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Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was written as a general statement against all wars. The novel can
be divided into several distinct stories all combined to convey one theme. The major theme focuses around the
central character of Billy Pilgrim before, during, and after the war. Vonnegut himself plays a major role in the
novel as narrator and witness of World War II. The difficulties in the writing of the actual novel itself are also
examined in the novel. All of these issues revolve around the main theme of the novel-- the shock and outrage
over the havoc and destruction man is capable of wreaking in the name of what he labels a worthy cause (
Schatt 84). The novel also deals with learning to understand and accept these horrors and one s feelings about
Vonnegut had tremendous difficulty writing this novel. He says, 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 (2). He did
not count on his emotions interfering with his attempts at a factual and logical report of such atrocities. It took
Vonnegut twenty years to directly face his private demon of the firebombing of Dresden in the form of this
novel (Lundquist 48). He had trouble recalling any memories of substance about his time in Dresden. It could
be said that he was blinded by the fire-bombs of Dresden. It was not until Vonnegut returned to the sight of
the bombing twenty years later, along with one of his war buddies, that he was able to recall the humorous and
horrific incidents in Dresden. The novel served as a form of therapy for Vonnegut. It enabled him to examine
the events of the past that impacted on his life and to come to terms with them.
Slaughterhouse-Five takes place during World War II. Vonnegut chooses to focus the novel on events
surrounding the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. As James Lundquist explains:
The bombing of Dresden was a surprise raid. It wasn t expected because the city was militarily unimportant.
The population of the city had been doubled by prisoners-of-war and refugees. On February thirteenth, 1944,
American bombers dropped high-explosive bombs followed by incendiaries which caused a firestorm that
could be seen more than two-hundred miles away. On February fourteenth, the Americans carried out a
second raid which completed the destruction of the city. More that two-hundred thousand people were killed
outright, burned to death, or died after. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were herded with other prisoners-of-war
into the storage area of a slaughterhouse and later emerged to find the once beautiful city looking like the
surface of the moon. (47)
As Vonnegut reexamines the bombing of Dresden, he relates the event in a way that shows the reader his
personal view of the incident. He confronts the Dresden experience with compassion and sorrow rather than
anger, bitterness or pain. He sees the madness and cruelty of the world epitomized in the blasting of the city
(Reed 503). Vonnegut feels special anguish over the bombing because of his situation of being under attack by
his own forces and sharing the sufferings of his enemies (Reed 494).
Billy Pilgrim s character is also greatly affected by the war and by Dresden. Vonnegut tells the story of the
bombing with a day in the life format. He relays most of the emotionally difficult facts through Billy, the
innocent babe thrust into violent and chaotic times. In this manner, Vonnegut does not have to directly confront
his own emotions on these issues but can portray his own feelings through the facade of Billy. Vonnegut
describes Billy as becoming unstuck in time (Vonnegut 23). Billy blurs fact and fiction because he suspects that
his vision of reality is hardly reliable. He cannot accept that human nature would allow such an occurrence as
Dresden to take place and therefore concludes that his perception of reality must be totally wrong. He sees
himself drifting from dream to reality and back again. In this way, he is able to pass off any bad experiences in
his life, including Dresden, as a terrible nightmare and not a part of reality. Billy refuses to accept the traditional
concept of time (Lundquist 19). Vonnegut also has difficulty accepting the constraints of time and often lives in
the past, calling up old girlfriends and remembering the good ol days.
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Slaughterhouse-Five, Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut, Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim, Bombing of Dresden in World War II, Firebombing, The Sirens of Titan, Kilgore Trout
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