Kurt Vonnegut's antiwar antinovel Slaughterhouse-Five proved to be one of the provocative and best-selling novels of the 1960s, owing in large part to its timely subject matter and accessibility. With Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut successfully mixed many genres such as science fiction, historical fiction, and metafiction into a work that is at once both intimately rendered and ambitious. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut, like Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22, reveals the absurd, dehumanizing aspects of war while examining broad philosophical themes, including ideas of heroism and free will. Each of these themes resonated with many readers of the 1960s who questioned the efficacy of established authority and the power to exact positive change in an era rife with oppression and conflict.
Slaughterhouse-Five was inspired by Vonnegut's own experience as an American prisoner of war during World War II, at which time he survived the horrific firebombing of Dresden, Germany. The bombing, which was conducted by Allied forces, killed an estimated 135,000 people, many of whom were civilians, despite the fact that Dresden was not considered a significant military target and, in fact, housed many Allied prisoners of war. Slaughterhouse-Five is in many respects Vonnegut's way of externalizing and coming to terms with this seemingly absurd, life-altering event, and as such he offers readers a blackly comic world where butchery, bewilderment, grief, disassociation, and powerlessness remain inescapable and nearly omnipresent parts of the human condition.
Vonnegut himself appears as a character in the work and narrates various episodes in the life of protagonist Billy Pilgrim, in a self-conscious and nonchronological fashion. Pilgrim, whose surname is ironically taken from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, is an ineffectual everyman who just happens to find himself a soldier in a war he can neither alter nor escape. Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” by the hellish events of World War II, and much of his story—including his imprisonment by the Germans, survival of an air raid, abduction by aliens, and loveless marriage—occurs in fragments that call into question the character's emotional stability and show Vonnegut's ability to construct stable meaning from his own experience as a soldier. These fragments also reinforce one of the chief ideas in the novel and one expressed by the aliens who abduct Pilgrim; past, present, and future exist simultaneously and have always existed, thus denying him the ability to exercise any real control over the direction his life has taken, does take, and will take. Rather than leaving readers with an entirely hopeless ending, though, Vonnegut suggests that while humans cannot avoid the savage dictates of fate, they may exercise compassion toward others and embrace the few joyful moments allotted to them. Undoubtedly, Vonnegut's message of love and endorsement of a carpe diem philosophy also appealed to readers in the 1960s and continues to appeal to contemporary audiences.
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pronunciation Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007 Am. writer
Portrait of US author Kurt Vonnegut. (Image © Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images) articles Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr