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Research Papers on the Themes in Slaughterhouse-Five

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Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five challenges the notion of the themes within the novel, which are:

  1. Free will or the illustion of free will
  2. The horror of war

free will as one of its central themes. Early in the novel, Billy's life is threatened when his father tosses him into a pool to teach him to swim. Billy finds that he likes being underwater at the bottom of the pool, choosing to stay. Themes in Slaughterhouse-FiveWhen he passes out, however, his free will is lost when someone saves him from drowning. Later, Billy is again saved by Roland Weary. Individuals interfering in Billy's life undermine his exercise of free will.

The illusion of free will is further eroded by Billy's abduction by aliens. The aliens teach Billy their philosophical posture about fate and the nonlinear nature of time. The aliens believed that every moment of an individual's life had already happened and therefore could not be undone. They knew exactly when they would die and did nothing to prevent their deaths. As Billy adopts their views, he learns the date of his own death, February 13th, 1976. Instead of resisting his fate, Billy accepts the knowledge that he will be killed by Paul as an act of revenge following the death of Roland Weary in the POW camp at Dresden.

The second theme in the novel is the horror of war. Billy and the other prisoners of war are held in a slaughterhouse in the beautiful city of Dresden. During the bombing, the city is destroyed and Billy is astounded by the level of devastation. Billy also witnesses deaths and intense suffering caused by the war. For example, he weeps when he witnesses innocent horses suffering.

In Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut seeks to de-glamorize the picture of war usually presented to young men.  “The story of Billy Pilgrim is the story of Kurt Vonnegut who was captured and survived the firestorm in which 135,000 German civilians perished, more than the number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined”.  Vonnegut witnessed the horrors of a side of war too often overlooked by historians and the general public.  He witnessed the aftermath of a bombing raid that leveled an entire city for no good reason other than for revenge.  As Vonnegut would find out several years after his military service from the man who interviewed him for admission to the University of Chicago, “Most of the British,…They wanted revenge for the London blitz and the leveling of Coventry and the humiliation at Dunkirk and so on.  The Americans had no score to settle…What the Americans had to settle was Pearl Harbor.  …Like the British, they would do it when the war was already clearly won”.

When bombs or other incendiary explosives are dropped on nameless and faceless people from 20,000 or 30,000 feet above them, it is easy to forget that those explosives are falling on living breathing human beings.  Vonnegut wants to make sure his readers and the public in general can never become indifferent to the effects of bombing raids.  Robert Scholes sums up the theme of Slaughterhouse Five as, “Be kind.  Don’t hurt.  Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot’s wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities on the plain in order to save them” (Vonnegut Web 1).  Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden gave him this insight about war and opened his eyes to the harsh realities that come with war.  It is through his novel that he shares his new insights with his audience.  In order to fully make his point, Vonnegut relies on the science fiction aspects of his story.  This is done through the experiences of the novel’s protagonist, “Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who provides corrective lenses for Earthlings.  For Pilgrim, who learns of a new view of life as he becomes ‘unstuck in time,’ the lenses are corrective metaphorically as well as physically”

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