What is the central theme of Slaughterhouse Five?

I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five a few days ago and was thinking about what Vonnegut meant to accomplish with the book. I’ve always heard it said that it’s an anti-war book. The first chapter says as much. But… That’s not what it seems like to me.

To me it seems like the book is more about inevitability than war. He used the phrase “So it goes” whenever there was a mention of death, which seemed like a way of saying ''we will all die" many times throughout the story. Also, the Tralfamadorians explanation of time leaves no room at all to believe in free will.

So, is this really an anti-war book? Or did Vonnegut just think that the setting of WWII and the fire-bombing of Dresden was a fitting back-drop for a different theme?

I don’t think S5 is specificaly an antiwar story. IIRC it was first published during the Vietnam era, when practically any mention of war in a novel was considered antiwar.

I think that the theme of the novel is broadly the same theme as in most of Vonnegut’s novels: Life is meaningless and pointless, the universe doesn’t care one fig about the human race, humans’ myopia and self-delusion blinds them to this fact, and their folly leads them to their own destruction. His novels are based on creating scenerios that brutally rub this in the reader’s face. To take only two other examples:

Cat’s Cradle- Scientist working for the military creates Ice-9, a self-catalyzing form of solid water. If it ever gets loose, it will render the Earth uninhabitable. By a comedy of errors, it gets loose. The presumtion that Mother Earth will always be there for her children is disproven.

Galapagos- A mixed group of people end up stranded on one of the Galapagos islands just as civilization collapses. The rest of the human race eventually becomes extinct, while the islanders over millions of years evolve into seal-like animals. Intelligence as a survival trait fails, while having warm coats of waterproof fur succeeds.

I think the main theme of S9 is just what was said earlier, that free will is an illusion caused by humans’ insistance that time flows. Having the main character experience his life in random order instead of linearly is a plot device to demonstrate this.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was firebombed. He was horrified by what he saw, and probably spent the rest of his life trying to cope with it.

Here’s a reasonable quote from chapter 1:

I always took the aliens’ description of time, how they could see in it as though it were another spatial dimension (though they presumably not travel throught in the same way), and how they knew how the universe was going to end but could do nothing about it to be a pretty central theme; i.e. there’s no free will. War, like the end of the universe, was one of those things that happened and there was no point getting worked up over it. Certainly it’s a tragedy; however, history flows in its own way and you cannot fight it. In that sense, perhaps it is a little Taoist–recall that painting of the Buddist, the Confucionist (sp?), and the Taoist tasting vinegar and the Taoist is the only one smiling…

Vonnegut is basically just really really cynical about everything. So it goes.

Okay, so Vonnegut is a reasonably decent writer, in terms of constructing sentences and making the reader care. But in terms of Slaughterhouse Five, eesh, what a pain in the ass - he is basically giving up on life - predestination wins the day and all we can do is suffer through the consequences.

Ultimately - IMHO - he is a whiny pain in the ass. It ain’t deep, it’s just an articulate way to give up. I respect writers who ask more of the reader when it comes to finding a way to value life. Even Vonnegut does a much better job with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

I don’t know if I agree that it isn’t deep. I suppose one could consider it as an anti-free will tract on the personal level–I think that’s how I presented it in my first post–but it seems fruitful from the societal point of view. For all the hand wringing people do over questions of things like “why is humanity so pre-disposed to war (and, by extension, evil)?” it may be worth it to step back and consider it from a different point of view. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I seem to recall the aliens considering such hand wringing to be completely mysterious. In other words, why should the individual beat himself up over social forces beyond his control? I don’t see it as giving up on life. We can’t give life new or different meaning just by personal fiat, just because we don’t like the answer to the question asked.