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The Abhorrence of Mankind and Their Society in Slaughterhouse-Five: Analytical Essay

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The abhorrence of mankind and their society, projected in Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut, once a prisoner of war, revolves around the firebombing at Dresden, during World War II. The tone of Vonnegut’s black humor creates a subtle disguise as light-hearted mockery on a horrific and sore subject of war throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. The pessimistic outlook seen in Slaughterhouse-Five, showcases Vonnegut’s personal bitterness on society, and the devastating effects of war/violence, which society fails to acknowledge the extent of damage. Slaughterhouse-Five reflects a fundamentally negative view of humanity; both the text and Vonnegut display a misanthropic perspective through the use of Juvenalian satire to ridicule mankind on the controversial topic of war and death.

The misanthropic perspective on mankind and society, often times leads to the avoidance of society. This is apparent through Billy Pilgrim’s character, as he shows the tendency to fantasize the Tralfamadorian society, a parallel world to the reality, a living hell Billy refuses to encounter. This society is a safe haven for Billy, he says, “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 goes.’” (27), this shows how the fictional society allowed Billy to desensitize himself of death, one of the inevitable consequences of war, as a way to escape reality- his coping mechanism for PTSD. Tralfamadore is described almost as a utopian society; superior in ways from the world filled with impurities of war and death, desensitizing those exact impurities, shows a glimpse of Vonnegut’s misanthropic perspective on this society.

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Vonnegut’s misanthropic perspective is visible when he downplays controversial subjects by desensitizing the effects. In the beginning of planning his war novel, Vonnegut almost sarcastically states, “‘I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,’… ‘The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.’” (5), this is where Vonnegut’s “black humor” becomes apparent in this quote as his tone is almost sadistic, but really was a way of him mocking mankind and society by desensitizing the killing of Edgar Derby, to make it seem as it was just a mere death compared to the thousands killed. Vonnegut’s repetitive use of “So it goes” after a death, relays a nonchalant tone, “‘And he’ll pull out a gun and shoot his pecker off. The stranger’ll let him think a couple of seconds about who Paul Lazzaro is and what life’s gonna be like without a pecker. Then he’ll shoot him once in the guts and walk away.’ So it goes.” (140), using “So it goes” at the end allows Vonnegut to unobtrusively project his disgust by brushing off death through the satirical method of irony; Lazzaro talks about how his enemy will die, yet is deemed minor with “So it goes”. When encountering the hobo’s corpse, Slaughterhouse-Five mentions that he was “frozen stiff in the weeds beside the track. He was in a fetal position, trying even in death to nestle like a spoon with others. There were no others now. He was nestling with thin air and cinders. Somebody had taken his boots. His bare feet were blue and ivory. It was all right somehow, his being dead. So it goes.” (148), casting again an ironic response that desensitizes war and its inevitable effects. Through a satirical standpoint, the repetitive use of “So it goes”, shows Vonnegut ridiculing the effects of war and violence of mankind as a way to show frustration of how it affects the society.

The issue where war is associated with glamor is thrown into the limelight throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. The association between glamor and war is seen with Valencia Pilgrim, who essentially did nothing wrong and was a loving, dutiful wife to Billy, but set out to be almost pathetic under the misanthropic light where she associates glamor and war, “When the beautiful people were past, Valencia questioned her funny-looking husband about war. It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate sex and glamor with war… ‘I look at you sometimes,’ said Valenica, ‘and I get a funny feeling that you’re just full of secrets.’… ‘You must have secrets about the ar. Or, not secrets, I guess, but things you don’t want to talk about.’” (121), she finds Billy’s unspeakable, therefore, mysterious past in the war as some sort of sex appeal. And on the next page, (122) a picture of a gravestone with the words “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt,” is depicted, which could be seen as Vonnegut’s way of mocking mankind’s tendency (in this case, Valencia) to beautify war once again. When Billy gives Valencia the diamond, “she almost screamed when she saw the sapphire with a star in it.” (174), the association of glamor and war can be seen, as glamor seems to overshadow war as Valencia is completely oblivious the worth and means of the sapphire. In the beginning, when Vonnegut visits Bernard O’Hare, his wife, Mary O’Hare, immediately shows a distaste to Vonnegut’s decision to write a war novel, “‘You were just babies then!’ she said… ‘You were just babies in the war-like the ones upstairs!’ I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. ‘But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.’ This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation… ‘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 those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the ones upstairs.’” (14), Mary portrays the true voice of misanthropists/Kurt Vonnegut through a frustrated and disgusted tone about war becoming a glamorous illusion. Kurt Vonnegut’s unobtrusive disgust is again seen when population statistics are found in an article, “On an average, 340,000 new babies are born into the world every day. During that same day, 10,000 persons, on an average, will have starved to death or died from malnutrition. So it goes. In addition, 123,000 persons will die for other reasons. So it goes. This leaves a net gain of about 191,000 each day in the world. The population Reference Bureau predicts that the world’s total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.” (212), Vonnegut mocks the article’s insubstantial, lousy attempt of justification for the amount of death with the compensation of the greater amount of new lives being brought into the world.

Vonnegut’s misanthropic point of view is seen throughout his text through satire as he mocks mankind and society for glamorizing war; overlooking the horrifying effects of war. The mentality influenced by war on mankind is revolting for Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, who inserted himself throughout the text on events he faced himself. The dark humor, often found in Juvenalian satire, presents a tone of disgust and sarcasm in Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut abhors what war (particularly the World War II and the firebombing at Dresden) and violence does, not only to the people but society as well.

Works Cited

  1. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Dell Publishing, 1991.

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