Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much). As an American infantry scout and a prisoner of war, he witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, and survived to tell
the tale. He grew up in the Midwest during the depression. He entered the American Infantry during World War II at the age of 18, was captured by the German forces, and watched the Allied bombers destroy Dresden, which was the main influence for The Slaughterhouse. The Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut is a schizophrenic story that shows one man traveling in time to learn the beauty of the connection of death and free will and is used by Vonnegut as a form of self cleansing.
Though time travel is normally thought of as a psychotic abnormal adventure, Vonnegut’s main character Billy Pilgrim suffers from post-trauma psychosis, which causes him to violently toss him back and forth throughout the different times in his life. A medical article on DailyStrength.com says that:
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a term for certain psychological consequences of exposure to, or confrontation with, stressful experiences that the person experiences as highly traumatic. These experiences can involve actual or threatened death, serious physical injury, or a threat to physical and/or psychological integrity. It is occasionally called post-traumatic stress reaction to emphasize that it is a routine result of traumatic experience rather than a manifestation of a pre-existing psychological weakness on the part of the patient. (Shapiro 1)
This quote give proof to the idea that Billy Pilgrim has set up some kind of ideal post-trauma coping scheme. The only problem with this is that Billy can not control when or where he goes when he travels. Vonnegut states in the book “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (The Slaughterhouse 1:4). Vonnegut is stating in this quote that Billy has literally lost his mind and he will soon find out that life will never be same as his symptoms have taken control of him and he has fully given up to force of predestination.
Early in the Slaughterhouse-Five or the children’s Crusade, Vonnegut sets a place where Billy Pilgrim soon learns about death and its connection with free will. Vonnegut takes the reader on a wild ride to a planet many millions of light years away called Tralfamadore. Billy explains what he learns on Tralfamadore:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. (23)
In this quote, Vonnegut is showing that life is in the eye of the beholder, that it’s only what it is made out to be. He shows that this so called, ‘Superior Race,’ can see a different side of life and death proving that when people die, that they are only dead in that particular moment, yet in different periods of time they are alive and well. Billy accepts this idea that is proposed by the Tralfamadorians almost instantaneously as he says “now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’ (23). Vonnegut later explains in his own terms that the ideas the Tralfamadorians are exposing deal with fact that there is no such thing as free will.
Free will is actually the practice of choice. Choosing certain destinations in life’s path and deciding which is more promising. Vonnegut explains that the law of life is predestination., that the act of choice is over-rated. A scholar from the on-line book Cliffs Notes says in a critical essay of the Slaughterhouse Five that “Over and over again, Vonnegut proclaims that there is no such thing as free will. Humankind is the slave of predestination, meaning that all human actions are prescribed before they occur. A person who chooses to do something is not really choosing at all-the choice is already made.” (Smith 55)
With this in mind death is not portrayed or understood as a big deal to people because of course the war was going on and it was natural for people to die in war, plus since Billy is a soldier he has learned to accept that death is inevitable, especially since he witnessed his best friend Ed Derby shot by the firing squad.
Time and time again Vonnegut refers to himself in the story yet in the beginning of the book he states that this is not a true story; yet he still shows up in the story proving how this book is really just an alliteration of a true story. Authors have different methods of exposing their feelings through the way they are writing, the Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s attempt at getting his feelings for the bombing of Dresden out of his head and on to paper. According to an article done by Ray Boomhower “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. tried for many years to put into words what he had experienced during that horrific event. At first, it seemed to be a simple task […] it took hime more than twenty years” (Boomhower 2). He mentions himself in numerous accounts throughout the book. In one account of this Vonnegut mentions “ “(). Maybe he just slid that in to give the readers a view from another soldier’s point of view. Vonnegut also mentions in his interview with Simon Heselev, the producer of the audio reading of Slaughterhouse-Five that:
Billy Pilgrim was a guy who-who looked like a filthy flamingo, and never should have been in the Army, and God knows not the infantry. His name was Edward Crone, and he died, in Dresden. He died of the ‘thousand mile stare‘ which is where he just sat with his back to the wall where he would not talk, would not accept food, and the Germans would do nothing to help him and uh, so he died […] Edward Crone was the name of Billy Pilgrim and he just did not understand the war at all and what was going on, and of course there was nothing to understand he was right, he was utter gibberish. (Heselev 5:7)
If it was not for Vonnegut saying himself that this story is about real people in his company, the only thing there would be is dry thoughts left up to the reader to analyze.
Billy Pilgrim has led a very tiresome journey, growing up and joining the war and watching all his friends die; and traveling through time to see his own death over and over. Then learning from the Tralfamadorians that predestination controls free will and that death is not even close to what people think it is, that it is actually a-whole-other beauty in itself eventually helps Billy with his coping of death. Kurt Vonnegut has opened up a whole new realm of expressing feelings of a subject for his own personal gratification. Schizophrenic and stylish keeping the readers interested throughout the whole book.
Boomhower, Ray. “Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five.” Indiana Historical Society. 2006. 4 Dec. 2007.
Shapiro, Jeremy F., and Sharon E. Orrange. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Daily Strength. 2007. 4 Dec. 2007.
The Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade. Dir. Simon Heselev. Compact Disc. Wall Lizard Music, 2003. Read by Ethan Hawke.
Smith, Dennis Stanton, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Cliffs Notes On: Slaughterhouse-Five. Lincoln: John Wiley & Sons., 1997. NetLibrary. OCLC. 4 Dec. 2007
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Seymour