Slaughterhouse-Five: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Four-Dimensional Masterpiece

After Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had become wealthy from his best-selling 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, he wryly commented “that only one person benefited [from the aerial bombing of Dresden in World War II]… not two or five or ten. Just one.” That person, he told the interviewer, was himself.

It’s a characteristically incisive, witty observation from an author who has become famous for his darkly humorous perspective on the world. And in turn, the entire literary world has benefited from the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps the most noteworthy of his novels in a long and storied career.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrestles with his war experiences with a whimsical agility that cuts into the heart of what it means to be human. How do we exist in a world that seems incomprehensible? What do the absurd stories we tell reveal about ourselves? Is there a fundamental beauty that forms the foundation of accepting life for what it is?

Slaughterhouse-Five is a singularly unique work, a novel that rejects classification—Is it science fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it a nonlinear postmodernist experiment?—and persistently folds in on itself in a bravura display of narrative gymnastics. The book is wonderful as a literal narrative, as a piece of fantastical farce, as a time travel epic, as a glimpse into the fractured mind of a soldier… Included on many of the lists of the best novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five’s themes provide a somewhat fractured lens through which the reader can come to grips with the Second World War and the decades that followed. On a more personal level, Vonnegut was 47 years old when the novel was published, and in many ways this book captures a midlife crisis laid bare.

Famously, Slaughterhouse-Five was a difficult undertaking for the author: Vonnegut spent nearly a decade on his “war book,” before finally resolving his artistic issues and settling on the story. The issue? How to capture and convey his reflections on World War II and his experiences in Dresden. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” Vonnegut writes in the foreword.

Yet of the many books written about war in the 20th century, a century scarred by conflict like no other, Slaughterhouse-Five may stand above them all for its success in expressing the dreadful costs and the impact the horrors and absurdities of modern warfare can have on the human psyche. Yet the book doesn’t dwell on gore or carnage. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five is memorable for its humor, albeit gallows humor, at times. The book even includes several of the author’s crude but effective sketches, and a limerick or two. Vonnegut’s style is casual, bordering on flippant. That’s by design, a way of facing the more nonsensical aspects life and the powerlessness we all have as simple set pieces in a vast, often grim world.

At the core of the novel is Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in World War II, when he witnessed the horrific firebombing of Dresden. Allied planes delivered death to tens of thousands of people in that German city, a horrific event,  and one that seems impossible to understand or rationalize as anything but an ultimately pointless display of force and aggression.

Vonnegut expertly blends fiction into autobiography, sometimes in the same paragraph. In one sentence, the author propels the story forward, ever mindful of pithiness. Then in the next he breaks the fourth wall to explain how he wrote that part of the story, and how it relates to his own experiences as a POW.

Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a placeholder for Vonnegut himself. The main character is tall, gangly, and a misfit. His appearance as a POW with ill-fitting clothes elicits laughter. All of those things were true of Vonnegut when he was captured by the Germans in the last months of the war, and forced to bunk in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden, from which the book gets its name.

This is a three-layer story that loops in on itself and bounces around quite a bit, but never in a jarring manner. First, there is the straightforward POW story: Pilgrim surviving in a smoldering city and witnessing the aftermath of one of the worst air bombings in human history. Second, Vonnegut examines Billy’s post-war life as a successful optometrist ticking off the bucket list items of the American Dream: buying a home, marriage, children, and becoming “fabulously well-to-do.”

Lastly is the tale of Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction that leaves Vonnegut’s protagonist on a strange planet called Tralfamadore, including his time spent in an alien zoo where he is coaxed to mate with a porn star. It’s these disparate elements that lend a time-travel element to the book. Vonnegut isn’t satisfied with only three stories as the tentpoles of his work: he delights in propelling Pilgrim from one place to the next. More accurately, from one time to the next. As the author says. “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

On one page, Vonnegut has Pilgrim describing the experience of spooning syrup in a factory in Dresden as a POW labor-slave. “There were spoons hidden all over the factory, on rafters, in drawers, behind radiators, and so on,” Vonnegut writes. “They had been hidden in haste by persons who had been spooning syrup, who had heard somebody else was coming. Spooning was a crime.”

On another page, we encounter Billy as the lone survivor of a plane crash that was taking him and his son-in-law to an optometrist convention When he is rescued by Alpine skiers who discover him in the snow, Pilgrim is asked where he lives. “Schlachtof-funf (Slaughterhouse-Five),” he says wearily. ZOOM! Then by the speed of a Tralfamadorian spaceship, Billy is back in Dresden during the war, lighting his corner of the slaughterhouse with candles made from the rendered fat of people killed in the Holocaust. Just as fast, we read of Billy being taught by Tralfamadorians that to them, time does not have a before nor an after. On Tralfamadore, the creatures experience reality in four dimensions and thus can see everything at once, and that those events were always structured that way. When a Tralfamadorian learns that someone has died, he does not see it as an end, and simply says, “So it goes.”

It really doesn’t matter much where Billy Pilgrim ends up. The point of Vonnegut’s brilliant work is the impact the war had on Pilgrim’s mind. It’s how he felt about his life and where his mind was broken, or “unstuck in time” that impacted Billy, and by extension the reader.

It’s apparent upon a thoughtful reading of this often funny, yet deeply contemplative book, that post-traumatic stress disorder is not only a theme, it’s actually the point of the novel. The narrative structure is a character in the book. Billy is a young man held prisoner in the war, a witness to unimaginable atrocity. He’s a rich optometrist with a selfish wife and a demanding daughter. He’s a wistful romantic looking back at his own childhood. He’s a captive on another planet, and an observer of an alien species. He’s thrown from a plane, suffering an injury to his head (no coincidence), leaving him foggy and confused about who and where he is.

The term “posttraumatic stress disorder” wasn’t widely used until 1980, and its signs, symptoms, and causes were only just starting to be identified and understood when Vonnegut embarked on his war book. And yet PTSD is everywhere in the pages of Slaughterhouse-Five: Here he is spinning the yarns of his war days. There he is telling us about the intricacies of time and space. And then he’s filling pages with limericks and songs, and stories of war heroes and villains. He tears away his own skin to reveal his guilt, confusion, and outrage at a war that irrevocably changed him and the world he lives in. But, of all the lessons Slaughterhouse-Five offers, perhaps the most significant may be that we’re all in this together: Billy Pilgrim is touched by so many lives, and witness to so many horrific and fantastic events.

Slaughterhouse-Five was, of course, an instant classic, selling more than 800,000 copies in its first year. The book has never gone out of print in the more than five decades since it was published. It made Vonnegut a household name and helped cement his reputation as a popular, preeminent man of letters. Most significantly of all, it remains as relevant today as it was over half a century ago.

Readers have embraced this novel for the emotional resonance of its message: we are all human, all grappling with our place in the universe, and we all are capable of both the most terrible and most beautiful things. Vonnegut took all the confusion and anger and empathy and joy and wove them all together to create this book, a book which has comforted and connected so many of us over the years.

Dan Holmes edits his emails obsessively in order to save on the “1’s” and “0’s” that are sent into hyperspace. You’re welcome. He’s the author of three books. He loves running, cream soda, and his daughters. Not necessarily in that order. Personal writings can be seen at His favorite books are Moby-Dick; or, The Whale and Cat’s Cradle.


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