Places: Slaughterhouse-Five

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism, science fiction, black comedy

Time of work: 1922-1976

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Cape Cod

*Cape Slaughterhouse-FiveCod. Massachusetts setting of the novel’s present-time autobiographical frame in the first and last chapters, Cape Cod is where author Kurt Vonnegut lived while writing the novel during the 1960’s.

Ilium

Ilium. Fictional New York city where the main action unfolds. Modeled on New York’s upstate city of Schenectady, where Vonnegut once worked for General Electric, Ilium (after the Greek name for ancient Troy) is the place where protagonist Billy Pilgrim grows up, returns after serving in World War II, marries the daughter of the founder of his optometry college, and has a successful career as an optometrist.

The novel’s present-day setting of the late 1960’s is heavily middle-class and suburban and, in Vonnegut’s satirical prose, is revealed to be empty of such important American values as compassion and diversity. The novel’s loose plot turns on Billy’s waning enthusiasm for living. His sudden and inexplicable weeping episodes suggest that he is a victim of delayed stress syndrome, due to his horrific wartime experiences. His stress is manifested by his claim that in 1944 he became “unstuck in time.” Since then, he has traveled back and forth throughout time and interstellar space.

Vonnegut’s frame makes clear that the novel’s larger meaning applies to the late 1960’s, when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, riots were tearing cities apart, “and every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.” Scenes set in Ilium–such as Billy’s speaking at the Lions Club or driving through a black ghetto in his Cadillac with the windows rolled up tight–reveal an American city whose leading citizens seem oblivious to the country’s real problems.

*Dresden

*Dresden. German city destroyed by Allied bombing toward the end of World War II. The novel’s most intense action takes place during the war, in which Billy is captured by Germans and taken to Dresden and housed with other American prisoners in an abandoned slaughterhouse (which gives the novel its title)–a real place in which Vonnegut himself had been kept as a prisoner of war. While the city is leveled by an Allied firebomb attack that kills 135,000 inhabitants, both the prisoners and their guards are safely sheltered in a deep underground meat locker, which is “hollowed in living rock under the slaughterhouse.” The novel ends with Billy being freed. While the setting is the historical Germany of World War II, its action is clearly meant to remind readers of the war in Vietnam, where U.S. forces rained napalm firebombs on suspected enemies during the late 1960’s.

Tralfamadore

Tralfamadore (trahl-fahm-ah-DOHR). Imaginary distant planet that provides a setting for this and other Vonnegut novels. On the night of his daughter’s wedding in 1967, Billy is kidnapped by aliens and flown on a flying saucer to Tralfamadore. He is not missed on Earth, he explains, because the Tralfamadorians take him through a time warp that permits him to spend years on their planet, while being away from Earth “for only a microsecond.”

In contrast to his bland suburban life in Ilium and his horrific experiences in Dresden, Billy’s life on Tralfamadore is pleasant. The Tralfamadorians display him naked in a zoo they have built for him, and there he lives contentedly with another earthling, beautiful film star Montana Wildhack. On Tralfamadore Billy learns that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” This relativistic philosophy apparently allows him to live perpetually in the present. His uncontrollable weeping, however, suggests that something is amiss beneath his surface. Perhaps the controlled “zoo” setting and human free will–which Tralfamadorians say is a notion that exists only on Earth–are incompatible.

BibliographyGiannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Astute reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, marking the biblical references and Vonnegut’s personal testimony. Devotes similar attention to other novels by Vonnegut.Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Explains Slaughterhouse-Five as one of Vonnegut’s “personal” novels, as opposed to the earlier ones that adhere to the stricter forms of science fiction. Draws correlations among the Vonnegut novels.Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A complete study of the novel. Criticism is taken from sources that reviewed Slaughterhouse-Five when it was published. Numerous passages of Slaughterhouse-Five are explained in depth, as well as Vonnegut’s philosophy as it was seen by the reviewers of his time.Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A short book with considerable insights into Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels by Vonnegut. The wit, sarcasm, and style of Vonnegut is prominent in the writing of this text.Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Explores the construction, plot, and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five and considers Vonnegut’s sense of aesthetic distance from the work. Chapters include the contribution of Slaughterhouse-Five to the genre of science fiction and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.
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