Monday, April 16, 2012
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim. Ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library, it is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work.
The work is also known under the lengthy title: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.
Intrusive and anonymous, recurring as a minor character, and as Kurt Vonnegut, himself, when the narrator says: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
The narrator begins the story describing his connection to the fire-bombing of Dresden, and his reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five.
A fatalistic optometrist ensconced in a dull, safe marriage, in Ilium, New York, he randomly travels in time and is abducted by aliens from planet Tralfamadore, who see everything in the fourth dimension. In World War II he was a POW in Dresden, which has a lasting effect on his post-war life. His time travel occurs at desperate times in his life; he re-lives events past and future, and becomes fatalistic (though not a defeatist), because he has seen when, how, and why he will die.
A weak man dreaming of grandeur and obsessed with gore and vengeance, saves Billy several times (despite Billy's protests) in hopes of military glory, but then gets them captured, leading to the loss of their winter uniforms and boots. In the event, Weary dies of gangrene in the train en route to the POW camp; he blames Billy in his dying words.
Another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois, who takes Weary's dying words as a revenge commission to kill Billy. He keeps a mental list of his enemies, claiming he can have anyone "killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses".
A failed science fiction writer who makes money by managing newspaper delivery boys and has received only one fan letter (from Eliot Rosewater; see below). After Billy meets him in a back alley in Ilium, New York, he invites Trout to his wedding anniversary celebration. There, Kilgore follows Billy, thinking the latter has seen through a "time window" (when he inexplicably becomes saddened by the barbershop quartet, later revealed as due to them reminding him of the four German guards trying and failing to vocalise the news of Dresden's destruction). Kilgore Trout is also a main character in Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions.
A middle-aged man who has pulled strings to be able to fight in the war. He was a high school teacher who felt that he couldn't just let his young students go off to war without himself also fighting. He is a fellow POW to Billy and Paul Lazzaro, and the only one who stands up to the traitor Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and defends American ideals. Though he appears to be unimportant throughout most of the book, he seems to be the only American before the bombing of Dresden to understand what war can do to people. German forces summarily execute him for looting a teapot after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Though it seems not to be the most pivotal death in the book, Vonnegut declares that this death is the climax of the book as a whole.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
An American Nazi; before the War, he lived in Germany as a successful, famous, German-language playwright, and became a Nazi propagandist. In an essay, he connects the misery of American poverty to the disheveled appearance and behaviour of the American POWs. Edgar Derby confronts and challenges him when he tries to recruit American POWs into the American Free Corps to fight the Communist Russians on behalf of the Nazis. Campbell is the protagonist of an earlier Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, in which he is revealed to have been working for the OSS against the Germans, using his pro-Nazi persona as a cover. The Americans never reveal Campbell's true role after the end of the war, forcing him to lead a life of anonymity to avoid the disgrace. Eventually, Campbell surrenders himself to Israeli authorities, and hangs himself while in their custody.
Billy's obese wife and mother of their two children, Robert and Barbara; Billy is emotionally distant from her. She dies from carbon monoxide poisoning after an automobile accident en route to the hospital to see Billy after his airplane crash.
Son of Billy and Valencia; a troubled, middle-class boy, and disappointing son, who so absorbs the whitebread culture's anti-Communist world view, he metamorphoses from suburban adolescent rebel to Green Beret sergeant.
Daughter of Billy and Valencia. She is a "bitchy flibbertigibbet", from having had to assume the family's leadership at the age of twenty. She has "legs like an Edwardian grand piano," marries an optometrist, and treats her widower father as a childish invalid.
The extraterrestrial race who appear (to humans) like upright toilet plungers with a hand atop, in which is set a single, green eye. They abduct Billy and teach him about time's relation to the world, as a fourth dimension, fate, and death's indiscriminate nature. Tralfamadorians appear in several Vonnegut novels. In Slaughterhouse Five, they reveal that the universe will be accidentally destroyed by one of their testpilots.
A model who stars in a film shown in a pornographic bookstore when Billy stops by to check out the Kilgore Trout novels sitting in the window. She is also abducted and placed in Billy's habitat on Tralfamadore, where they have sex and produce a child.
A superannuated Army officer Billy met in the war; he is delirious and eventually dies of a fever. He tells the POWs to call him "Wild Bob"; he thinks them his command, the 451st Infantry Regiment; "if you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob," is an inspirational phrase of his that Billy repeats to himself. He was based on William Joseph Cody Garlow (grandson of the famed Buffalo Bill Cody) who surrendered his unit to the German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.
A friend whom Billy meets in the veteran's hospital and who introduces him to the science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout (see above). Rosewater turns out to be the writer of the only fan letter Trout ever received. Rosewater, like Billy, has experienced a horrifying event in the war. The two feel that the Kilgore Trout novels they read help them to deal with the trauma of World War II. Eliot Rosewater also shows up in other books by Kurt Vonnegut, such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord
A Harvard history professor, retired Air Force brigadier general and millionaire, who shares a hospital room with Billy and is interested in the Dresden bombing. He is almost surely a relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a character in a previous novel by Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan.
Two American infantry scouts trapped behind German lines who found Roland and, later on, Billy. Although Roland considers himself and the scouts to be best friends and heroes (calling their group the "Three Musketeers"), the scouts are uncomfortable around him and later reveal that Roland is slowing them down as much as Billy, and abandon them both. Later on it is discovered that they were found and shot from behind by German troops while waiting in ambush.
The character briefly talked about in the beginning who Vonnegut promised to name the book " The Children's Crusade."
Werner is a sixteen-year-old German charged with guarding Billy and Edgar Derby when they first arrive at Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden. He does not know his way around, and as he tries to find the kitchen he accidentally leads them into a communal shower where some German refugee girls from the Eastern Front are bathing.