Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. Themes make the story appealing and persuasive and help readers to understand the hidden messages in a story or poem. Kurt Vonnegut has inserted various themes in Slaughterhouse-Five, his phenomenal novel. The novel deal with the dilemma of war and its impacts on the victims. Some of the major themes in Slaughterhouse-Five have been discussed below.
Themes in Slaughterhouse-Five
Destructiveness of War
The destructiveness of war is the major theme of Slaughterhouse-Five. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim and other characters like Paul Lazzaro, Bernard O’ Harry and including the writer suffer from physical as well as psychological devastation caused by the war. Most of the novel revolves around the Dresden Bombing during World War II. The characters, being prisoners in Slaughterhouse witness death and destruction caused by the bombing. This experience becomes the reason for Billy’s permanent sufferings. Even after the war, he remains emotionally and psychologically unstable.
Effects of War
Effects of war also uphold thematic significance in the novel both emotional and psychological. Vonnegut shapes this theme through Billy’s character, who “remains unstuck in time.” During that time, he is kidnapped by Tralfamadorians and learns their theories of time and death. Other characters like O’ Harry and Marry are also the war victims. That is why they do not want to talk about it. Vonnegut himself confesses at the end that “there is nothing intelligent to say about the massacre,” which demonstrates his discontent of the brutalities of the war he witnessed as a prisoner.
Acceptance of Inevitability
Acceptance is another major theme of the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The phrase, “so it goes” is repeated with every mention of death in the novel. It represents Vonnegut’s realistic point of view about death that is unavoidable. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut narrates that war is bloody awful, which leads to the triumph of death and violence. Many characters die during the war, and the phrase, “so it goes” reflects that it is something normal. Vonnegut tries to give this message that we cannot control our lives, especially death.
To avoid the bitter realities of war, Billy Pilgrim seeks refuge in escapism. Due to the war and the bombings, like many soldiers, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among his comrades. The planet of Tralfamadore and Tralfamadorians, temporarily offer him comfort and escape to avoid the memories of deadly events he had witnessed during his imprisonment. Hence, the element of escapism given by the Tralfamadorians removes Billy from the disturbing world of reality and creates a free zone for him where he embraces peace and tranquility.
One of the genres of the novel is science fiction. Vonnegut used the time to portray the life of the main character, Billy. Throughout the novel, the time remains non-chronological. Additionally, Billy mentions several times that he has become “unstuck in time.” Though the main event of the novel remains the Dresden Bombing, yet Billy has seen his death many times and is capable of plunging in the past, the future as well as the present. Thus, time plays a major role in the development of the story.
Vonnegut utilizes Tralfamadorians and Billy Pilgrim’s life to address Free Will. Tralfamadorians, with fourth dimension knowledge, believe that all moments occur and reoccur simultaneously. They have already happened and that no one can change fate. Throughout his life, Billy is forced to be part of the war and similar things against his free will. The moments start from his childhood when his father throws him in the water to teach him how to swim. He was unwillingly drafted into the war. Later, he is kidnapped by Tralfamadorians against his will. Therefore, he realizes that this concept is just an illusion.
Most of the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five are either absurd or foolish. For Example, Billy doesn’t believe in war and is subjected to humiliation and gains enemy due to his belief. Similarly, Edgar Derby, who seems to be an idealistic figure of the novel, is reduced to tears due to the unexpected taste of syrup in his mouth. The novel suggests that it is not the characters that represent foolishness, but the system changes people, removes their sanity and traces of humanity from their mind.
Complexity of Reality
Vonnegut attempts to write down the events of the war he has sighted as a prisoner. He believes that there is no way that he can exactly capture the magnitude of that reality. The time travel in the novel disrupts the reader’s sense of reality and makes the story incomprehensible. The portrayal of Billy as an optometrist who suggests lenses for others to capture the things more vividly is also a case in point. However, he is not sure about his own understanding of what he sees; he provides many views of reality. Moreover, he believes in Tralfamadorians, and their philosophy shows that he has lost the real sense of reality.
Blending Imagination with Reality
Vonnegut has presented a perfect blend of reality, science fiction, satire, metafiction and other literary elements in this novel. He used dark humor to highlight the absurdities of war. Despite the element of science fiction, the reader is continuously reminded that they are reading a real account of the war incidents, not a fictional story. The author appears several times in the novel to demonstrate that Billy Pilgrim, Tralfamadore and Tralfamadorians are the product of his imaginations. Thus, Vonnegut has successfully employed these imaginary elements in the text to portray real incidents of war and its effects on the victims.
Men and Masculinity
Vonnegut does not glorify war in his writing. Seemingly simple, this book contains many unpleasant, absurd and true realities of the soldiers. Vonnegut portrays the war in its real sense such as countless deaths, hunger and emotional abuse caused by the experiences of war and traumatic experiences. He also discusses all the horrible things that happen to war zones when they undergo stress and stains of wars and consequential emotional trauma.