Bibliographic Information: Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1969. 215 pages. Tr. $13.31, ISBN 978-0-7587-7978-6
Plot: After the autobiographical introduction, the story centers around Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and alien abductee. The plot is non-linear and purposefully disorienting.
In the course of the story, Pilgrim has several time-tripping experiences and believes that he is abducted by aliens and displayed with a B-movie actress.. At other times, Pilgrim is living his staid, postwar life as an optometrist in Ilium, New York. The most famous section of the book is Pilgrim’s experience as a POW, which echoes Vonnegut’s own war experience. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he and the other POW’s are taken to an old slaughterhouse, no longer used but still hung with some carcasses. Before a war-enthusiast friend dies of gangrene, he convinces a petty thief in the group that Billy is to blame and the thief, grudge-holding Paul Lazarro, promises that he will avenge the death of his friend by killing Billy. He watches the absolute destruction of the city of Dresden, but the POWs are safe because of their bunker.
Billy’s ability to go back and forward in time continues to pitch him into fervors that drive his family crazy. He has envisioned his own demise by Paul Lazarro, emerges during Billy’s speech on time and flying saucers.
Critical Evaluation: Like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut took his experience in World War II and wrote an absurdist novel that appealed to the Baby Boomer’s post-Vietnam take on war. It is a novel that attempts to capture the insanity of war through the prism of history and science fiction. An absurdist classic, packed with gallows humor, Vonnegut describes the insanity of war by pitching his character forward and back in time, creating a crazed novel of amazing genre-bending and social critique. While all of this might sound nonsensical, the craft involved in creating this book is obvious from the first page, as the writer describes his return to Dresden and the outlying areas and mocks the number of years he has been writing his impossible to write Dresden novel. He figured out how to write it by focusing on the insane nature of war (and also the disturbing lull that follows). Hilarious and piercing, it is one of the most important and fascinating novels of the postwar era. Older teens will enjoy Vonnegut’s gallows humor, ridiculous set pieces, and incisive edge as he dissects our society.
Reader’s Annotation: Billy Pilgrim has just gotten unstuck in time, and he is careering forward and back, subjected to relive the bombing of Dresden and to being abducted by aliens shaped like toilet plungers. Will things ever settle down?
Author bio: Born in 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kurt Vonnegut shocked the publishing world in the 1970s with his darkly comic writing – combining history with science fiction. Combining black humor with prickly irreverence, he became a symbol of the traumatic after-effects of that tumultuous post-60s era.
Known as a humanist, Vonnegut experienced several personal traumas during his lifetime, including the suicide of his mother and the orphaning of his sister’s three children when, in the late ‘50s, their father died in a tragic rail incident in New Jersey two days before their mother (Vonnegut’s sister) died of cancer. He adopted the three children. No doubt the tragedies helped shaped Vonnegut’s vision of the world as tragic and comic.
Genre: Science fiction with elements of autobiography.
Curriculum Ties: California Sate Standards: Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills:
Historical Interpretation – grade 11
1. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
California State Standards: English Structural Features of Literature – Grades 11-12
3.1 Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.
Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.2 Analyze the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection represents a view or comment on life, using textual evidence to support the claim.
3.3 Analyze the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
Booktalking Ideas: 1) Focus on the book’s absurdist style – it’s mirroring a society in war and in the middle of huge social and cultural shifts.
2) Emphasize the humor – read a funny passage of the book.
3) Focus on the book as a bizarre –and shocking – classic.
Reading Level: 6th grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Sexual content, science fiction, dark humor.
Be familiar with the book.
Focus on its status as a classic, and the many times it has been called a “masterpiece” by critics. The fact that critics find it to be a cultural touchstone might help.
Here’s a 1969 timeline composed by the New York Times which shows it to be on a list of most important events of that year, right next to global events: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/arts/20090717-1969-feature/
Why Included: I loved the book when I was in high school. Curious to see if it would resonate now, I’ve handed it to a few seniors at my high school and they have gone crazy for it, going so far as to search out every book Vonnegut has ever written.