A Comment on Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse 5”

I recently finished reading Slaughterhouse 5, a World War II novel written by Kurt Vonnegut. I was flabbergasted the whole way through it. Vonnegut seemed to capture so perfectly his antiwar sentiments, and I was incredibly moved by his work. I wrote this essay to analyze Vonnegut’s concept of humanity in Slaughterhouse 5—or rather the lack of it.  Below is the prompt and the essay.

Prompt: Analyze the author’s opinion on the humanity of war, and argue it’s relevancy to today’s world.

Nothing written here will be unique. Kurt Vonnegut knows this, and he knew it when he wrote his novel, Slaughterhouse 5. His antiwar, satirical novel has existed now for 51 years, and it has had plenty of time to garner praise and/or critique; plenty of time to become irrelevant. However, his blasé tone paired with his blunt word choice and abnormal use of time has kept it and will continue to keep it a timeless statement on the futility of humanity.

The phrase “so it goes” is written over 100 times throughout the novel—Vonnegut uses it in tandem with a harsh description of death. The parallel tone of the brutal, breath-stopping word choice paired with the apathetic tone of the above phrase causes a kind of whip-lash in the reader and effectively communicates the humanity that has been lost in Vonnegut and his characters due to the war. This loss of emotion affects the reader in an off-putting way; is it possible to be so turned off to humanity? It is blatantly obvious the tragedy that Vonnegut is trying to describe when he satirically strips it of all significance and dismisses it as something usual, or even completely expected. This comment on the nature of war can be applied to today when headline after headline of news communicates some sort of tragedy. The world has become desensitized to inhumanity, and the continuation of rivalry, war, and brutality only continually furthers this epidemic. Nothing painful is unique in this world, and perhaps it is only becoming more usual.

Vonnegut again emphasizes the futility of humanity in his use of an abnormal timeline. From the very beginning of this novel, the reader is aware of the ending. The author has informed us that Dresden will be destroyed, that Billy Pilgrim’s family will die, that this novel will be useless. He spends the next 200 or so pages jumping from century to century at random, telling Billy Pilgrim’s story, and his own, in seemingly random bursts of useless and unconnected information. Throughout this process, as his own words predict, you come to understand time as nonlinear. You begin to know it as something mundane that only provides an organization to the events described—each moment exists in tandem with every other moment in Billy Pilgrim’s life. He is not an aging man, he is someone who has existed and will continue to exist in every moment, with each new fact presented contributing only to the infinite picture of his experience in the war. By using this omnipotent narration, the author makes a bold statement about the humanity of war. He makes it clear that there is no longer any humanity left, as each character is introduced with death, no real connection with anyone is established, and no real emotion is felt. The reader feels Pilgrim’s staunch aloneness in time, even when describing the happiest events of his life. Vonnegut, brilliantly, has mastered the use of time and in doing so created an ironically timeless concept that is relevant to today. Is anything surprising, when history has and will continue to repeat itself into infinite? Is there any use in relationships, connection, and emotion when every event has and always will exist forever? The answer Vonnegut gives is a resounding no. 

Again, nothing I said here has been unique. Vonnegut knew the uselessness of humanity; millions knew it before World War II was even fought. Kurt Vonnegut simply harnessed it, and told it back to the unsuspecting public, using apathetic tone, horrid language, and a painful philosophy of time to be effective. His book is about war, and yet it has come to be a criticism of pain and an enduring memoir of inhumanity. Today, the world wars are now only a history unit and an Oscar-winning blockbuster. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of his novel; even the most inhumane phenomenon is futile in its existence. So it goes, I guess.

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