A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
The book Slaughterhouse 5, also known as ‘The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death’(1969), by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a sci-fi anti-war novel that is based around World War II. It takes place over the years 1944 to the 1960s, with the main character, Billy Pilgrim traveling through time throughout the book. It can be questioned whether or not the time travel that Billy experiences is actually happening, or if it is a figment of his imagination caused by the horrors he has seen, specifically after the bombing of Dresden.
The book is told in third person limited point of view, from the perspective of Billy. At the beginning of the book Vonnegut states that ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time’. This becomes more and more apparent throughout the novel as Billy, does in fact ‘come unstuck in time’ multiple times throughout the book. The book begins with a description of Billy and what takes place in his life, from his birth all the way to the death of his wife and beyond.
Because of ‘Billy becoming unstuck in time’ this novel is not in chronological order, it goes from Billy falling asleep as a prisoner of war, to him waking up in bed next to his wife on their honeymoon, to him then being stared at in his zoo like imprisonment on the planet ‘Tralfamadore’. This format causes the reader to experience the world as Billy does, jumping from time to time, never sure of when exactly he is. There are three main time periods of Billy’s life that Slaughterhouse 5 focuses on, those being his time in World War II, his time on the alien planet ‘Tralfamadore’, and his time after WWII.
It is expressed by Billy in the book that he first came ‘unstuck in time’ in 1944. This was during the time that he was a chaplain’s assistant in Europe. During his time there he had gotten stuck wandering around behind German lines. He was behind the lines with three others, who compared to him, were much more equipped to be stuck behind enemy lines. The group of four, turns into a group of two when two of the scouts that were in the group abandoned Billy and the other man, Roland Weary.
The two end up getting caught and are made prisoners of war by German soldiers. Readers are told of what happens while Billy is a prisoner of war throughout the book, as it jumps through time. Billy, along with many other prisoners of war, is sent to Dresden. Him and the others are housed in an unused slaughterhouse, named ‘Slaughterhouse number 5’, this is where the title of the book originates from.
While in Dresden there are many bomb warnings that cause Billy and his fellow prisoners of war to go into a basement. They are all false alarms, until there is an actual one. This being the bombing of Dresden in 1945. The bombing leaves Billy and the others that occupied the bomb-shelter with him, some of the only people left alive in the city.
It is said that when Billy first arrives on Tralfamadore that he is forty four years old. Tralfamadore is a fictional alien planet in Slaughterhouse 5 that is trillions upon trillions of miles away from Earth that is inhabited by Tralfamadorians. When he is not traveling through time, Billy spends his time on Tralfamadore inside a zoo specially designed to imitate a home on Earth. While here, he is on display for all the Tralfamadorians to see him.
He answers questions from the Tralfamadorians watching him, and just goes about his daily routine as best as he can. The Tralfamadorians teach him about ‘being unstuck in time’ and their views on death. They view death as just a bad condition in that person’s life at that time, and they say that that person is perfectly fine in many other moments. They use the phrase “So it goes” whenever they see a corpse.
Billy also views death in this way, and the phrase “So it goes” is used throughout the book many times whenever death is discussed. Later after Billy has been on ‘Tralfamadore’ for awhile, the Tralfamadorians bring in another human, a girl named Montana Wildhack, for Billy to mate with. It is shown through Billy’s time-traveling that they did indeed end up having a child together on Tralfamadore.
The final period of time is the time not spent in World War II or on Tralfamadore. Most of this time is of Billy with his wife Valencia, or the time after her death where he is trying to inform the world about him coming ‘unstuck in time’ and about Tralfamadore and the Tralfamadorians.
Billy ends up becoming an optometrist, and marries the daughter of the founder and owner of the school he attended, Valencia. The book talks a great deal about Billy’s daughter, Barbara being completely frustrated and embarrassed by her father, who later in his life talks about Tralfamadore and how dead people aren’t really dead, leaving many people thinking that he is mad. He eventually gets onto a radio show, where he speaks of his experiences. No one believes him and he is cast from the studio.
Slaughterhouse 5 ends with Billy Pilgrim in Dresden, two days after the bombing. Him along with the surviving prisoners of war were digging for the bodies of the dead, in the ruins of the city. Billy and the remaining of his group are kept in a stable in the outskirts of Dresden, until one morning they come to find that the war is over in Europe. The book ends, as Vonnegut said it would, with the line “Poo-tee-weet?”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11th, 1922 as a fourth generation German-American. Throughout his lifetime, Vonnegut wrote many novels, including, but not limited too Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut used many of his own life experiences in his novel, Slaughterhouse 5, having also been in Dresden during the bombing as a prisoner of war.
According to Allen, “Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived by accident only because they were housed some 60 feet underground in a former meat locker and slaughterhouse.” This is very similar to what Billy goes through in the novel Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut even notes in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5 that “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” He goes on to say that he even knew people in the war that are similar to the characters in this novel, just that “I’ve changed all the names.”
Vonnegut’s reason for writing Slaughterhouse 5 was to portray the side of the war that many movies, books, and music don’t touch upon. He didn’t want to write a book that romanticized war, infact, this book is categorized as an anti-war novel. He states in the first chapter of the book, in response to a friend’s wife, Mary O’Hare, whom the book is actually dedicated too: “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. . . If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.”
The anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse 5, is one that takes getting used too. As a whole, it is an impressive novel that captures the horrors of war, while still having a humorous element to it. What might confuse some is the style that the book is written in; The novel jumps from one moment in the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim’s life to another. This tests your ability to connect ideas and moments with others written earlier in the story.
That this novel has gained such popularity and that it is used in schools across the country is a testament to how great Slaughterhouse 5 really is. It is loved by many different generations, from the people who read when it was originally published, to the teenagers who are reading it now for the first time. Slaughterhouse 5 is a book that many can learn to enjoy because of the many different genres and plot points that are featured in the novel.
While being an ‘all over the place’ novel, it is a book that everyone should read in their lifetime. If not because it is a great literary work, then because of the real, raw, and unfiltered representation of war that this novel portrays. This novel gives readers a new, different perspective on war, life, and death
Focusing purely on the war-related content of the novel, one can say that Vonnegut is relatively accurate when that content is placed side by side with the actual historical events. The content in Slaughterhouse 5 that is war-related focuses around the main character being a prisoner of war (POW) and his time in the German city of Dresden, which included the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
Starting with Vonnegut’s description of being a POW in one of the many prisoner of war camps in Germany, it is rather accurate. “Others put on theatrical productions. At Stalag Luft III, theater seats were made from Red Cross boxes and footlight reflectors from biscuit tins. Female impersonators played a prominent part in these productions as well as in improvised tea dances,” states Knighton. Vonnegut features POWs in his novel that are putting on a performance of Cinderella while at a prisoner of war camp. This was one of the only ways for the POW’s to provide entertainment for themselves in the months, and for many years that they were in the camps.
The representation of the prisoner of war camp in Slaughterhouse 5 seems to be based upon Vonnegut’s own experience as a POW. Seeing as each camp was different, based upon the location, nationalities in the camp, and supplies received, each POW had a different experience, so it is difficult to say how accurate Vonnegut’s portrayal of a Prisoner of War camp is. Though, based upon Knighton’s article on POW’s in Germany, Vonnegut’s version of a German prisoner of war camp seems reasonably accurate. This can be shown because of the small details that Vonnegut uses in his novel, that are also featured in Knighton’s article. Such as, but not limited too, the coldness of the housing arrangements, how hard it is to escape, and Germans horrible attitude and mistreatment of Russians.
The second war part of Slaughterhouse 5, is Dresden and the bombing of Dresden in 1945. To begin with, Vonnegut’s description of Dresden, “Every other big city in Germany had been bombed and burn ferociously. Dresden had not suffered so much as a cracked windowpane.” proves to be rather accurate in comparison with the actual, real-life Dresden before the bombing, as shown in this excerpt from “Bombing of Dresden”, “Dresden was called ‘the Florence of the Elbe’ and was regarded as one [of] the world’s most beautiful cities for its architecture and museums.
Dresden’s contribution to the war effort was minimal compared with other German cities. . . It seemed an unlikely target for a major Allied air attack.” Up until the bombing of 1945, Dresden was home to thousands upon thousands of civilians, along with many refugees, and prisoners of war. The bombing of Dresden took the lives of between 35,000 to 135,000 of those people. Vonnegut’s description of the bombing is very short, because the main character was in an underground cellar during it, but he does note this, “There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame.
The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day.” This, sadly, is horribly accurate to the events of the bombing, as this article, “Firebombing of Dresden” displays, “More than 3,400 tons of explosives were dropped on the city by 800 American and British aircraft. The firestorm created by the two days of bombing set the city burning for many more days, littering the streets with charred corpses, including many children.” After the bombing ceased, Vonnegut described Dresden as being “like the moon now”, with craters covering the city from the many explosives that were dropped.
The only inaccuracy is how the shelter that Billy Pilgrim and his fellow POW’s inhabited during the bombing held up, when so many across the city and around them did not. In fact, he states that “all that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine.” This seems unlikely with the amount of explosives that were dropped on the city, especially when compared with this excerpt from ‘Bombing of Dresden’, “Cellars and other shelters would have been meager protection against a firestorm that blew poisonous air heated to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit across the city at hurricane-like speeds.”
So all in all, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 does an extremely good job when it comes to the accuracy of the war events in the novel. It is highly likely that this is because most of the war-related events in the book were based off of his own experiences in the war and during the bombing of Dresden.
The novel doesn’t go into much detail about the events after the war, but it is hard not to mention the huge impact the war had on the United States, and it’s place as a world power. Not only did the war cost the United States thousands upon thousands of American lives, and millions of dollars, but it also left the United States as one of the largest world powers. This is very well stated in World War II 1939-1945 by McNeese,
“The United States, alongside its allies, emerged, not only victorious, but in a position of greater power than it had ever known before. U.S. influence and prestige would soar following the conflict. Every Allied nation had come to rely on the vast capacity of U.S. factories, mills, and mines to produce all the material[s] needed to fight the war.”
All in all, Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut is a humorous, sci-fi novel that truly captures what war was like, specifically in reference to the experience of being a prisoner of war and the horrible experience of the Dresden bombing of 1945. For a novel that is not purely focused on WWII, it provides great perspective on the effects of PTSD, and truly shows the horrible effects war can have. While readers may never know what was really happening with Billy Pilgrim, the novel makes them question what they know about life, and ask questions about death and the horrors of war.