Slaughterhouse Five

How did Vonnegut’s experiences at Dresden and America’s involvement in Vietnam contribute to the anti-war message and the success of the book?

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Published at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is considered by many critics to be Vonnegut’s greatest work. It includes all of the elements that readers expect from Vonnegut: humor, satire, social criticism, and pacifism. The novel is the result of what Vonnegut describes as a twenty-three year struggle to write a book about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany which he witnessed as an American POW incarcerated in a former slaughterhouse. Perhaps not surprisingly, Vonnegut emerged from the experience an avowed pacifist.

Students who are unfamiliar with Vonnegut’s work may find the format of the novel a bit disconcerting. Vonnegut combines science fiction, autobiography, historical fiction, and modern satire in a “jumbled” depiction of the life of Billy Pilgrim. Billy, like Vonnegut, experiences the destruction of Dresden, and, as with Vonnegut, it is the defining moment of his life. Unlike the author, he also experiences time travel or coming “unstuck in time,” and abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Because of Billy’s unique view of time, the

story is told through a seemingly random recounting of the events of Billy’s life. Thus, the reader comes “unstuck in time” along with Billy.

Because Vonnegut had served in WWII, he had his own ideas and beliefs about the Vietnam War. "He despaired of being able to stop the war (he likens being anti-war to being anti-glacier, meaning that wars, like glaciers, will always be a fact of life), Slaughterhouse Five is an earnest anti-war novel." The novel is a classic in any time, but was extremely successful at its publication, due in part to the ongoing war.


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