Slaughterhouse-Five: Literature Review I. In his review of Kurt Vonnegut s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Keith McKean entertains

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1 Slaughterhouse-Five: Literature Review I In his review of Kurt Vonnegut s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Keith McKean entertains the idea that the narrator of the novel is Vonnegut himself. The facts between the narrator s experience in World War II and Vonnegut s do align, therefore making this novel a possible autobiographical account. Throughout his article, McKean continues to analyze the novel and its main character. Slaughterhouse-Five is certainly an antiwar novel, one with an antihero (McKean, 70). Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut s main character, gained neither fame nor glory from his time serving in the war. While he did become successful in his career and had a family, neither of these outcomes were due to his military service. Instead, Billy Pilgrim loses his soul, his innocence, [and] his psychic balance (McKean, 70). McKean progresses to make the insinuating claim that civilization is the slaughterhouse that destroyed Billy Pilgrim (70). When he departed from O Hare, the narrator said, If you re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob (Vonnegut, 212). Although this sentence clarifies that the narrator is not Billy Pilgrim, there could be a parallel drawn between the two men. The true and innocent Billy Pilgrim can no longer exist after having experienced World War II and the bombing of Dresden. The narrator, however, returns to his life after the war believing he is a glorified war hero. Only later in life does he realize that his true purpose needs to be to educate his readers of the horrors and brutality faced in war, just as Billy decides that it is his duty is to educate others about his experience on Tralfamadore. At this realization, the narrator is never referred to as Wild Bob again. McKean proceeds to address the fact that preaching against war and its violence is pointless. Just as the Tralfamadorians saw the events of time as facts that could not be altered

2 and could only exist, McKean compares attempts to stop the slaughtering of humans to that of attempts to stop a glacier from moving; it cannot be done. Cleverly, McKean ties in the reoccurring phrase so it goes as the only appropriate response to the addiction of man to violence and war. Nothing can be done to change neither man nor war, so one can only shrug his or her shoulders and move on. In the next paragraphs of his article, McKean addresses Vonnegut s ability to break the confines that other novels must operate in, by allowing Billy to become unstuck in time (70). With this unique ability, Billy s time-traveling moments are carefully selected by Vonnegut to serve the ultimate purpose of his novel: to show the harm that civilization inflicts upon naïve and innocent individuals. Next, McKean proceeds to compare and contrast Vonnegut s Slaughterhouse-Five with Mark Twain s The Mysterious Stranger. Similarly to the Tralfamadorians, Twain included the character of Satan who is a visitor from outerspace (McKean, 70). In both stories, moments in time simply are; the outcomes of these moments have already been structured and predetermined so that humans have no choice but to follow the structure with no question. Yet another comparison made between the two stories is the lack of a specified villain. Instead, in Slaughterhouse-Five, all humans shared a part of the blame for World War II. Although it was ultimately the Germans who began the war and committed the most gruesome and violent acts towards their fellow but inferior human beings, it was the Americans, along with the British Air Force, who bombed Dresden in 1945, killing 135,000 people, the most casualties sustained at once throughout the whole war. McKean concludes his article with a contradictory view. Billy Pilgrim was told by the Tralfamadorians to concentrate on the good and beautiful memories and events of life.

3 Ultimately, while the events of life are unpredictable and cannot be avoided, humans have the choice to make their experience with life a positive one. While Billy Pilgrim did heed their advice, McKean leaves his readers with one last thought: the beautiful and good moments in life are far and few in between for poor Billy Pilgrim. Instead, he lives mostly in painful indignity, reliving hurtful memories from the past because those exist in more abundance, as might be the standard quality of life for all of humanity (McKean, 71). Literature Review I: Relevancy in the Classroom Keith McKean s article Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut presents the discussion of the true identity of his narrator, as well as the impact that the narrator s characterization has on the story. As a first-time reader of this novel, I was confused by the narrator s relationship to Vonnegut, the story, and Billy Pilgrim. Students, as first-time readers will also be confused about the narrator, and this identity is significant to Vonnegut s work. Therefore, I believe it is important to have at least two class discussions about who Vonnegut s narrator is. One should take place the first time the class discusses the novel, which would be after the first several chapters. At this point, students will mostly be making predictions with some support from the text. However, this discussion will remind them to be thinking about who the narrator is as they continue to read the rest of the novel. Then, after all students have reached the conclusion of the novel, we should devote at least one other class discussion as to who the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five might be. This will give students the opportunity to support their beliefs with details of the story and cross-check them with facts from Vonnegut s life.

4 Finally, as a possibility for an essay prompt, I believe students should be challenged to defend the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut s Slaughterhouse-Five. I believe it is important for students to understand what defines a work as having this distinction. By including these qualifications within the classroom on a frequent basis, students will begin to think about them more regularly. The reason I stress the importance of this defense for Slaughterhouse-Five is because, reading this novel for the first time, it did not stand out as an acclaimed piece of literature. Its prose was simple, as was its vocabulary. After looking, however, at the definition of literary merit as determined by the College Board, it is evident why so many high school English classes have read Slaughterhouse-Five over the years. The qualifications as determined by the AP College Board are as follows: The work of literature: 1. Entertains the reader and is interesting to read. 2. Does not merely conform to the expectations of a single genre or formula. 3. Has been judged to have artistic quality by the literary community (teachers, students, librarians, critics, other writers, the reading public). 4. Has stood the test of time in some way, regardless of the date of publication. 5. Shows thematic depth: The themes merit revisiting and study because they are complex and nuanced. 6. Demonstrates innovation in style, voice, structure, characterization, plot and/or description. 7. May have a social, political or ideological impact on society during the lifetime of the author or afterward. 8. Does not fall into the traps of pulp fiction such as clichéd or derivative descriptions and plot devices, or sentimentality rather than earned emotion. 9. Is intended by the author to communicate in an artistic manner. 10. Is universal in its appeal (i.e., the themes and insights are not only accessible to one culture or time period). (Gilmore, 7) Hopefully, once my students begin justifying the merit behind works of literature for themselves, they will be able to decode many of the deeper meanings in these works. My students will have the opportunity to determine for themselves what the most important aspects

5 of a novel are to them, with the only guidance being that teachers have already pre-selected these novels as being important enough to teach.

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