Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Happiness and Time

At its heart Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy’s search for happiness. Ultimately he discovers that this is only possible without the baggage of the past or fear of the future. Although only the war years are presented in chronological order, Billy experiences both war and peace in essentially the same manner - as a series of events that either feel good or bad and which he deals with as best he is able at the time. Arguably, Billy’s epiphany in the woods, in which he first travels through time, is the realization that as the Tralfamadorians put it he is caught in time "like a bug in amber." Thus, it is very human and natural that he should be able to experience the happiest moment of his life during a nap he takes in the back of the horse-drawn wagon while surrounded by the ruins of Dresden. As long as one accepts each moment as inevitable it is possible to simply be happy.

Freewill

Billy tells the Tralfamadorian guide that it sounds like the aliens don’t believe in freewill and the alien responds that of all the planets it has visited the notion of freewill exists only on Earth. This exchange highlights one of the novel’s central themes, that freewill is a creation of the human mind and is meaningless in the context of the greater workings of the universe and the unalterable flow of time. The aliens advise Billy to not worry about the bad times and focus instead upon the good times which is a theory very much in keeping with the prayer displayed upon Billy’s office wall and between Montana Wildhacks’ breasts. The alien point of view is that if one cannot change the past, present or future then one is free to simply exist and this, the novel seems to suggest, is perhaps the most beneficial interpretation of freewill.

Documenting Disaster

The opening and closing chapters of the novel detail the author’s frustration in composing the work. "There is nothing to say about a massacre" observes Vonnegut and since it is always quiet after a massacre the only thing being said is what the birds say which is "Poo-tee-weet?" By introducing his "novel about Dresden" with this disclaimer Vonnegut sets up his work as not only the story of Billy Pilgrim but as a representation of everything a disaster means, details which rarely have anything to do with the disaster itself. Thus, a person like Rumfoord, who reduces the destruction of Dresden to numbers, cannot understand as well as Billy that on the ground the numbers meant very little to the survivors who simply tried to go on living. Significantly, the moment that Vonnegut intimates will be the climax of the novel, namely the senseless death of Edgar Derby, is glossed over when its time comes even though the event is discussed every time Derby’s name is mentioned. In this manner Vonnegut conveys the futility of documenting a disaster by refusing to relate the disaster itself and instead telling the story of everything that happened around it.

Death

In Slaughterhouse Five dying is not a tragic event nor is the death of anyone or anything given more importance than another person or thing. Whether it is the death of Martin Luther King, a character in the novel, the microbes in Billy’s jacket or Vonnegut’s own father the event is accompanied by the Tralfamadorian mantra "So it goes." The representation of death in the novel, then, is devoid of sadness or blame and embraces the inevitability of the event without regard for its cause. In fact, Billy experiences his own death many times as a time traveler and does not fear it because he knows it is simply a purple light and a soothing hum. In this way Slaughterhouse Five presents death as a detail that pales in significance to the larger experience of life.

The Catcher in the Rye is the story of teenager Holden Caulfield’s turbulent last few days before his Christmas vacation. During these days, Holden leaves Pencey Prep, a boys’ school he’s been kicked out of, and takes off for a few nights alone in New York City. Holden tells the story as a monologue, from some sort of a mental facility where he’s recovering from the stress of the experiences he retells.

Holden’s tale begins at Pencey, which he despises for its prevailing "phoniness." Holden finds a lot of people and attitudes unbearably phony. It’s the day of the big Pencey football game, something that Holden has little interest in. In lieu of watching, Holden takes a walk to the house of his history teacher, old Mr. Spencer. This isn’t a particularly satisfying visit, nor is his last evening at Pencey, during which he hangs around with a coarse and dull guy named Ackley and later gets beat up by his own roommate, a ladies’ man named Stradlater. The idea of Stradlater taking one of Holden’s old friends, Jane Gallagher, out on a date, and the thought of suave Stradlater making the moves on his innocent friend drives Holden to his fists. After the fight, Holden decides to get up and leave Pencey immediately. He finishes packing and leaves campus in the middle of the night.

A train takes Holden to New York City, where his family has lived all his life. Here, he checks into the derelict Edmont Hotel, a place that provides him with several adventures including an evening dancing with three dull tourist girls and a clumsy encounter with a prostitute. Holden sends the prostitute away without services rendered, and although he pays her for her time, it’s apparently not enough. For this, Holden gets his second pummeling in as many nights, at the hands of Maurice, the hotel’s elevator man/pimp.

Holden spends a total of two days in the city, and these days are largely characterized by drunkenness and loneliness. He meets up with an old acquaintance named Carl Luce and has a date with an off-and-on girlfriend, Sally Hayes, but both experiences leave him more miserable than before. Finally, Holden sneaks into his parents’ apartment to visit his kid sister Phoebe, who’s about the only person he seems to be able to communicate with. After this, Holden feels a little better, and he heads off to the apartment of his ex-English teacher, Mr. Antolini. The comfort Holden hopes to find there is upset when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mr. Antolini petting his head in a way that seems "perverty."

After this, Holden gets awfully depressed. His distress with the phoniness and stupidity of the world focuses as he spends his last afternoon wandering around the city. What bothers him most is that the world seems to have no sanctuary from the phony or perverse in it anymore--it’s a cruel place to grow up. This becomes all the more real for Holden as he wanders around his little sister’s school building and keeps finding swear words scribbled on the walls. Holden begins to envision himself as a guardian of children, someone who will protect their innocence. This hope is crystallized in a vision of himself as the catcher in the rye--a sort of guard at the edges of a field where children can run free and play, a guardian who can keep these kids from falling, in their exuberance, over the field’s edges.

Though Holden tells his little sister he’s going to move out West, this doesn’t pan out. Instead, after a little fight with Phoebe, Holden ends up accompanying her to the park and watching as she rides the merry-go-round, stretching from her wooden horse to reach a prized brass ring. As he watches with a combination of fear and joy, Holden seems to have decided that there can be no catcher, that all you can do is hope kids develop in the harsh world on their own.

Holden never does give a thorough assessment of his prognosis since his hospitalization. But if his voice in the novel’s last few pages is any indication, his time recovering has left him calmer and with more perspective, but still lonely and without direction.

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