Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
Great artists have the ability to step back from society and see the absurd circus that their world has become. Such satirists use their creative work to reveal the comic elements of an absurd world and incite a change in society; examples include Stanley Kubrick’s film, Dr. Strangelove, and Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22. Both works rose above their more serious counterparts to capture the critical voice of a generation dissatisfied with a nation of warmongers. Completing this triumvirate of anti-war classics is Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Infusing his social commentary with science fiction, satire, bizarre characters, and the problem of death, Vonnegut creates one of the most effective arguments against war in the American canon of literature.
The life of Kurt Vonnegut began on November 11, 1922 in Indiana. He aged and entered school, picking up an affinity for the written word while editing his high school paper (Klinkowitz, “Chronology” 3). As he grew up, Vonnegut faced a nation rapidly changing under the burdens of the Depression. This economic disaster harmed Vonnegut’s family as well, causing his parents to make countless sacrifices to keep their family from crumbling under the pressure (Klinkowitz, “America” 8). Vonnegut survived the Depression to enroll at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he majored in chemistry and biology. Three years into school he enlisted in the United States Army and fought in World War II. One year later Germans captured Vonnegut and held him as a prisoner of war in Dresden. He lived in this city for less than half a year before he survived the “boundless” “destruction” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five 22) caused by the Dresden fire bombings, English attacks on the city that “would never be bombed” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five 188). This experience, above all other wartime horrors, changed the writer-to-be’s perspective on warfare and the human condition that causes it.
Vonnegut returned home from the war and worked with General Electric before striking success with his writing. Throughout the 50s and 60s he published such classic novels as Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle. His work landed him moderate success and a three-book contract, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship that gave Vonnegut the time and money to revisit his nightmares in Dresden. Writing with his typical mix of the morbid and mundane Vonnegut says, “[Dresden] looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces…there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground” (Slaughterhouse-Five 1). Vonnegut later addressed the English responsible with a more vindictive passion: “You guys burnt that place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in that firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined” (qtd. in Rense).
Vonnegut saw a “mountain of dead people” in Dresden. “That makes you thoughtful,” he...