Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated novel about the Dresden firebombing

Dresden firebombing

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Kurt Vonnegut was a bestselling author and considered one of the country’s most brilliant post-war novelists. Undoubtedly, he was among the most inventive. Cat’s Cradle had finally put him on the map in 1963 after he had been writing for nearly two decades. Then, in 1969, came Slaughterhouse-Five. Twenty-one years in the making, this strange little novel widely came to be ranked with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead as one of the best antiwar novels ever written. I was among those who devoured it immediately upon its publication. I couldn’t get enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. I even wrote him a fan letter, the first and only time I’ve ever done that in a long lifetime.


Slaughterhouse-Five, or: The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. @@@ (3 out of 5)


Now, nearly half a century after I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, I’ve picked it up again. I found it disappointing.

Quick cuts and a literary tic

Even today, when we’ve long since become accustomed to rapidly shifting scenes in print and on the screen, reading Slaughterhouse-Five can be disorienting. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, has “become stuck in time,” subject to wild and frequent delusions as a result of having been a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany and witnessed firsthand the horrific Dresden firebombing in February 1945. At times, he thinks himself back there wandering through the devastation, at other times a prisoner of little green beings on the planet Tralfamadore, a recurring image in Vonnegut’s fiction. The result is that the story is at times difficult to follow.

Over the years, Vonnegut used the phrase “So it goes” as sardonic commentary on life. It became his signature, even ending up in the title of a recent biography. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he used the phrase far too frequently for my taste. It even appeared in successive paragraphs. A phrase of this sort loses its impact with overuse.

The Dresden firebombing in fact and fiction

When Slaughterhouse-Five was first published, the most widely accepted estimates of the number killed in the Allies’ most notorious bombing of World War II was 135,000. Much later, German historians digging deeply into newly available records drastically lowered that estimate to the range of 18,000 to 25,000.

In the 1960s, it was believed—probably because the U.S. government downplayed the number—that only about 30,000 had perished when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Now, benefiting from later research, it’s known that somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000 people died there as a result.

In other words, at the time Vonnegut’s signature novel was published, most observers thought the U.S. and British firebombing of Dresden was the worst single incident in World War II. No doubt, that helped account for the impact and popularity of the book.

Another perspective on this book

I’m well aware that Slaughterhouse-Five is still widely considered to be a masterpiece and that my disappointment with the novel is unusual. For example, the print edition of the New York Times Book Review (March 24, 2019) included an essay by novelist Kevin Powers entitled “Slaughterhouse-Five at 50.” Powers argues that “this book is among the most humane works of art ever” and emphasizes “Vonnegut’s unmatched moral clarity.” (A slightly different version of this piece ran online on March 6, 2019. It was adapted from Powers’s introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of the novel.)

About the author

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the best known American writers of the twentieth century. (He died in 2007.) Slaughterhouse-Five was the fourth of his fourteen published novels. Vonnegut himself was, indeed, a prisoner of war in Dresden during the final months of World War II.

For further reading

I’ve also reviewed two of the author’s other novels:

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