Slaughterhouse-Five Historical Context

‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut is a famously semi-autobiographical novel about the author’s experiences in the Second World War.

At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut spends several pages discussing why he wanted to write this novel, the amount of time it took him actually to start it, and how he considered its structure and purpose. As a narrator and character in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s opinion of events is crucial. He lived much of what Billy experienced and conveyed it to the reader through his satirical lens.

Slaughterhouse-Five Historical Context

Here is an example from the beginning of the novel when Vonnegut is describing his own life. The mock-seriousness with which he addresses war and death is an important part of the novel: 

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

Vonnegut describes how it took him twenty years to write about Dresden and his broader experiences in WWII. He survived by chance, as Billy does. To finally write about what happened to him, he has to create a nonlinear narrative that jumps around in history, the only way to tell an unbearable story. He conveys a sentiment shared with him that: 

[…] even if the wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

When the Slaughterhouse-Five opens, Vonnegut informs the reader what the first and last lines of the book will be. The story has already been written, and Billy’s fate solidified. (This is an allusion to the broader discussion of time that occurs throughout the book.) He also tells the reader that everything they’re about to read “happened, more or less.” He adds onto this saying: 

The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

When reading Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s hard to tell how much of Billy’s story is Vonnegut’s and how much is pure fiction. What is certainly true is that Vonnegut was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a student. He later enlisted in the army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. His mother committed suicide shortly before Vonnegut deployed, which mimics a loss Billy suffers in the novel.

Vonnegut was deployed to Europe and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. This conflict took place in December of 1944 and was also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. It lasted until almost the end of January of the next year. It was intended to stop the Allied use of the port of Antwerp in Belgium. Vonnegut was captured on December 22 with 50 American soldiers, as Billy Pilgrim was. He was also sent to Dresden, where he lived in a slaughterhouse. He experienced the firebombing of Dresden and recalled the sound of sirens going off whenever another city was bombed. He survived the main assault on the city by hiding in a meat locker underground.

All of these events are described in the novel from Billy’s perspective. He also meets several characters along the way that Vonnegut knew in real life. Vonnegut was repatriated after the war and discharged with a Purple Heart for frostbite he’d suffered. Soon after this, he married Jane Marie Cox, as Billy got married. 

With Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut intended to write a book about Dresden and what happened to the citizens of the city. In four raids between February  13th and 15, the Allied forces of the United States and Great Britain dropped 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, destroying ninety percent of the city center. Up until this point, the city had remained untouched. It destroyed 1,600 acres and the deaths of at least 130,000 people. To this day, there is debate regarding the justness of this attack and whether or not the Americans and British did enough to target rail transport and communication centers.

The trauma Billy experienced at Dresden is one of the primary memories of his later life. For a time, he blocks it out. That is until a musical performance triggers his memories. He remembers hiding in the meat locker while everyone else in the city died a horrible death. He was helpless to assist those around him. The following sentences are included in the passage where Billy finally remembers what happened: 

Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

The “organic” parts of the city, the people, plants, animals, and every other kind of life were the easiest to destroy. It vanished unbelievably quickly, a feature of Vonnegut’s broader message about war and what it does to those who participate in it or are victimized by it.

Publication Context 

Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969 in the midst of the Vietnam War. After it came into the public spotlight, it solidified Vonnegut’s reputation as an anti-war writer. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and readers easily drew comparisons between this conflict and the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut’s reputation allowed him to speak at different anti-war rallies and become a favorite writer among college-age students. He gained a devoted following of those who agreed with his critiques of the United States, contemporary materialism, and the “American Dream.” He was awarded several honorary degrees during this period as well. 

About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.

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