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THE STORY, continued
First, look at a couple of images that echo material from previous chapters. Under morphine in the prison camp, Billy has another of his peaceful hallucinations. It is similar to those he had in the Luxembourg forest just before his capture. This time he's a giraffe in a beautiful garden, and the only violence in the scene is Billy's chewing on a tough pear. Some readers see the giraffe as the perfect image for Billy Pilgrim: tall, gangling, absurdly gentle. For others, the giraffes represent a metaphor for human beings, creatures who are as "preposterously specialized" as giraffes. Remember how bizarre the Tralfamadorians find Earthlings, with their weird view of time and their curious ideas like free will? For Billy the heart of this vision seems to be his finding others like himself and being loved and accepted just as he is.
Another scene full of echoes is Billy's wedding night. After making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. "It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate sex and glamor with war." Vonnegut's comment reminds us of Roland Weary's "sexy, murderous relationship" with his victims and of the German soldiers' mopping up "after the orgasm of victory."
Vonnegut spends most of this chapter examining fiction from many angles. The description he gives of Tralfamadorian literature (see the discussion of Style) sounds pretty familiar to someone who is reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut had already announced on the title page that "this is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from," and now he explains what he meant. He also seems to be telling you what you should get from the book and how you can best appreciate and understand it.
On the other hand, you're not a Tralfamadorian. You can't read the brief clumps of symbols "all at once, not one after the other," so you can't appreciate "the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time." What kind of game is Vonnegut playing? It could be that he's harping on the difficulty of his Dresden story again: even if he could write it right, you couldn't read it right.
But there's another way of interpreting this. You can't read Slaughterhouse-Five the way a Tralfamadorian would, but when you think about the novel after you've read it, you can come close to seeing the book from a Tralfamadorian perspective. The entire story is then in your memory. You can focus on a favorite scene or image and move on to another part of the book without having to flip pages or read through the passages in between. You can go backward as well as forward in your memory of the story. And this applies not only to Slaughterhouse-Five but to any other work of fiction- and ultimately to all your past experiences as well.
Back in the prison camp the English officers give a performance of Cinderella, which Vonnegut calls "the most popular story ever told."
Many readers find Vonnegut's clearest statements on fiction in the scenes in the mental ward in 1948. Here Billy discovers a kindred spirit in Eliot Rosewater. Billy and Eliot are "alarmed by the outside world." They have found life meaningless, in part because of their experiences in the war. Both are "trying to re-invent themselves and their universe" by reading science fiction.
NOTE: In his book The Birth of Tragedy the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) puts forth the idea that "only through art is life justified." To him, life in itself is amoral and senseless. But art, he says, gives life meaning and purpose by structuring it- for example, by putting it in the form of a story (myth, legend, fiction) that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Vonnegut seems to like this idea, although he's not sure whether it works any more.
According to Rosewater, Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov contains everything there is to know about life. One of the themes of that Russian masterwork is that the world is indeed terrifying because it has rejected God and tried to set up man in God's place. But the implied solution of that book- a return to faith- is what Rosewater thinks "isn't enough any more."
He finds some consolation in science fiction, particularly in the stories of Kilgore Trout, and he shares this discovery with Billy. Vonnegut summarizes two Kilgore Trout novels. In Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, Trout proposes that certain mental illnesses have their causes in the "fourth dimension." Doctors can't really help because being Earthlings, they can see only in three dimensions.
NOTE: THE FOURTH DIMENSION
In The Gospel from Outer Space an alien visitor to Earth believes that Christians sometimes behave cruelly (as in the Crusades) because of "slipshod storytelling in the New Testament." So he writes a new Gospel in which Jesus isn't the Son of God until just before his death, when God adopts him. By changing this simple story element, the visitor from outer space "re-invents" Christianity.
These two fictitious novels of Kilgore Trout are clearly intended as satire: Maniacs sends up the "science" of psychology, The Gospel parodies the Scriptures. At the same time, both "fictions" explain mysteries that official theory or storytelling cannot account for. Vonnegut's point seems to be that fiction can be powerful in shaping the way you look at life and in helping you to understand things that otherwise would not make sense. Try to think of other books you've read that have changed the way you look at the world.
Vonnegut also examines two devices that fiction writers use: euphemism and metaphor. Notice Vonnegut's language in the story of Edgar Derby's capture. Shrapnel is turned into ordinary domestic objects, "knives and needles and razorblades," that rain down from "the incredible artificial weather Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don't want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more." There are no bullets per se, just "little lumps of lead in copper jackets... zipping along much faster than sound." These images are examples of euphemism, the "nice" way of describing something unpleasant. You may recall the "three inoffensive bangs" when the scouts were killed. The discrepancy between the terrifying reality and the innocent description of it relays the message more effectively than a straightforward description.
Each of these images is also a metaphor, a figure of speech in which a writer uses a word or a phrase to suggest a likeness or an analogy. A hilarious example of the necessity and absurdity of metaphors can be found in the scene in the alien zoo. The Tralfamadorians wonder what it must look like to be able to see in only three dimensions. The zoo guide explains Billy's plight by inventing the metaphor of a horribly complicated contraption that restricts Billy.
There are other new elements in this chapter besides the discussion of fiction. On Billy's wedding night, while Valencia is trying to get him to talk about the war, he suddenly has an idea for his epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." What's odd about this is that Vonnegut provides a drawing to go with the words. Then, in the very next scene, there's another drawing, this time of the latrine sign that Billy- in his morphine haze- sees floating in midair: "Please leave this latrine as tidy as you found it!" Vonnegut's drawings of the two messages make them seem pretty important, for these are the first drawings to appear in the book. Perhaps the second drawing is meant as a contrast to the first, which expresses Billy's hopelessly naive idea of what life should be like- the latrine sign is meant to bring you down to earth, as it were. It's also possible that the second drawing is philosophical advice from the author: "Life is enough of a mess, don't make it worse."
Chapter 5 also introduces Montana Wildhack, Billy's mate in the zoo on Tralfamadore. As fantasy, Billy's love story with Montana is hard to beat from a male point of view. She is vulnerable, trusting, and above all beautiful. Billy can be her gallant protector. She takes the sexual initiative shyly, of course- with the result that Billy doesn't need to feel any guilt about having "taken advantage of her." But even in this paradise Billy can't entirely forget the war. The shadow of her naked body on the wall reminds him of the skyline of Dresden before it was bombed.
A curious thing occurs near the end of the chapter. The scene in which Billy takes the train to Ilium for his father's funeral ends on the platform, with Billy talking to the porter. In the next paragraph Vonnegut returns to Billy's morphine night in the prison camp. The narrator says nothing about Billy's traveling in time. Before this the jumps Billy made in time were told in the order in which they occurred, but now Vonnegut interrupts the sequence of Billy's time-travels.
It's unlikely that Vonnegut forgot what he was doing. More probably the war story, as the novel approaches Dresden, is exerting more psychological pressure.
The chapter begins with another break in the sequence of Billy's time-travels. Chapter 5 ended in 1968, Chapter 6 begins on the morning after Billy's morphine night in the prison camp. The short opening scene is a little hard to believe, even by Billy Pilgrim's standards. It could be that the lingering effects of the morphine make Billy think that the two lumps in the lining of his new coat are secret treasures that are radiating a message for him. It could also be Vonnegut's whimsical comment on the strange power that hidden treasure sometimes exerts over men.
Billy sleeps for a while, then is awakened by the racket the English officers are making in building a new latrine, the Americans having ruined the old one.
NOTE: The "Golgotha sounds" Billy hears are a reference to the hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. The name means "place of the skull." The six men carrying the pool table like pallbearers add to this morbid image.
Paul Lazzaro delivers a sermonette on "the sweetest thing there is": revenge. He tells Billy and Derby a gruesome story about how he got back at a dog that bit him (maybe that's where he got the rabies!), and he advises Billy to enjoy life while he can. You learn now of the spiritual kinship between Lazzaro and his one war buddy, the late Roland Weary. Lazzaro has promised the dying Weary to get the man who killed him, and everyone who was in Weary's boxcar knows that it was Billy Pilgrim.
The next section, describing Billy's death, is peppered with the phrase "he says," an indication that this is one of Billy's fantasies. Notice that Billy doesn't travel there. Vonnegut simply holds up the war story to tell us what Billy Pilgrim says his death will be like.
NOTE: VONNEGUT'S ANTI-AMERICANISM
Returning to the war, Billy is leaving the prison hospital with Lazzaro and Derby. Just as the three prisoners in their outlandish garb form "an unconscious travesty of that famous patriotic oil painting 'The Spirit of '76,'" what follows is a travesty of a free election. Edgar Derby becomes "head American." He gives an absurd acceptance speech, promising "to make damn well sure" everyone gets home safely. You can't miss the irony here or in the pathetic letters to his wife he's been composing in his head. Like Billy Pilgrim, you know already that Edgar Derby won't have anything to do with the safe return of his fellow prisoners. He'll be dead.
The scene has its bright moments. The prisoners learn they're being sent to Dresden, an "open city" that no one expects to be bombed. (In World War II, cities were declared "open" if they were considered to have no military value.) And Billy adds some touches of color to his frumpy outfit: an azure (light blue) toga and silver boots. He may once have looked like a filthy flamingo, but now he's a full-fledged clown.
Once they get to Dresden, Billy becomes the real leader of the Americans for all of Edgar Derby's "patriotism and middle age and imaginary wisdom." When the nervous guards finally see what the "murderous American infantrymen" are really like ("Here were more crippled human beings, more fools like themselves. Here was light opera"), they naturally put Billy at the head of the parade. He's the one best dressed for the part.
Not everybody thinks the Americans are funny. An exhausted surgeon demands to know how Billy has the nerve to look as clownish as he does. Billy makes the only friendly gesture he can think of in his dazed state of mind: he offers to the stranger his "treasures," the diamond and part of a denture that are hidden in his coat lining.
At last the narrative comes to the place that gives the book its name, and Billy arrives at the anchor point of his story. Here, beneath Slaughterhouse-Five (Schlachthof-Funf), Billy will spend the night in which Dresden is destroyed.
It is almost with a sigh of relief that you reach Dresden after hearing about it for so long. Vonnegut has heightened the suspense by announcing the destination far in advance and then delaying (while he told the story) Billy's arrival in Dresden. The real "climax" of the story has yet to come, and you can be sure that Vonnegut will put that off for as long as he can.
The plane's takeoff is unremarkable, except for the irony of Valencia's eating a candy bar as she waves goodbye to Billy for the last time. You know they will never see each other again- at least not in Earthling time.
Once in the air, the optometrists begin to party. Billy's father-in-law, Lionel Merble, gets things going by asking the barbershop quartet, The Febs (an anagram of Four-eyed Bastards), to sing his favorite naughty songs. The racist ditties that Lionel Merble finds so hilarious are followed by a scene in which a Polish man is hanged for having sex with a German woman during the war.
NOTE: NAZI RACISM
Billy's brief time-travel to the Luxembourg forest just before the plane crashes indicates a parallel between the two incidents: in both cases Billy is the only survivor. The "guys" do indeed "go on" without him! In 1968 Billy is rescued by Austrian ski instructors who look like "golliwogs" in their ski masks.
NOTE: A golliwog was a doll whose face caricatured the features of a black person. Golliwogs first appeared in Florence K. Upton's illustrations for a series of children's books in the late nineteenth century. Here the racist image ties in with Lionel Merble's vulgar songs and the execution of the Pole for interracial sex.
Billy thinks he's back in the war, which seems to have entered a new technological phase: there are colorful uniforms and huge machines that swing people through the sky.
When he returns to the real war, Billy, Edgar Derby, and the sixteen-year-old "baby" who is guarding them, Werner Gluck, are on their way to supper in the slaughterhouse. (Werner's last name, ironically, means "good luck, happiness, prosperity" in German.) Because of blackout regulations, the city is not as beautiful as it would be in peacetime, and the stockyard and animal pens have long been empty. Otherwise, everything is serene.
They make a wrong turn and stumble upon a group of women taking showers. The sight of naked women is "nothing new to Derby," but Billy and Werner Gluck can only gape while the women become even more enchanting by screaming and trying to cover themselves. This recalls Billy's first sight of Montana Wildhack in the zoo on Tralfamadore. But there are dark undertones here as well: the women are refugees from a bombed-out city who have come to Dresden because it is "safe." You'll discover later that they perish in a shallow shelter and that others like them are boiled alive in a watertower.
The "three fools" finally find the kitchen, where an impatient war widow has been keeping their meal hot for them. Her anxiety to get home, even though there's nothing there but memories, doesn't stop her from caring about the people in her charge.
The last scene in this brief chapter is one of the most touching in the book. Despite what the English colonel had predicted, food in Dresden is scarce and not very nourishing. So the prisoners working in the factory that makes enriched malt syrup for pregnant women have been secretly spooning the syrup to sustain their own lives as well. The image of every cell in Billy's body shaking him "with ravenous gratitude and applause" for the spoonful of syrup is then repeated with Edgar Derby, who bursts into tears. That such a tiny thing could do so much is an indication of just how impoverished Dresden was at the time.
The chapter is filled with examples of people's feeding one another, saving and sustaining each other's lives. You see not only racism but instances of "international cooperation."
In the slaughterhouse two days before the bombing, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi propagandist, is recruiting members for his Free American Corps. It's doubtful that the American POWs look like hot prospects to him.
As Vonnegut describes the Americans' attempt to stay awake for Campbell's presentation, he reverts again to impersonal imagery, calling Campbell's audience "it" and describing "its" symptoms of malnutrition. But Edgar Derby won't stand for either Campbell's nonsense or Vonnegut's dehumanization, and he distinguishes himself by staging a fine scene.
During the bombing alert that follows Edgar Derby's shining moment, Billy nods off and returns to the present, 1968, where his daughter is scolding him. Now she's blaming Kilgore Trout for filling Billy's head with nonsense.
Four years earlier Billy discovers Trout by accident in a back alley of Ilium, where Trout subsidizes his novel writing by working in the circulation department of a newspaper. Trout is flabbergasted at meeting someone who's actually read his books- and liked them! Billy is equally delighted, for Trout's books have helped him so much through the years. They become friends, and Billy invites Trout to attend his and Valencia's eighteenth anniversary party.
NOTE: The chronology here is confused. If this is 1964, then Billy and Valencia were married in 1946. But in Chapter 5 they're only engaged, and that's in 1948. So one of the dates is incorrect, or else it's not their eighteenth anniversary. The discrepancy probably isn't important. Calendars only measure external time, and you know how unreliable that can be.
Trout is the hit of the evening, the only author in a roomful of optometrists. And he's having the time of his life, bragging and posing and showing off shamelessly. He spends most of the party trying to impress Maggie White, a naive "airhead" who believes anything anybody tells her. She resembles the hyped-up ads she believes in so wholeheartedly- "a sensational invitation to make babies" who in fact uses birth control.
The barbershop quartet launches the presentation ceremony for Billy's anniversary gift to Valencia. But The Febs' singing upsets Billy so much that he has to leave the room. No one understands what has happened to Billy, though Trout believes it's something strange, like seeing through a time window. In a way this is exactly what has happened.
The real explanation is even more chilling than the spookiest science fiction. The singing quartet looks just like the four German guards when they and the American POWs first saw Dresden after it was bombed.
It's significant that Billy figures this out without resorting to time-travel. Most of Billy's trips in time have allowed him to escape from unpleasantness, but by consciously remembering Dresden, Billy begins to be able to deal with his experience.
NOTE: Music often has a mnemonic effect, that is, it triggers vivid memories. In Billy's case this is enhanced by the shapes (shapes, like sounds, can be mnemonic) of the singers' mouths because they remind him so much of the expressions the guards "try on" one after another. The absurdity of the link in Billy's mind between the four guards and the barbershop quartet is what makes it so moving.
And with that the time has come to relive, with Billy and Vonnegut, the bombing of Dresden.
If you were writing Slaughterhouse-Five, how would you handle this scene? It's the climax of the story, the scene that must be effective or the rest of the book is pointless. The natural choice would be to try to make this moment as exciting and frightening as possible. But what does Vonnegut do? After all that buildup and suspense, you see nothing. You hear only "sounds like giant footsteps above" and the guards whispering about "one big flame." The only shock you feel is "an occasional shower of calcimine."
Some readers are disappointed by Vonnegut's failure to describe the bombing of Dresden more graphically. They feel that this scene is a horrible anticlimax and that they have been cheated.
For other readers, Vonnegut's account is perfect because he tells only what he himself experienced firsthand, and he was in the meat locker the entire time. Other firsthand reports come from similarly remote vantage points, such as the movies taken from the bombers. Vonnegut saw one of these films later. All he could say was, "The city appeared to boil" Anything "closer" would have to be as imaginary as a description of what it's like on the surface of the sun.
Those who are disappointed in this "anticlimax" also accuse Vonnegut of copping out, of failing to face up to the true horror of the Dresden bombing. They attribute this failure either to a lack of nerve or to a lack of talent.
Others argue that Vonnegut has the imagination and skill to have painted a vivid picture of the annihilation of Dresden if he'd wanted to. They believe that Vonnegut's indirect account is all the more effective because the horror remains- as it was for the survivors- too big to grasp.
However you feel about Vonnegut's account of the bombing of Dresden, the central event of the story is now past. But as anyone who has been seriously injured can tell you, the aftermath is often the worst part.
Vonnegut allows Billy to back away from reliving Dresden and to become a storyteller himself. Earlier, in the honeymoon scene, Billy was embarrassed by Valencia's questions about the war and ducked into the bathroom the first chance he got. Now, with Montana Wildhack in the zoo on Tralfamadore, he seems to have no such problems. Montana doesn't specify what story she wants to hear, and Billy's choice seems rather grim: the appearance of Dresden on the day after the bombing. Billy isn't running away from his Dresden experience any more. It's the most important story in his life, and he's no longer afraid of it.
Vonnegut closes the chapter with an account of the prisoners' first day in the "new" Dresden. After the initial shock and grief, the guards' survival instinct takes over and they start moving everyone toward the outskirts. American planes appear for the "mopping up," machine- gunning anything that moves. They miss Billy and Vonnegut's group but kill some people in another cluster of survivors by the river. Vonnegut's deadpan remark that "the idea was to hasten the end of the war" prepares us for dealing with this subject in the next chapter.
He begins by removing Valencia. Because Billy is still delirious from the plane crash he is busy dreaming and traveling in time, and doesn't learn about his wife's death until later. Billy's hospital roommate, Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, is busy with a project of his own: an official history of the army air force in World War II.
Rumfoord embodies in every way the old-fashioned ideal of the American male. Athletic, potent, and fiercely energetic even in his seventies, Rumfoord has worn out four wives and is working on a fifth, his new bride Lily, who was born in the year Dresden was bombed. Poor Lily is just a symbol to Rumfoord, "one more public demonstration that he was a superman." She has been running errands, collecting material for Rumfoord's book, even though she's supposed to be on her honeymoon. The document she brings in now is President Harry S. Truman's announcement that the first atomic bomb has just been dropped on Hiroshima.
NOTE: THE ATOMIC BOMB
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 [1945, calling for unconditional surrender] was issued [by the U.S., Britain and Russia] at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.
Truman's statement sounds rather boastful today, but it must be remembered that America had been at war for almost four years, and everyone thought and spoke accordingly. In addition, although Japan was clearly losing the war, it still remained capable of fierce resistance, as the fighting in the Pacific had demonstrated. The only alternative to dropping the bomb was a massive invasion, and that could have prolonged the fighting for years, with tremendous loss of life on both sides.
Vonnegut presents contrasting official views of the Dresden bombing. The first, written by a retired Air Force general, sounds a lot like Truman's in its reasoning, but the tone is definitely more belligerent. The second, written by an Englishman of equal rank, is calmer in its language. It designates Dresden as the worst massacre in history.
For readers who share his antiwar sympathies, this section of Chapter 9 provides Vonnegut's most devastating indictment of the military manner of thinking. By having the "warmongers" speak, he cleverly lets them damn themselves. Other readers find Vonnegut's wholesale condemnation of violence under any circumstances simplistic and immature and accuse him of stacking the deck against people who sincerely wanted to end the war. These readers argue that once the fighting was under way, there were only two choices: destroy the enemy or surrender.
Billy Pilgrim is little concerned with these arguments. Neither his children nor Valencia's death seem to have much effect on him. Everyone thinks the brain damage has made him a vegetable, but the truth is quite the opposite. Billy is working on a project that has given purpose to his life: he is "preparing letters and lectures about the flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time." He believes he can save the world.
What brings Billy out of his creative trance is his roommate, Professor Rumfoord, who talks of putting Billy out of his misery. Billy tries to speak to him, but it's not easy to penetrate what Vonnegut calls Rumfoord's "military manner" of perceiving Billy.
Between bouts of "trying to prove to a willfully deaf and blind enemy that he was interesting to hear and see," Billy travels in time to his last adventure in Dresden. It's a warm spring day two days after the end of the war in Europe. Billy is snoozing in the back of a wagon. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, and he is at peace with the world for the first and almost the last time in his life.
His peace is shattered when two German obstetricians wake him and scold him because he and his thoughtless buddies have badly abused the horses pulling the wagon. Billy bursts into tears. Do you see the connection with the previous scene? Rumfoord is no worse for refusing to listen to Billy than Billy is for being oblivious to the horses' suffering. Thoughtlessness is not restricted to the "military manner" of thinking; human beings seem to be thoughtless by nature.
Billy returns in time to the Vermont hospital to finish dealing with Rumfoord, who offers a new bit of conventional wisdom about the massacre at Dresden: "Pity the men who had to do it"- as if the agents were more to be pitied than the victims.
NOTE: Rumfoord is obviously a caricature (an exaggerated, one-sided portrait) of the all- American male, so this statement sounds absurd coming from him. Vonnegut's own feelings on the subject are more complex. In an interview he relates the following story: "When I went to the University of Chicago after the war the guy who interviewed me for admission had bombed Dresden. He got to that part of my life story and he said, 'Well, we hated to do it.' The comment sticks in my mind... [It] was more humane [than saying 'We were ordered to do it']. I think he felt the bombing was necessary, and it may have been."
Billy is beyond such considerations. He has transcended even the humaneness of the horse pitiers. He has The Answer: "Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore."
This sounds a lot like determinism, which was discussed in Chapter 4. If you recall the autobiographical elements in Billy Pilgrim's character and the way Vonnegut has previously used the Tralfamadorians to make direct thematic statements, it's tempting to see Vonnegut's answer to Dresden as: it had to be. But remember that the author has a larger perspective than Billy, larger even than the Tralfamadorians. And don't forget how Vonnegut brought Billy to this comforting philosophy: a plane crash scrambled Billy's brains, disturbing his sense of time and making him unable to tell the difference between real life and fantasy. This hardly qualifies Billy as a wise man whose message should be taken seriously.
By thus undermining Billy's credibility, Vonnegut may be attempting to answer those who defend the Dresden bombing: it may have been necessary, as he admits, but there is no way to be sure, unless you're an alien who can see in four dimensions, or a prematurely senile optometrist who thinks he's "come unstuck in time."
In order to deal with his Dresden experience, Billy has literally gone out of his mind. What of the author himself? How is Vonnegut coming to terms with his memories of the war? The answer must wait until both Billy's story and the story of Vonnegut's writing Slaughterhouse-Five are complete, which will happen in the next chapter. For the moment, Billy Pilgrim has a final adventure to go through.
After coming home from the hospital, he sneaks off to New York to proclaim his solution to all of life's problems. He's tremendously excited, not only by his mission but because it's almost the first time in his life that he has been entirely on his own. He goes to Times Square, and in a pornography shop he finds books by Kilgore Trout. The one he remembers having read is The Big Board, whose story is very similar to Billy's interlude with Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore. Billy had read this book in the mental hospital after the war.
Another Trout novel is new to him: a time-traveler goes back to Biblical days to meet the real Jesus and find out whether or not Jesus died on the cross. Clearly Trout is very much interested in the Jesus story (remember The Gospel from Outer Space?). But then so is Vonnegut. There are allusions to Jesus throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. The horse pitiers were "crooning" to the horses, and their "tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross." And Vonnegut thinks the Christmas carol "Away in the Manger" describes Billy Pilgrim as well as Jesus.
Some readers think Vonnegut is mocking Christianity by parodying the myths on which it is based. Although he once attended services in a Unitarian Church more or less regularly, Vonnegut has been an atheist all his life and in general believes that organized religion is as dangerous as any other form of organized authority. Other readers maintain that Vonnegut makes a distinction between the stories and ideals that form the basis of religious faith and the religious institutions whose actions he finds are often atrocious.
Whatever you see as the cause of Vonnegut's ambivalence toward religion, his attitude toward pornography is pretty clear: "It was a ridiculous store, all about love and babies." Of course the so-called sex peddled here has nothing to do with love or babies.
Before you leave this charming establishment, notice the references to Montana Wildhack. The blue movie in the peepshow machine was made when she was a teenager. The article about her disappearance is in an old magazine. Here's more evidence that Billy's time-travel and the Tralfamadore fantasy began after the plane crash. He had known about Montana Wildhack's disappearance from reading this magazine when it first appeared, and in his delirium in the Vermont hospital he put it together with the premise of The Big Board. And remember, that the alien visitor in The Gospel from Outer Space was "shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian." The evidence is circumstantial, but it all fits.
Billy finally gets on a radio talk show. In this scene, Vonnegut concludes his discussion of fiction. He began it in Chapter 1 by considering the difficulty of writing fiction in the first place. In Chapter 5 he examined the not always positive effect fiction has on one's ability to understand and cope with life. Here he mocks the pronouncements of the "experts" on literature.
NOTE: The Virginian Vonnegut refers to is William Styron, whose novel The Confessions of Nat Turner had recently been published. That book portrayed sympathetically the trials and tribulations of a black slave in the Old South, as had Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Northerner, over a hundred years before.
"The death of the novel" was a fashionable topic at the time Slaughterhouse-Five was written, and Vonnegut spares little of his wit in deflating the pretentious attitudes of much literary criticism of the day.
For all his mocking tone in this section, Vonnegut has elsewhere voiced considerable doubt about the worth of fiction and its ability to say anything intelligent about the modern world. Billy's personal answer to the absurdity of contemporary life- he reinvents his life through fantasy- so embarrasses the panel of experts that they throw him out of the studio. Are they themselves any less embarrassing in their pompous seriousness, in Vonnegut's view? No, he seems to say, but they have a point, however absurdly they express it. Even if the novel isn't dead, it's not very healthy.
Little disturbed having his message rejected, Billy returns to his room and goes to bed so that he can visit Montana Wildhack one last time. By now they have a baby and Billy's wonderful fantasy is complete. He tells her about seeing her pictures in the Times Square porn shop, but she dismisses her past life as being as meaningless as his Dresden story. They have started the human race over again; the slate of the past is clean.
NOTE: THE DRAWINGS
Just as the tombstone in the first drawing is a symbol of death, the breasts in this last drawing are a symbol of life. They may also imply that the serenity, courage and wisdom asked for in the prayer can only be found in a nurturing, loving relationship with another person. The symbolism in this drawing is particularly rich, and you can probably find other meanings in it as well.
Vonnegut begins by musing about recent violent deaths. As a conclusion to his musings, he remarks casually that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in Darwin than in Jesus. This is because the version of Darwin's theory of natural selection, commonly known as "survival of the fittest," accords with their determinism. Jesus was a crusader who tried to change things, which to the Tralfamadorians is impossible.
Vonnegut turns from talk of death to the subject of pleasant memories. One of his favorites is going to Dresden with O'Hare, this time for fun. And, in Vonnegut's case, for profit- but the irony is chilling. In a new introduction for Slaughterhouse-Five, written in 1976, he says:
The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is.
One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.
Flying over the rebuilt cities of Germany, Vonnegut can't help imagining what it would look like if he dropped bombs on them.
The final sequence of scenes in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing is grim. The imagery is overwhelmingly dehumanized: the moonscape, the membrane of timbers, the corpse mines. Civilization has been so thoroughly wiped out that not even domestic animals can be used to help clean up the mess. Only human beings are adaptable and clever enough to deal with it.
Eventually the corpse mines are closed down. The job is simply too huge, and the soldiers have other things to do. Dresden is abandoned and all the weapons are buried.
As spring stubbornly appears, the Americans walk out into sudden freedom. The birds say the only intelligent thing there is to say about a massacre, "Poo-tee-weet"- that is, nothing!
One question that is left unanswered at the end of the book is what happens to Billy Pilgrim? Will he really be assassinated by Paul Lazzaro in 1976? Or does he escape permanently to Tralfamadore, to spend the rest of his days with his new family in a new Garden of Eden? (Notice that Vonnegut doesn't bring Billy back to Earth after his last scene with Montana.) Or are these just the fantasies of a deranged mind, and what really happens is that Barbara has her father locked up in an asylum? This seems the most likely answer to her question, "Father, Father, Father- What are we going to do with you?" You can find support for every one of these answers in different places in the novel, and Vonnegut never says which one he prefers.
This ambiguity is probably intentional. If Vonnegut could decide what to do with Billy Pilgrim, maybe he could tie up his own war experience into a neat little story as well, and he obviously can't- or won't- do that. Remember what he said in Chapter 1:
[This book) is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
Some readers believe that writing Slaughterhouse-Five was a form of therapy for Vonnegut. By the very act of putting his war experience into the structure of a story (no matter how unorthodox that structure may be), Vonnegut gives meaning to that otherwise absurd experience. This is similar to the idea that only through art is life justified. According to this view, Vonnegut is doing the same sort of thing in writing Slaughterhouse-Five that he has Billy Pilgrim do to cope with his war experience: Billy re-invents his life through fantasy and time-travel, Vonnegut by writing a novel.
Other readers find this interpretation too simplistic. True, they say, Vonnegut does re-invent his life in a way, by assuming the character of Billy Pilgrim, and then having Billy find a solution to all of his problems. But what kind of a solution is this- a retreat from reality into premature senility, and that is only possible after he's cracked his skull in a plane crash? Is Vonnegut really recommending such a course of action? To these readers, Vonnegut's "answer" to the meaningless horror of his war experience is just as meaningless as the experience itself.
Vonnegut may be saying that there is no way to completely lay an experience like Dresden to rest. And maybe he feels that it would be wrong to forget that horror, or to "re-invent" the memory of it so that it becomes just another "tale of great destruction." By combining the innocence of the "baby" who experienced it and the embarrassed perspective of the "old fart" who is trying to make sense of it, Vonnegut is keeping the memory of the Dresden massacre alive, perhaps in the hope that this may help to keep it from happening again.
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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.