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Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut opens SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, his 1969 absurdist masterpiece, with a claim about the work's veracity, versed in his trademark vernacular style: "All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true." Vonnegut fought in World War II, and was a POW in Dresden during the 1945 Allied firebombing that razed the city and left tens of thousands of civilians dead. Vonnegut's memories of his experiences there serve as the work's central point of departure. Author-as-character "Kurt Vonnegut" begins by tracing his ambivalence about undertaking such a project -- and then promptly passes the narrative baton off to an alter ego named Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim, we learn, was also in Dresden during the firebombing; he survived the war by happening to not die in it, and returned home to start a family. Crucially, at some point he also spent time on the planet of Tralfamador, where the natives taught him to "see" time as a fourth, and distinctly nonlinear, dimension. Thereafter Billy shuttles uncontrollably from one moment of his life to another -- "and the trips aren't necessarily fun."

There is one distinct benefit, however, to life on Tralfamador: it is ruled by wholly deterministic forces that, by definition, absolve its inhabitants of any and all moral responsibility for their actions. It is a place whose ruling principle is -- in the words that will eventually mark Pilgrim's gravestone -- "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." So Billy returns to Earth to spread the Tralfamadorian gospel. On his office wall he tapes a copy of the Serenity Prayer ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference"), but as Vonnegut dryly notes, "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future."

Vonnegut's dark humor pervades the novel, delivering a stark message about the absurdity of war and the moral bankruptcy of apathy in the face of it. Like CATCH-22, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE takes World War II as its nominative subject, but was written and published in the midst of the Vietnam War -- and can thus be read as a comment on both history and contemporaneous events. Despite the benumbing effects of modern American institutions, which often leave citizens feeling powerless and impotent in the face of global events, Vonnegut sees a very real potential for individuals to be guided by their moral courage: "And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

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The American Novel