Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., a successful architect, and Edith Sophia Vonnegut. He had two older siblings, a brother Bernard, and a sister Alice.
Fourth-generation Germans, the Vonnegut children were raised with little, if any, knowledge about their German heritage - a legacy, Kurt believed, of the anti-German feelings vented during World War I. With America's entry into the Great War on the side of the Allies, anything associated with Germany became suspect. The anti-German feeling so shamed Kurt's
parents, he noted, that they resolved to raise him "without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism." His parents did pass on to their youngest child their love of joke-telling, but, with the world his parents loved
shattered by World War I, Vonnegut also learned, as he put it, "a bone-deep sadness from them."
Part of that unease may have come from the idealism he learned while a public school student - an idealism that is often reflected in his writings. To Vonnegut, America in the 1930s was an idealistic, pacifistic nation. While in the sixth grade, he said he was taught "to be proud that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing
to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it."
Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis's schools started him on the path to a writing career. It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, that Vonnegut first began to express his talents, as the editor of the school newspaper.
"It just turned out," Vonnegut noted,
"that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can't imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it." In his case that something was writing.
After graduating in 1940, he entered Cornell University to study biochemistry.
To the young Vonnegut, Cornell itself was a "boozy dream," partly because of the alcohol he imbibed and also because he found himself enrolled in classes for which he had no talent. He did, however, find success outside the classroom by working for the Cornell Daily Sun.
Vonnegut's days at the eastern university were interrupted by America's entry into World War II. "I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year," he admitted. "I was delighted to join the army and go to war." In January 1943 he volunteered for military service.
He ended up as a battalion intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division.
On Mother's Day in 1944 Vonnegut received leave from his duties and returned home to find that his mother had committed suicide the previous evening.
Three months after his mother's death, Vonnegut was sent overseas just in time to become engulfed in the last German offensive of the war - the Battle of the Bulge. Captured by the Germans, Vonnegut and other American prisoners were shipped in boxcars to Dresden - "the first fancy city" he had ever seen, Vonnegut said. As a POW, he found himself quartered in a slaughterhouse and working in a malt syrup factory. On Feb. 13, 1945, the air raid siren went off in Dresden and Vonnegut, some other POWs and their German guards found refuge in a meat locker located three stories under the slaughterhouse.
They happened to live through the firebombing of Dresden (an incident that killed more people then in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined).
"It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around," Vonnegut said. "When we came up the city was gone. They burnt the whole damn town down."
Freed from his captivity by the Red Army's final onslaught against Nazi Germany and returned to America, the soldier - Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - tried for many years to put into words what he had experienced during that horrific event. At first, it seemed to be a simple task. "I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do
would be to report what I had seen," Vonnegut noted.
It took him more than twenty years, however, to produce Slaughterhouse-Five wich has retained the reputation as Vonnegut's greatest, and most controversial, work. It has been used in classrooms across the country, and also been banned by school boards. In 1973 school officials in Drake, North Dakota, went so far as to confiscate and burn the book, an action Vonnegut termed "grotesque and ridiculous." He was glad, he added, that he had "the freedom to make soldiers talk the way they do talk."
All his books are strongly satirical and ironical (Vonnegut often uses very dark humor), funny, compassionate and extremely wise. They mostly have a very poor plot (or none at all) and the emphasis is put onto the rather comic and pathetic characters. Kurt Vonnegut also very often uses science fiction and comic book formulas (quick action, short dialogues etc.), which usually puts his books onto bookstore shelves marked "sci-fi".
Slaughterhouse-Five; or The Children's Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death is surely the best achievement of Kurt Vonnegut and even one of the most acclaimed works in modern American literature. It is a very personal novel which draws upon Vonnegut's own experience in World War Two. Vonnegut manages to tell the reader many things and it is hard to decide, what exactly is the main theme. It is a novel about war, about the cruelty and violence done in war, about people and their nature, their selfishness, about love, humanity, regeneration, motion, and death.
The book has two narratives. One is personal and the other is impersonal. The later is the story of Billy Pilgrim who, similarly to the author, fights in World War Two, is taken prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the fire-storming of Dresden and is unsimilar to him kidnapped by the small green inhabitants of planet tralfmador. The personal narrative is Vonnegut's own story of writing a book about the worst experience of his life. It appears mostly in the first chapter, and describes his temptation to write a book about Dresden and his efforts to finally produce it.
Billy Pilgrim has a unique ability to become "unstuck in time", which means that he can uncontrollably drift from one partof his life to another "and the trips aren't necessarily fun," The whole book is organized in the same way Billy moves in time. It consists of numerous sections and paragraphs strung together in no chronological order, seemingly at random. The whole narration is written in the past tense, so that the reader cannot identify where the author's starting point is. This Aspect of the book is identical with the Tralfamadorian type of books:
„There isn't any particular relationship between
all the messages, except that the author has chosen them
carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce
an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and
deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no
suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love
in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments
seen all at one time.“
In my opinion, however, the narration is linear. One period of Billy's life is told in a line - Billy's story from the war. I admit that the line of narration is broken by many other events, but every time a war story begins, it takes up the narrative at the moment when the previous war story ended. It seems that Vonnegut, who had wanted to write a war novel, now wanted to avoid writing about it. The war seems to have been a great tempting magnet for him, and Vonnegut was trying to escape its power. He managed to do so, to some extent, but every now and then the story falls back into World War Two.
The Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five
The first theme of Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the most obvious, is the war and its contrast with love, beauty, humanity, innocence etc. Slaughterhouse-Five manages to tell us that war is bad for us and that it would be better for us to love one another. To find the war's contrast with love is quite difficult, because the book doesn't talk about any couple that was cruelly torn apart by the war (Billy didn't seem to love his wife very much, for example.) Vonnegut expresses it very lightly, uses the word "love" very rarely, yet effectively. He tries to look for love and beauty in things that seemingly are neither lovely nor beautiful. For example, when Billy was captured by the group of Germans, he didn't see them as a cruel enemy, but as normal, innocent people. "Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy. The boy was as beautiful as Eve."
An interesting contrast in Vonnegut's books is the one between men and women. Male characters are often engaging infights and wars, and females try to prevent them from it.
The most often expressed theme of the book, in my opinion, is that we, people, are "bugs in amber." The phrase first appears when Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorian flying saucer:
„Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,' said
the loudspeaker. 'Any questions?'
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired
at last: 'Why me?'
'That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr.
Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?
Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs
trapped in amber?'
'Yes.' Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his
office which was a blob of polished amber with three
lady-bugs embedded in it.
'Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the
amber of this moment. There is no why.“
This rather extraterrestrial opinion can be interpreted as our being physically stuck in this world, that we don't have any choice over what we, mankind as a whole, do and what we head for. The only thing we can do is think about everything, but we won't affect anything. This idea appears many times throughout the novel. For example, Billy knew the exact time when he would be killed, yet didn't try to do anything about it. Anyway, he couldn't have changed it. The death bears comparison with mankind's fate. The main thing Vonnegut probably wanted people to think about has something to do with wars on Earth. Vonnegut says so in the part where Billy discusses the problems about wars with the Tralfamadorians. They tell him that everything is structured the way it is and that trying to prevent war on Earth is stupid. This means that there always will be wars on Earth, that we, people, are "designed" that way. There might be people striving for eternal peace, but those people must be very naive and probably don't know humankind's nature. We know that wars are bad and we would like to stop them, but we are "stuck in amber." This point of view also might explain why there are no villains or heroes in Vonnegut's books. All the characters are „Comic, pathetic pieces, juggled about by some inexplicable faith, like puppets," If there is no-one to take the blame for the bad happenings in the book, it can only mean that the villain is God Himself. God Almighty had to be the one who put us into the amber, who had created us the way we are.
„There are almost no characters in this story, and
almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the
people in it are so sick and so much the listless
playthings of enormous forces.“
Another theme of the novel is that there is no such thing as a soldier. There is only a man, but never a soldier. A soldier is not a human being any more.
Vonnegut opposes any institution, be it scientific, religious, or political, that dehumanizes man and considers him a mere number and not a human being.
Another obvious theme of the book is that death is inevitable and that no matter who dies, life still goes on. The phrase "So it goes" recurs one hundred and six times: it appears everytime anybody dies in the novel, and sustains the circular quality of the book. It enables the book, and thus Vonnegut's narration, to go on. It must have been hard writing a book about such an experience and it probably helped the author to look upon death through the eyes of Tralfamadorians:
„When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he
thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in
the particular moment, but that the same person is just
fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear
that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the
Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it
But does it mean tat when something awful happens, we should just say "So it goes," turn our heads, and think of happier things. There is a slogan that appears twice throughout the novel:
„God grant me the sevnity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,and wisdom always to tell the difference“
But among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
Mother Night is Vonnegut's third novel and centers on an American playwright, Howard Campbell, who finds himself in Germany when WWII erupts. Rather than return to the States he is convinced by an American secret agent to remain in Germany as a spy while posing as a Nazi propagandist.He does this job all too well and is considered by many to be one of the most powerful war criminals. After the war he returns home and plods along in obscurity, until, late in his life he confides his true identity to his neighbour, who, in reality, is a Russian spy. His address is given to American nazi organisations who celebrate him as their hero. His long lost wife appears again, but in truth the woman who pretends to be her is her sister, a Russian spy as well. Betrayed by his friend and lover, he turns himself in to his Jewish dentist and is taken to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. When the American agent who recruited him offers proof of his true identity he commits suicide. ‘Tonight is the night I will hang Howard W. Campbell for crimes against himself’
This novel is about innocence and guilt, about truth and fiction, about love and betrayal. It is a challenge to our moral sense.
Is Howard W. Campbell guilty? And of what? By carrying out the orders of the government of the United States he committed crimes against mankind. By writing brilliant propaganda pieces he turned against his own art, but lived very well with his beloved wife. In order to be a good spy he was a good Nazi. So it becomes difficult to distignuish between guilt and innocence. ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about wht we pretend to be.’
This 127 chapter novel is the story of Hoenikker family and the ultimate destruction
of the world. Felix Hoenikker is the man responsible for creating the doomsday device known as "Ice-9." The Ice-9 is unique in that it freezes water at a much higher temperature. After his death, the children go their seperate ways only to wind up on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo when Frank Hoenikker gives Ice-9 to San Lorenzo's dictator, Papa Monzano. Tragedy strikes when Papa Manzono accidently ingests the Ice-9 and turns himself into human icicle. Matters complicate further when Papa's dead body accidently tumbles down a great hill and into the sea, thus freezing all water in the world and killing nearly everyone. The narrator John, who is to marry Papa's daughter Mona, is one of the few to survive along with the contraversial religeous figure Bokonon. Bokonon proclaims to John that Ice-9 is God's final practical joke whereupon the novel ends with this quote from Bokonon:
"If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity...
I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumb my nose at You Know Who."
In this novel Vonnegut makes a very cynical evaluation of the world and its possibility for human-assisted apocalypse and our inability to do anything about it.
Vonneguts main idea
I think that Vonnegut wanted to tell us, the readers, that no matter what happens, we should retain our humanity. We should not let anybody or anything reign upon our personalities, be it a god, be it a politician or anybody else. We should be ourselves - human and humane beings.