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Thomas Kits van Heyningen

Slaughterhouse-Five Essay
AP English, Mr. Simpson
4/11/14
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut makes a resounding
statement about the absurdity of the human condition. Throughout the
novel, the actions Billy witnesses humanity commit in all his walks of
life permeate this theme, and help illustrate the authors point of the
habitual, irrational actions that define us as humans.
First and foremost, Vonnegut reaffirms and argues the absurdity
of the human condition through the institution of war. War and human
inevitability are intertwined and become one and the same in
Slaughterhouse-Five. This point is raised in the prologue of the book,
when Vonneguts editor asked him if he meant his memoirs to be an
anti-war book. Yes, he said, I guess. / You know what I say to
people when I hear theyre writing anti-war books? I say, Why dont
you write an anti-glacier book instead? The assumption, of course, is
that writing a book with the hopes of discouraging a war would be
equally as effective as writing a book trying to encourage glaciers from
melting, Vonneguts experiences in the war are the backbone of the
thematic structure for the novel, and are likely the most prevalent
influence in his view of the human condition featured in this novel. The
firebombing in Dresden is the ultimate example of absurdity in human
nature. Vonnegut argues that war is an inevitable feature of the human
condition, and so too is the arbitrary cruelty that is so often seen in the

pointlessly destructive actions of our fellow humans. Dresden, for


example, was a town of no military infrastructure that was leveled by
firebombs and saw the casualties of some 130,000 people. Referring to
the ravaged terrain as the moon, Billy says, Nobody talked much as
the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to
say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was
supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody
that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no
moon men at all. The morbid images of the destruction are presented
with great detail in the novel, and when faced with such a hopelessly
terrible situation, the question Why? certainly comes to mind. In his
answer to this question, Billy epitomizes the perverted code of war
that allows the ends to justify the means, stating, The idea was to
hasten the end of the war. This blunt assertion illustrates the wartime
rationale; how even the murder of 130,000 innocent civilians can be
seen as justified.

Billy uses wartime situations to showcase both the inherent good


and bad in humanity. Even in the hopeless backdrop of Dresden,
Vonnegut uses characters like the innkeeper to contrast the capacity
for good with the immense destruction that humans have subjected
each other to. The innkeeper is blind, and cannot personally see the
carnage that has afflicted his city, but knows that something terrible

must have happened and is willing to offer whatever help he can to


whoever needs it. He lets all the soldiers sleep in his stables, showing
his hospitality with the statement, Good night, Americans, he said in
German. Sleep Well. Through this contrast, Vonnegut makes the
point that there is inherent good and bad in the actions of all humans,
refuting the notion of concrete, defined good and bad guys.
Another example of this is Paul Lazzaro, Billys fellow prisoner of war.
Paul details his love for revenge, including the appallingly cruel murder
of a dog that bit him by feeding him a steak filled with razor blades.
Even though Lazzaro is fighting on the good Allied side against the
thoroughly evil Germans, the realities of war do not prescribe to such
simple classifications. There are good and evil intertwined on both
sides, and this truth is a fundamental factor contributing to Vonneguts
message on the human condition.

In Pilgrims own experiences, his materialistically fruitful but


emotionally vapid existence confirms Vonneguts thesis about the
arbitrary and meaningless nature of human life. On the exterior, Billy
seems to have done very well for himself and has the things that
society deems successful. He has a wife, two kids, a somewhat
prestigious job and enough money to go with it. Billys complete
dissatisfaction with these societal trophies indicates a critique of the
ways we as a society measure happiness and success. Vonnegut

argues that the pursuit of these acceptable goals is futile, and in the
case of Billy, provide an artificially derived feeling of success that is
largely empty and meaningless. The very fabric of time is violated to
provide liberation to Billy from this existence, as he is whirred in and
out of the various events of his life. The Tralfamadorians reinforce
Vonneguts message of the futility of human life through their
description of the lack of human self-determination and free will. The
Tralfamadorians have no expectation or understanding of the idea of
free will, and explain to Billy that it is a phenomenon unique to
earthlings. If I hadnt spent so much time studying Earthlings, said
the Tralfamadorian, I wouldnt have any idea what was meant by free
will. Ive visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I
have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any
talk of free will. Billys unique fragmented time-structure helps drive
home the lack of self-determination that we have, as well as the
incorrect assumption that time is a linear progression.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut makes a complex, multifaceted message about the absurdity of the human condition. This
message includes the inherent good and evil in all humans, the
absurdness of war, the insufficiency of the societal definition of
success, as well as the illusion of free will. The structure of the novel is
extremely unique and fractured, but is bound by the common theme of
relaying Vonneguts wartime philosophical realizations to the reader.

The last words of the novelthe Poo-tee-weet? of a birdreaffirm


what the narrator proclaims in the first chapter of the novel: There is
nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.