Slaughterhouse Five


When one begins to analyze a military novel it is important to first look at the historical context in which the book was written. On the nights of February 13-14 in 1944 the city of Dresden, Germany was subjected to one of the worst air attacks in the history of man. By the end of the bombing 135,000 to 250,000 people had been killed by the combined forces of the United States and the United Kingdom. Dresden was different then Berlin or many of the other military targets which were attacked during World War II because it was never fortified or used for strategic purposes and, therefore, was not considered a military target. Because of it’s apparent safety, thousands of refugees from all over Europe converged on Dresden for protection (Klinkowitz 2-3). Dresden’s neutrality was broken and the resulting attacks laid waste, what Vonnegut called, "the Florence of the Elbe." Kurt Vonnegut was a witness to this event and because of fate, had been spared. He wrote Slaughterhouse Five to answer the question that resounded through his head long after the bombs could no longer be heard. "Why me?"- a frequent question asked by survivors of war.
Vonnegut was tormented by this question and through Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, he attempts to reconcile the guilt which one feels when one is randomly saved from death, while one’s friends and loved ones perish. Billy Pilgrim’s own life was spared, but was never able to live with himself knowing that so many others had died. The feelings of guilt which emerged from his having survived the bombing of Dresden and from Billy’s fortunate escape from death under the shelter of the fifth Slaughterhouse haunted Billy through much of his life. Billy Pilgrim did not consider his survival a blessing, but a curse. A curse to be forced to live on with the guilt of survival. Billy Pilgrim faced such tremendous guilt, that he spent his entire life after Dresden trying to alleviate himself of it. His guilt is in many ways comparable to the guilt felt by the survivors of the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors had to face their own "Why me?" question. However, many Holocaust survivors were able to reconcile their feelings of guilt or put it out of their minds. This solution was never viable for Billy Pilgrim. Billy’s guilt made life so unbearable that he could no longer live with himself and he rejected the life that had been granted to him. There was no answer to Billy’s question because war is not logical, nor is it just. Never could one give a justification for the fortuitous slaughtering of the innocent, which claimed the lives of Dresden’s inhabitants. This idea is exemplified in the secondary title Slaughterhouse Five is known by, The Children’s Crusade. The Children’s Crusade was one of the many Christian "Holy" Wars which aimed on destroying the Muslim people. The Children’s Crusade was really a ploy by entrepreneurs to sell Christian children into slavery. Thousands of children were killed on ships en-route to the slave market and many others were sold, never to be seen again. Vonnegut gives the Children’s "Crusade" as an example of the atrocities and in-humane acts which transpire under the auspices of War. That is why Billy Pilgrim invents a world where a justification can be given, where life and death are meaningless and feelings of guilt disappear. The only way Billy Pilgrim can confront this guilt is to excuse his survival and trivialize the gift of life and the cruelty of death. He creates a new world where he can be free from his guilt. That world is called Tralfamador.
The Traflamadorian world provided Billy Pilgrim with the escape that he needed from his guilt. The Traflamadorian people are not locked in a three dimensional realm. They are not locked in the frames of time to which the human world is forced to live in. Traflamadorians can "shift" through time as seamlessly as humans can walk towards a point. This ability allows them to focus on the pleasant moments in the history of the Universe and ignore the aspects of time they dislike. Thus, the fire-bombing of Dresden is just a tiny frame in the vast