So It Goes: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Humorous Transgression

Slaughterhouse-Five: War and Transgression for Novel and Novelist

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death, published in 1969, marked an important milestone for Kurt Vonnegut’s writing career as he finally tackled the subject matter of his experience as a soldier in World War II. Described as an “exorcism” by Harold Bloom, the novel was published nearly a quarter century after Vonnegut began his writing career in 1952 (Bloom 1).  The publication came at an important time of political transgression in the United States with the war protests of the Vietnam War still resonating strongly with individuals across America. The narrative itself describes the protagonist’s son as “a sergeant in the Green Berets–in Vietnam,” and the Lions Club leader is “in favor of increased bombings, of bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason” (77, 76). The novel further parallels the former conflict and needless killing of human life in WWII with the conflict in Vietnam by connecting the firebombing of Dresden with the widespread use of Napalm in Vietnam. He writes about this abstractly when describing a fake science fiction book by Kilgore Trout which “predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings. It was dropped on them from airplanes” (214). In both Vietnam and WWII, the use of incendiaries caused many atrocities against civilians.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

The novel is also stays very close to Vonnegut’s biographical war experiences, following the protagonist Billy Pilgrim through the major war events of Vonnegut’s own war tour: taken as a POW behind German lines after the Battle of the Bulge, taken in cattle cars first to a Russian and English POW camp and then sent to the ‘untouched’ city of Dresden to work in a syrup factory before final bombing of the city in February 1945. Vonnegut’s first words echo the auto-biographical tone that “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true” (Vonnegut 1). These hints of the novelist’s own war experience are referenced throughout the novel, as Vonnegut writes, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (160). This quasi-autobiographical war book nonetheless includes typical elements of Vonnegut’s fiction: dark humor blending with satire and a fascination with science fiction. The novel has remained confusing to many critics who struggle with the multiplicity of genres, the duality of the absurd and the serious, contrasting quietist and activist themes, and the strong voice of the author’s own experience in the novel. Vonnegut uses these contrasting elements in the novel to transgress the confines of former literary tropes and to spread an anti-war message. The science fiction and temporal themes in the story further prompted the religious community to view the work as transgressive, as they lobbied in the 1970s and 1980s to ban the book in high schools and libraries (Klinkowitz 16). Under the umbrella of transgression, Kurt Vonnegut’s work continues to have mass appeal.

The Undescribed Massacre: The Firebombing of Dresden in 1945

As Vonnegut writes of Dresden, “When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then” (2-3). He also wrote that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24). In the novel itself, Vonnegut clearly accentuates the historical frame of the firebombing, however he never describes the ultimate event, probably due to the failure of language in the face of such a massacre. From February 13-14 1945, 1084 allied airplanes dropped 3,428 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed upwards of 25,000 individuals (Preface xi).

Cremations after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

Cremation after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

This devastating event in World War II has often been described as the single worst massacre of human lives during the entire conflict, and is used as an example of the power of “total war”  (Strachan 1). Planned under the project name “Clarion,” the attacks purpose developed out of a desire to weaken the movement of troops to the eastern front and to sew confusion in the city with the large influx of refugees traveling west (Cox 26). Although Dresden had “no key oil refineries or large armament plants,” and was considered far enough from British air bases to ensure its protection, it was still targeted for its size and its position as a communications center (Neitzel 66). With an airspace largely undefended and with bunkers inadequately built around the city due to the lack of previous attacks, Dresden clung onto its image as a “free city,” the “Florence of the Elbe” (Neitzel 68). The beautiful cultural and historic beauty of the city was not enough to bar bombers from dropping seeded explosives on the historic city in two waves of attacks. Incendiaries started individual blazes around the city which coalesced into a single firestorm as blown out windows and doors facilitated the spread of the fire. The superheated air additionally created violent updraughts and “gale-force winds at ground level” (Cox 42). As Sebastian Cox described the destruction of the firestorm: “The heat was so intense that the tar on the streets melted, turning them into molten rivers, further impeding escape and the already hopelessly inadequate firefighting. Material around the periphery of the firestorm would simply combust from the heat without necessarily coming into contact with the flames” (42). The firestorm caused many to die of asphyxiation in bunkers as oxygen was used up by the storm. Other bunkers were simply too shallow and caused thousands of victims to burn underground. Although the number of dead were inflated by German propaganda machines to almost 300,000, the more accurate number of 35,000 dead still indicates the tragic magnitude of civilian loss (Cox 51). In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut attempts to indicate the horror of the event even while he does not specifically describe what happened. Although he specifies it as the core scene of drama in the novel, the unnamed quality shows Vonnegut’s stylistic decision to leave the event unsignified by language, the looming monster in the heart of the narrative.

Symphony No. 1 by Daniel Buckvich attempts to depict the firebombing of Dresden through music, imitating the sounds of the bombs and the screams of civilians in the end movement.


Vulgar Transgression: Body Humor and the Mechanization and Bestialization of the Human Form

Vonnegut, called America’s greatest satirist of the 20th century, lives up to that image in his work Slaughterhouse-five, as he uses humor as his main style in the novel. Vonnegut’s choice to pair dark social destruction and war with an almost lighthearted account of the absurd main protagonist Billy Pilgrim shows his commitment to black humor, or laughing in the face of horror. This seeming juxtaposition of the serious and the absurd captures the ridiculous waste of human life in war, and also seems to be the only way that Vonnegut to react to the actions. Since “All there is to say about a massacre” are “things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’,” Vonnegut’s turns to humor to show the ridiculousness of his project of signification. Under this stylistic framework, Vonnegut uses body humor in order to reveal how war turns humans into their most physical organismic form. By focusing on the physical body through bodily humor, Vonnegut refuses to impart the war with aesthetic value. Rather, he shows how the war turns humans into objects, machines, and animals. One of the first instances of body humor is shown in one of the opening limericks in the story:

There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
“You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won’t pee you old fool.” p. 3

In this passage, the young man’s penis is described as a ‘tool’ as body parts merely become part of a larger human machine. The each part of the machine body therefore has a vulgar purpose in the workings of the organism. The limerick references a tool which is faulty, and will not fulfill its purpose of urinating. Vonnegut uses this limerick to point to the mechanization of human bodies in war, as humans become tools of war. The focus on body humor in the novel shows as these machine bodies begin to break down. At the first POW camp, the American soldiers are unable to digest the rich food that the British POWs feed them. The resulting comic bathroom scene shows

Mechanization of the human body in the children's game Operation.

Mechanization of the human body in the children’s game Operation.

the extent to which the American digestive machinery is faulty, as Billy survey’s the latrine: “The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over. An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains” (160). This joke pairs the perceived ‘juvenility’ of body humor with the stark reality of the soldiers that they have been ill nourished for weeks. In this episode, the machinery of the body has been compromised by the war. The classification of humans as machines is extended to the Tralfamadorian dogma in the novel as Vonnegut writes, “Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines” (197). If humans are machines, their death and ‘malfunction’ due to injury becomes less condemnable or amoral, as the ‘higher’ faculties of humanity are overlooked. The demystification of the human form through body humor also relates to the prevalence of the bestialization of the soldiers in the novel. The focus on the physical body of the POWs makes them equated to animals who must be fed, sheltered, and worked. The POW’s sleeping place in Dresden is ironically “‘Schlachthof-Fünf.’ Schlachtof meant slaughterhouse” (195). During war, the animals in the slaughterhouse are “had been killed and eaten and exerted by human beings, mostly soldiers” and now the slaughterhouse “was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war” (194). War therefore demystifies humans down to the level of animals, to be slaughtered, imprisoned, worked and processed to make soap. The bestialization and mechanization of human beings makes their use as objects of war less morally questionable, and reveals the lack of romanticism or ‘higher-purpose” in war. As Rita Bergenholtz writes, “the focus on eating in Slaughterhouse-Five effectively deflates any lofty or sentimental notions readers might have about the righteousness of military crusades or the heroism of men at war” (86). Therefore, Vonnegut pairs bodily humor with the dark subject matter of war in order to promote a strongly anti-war and humanist message.

So It Goes: Tralfamadorian Time and the Fated Individual 

In addition to Vonnegut’s transgressive use of body humor as an anti-war message, he also transgresses the bounds of genre as he combines the typical war book with sci-fi, psychology, philosophy, and humor. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorian aliens are at the intersection of these genres, introducing their own philosophical conception of time while also apparently abducting Billy. The Tralfamadorians are fourth dimensional, therefore able to see all the moments in time at once. Billy himself claims that he was “unstuck in time” before he was

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

abducted to Tralfamadore. In both of these conceptions of time, fate naturally takes on a new importance to explain events. Since the Tralfamadorians can see all of time at once, they naturally know what is to be fated. The role of fate in the novel is shown in the style in addition to the narrative, as the author’s omniscience is equated to the role of fate. As Vonnegut writes, “I’ve finished my war book now…It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?” (28). The narrative itself is therefore already determined before the reader begins it, creating a feeling of fate throughout the narrative. The opening command of “Listen:” also relates the narrative to an epic work such as Beowulf which starts with the word “hwæt,” often interpreted as “Listen!” Fate is often invoked in Beowulf and other epic poems as the role of the gods overshadows the human pawns in the narrative. Similarly in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy and the Tralfamadorians believe that their life is has a knowable fated future. This fated quality of the narrative also causes characters to be the instruments of their fate, incapable of free will. For example, Edgar Derby is exclusively described as “doomed Derby” who “eventually would be shot” (173). Since Derby’s fate is clearly stated when we first meet him, he loses his status as a character. Rather, he becomes simply an object whose use in the narrative is his future death. Vonnegut therefore shows the downsides of a fated universe, as the ‘meaning’ of life is therefore limited to the fated event. The totalizing view of time in the Tralfamadorian philosophy also problematizes Vonnegut’s anti-war image for many critics, who argue that “Vonnegut’s humor convey’s fatalistic resignation that entails political quietism” (Wepler 101).The lack of free will in a fated universe necessarily forces individuals to question their ability to change the “glacier” that is war (Vonnegut 4). However, I argue that Vonnegut does not adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint as his own, rather he uses it to both show Billy’s attempts at dealing with his war experiences, and reveals it as a failed strategy. This condemnation of the Tralfamadorian conception of time can be seen in Vonnegut’s continued use of “So it goes.” in the novel.

As Billy writes about the Tralfamadorian philosophy about death, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment…Now when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say that the Tralfamadorians ay about dead people, whiz is ‘So it goes.’ (34). This phrase becomes a constant refrain in the novel after any death however insignificant. This phrase becomes parodied in the novel, as the death of a human is equated to champagne (p. 93) and flat water (129). This over exaggeration of its use questions the low emotional impact that the Tralfamadorians put on death. Rather, it shows how this is ridiculous in the face of something so significant as a human being dying. Vonnegut therefore argues that if we adopt this acceptance of death into the banal phrase of “So it goes,” we are defying the humanist message. The phrase “So it goes” also shows an attempt to mitigate exposure of the audience to the death. The indefinite “it” either refers to death itself, or the life of the individual ‘going’ the way of death. In either case, the use of an indefinite pronoun distances the reader from the actual death. Therefore, the exaggeration of its use forces the reader to question death’s low significance in this phrase. 

PTSD and Anomic Isolation: A Psychological Reading of Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in the novel, often describes that he is ‘unstuck in time’ and spreads the message of the Tralfamadorians to the general public after his head is split form a plane crash. Indeed, many critics have reconciled the seeming blurring of genres between science fiction and anti-war drama by placing the world of Tralfamadore in Billy’s imagination (Brown). Billy’s constant refrain that he is “unstuck in time” is also attributed to PTSD from the Dresden bombings and POW experience (Vees-Gulani 176). The psychological analysis of Pilgrim’s character is supported to the narrator’s own questioning of Billy’s reality. For example, Billy “has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says” (Vonnegut 29). The ending line of “he says” is at the start of another paragraph, emphasizing this phrase. Therefore it is clear that the narrator wants to accentuate that this is Billy’s own reality, not the narrator’s reality. He also appears to have trouble functioning at his job and in his home life, often experiences flashbacks from the war. When he examines a patients eyes, he gets very quiet and his patient asks him “You see something terrible?” (72). These ‘terrible’ visions of the war are also paired with Billy’s lifelong inability to make real relationships. Described as anomic isolation, or a “breakdown of dependence” by Kevin Brown, this inability to fit in with society has plagued Billy from his youth (Brown 102). One episode which pairs Billy’s lack of meaning relationships with a flashback from the war is at Billy’s anniversary when he hears a barbershop quartet sing a ballad about old friends called “That Old Gang of Mine.”

In this episode, “Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway, as the quartet made slow, agonized experiments with chords…Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to he changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack” (220). After Billy has time to process his reaction, he “found an association with an experience he had had long ago…He remembered it shimmeringly—as follows: “He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed” (226). This ending image of Dresden in the war is the closest that we get to the horrible event itself, and it is precisely through Billy’s realization that he “had never had an old gang” that makes him remember his war experiences. Tralfamadore appears to be Billy’s way of coping with these war experiences, using tropes that he read in Kilgore Trout’s sci-fi books such as The Big Board in order to construct a narcissistic reality where he does have a meaningful relationship with Montana Wildhack (257). This fantasy planet allows Billy to accept his war experiences and instead “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” as the Tralfamadorians preach (150). A focus on both the alienation of the modern American and the trauma put on soldiers puts the psychological aspects of Vonnegut into a strong anti-war light and explains the author’s mixtures of genres. With a combination of philosophy, sci-fi, American banality, war, psychology, and humor, Vonnegut transgresses former boundaries of the novel, and places Slaughterhouse-Five among the best novels of the 20th century.

Works Cited

Bergenholtz, Rita, and John R. Clark. “Food for Thought in Slaughterhouse-Five.” Thalia 18.1 (1998): 84-93. MLA International. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Print.

Brown, Kevin.: “The psychiatrists were right: anomic alienation in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” South Central Review (28:2) 2011, 101-9. (2011)

Cox, Sebastian. “The Dresden Raids: Why and How.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Neitzel, Sönke. “The City Under Attack.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Preface. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Strachan, Hew. “Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychological Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique 44.2 (2003): n. pag.MLA International. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2005. Print.

Wepler, Ryan. “‘I Can’t Tell If You’re Being Serious or Not’: Vonnegut’s Comic Realism in Slaughterhouse-Five.” HJEAS: Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 17.1 (2011): 97-126. MLA International. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Written by Nora



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