Slaughterhouse Five: A Cycle of Self-Destruction
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is an antiwar novel that reveals the glorification of war and its effects. In this account of the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut exposes the American war paradigm through supporting characters, such as Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the Tralfamadorians. Edgar Derby, a very normal and poor high school teacher, gives his life meaning by fighting bravely in the war. Kilgore Trout is an odd science fiction writer who communicates his beliefs through novel. The tralfamadorians are small green creatures who Vonnegut uses to ironically communicate his beliefs, such as free will. Together with these characters, Vonnegut uses Campbell’s monograph, an essay about the American war paradigm written by an American traitor, to more literally portray his message. Through this paradigm, Vonnegut reveals the cycle which makes poor Americans hate themselves, purposefully benefiting the rich; a cycle created by patriotism and the dependence on money for selfworth. In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses supporting characters Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the tralfamadorians in partnership with Campbell’s monograph to develop the American war paradigm, revealing the emotionally selfdestructive cycle created by patriotism and financial selfworth which deliberately preserves the unhappiness of the poor to benefit the American elite.
Along with Campbell’s monograph, Vonnegut uses Edgar Derby as an archetype for the American soldier to demonstrate patriotism in lower classes, a force which glorifies war and consequently recruits poor men to join. Edgar Derby holds the characteristics of a normal American man; a kind, lowerclass High School teacher whose monotonous life has consisted of not more than his job and family. During the war, Derby proved himself the only soldier brave enough to answer Campbell, saying, “Poor Edgar Derby, the doomed high school teacher, lumbered to his feet for what was probably the finest moment of his life” (Vonnegut 164). Vonnegut emphasizes Derby’s normality before this moment, and the juxtaposition of his portrayal then and now reveals the importance of his bravery in the way he is received. The emphasis on this patriotic moment as the “finest” in his life suggests that the war gives his life meaning, glorifying it. When Derby confronted Campbell, Vonnegut says, “Derby spoke movingly of the American form of government, with freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for all. He said there wasn’t a man who wouldn’t gladly die for those ideals” (Vonnegut 164). Here, Derby does not speak for himself alone, but for all low class Americans, demonstrating patriotism in these classes. By upholding such loyalty that he would die for these ideals, he embodies the idea of patriotism as the classic American war hero. Campbell speaks further about this widespread patriotism in lower classes, saying, “There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register” (Vonnegut 129). Nationalism reveals itself in their everyday lives, showing that it has become common sense to support America not only ideologically but in war. People in poorer classes, like Edgar Derby, do not have much to believe in other than their country. This is the first step of an emotionally self destructive cycle in the American war paradigm, where such apparent patriotism glorifies war, making it seem like the only way to achieve greatness. This “spotlight” recruits men from lower classes to join the war, much like money.
Vonnegut uses Campbell’s monograph along with Kilgore Trout’s “The Money Tree” as a metaphor to reflect the poorer class’ dependence on money for self worth, revealing its emotionally selfdestructive effects and how they benefit the rich. In Campbell’s monograph he speaks about the irony of American economics, saying, “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves” (Vonnegut 128129). This dynamic glorifies war because the poor think that war marks an exit from poverty and selfhatred. When they go to war and experience its bloody and unpleasant qualities, they do nothing but continue to hate their conditions and consequently themselves. The poor never win yet they allow this cycle to continue. Campbell speaks further about this, saying, “Those who have no money blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.” (129). This cycle of emotional selfdestruction of the poor proves becomes never ending because the people in power, the rich, will not change it as long as it continues to benefit them. Some of these benefits include the poor continuing to fight in wars, doing the “dirty work” so that the rich do not need to. Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout’s book, “The Money Tree”, as a metaphor for this cycle. He says, “Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twentydollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit were diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and it made very good fertilizer.” (167). The money, government bonds, and diamonds on the tree symbolize the money that the rich have, which attracts the poor. Those poor then go on to hate themselves and the people around them, and their hatred creates “very good fertilizer”, letting the cycle continue. The tree symbolizes America, specifically the rich, who need the poor’s selfhatred to survive, and glorifies things such as money and war to ensure that. The poor never end up benefitting, while the rich always do.
Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorian idea that “humans are machines” paired with Kilgore Trout’s “The Gutless Wonder” to parallel the American poor, revealing that they are “machines” to the war paradigm which sets them up to loathe themselves and consequentially each other. The American war paradigm sustains itself not only through the rich’s failure at changing it, but also because the poor fail to do the same. Vonnegut uses Tralfamadorians to show this, writing, “Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the universe is a machine” (Vonnegut 154). By creature, Vonnegut means specifically poor American people, saying they are machines, doing exactly what they are told without second thought. Told to glorify their betters, they selfloathe allowing the cycle of emotional selfdestruction to continue. Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout’s book “The Gutless Wonder” to enforce this idea. He explains what happens in the book, saying, “It (burning jellied gasoline) was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground. Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being and could talk and dance and so on” (Vonnegut 168). These robots also parallel the American poor, who are blind of the damage their selfhatred causes. They uphold the cycle unintentionally because they do not realize its existence, and therefore can not feel guilty about it. Campbell shows the negative effects of this paradigm in his monograph, saying, “(The poor) have no one to blame for their misery but themselves…They do not love each other because they do not love themselves” (Vonnegut 130). The poor fill themselves with so much hatred that then reflects onto others, creating an unhappy society from an emotionally destructive cycle.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses supporting characters Edgar Derby, Kilgore Trout, and the tralfamadorians in partnership with Campbell’s monograph to develop the American war paradigm, revealing the emotionally selfdestructive cycle created by patriotism and financial selfworth which deliberately preserves the unhappiness of the poor to benefit the American elite. Emotionally selfdestructive cycle meaning it consists of continuous selfhatred in which the poor look to war, which is glorified, to take them out of their misery. This prevents the rich from having to fight in wars, and giving them a lasting advantage over the poor not only economically but emotionally. Patriotism in poorer classes and a dependence on money for selfworth create this cycle, in which humans act as machines to the paradigm, allowing it to continue. Now the question is: why does this matter? This war paradigm still exists today and not only in America. In today’s society, war is advertised and glorified through politicians, which causes unemployed or poor people to join in hopes of a better life. Vonnegut’s may have based his writing on events that happened over 60 years ago, but his ideas prove themselves relevant today.
Slaughterhouse Five Essay by LA
The existence of free will has been a popular and long-debated topic. Many have pondered whether humans have the ability to control the outcome of future events in their lives or if one’s destiny is fixed and predetermined. For example, some followers of Christianity believe that because God is sovereign and decides everything that will happen, the will of man is insignificant. Contrary to this opinion, libertarians (in a philosophical sense) believe in the presence of free will as opposed to the philosophy of determinism. In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, author Kurt Vonnegut presents the Tralfamadorians, an alien race whose population has the ability to see things in not just three, but rather four dimensions. Their knowledge of this fourth dimension allows them to have a unique perception of the universe. The Tralfamadorians witness all moments in time, occurring and recurring endlessly and simultaneously. Because they believe that all moments of time have already happened, they possess an attitude of acceptance about their fates, figuring that they are powerless to change them. Several events in the main character Billy Pilgrim’s life also touch upon the topic of free will as he drifts in and out of different parts of his life. Destruction caused by warfare is another prominent theme in the novel. Ever since the beginning of mankind, war has been a constant part of history. During these conflicts, lives are taken from the people affected, cities are destroyed, and countries crumble under the superior power of others. The events in Slaughterhouse-Five revolve around Billy’s experience during World War II primarily in the German city of Dresden, where he spent most of his time in the war. The city of Dresden suffered severe damage to its infrastructure and a massive amount of civilian casualties during the war, and as a prisoner of war being kept there, Billy Pilgrim witnessed the city’s destruction firsthand. His experiences from the war left him unharmed physically, but his exposure to the death and mayhem caused by it damaged him deep down and affected the rest of his life. In his book Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut explores the topics of the illusion of free will and the destructiveness of war through the experiences of protagonist Billy Pilgrim and the alien race of the Tralfamadorians.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim experiences many events throughout his life in which outside forces go against his free will. In fact, he is forced into uncomfortable surroundings for most of his life. In one part of the story, his father attempts to teach Billy, then a child, how to swim by throwing him into the deep end of a pool. Much to the disappointment of Mr. Pilgrim, Billy decides that he would rather drown than learn to swim. However, Billy’s dad rescues him before he reaches the bottom of the pool, going against Billy’s free will to be there. Later in his life, Billy gets drafted into the army during World War II, again against his will, hindering his goal in pursuing a career in optometry. In one scene during the war, Billy finds himself lost in the confusion after the historic Battle of the Bulge. He is stuck deep behind enemy lines with three other soldiers. The soldiers, who are more well-trained and adequately equipped than Billy, allow him to tag along, but it becomes evident that Billy is a burden for the group. Although Billy wishes to stay behind so the others can travel more quickly, the other soldiers force him to keep moving against his will. In the army, Billy is a chaplain’s assistant, which is essentially a joke of a rank. Billy has no friends, no weapons, and lacks decent equipment. As Vonnegut puts it, “He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends.” However, while the three experienced and well-equipped soldiers all end up dying sometime during the war, Billy, unfit for war, somehow survives. Vonnegut implements this into the story to emphasize the illusion of fate. Most importantly, when Billy Pilgrim is abducted by the aliens and stays on their planet of Tralfamadore, he learns one thing from his captors: there is no such thing as free will. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions, the fourth of which is time. Therefore, they can see everything that happens in the history of time, and to them, their lives and everything else in history has already been predetermined. As one Tralfamadorian said to Billy, “If I hadn't spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn't have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” The Tralfamadorians’ beliefs and the events in Billy Pilgrim's life exemplify author Kurt Vonnegut’s view on free will as an illusion and ultimately nonexistent.
The destructiveness of war is also prominent in the novel as it presents itself in both the demolishing of physical property as well as the crushing of the human spirit and the destruction of the millions of people who lost their lives in World War II. Slaughterhouse-Five primarily revolves around the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden above all other events, as Billy Pilgrim randomly travels through different parts of his life. In the novel, Vonnegut writes that about 135,000 people in the city died during this scene in the war, describing it as “the greatest massacre in European history.” Billy, who was a prisoner of war during the bombing, was held at a slaughterhouse nearby. He, along with several other American prisoners and their German guards, managed to survive the air raid by seeking shelter in a meat locker. When they finally emerged from their place of refuge, the obliterated and smoking Dresden was described as “like the moon now - nothing but minerals.” Billy and the other prisoners of war were then put to work in the ruins, digging out countless previously living humans in “corpse mines.” Billy’s experiences from the war later affect him as he develops post-traumatic stress disorder several months after and is put into psychiatric care. He also breaks down at different parts of his post-war life, most notably when a quartet plays a song at his wedding that causes him to become unexpectedly upset. Billy Pilgrim’s mental deterioration from his war experiences are also evident when he tells war stories to Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore and when he is recovering from injuries sustained from his plane crash in Vermont. In the latter scene, Billy goes slightly insane when the patient neighboring him mentions Dresden. In a more radical interpretation, the whole idea of the Tralfamadorians may have been a hallucination procured by Billy as he tries to solve his problems with a war-torn mind. In the end, Dresden’s annihilation, its population’s extermination, and the protagonist’s mental deterioration from his exposure to the horrors of World War II all demonstrate Vonnegut’s perception of the destructiveness of war.
The illusion of free will and the destructiveness of war are both topics clearly reflected upon through Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in which outside factors cause things to go against his will and the beliefs of the Tralfamadorians both illustrate the author’s opinion that free will is a fantasy. The fire-bombing and ravaging of Dresden and the tragic number of casualties it caused emphasized the destructiveness of war, along with the portrayal of Billy Pilgrim’s mental deterioration shown in several cases after he returns from duty on the European front. In the last line of the novel, a bird says to Billy, “Poo-tee-weet?”, illustrating the lack of words to describe the horrors of war and providing a final example of its destructiveness.