The novel returns, again and again, to a theme of witness and truth. Vonnegut announces in Chapter One that he is trying to write an account of the Dresden firebombing. Vonnegut evokes the disruption and strangeness of war by disturbing the linear narrative of the novel itself, and by increasing the “unreal” nature of the story. The author later follows Billy’s associations of the barbershop quartet to track his memories about the war. Thus the tools of fiction, paradoxically, become the tools of presenting truth.
Many characters question Pilgrim’s alien abduction, but the truths revealed by the Tralfamadorians bear on the rest of the novel. Billy’s experience on Tralfamadore, in a prison where is displayed as a zoo animal, similarly mixes truth and fiction. He is “mated” to a movie star and placed in a terrarium. They have a real child on Tralfamadore, and though he has been kidnapped only for a short while, time on Tralfamadore contains a whole experience of living with, and growing to love, Montana Wildhack.
The novel also makes small references to the Holocaust. What we know about the Holocaust is the result of immense, decades-long acts of witness. Vonnegut’s discussion of the Dresden firebombing similarly wishes to dramatize their horrors in order that future violence might be prevented. The end of the novel starkly captures this spirit. The final scene, presented partially as Billy’s memory, is also a memory of Vonnegut’s: burying the bodies of Dresden in mass graves, and when those graves are full, burning the bodies with flamethrowers. It is an image Vonnegut has taken the whole novel to give us—a report of what events “really were” on the ground in Dresden. And though it is a shocking scene, it is a successful act of reporting and bearing witness. Vonnegut has finally given us access to his experience in Dresden.
Witness and Truth ThemeTracker
Witness and Truth Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
“Well, I know,” she said. “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 . . . .”
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
He didn’t look like a solider at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.
Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and why the victim should laugh.
But lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.
Human beings in there were excreting into steel helmets, which were passed to the people at the ventilators . . . . The human beings also passed canteens, which guards would fill with water. When food came in, the human beings were quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared.
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some . . . . The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. . . . Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene . . . . There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.
The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State. So it goes.
And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.
Tralfamadorians, of course, saw that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines.
Billy thrust it into the vat, turned it around and around, making a gooey lollipop. He thrust it into his mouth . . . and then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.
He spoke of the brotherhood between the American and the Russian people, and how those two nations were going to crush the disease of Nazism, which wanted to infect the whole world. The air-raid sirens of Dresden howled mournfully.
The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.
The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them . . . that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.
If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.
“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” I said to him lazily, “just ask for Wild Bob.”