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Slaughterhouse Five

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


Antiwar novel



            Slaughterhouse 5 is generally considered Kurt Vonnegut's masterwork. In any event, it is certainly his best known work, capturing the imagination of an entire generation upon its publication in 1969, propelling Vonnegut from underground favorite into the top ranks of late 20th century literature.


Slaughterhouse Five treats one of the most horrific massacres in European history—the World War II firebombing of Dresden, a city in eastern Germany, on February 13, 1945—with mock-serious humor and clear antiwar sentiment.


Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five as a response to war. “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he explains in Chapter 1, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The jumbled structure of the novel and the long delay between its conception and completion serve as testaments to a very personal struggle with heart-wrenching material. But the timing of the novel’s publication also deserves notice: in 1969, the United States was in the midst of the dismal Vietnam War. Vonnegut was a pacifist and critic of the conflict. Slaughterhouse-Five revolves around the incineration of 100,000 civilians, in a city of extremely dubious military significance, during an arguably just war. Appearing when it did, then, Slaughterhouse-Five made a forceful statement about the campaign in Vietnam.


            Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel is one of several American novels dealing in a more or less experimental way with the Second World War which came out in the late sixties and early seventies. The impetus behind this was presumably - consciously or unconsciously - the Vietnam War. It may be that it was only the climate brought about by the news coverage of Vietnam - which also contained these elements - that they felt it was possible to express what they thought of war.


            After an introductory section, apparently about how the novel came to be written, the reader is plunged a deeper level into the narrative. The lengthy subtitle of the novel takes images from both of these levels (the Children's Crusade, aliens from Trafalmadore) to make the book seem almost inexplicable - the opposite of the normal function of a subtitle. The main narrative is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from New England. But it does not tell us his life story, or even concentrate on the war or the bombing of Dresden.


            The non-linear temporal structure is simplified through the use of a science fiction cliché: Pilgrim has come loose from normal time. One minute he is experiencing becoming a prisoner of war in Germany in 1945, then he is at his daughter's wedding in the mid-sixties. The identification between Vietnam and the unheroic side of World War II is increased by Pilgrim's son's involvement in the later war.


            A second science fiction cliché, the abduction of Pilgrim by the Tralfamadorans, is used to allow Vonnegut to comment on the absurdity of human culture; combined with the time travel, this is not confined to the period chronologically after the abduction.


The science fiction elements of the novel include time travel. Billy leaps in time, experience his life's events out of order and repeatedly. He learns on the alien world of Trafalmadore that all time happens simultaneously; thus, no one really dies. But this permanence has its dark side: brutal acts also live on forever. Memory is one of the novel's important themes; because of their memories, Vonnegut and Billy cannot move past the Dresden massacre. Billy leaps back in time to Dresden again and again, but at critical points we see Dresden simply because Billy relives it in his memory.


The novel Slaughterhouse-Five is  truly unique in style and structure, which ends  up further upholding the anti-war theme.  This  book  employs  many  elements  of  literature, including black  humor, or dark  comedy, which is  a type of humor  that amuses  the audience  with something  that would normally  be inappropriate  to laugh  at. In  this case, war ould serve as the means.  Black humor is seen in describing he  main character  as a  "filthy flamingo"  or when  Billy atempted to publish his encounter with the Tralfamadorians. Both are slightly satirical, and when this style is employed in parts  of the book  about war, it  enforces a sense  that these  ideas  are,  "nothing  tragic,  but  inexplicable and absurd".


In Vonnegut's view, war is not heroic or glamorous. It is messy, often disgusting, and it robs men of their dignity. The problem of dignity comes up again and again in the novel, as we see how easily human dignity can be denied by others. But Vonnegut also questions some conceptions of dignity; he sees that they have a place in creating conventional war narratives that make war look heroic.


The centre of Slaughterhouse 5 is the horrific effects of the bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Pilgrim was a POW confined in a former slaughterhouse in the city, hence the novel's title. Because the POWs happened to be underground at the time of the raid, they were among the few survivors. Vonnegut's novel has come out of his reaction to this event, and it is a memorial which conveys at least some sense of the horror of what happened.



Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - Slaughterhouse 5 – Boston McAbee Publishing House 1995

Angela Garfield – Literatura americana anti-razboi – Ed. Alpex, Cluj 2002.

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