted by the disturbing spectacle of two crippled veterans selling phony magazine subscriptions. But back in 1944 he sees the world in a beautiful new way: everything is haloed by Saint Elmo's fire.
NOTE: Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, who sometimes see a flamelike radiance surrounding the prominent points of a ship in stormy weather. Another name for this phenomenon is corposant, which comes from the Latin corpus sancti, meaning "body of a saint." Billy is having a kind of religious experience in which everything appears to be glowing with holiness.
The sights fill him with joy and excitement even though nobody else seems to be taking it this way- not Roland Weary, whose feet are literally killing him. The Americans' humiliation at being captured is made worse by the discomfort and boredom of being packed into boxcars with nothing to do for days. When you see prisoners in war movies, they are usually either being tortured or planning escape. (That is Roland Weary's kind of thinking.) Yet the reality of being a prisoner of war is far less glamorous, and the details in this scene are as mundane as they can be.
There are, however, the comforts of human contact. The men sleep together "nestled like spoons." They keep their courage up by yelling at the guards (which is perfectly safe because the guards don't understand English) and by telling each other it's not so bad. One former hobo says he's seen lots worse than this.
But it's dehumanizing to be a prisoner, however peaceful and even domestic this scene may seem. Vonnegut emphasizes this by injecting images that depersonalize the prisoners. Trains talk to each other across the rail yard, and "each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators."
After a while Vonnegut doesn't even refer to the characters as prisoners or Americans; he simply calls them human beings. Then he depersonalizes them further: they are no longer individuals but "a warm, squirming, farting, sighing earth" on the floor of the boxcar.
Christmas passes unnoticed as the train moves slowly east across Germany. And Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck again.
NOTE: SCIENCE FICTION
By the end of the nineteenth century, writers had found that other human beings, no matter what country they came from, did not provide enough contrast for the studies of human society they had in mind. So they invented creatures from other worlds, who would see the common, everyday behavior of human beings in an entirely different way. Thus, one purpose of science fiction is to encourage you to examine aspects of human activity that you normally take for granted and rarely think about.
The scene that opens Billy's first Tralfamadore story is littered with images that echo earlier scenes. The orange and black stripes on the wedding tent repeat the markings on the POW train. Billy and Valencia are "nestled like spoons in their big double bed," just as the prisoners were in the boxcar. Billy's blue and ivory feet recall the feet of corpses he saw on his way to the train. And the atmosphere of the sleeping house is reminiscent of Vonnegut's late-night vigil in Chapter 1.
There are more parallels, and all of them enhance the spookiness of the scene. Billy knows that in an hour something incredible is going to happen. To pass the time, and perhaps calm his nerves a little, he drinks flat champagne and watches a movie.
The World War II movie seen backward is one of the most famous passages in Slaughterhouse-Five. The idea is so simple- like a child's asking, "Daddy, why do people hurt each other?"- that it's amazing no one thought of it before. Have you ever done something in anger and later wished you could take it back? If life were a movie, Vonnegut is saying, that would be easy. You'd just run the film backward.
Billy doesn't stop going backward when he reaches the beginning of the movie and the soldiers have become high school kids. He wants to go all the way back to the beginning of human life and start over because he feels that human beings have messed things up the first time around.
Billy continues to be haunted by images from earlier experiences. A dog barks, just as one did in the Luxembourg forest before he was captured by the Germans. The ladder let down from the flying saucer looks like the rim of a Ferris wheel from his childhood. And the purple light he is trapped in is like the violet light of death.
Billy gets his first lesson in Tralfamadorian philosophy. When he asks, "Why me?" they answer:
"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?...
"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why."
The bugs-in-amber comparison reminds us of characters trapped in diagrams in Chapter 1, and we can see that Vonnegut is drawing a parallel between human beings in time and characters in a story. To the Tralfamadorians, all time is fixed like a solid block of amber. Likewise a story is fixed once it is in print.
The saucer's takeoff dislodges Billy in time, and he goes back to the boxcar, which is slowly crossing Germany. As with Vonnegut during the non-night he spent in Boston, time won't pass for Billy Pilgrim. One of the hardest things prisoners have to bear are the long stretches of empty time. Billy can measure time only by the click the wheels make as they go over a seam in the track. And a year passes between clicks, a direct echo of Chapter 1.
NOTE: IMPRISONMENT AND DEPRIVATION
If Billy could sleep, he could do something interesting, like dream or travel in time. No one wants to sleep near him because he kicks and makes noise. Meanwhile, things are getting worse: there's no more food and the temperature is dropping. The optimistic former hobo dies, insisting "this ain't so bad." Roland Weary also dies, still blaming Billy for their capture and now for his death as well.
Vonnegut continues to employ dehumanizing images. The mass of prisoners are a liquid that the guards must coax into flowing out of the boxcars when they reach the prison camp.
Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro now appear, and Vonnegut introduces them impersonally as the best and worst bodies. Yet he gives each one a history so that you'll have to pay attention to these individual molecules of liquid flowing through the delousing station.
Derby not only has the best body, he seems to have the best reason for being here: he wanted to fight in this war. He is an educated, intelligent, and compassionate person (he cradled the dying Roland Weary). And we know already that Derby will die in Dresden.
NOTE: Edgar Derby is important to Slaughterhouse-Five in several ways. Vonnegut gives his age as forty-four (or forty-five) at the time of his capture in 1944, which means that he was born at the close of the nineteenth century. And Derby has the ideals and gentlemanly behavior that we usually associate with an older, more graceful era. We imagine that this elegant and honorable way of life died a horrible death as a result of two monstrous wars. Could it be a coincidence that Billy Pilgrim is himself forty-four in 1967, when he imagines he is kidnapped by aliens? At that age, many men go through an emotional trauma known as "the mid-life crisis," when they have to come to terms with the fact that they're no longer young. Edgar Derby may be fighting to prove that he is still young by keeping in shape and finagling his way into combat. Billy Pilgrim resolves his mid-life crisis by inventing aliens and time- travel.
And then perhaps the author just thinks that forty-four is an important age to be. Kurt Vonnegut was forty-four when he revisited Dresden in 1967.
Paul Lazzaro will turn out to have a personality as disgusting as his body. For the moment all we know is that he promised Weary he would get even with Billy Pilgrim.
Billy comes unstuck in time again in the stinging, impersonal shower. He wakes up in the flying saucer, having returned to where the first part of the chapter left off. Here he has his second lesson in the Tralfamadorian view of time and the universe: the question of free will does not exist beyond the civilization of Earth.
NOTE: FREE WILL
The Tralfamadorian view does not accept or deny free will. It simply isn't an issue for them. Their concept of time and the universe is altogether different. Vonnegut may be saying here that the question of free will no longer has meaning.
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