Slaughterhouse-Five: Part 3

Chapter 5 (87–135)

Slaughterhouse-Five’s fifth chapter is by far the novel’s longest and most complex. It opens in the usual way, with Pilgrim struggling through time and space, discussing fate with Tralfamadorians and battling fate with his German captors. But there are several aspects of Chapter 5 that stick out as particularly unique. For instance, on page 125, Vonnegut discusses one of Pilgrim’s interactions with a nondescript fellow POW before revealing that “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” This breaking of the fourth wall serves to remind readers of the book’s very first sentence: “All this happened, more or less” (1). In a novel as absurd as Slaughterhouse-Five, whose main plot points include time travelling and a species of plunger-shaped aliens, Vonnegut realizes that many readers may get sucked away in the absurdity of it all and forget that the most important parts of the novel — those regarding WWII — actually happened. By breaking the fourth wall, and by doing it in such a random and matter-of-fact fashion, Vonnegut forces his audience to focus on a tough subject that many would otherwise to disregard in favor of the novel’s more lighthearted and absurd plot lines: War really does happen, and millions of people really do die.

Vonnegut tearing down the fourth wall isn’t the only part of Chapter 5 that calls back to an earlier section of the novel, though. On page 91, one of Pilgrim's compatriots asks his German captor, “Why me?”, to which the soldier responds, “Vy you? Vy anybody?”. This is a word for word copy (minus the accent) of a similar conversation Pilgrim had with his Tralfamadorian captors. In response to being asked the exact same question by Pilgrim, the Tralfamdorians gave essentially the exact same response as the German captor — “Why anything?” (77). The aliens went on to describe to Pilgrim the reasoning for their answer: according to them, every “moment simply is” (77). This reflects one of the darkest aspects of the deterministic outlook shared by all Tralfamadorians, a subject that is touched upon in more depth back in Chapter 5. On page 117, Pilgrim questions the Tralfamadorians in an attempt to uncover their secret to maintaining peace and avoiding war. But he is disappointed to find that war is not a plight unique to Earth — the Tralfamadorians wage wars even more fierce than Earthlings. They just feel that “there isn’t anything [they] can do about them”, so they “simply don’t look at them.” They chose to live their lives in willful ignorance, focusing instead on happy moments for all of eternity. This outlook is ramped-up even farther when it is revealed that Tralfamadorians know exactly how the Universe will end, but chose not to stop it because “the moment is structured that way” (177). Essentially, the Tralfamadorians use their deterministic philosophy to justify not taking action to fix their world’s problems. It is certainly easier to focus on the good things in life and ignore the bad ones — this is the main reason Pilgrim is so fond of the Tralfamadorians — but doing so prevents any sort of progress or change from happening. Vonnegut connects the Tralfamadorians’ wars with the real wars that really do happen back on Earth through these simple conversations, revealing the true dangers of the ignorance is bliss way of life. In this subtle way, Vonnegut once again silently criticizes the deterministic lifestyle expressed by the Tralfamadorians.

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