Slaughterhouse-Five: Part 5 (The Finale!)
Chapters 8–10 (162–215)
For the first time in the novel, Vonnegut puts the effect that WWII had on Pilgrim’s psyche on public display. When Pilgrim sees the “Four-eyed bastards” perform “That Old Gang of Mine” at his eighteenth wedding anniversary, he is ripped through a “time window” (174) and forced to relive, for the first time in the novel, the Dresden bombings in vivid detail. Up to this point, Pilgrim had been painted as nothing more than a spectator of the war, a spectacularly out of place boy allowing himself to be dragged listlessly through Europe until the war’s end. There was no emotional interaction between Pilgrim and his surroundings, and revealing the incredible emotional impact the Dresden bombings had on Pilgrim humanizes him. Coming to terms with the tragedy also opens up new avenues of Pilgrim’s personality, as he finds himself able to describe the Dresden bombing to Montana Wildhack (his human partner at Tralfamadore) — a feat he’d been unable to accomplish years before with his wife Valencia.
Pilgrim once again finds himself trying to describe the Dresden massacre when he ends up in a hospital with historian Bertram Rumfoord. Professor Rumfoord had taken it upon himself to ensure that Americans learn about “the extent of the success” (191) of the Dresden air raid. Unfortunately, Rumfoord does not appear to be interested in historical accuracy when writing his account: in fact, Rumfoord exemplifies many of the flaws that Vonnegut identified with war novels. For instance, he refuses to believe that a person as pathetic as Pilgrim could have been involved in the Dresden raids — Rumfoord considered Pilgrim to be “a repulsive non-person who would be much better off dead” and “wanted” (192) to believe that Pilgrim was lying about his involvement in the war. This echoes Mary O’hare’s fears about Vonnegut’s own recount of Dresden: “‘You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of the other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men’” (14), Mary lambasted. This is exactly what Rumfoord is trying to do with his recount of Dresden — he wants the heroes of his story to be brave, glamorous Americans, pummeling the German enemy into the ground and ensuring the end of the war. Pilgrim’s pathetic appearance threatens this narrative, and the trauma the bombings caused him tarnish the bombing’s glory. Rumfoord also demonstrates the escapism described in my previous reflections. “‘It had to be done’”, Rumfoord insisted to Pilgrim. “‘That’s war’” (198). Pilgrim didn’t offer any rebuttal to this claim — he agreed. It had to happen. Yet Pilgrim and Rumfoord seemingly reached this same conclusion from different directions. Pilgrim certainly conceded that the bombings had to happen because of his experience on Tralfamadore — the moment was simply structured that way. Rumfoord reached his conclusion from a more human, and perhaps more sinister, assumption: he believed the bombings had to happen simply because they were a part of the war. But this attitude — that civilians are going to die during war and there is nothing that can be done about it — makes everyone involved in the tragedy free of guilt. It prevents anything from being criticized and ensures that nothing gets changed. This is the culmination of Vonnegut’s commentary on war: if nobody is held accountable for the tragedies of war, if everything simply has to happen, then there is no point to trying to fix anything, and we become spectators in our own lives — much like Pilgrim for most of the novel. We must not accept that we are simply bugs trapped in amber.
Additionally — and this only tangentially related to Slaughterhouse -Five — I remember Mrs. Newton showing us this video of Vonnegut giving a speech during English last year. I love this video because, not only is it a hilarious demonstration of Vonnegut’s voice as an author, but it exemplifies how non-conventional Slaughterhouse-Five’s non-linear structure is. Vonnegut throws all of the tropes he discusses in the video out the window when writing Slaughterhouse-Five — and the novel is all the better for it.