Forgotten classics: Slaughterhouse Five

Lucy Middleton

We all think we’ve got the classics down. They’re the books we’re forced to read in school, or those three-part BBC dramas. But some of the world’s best loved novels have still managed to fall into public oblivion. One such title is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; A story of war and time travel which breaks all the traditional rules of fiction…

About the book

More than 70 years ago, the German city of Dresden was practically demolished by an allied bombing attack during World War Two. The raid killed about 25,000 people and left the city in ruins. A small group of American prisoners of war managed to survive by hiding in a former meat locker three stories underground. Among them was Kurt Vonnegut, a 22-year-old soldier who had been captured by the Germans two months earlier.

Slaughterhouse Five has been described as many things in the 48 years since it was first published; an anti-war story, a work of science fiction, a memoir. In the opening chapter Vonnegut tells his readers that the atrocity of Dresden was “so meaningless” that he, through his novel, was the only person to have benefitted from it. It is a statement that sets the tone for the tale to follow.

The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier who becomes “unstuck in time” during World War Two. After surviving a raid in Luxembourg, he begins to flit about his own timeline, flashing from his present plight to his future job as an optometrist, or back to the day he was born. Vonnegut’s narrator is fragmented and non-linear in his retelling, allowing for readers to see the entirety of Billy’s life in just a glimpse.

Soon Billy and his brutish companion Roland Weary are captured by the Germans and transported with many others to an empty slaughterhouse in Dresden. It is on the overcrowded train journey that Billy jumps forward in time to his daughter’s wedding night and is taken onboard the spaceship of an alien race called the Tralfamadorians, who are shaped like toilet plungers and can see all points in the space-time continuum.

For them, death has no meaning other than to say “so it goes”, an expression that Billy picks up and repeats throughout the novel when anyone or anything dies.

The aliens place Billy in a transparent zoo exhibit for a time and tutor him in their fatalist view of the world. As he darts to between adulthood and his horrific wartime experience, he begins to contemplate the illusion of free will and gradually absorb Tralfamadorian philosophy.  

Slaughterhouse Five was a smash hit as soon as it was released, spending 16 weeks at on the New York Times best seller list and going through five printings in just four months. In 1972, George Roy Hill directed a successful film adaptation that Vonnegut would later proclaim as “flawless”. So why, for so many of us, has Slaughterhouse Five remained unread on the book shelf or worse still, not even entered our literary periphery?

For one thing, the answer could be the result of a wide scale ousting of the book in US. The novel was first banned from public schools in 1972, just a mere three years after it was published. Instigators deemed the story “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian” due to Vonnegut’s occasional bad language and sexual promiscuity. Years later the book was banned again in 2011, making it number 46 on the list of most banned books of the 21st century.

But truly, I think Slaughterhouse Five is a story that does not do itself justice in summary. When first described to me as a “World War Two story containing alien abduction”, I’ll admit it didn’t sound too appealing. It can be hard to comprehend how such a novel will work at all.

Yet it does. Through the mishmash of tenses and absurd science fiction elements, Vonnegut demonstrates the nonsensical, meaninglessness of war and ultimately, of life. Right from the start he recounts the ironic death of Edgar Derby, who survives the Dresden bombings only to be executed at the end of the war for stealing a teapot.

Throughout Billy’s tale, characters unceremoniously meet their end for literally no purpose, proving how random and pointless battles, fights and massacres can be. The story can be thought-provoking and deep, yet still somehow remains comical, like a long drawn out joke at all of our expenses.

Vonnegut never reveals the “truth” about Billy Pilgrim’s sanity. It is up to the reader to decide if the Tralfamadorians really existed, or whether they are the result of Billy’s mind falling to pieces after the war.

The ambiguity makes the opening line of the story all the more perfect, as the narrator begins: “All this happened, more or less”. But ultimately it is as if the answer doesn’t matter. Billy’s memories are just one more stitch in the rich tapestry of human existence.

So it goes.