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War - Corrective Lenses - Poems - Angry Satire - Article


In class we'll start by looking at how Vonnegut's narrative strategy echoes that of Wilfred Owen in "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (1917) and "Dulce et Decorum Est" (1917-18). In connection to these poems, consider why Vonnegut prefaces his story with Mary's concerns, and why he sub-titles his novel The Children's Crusade. 

After that, we'll use two more recent lyrics -- "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag" (Country Joe) and "The Bravery of Being Out of Range" (Roger Waters) -- to look at Vonnegut's reaction to more recent American wars.  

For the complete texts of the poems and lyrics, see the end of this page.


In what ways does Vonnegut's encounter with Mary (12m-19m) set up a clear moral framework for what's a fairly chaotic literary ride to follow? How does his encounter with Mary reverberate throughout the novel?

12 m-15 m Mary: "I met his nice wife, Mary, to whom I dedicate this book ... She was my friend after that"

From "Anthem for Doomed Youth": "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. [...] What candles may be held to speed them all? [...] The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; / Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, / And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds."

19 t-m "It is so short and jumbled ...  to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that" 

21 m-22 t "I looked through the Gideon Bible ... and I loved [Lot's wife] for that, because it was so human"

66 m The colonel (Wild Bob) "was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men -- a lot of them children, actually"

73 b-75 t Billy "came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards ... American planes, full of holes ... separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work ... Everyone turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, [Billy] supposed."


15 m-16 t "O'Hare and I gave up on remembering ... services they rendered to Christianity"

How does Vonnegut use Billy, Weary, Wild Bob, Montana, Derby, and Campbell to make the same argument Owen makes in "Dulce et Decorum Est"? 

"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, / Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs [...] If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, [...] / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori."

42 t-44 t Weary: "Weary's version of the true war story ... This was when Billy first came unstuck in time ... somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented this"

50-59: 50 m-51 b Weary: "Weary was filled with a tragic wrath ... Weary was going to break that tube"; 53 t-b "Their commander ... heavenly androgyne"; 55 b "There were about twenty ... Nobody had any good war stories to tell"; 57 b "Billy tried to care"; all of 59

66t-67m Wild Bob: "The Germans sorted out the prisoners ... children, actually ... None of the people who could hear him were actually from his regiment ... Bernard V. O'Hare"

121-2 (full pages) Montana & the tombstone

162-4 (full pages) Campbell & Derby

Group Work: Timeline 1

  1. Draw a narrative timeline including the first chapter set in the U.S. and the 4 segments of Billy’s journey in Europe -- i) the Battle of the Bulge, ii) the box car, iii) the camp, and iv) Dresden. Discuss what happens in each.

  2. Indicate where the U.S. and Tralfamadore come into the timeline.

  3. Highlight aspects of space, as well as imagery, symbols, and religion.

  4. Above this, indicate spatial, temporal, symbolic, and religious structures in YD.

  5. Below, make a line of argument about how narrative structures (such as historical chronology or the relation between symbols) help the authors make their points.

War Publicity

10 t "[Dresden] wasn't a famous air raid back then in America ... There hadn't been much publicity"

11 t-m "We had alot of scrawny veterans ... Secret? My God -- from whom?"

191 t-b "His one-volume history ... a howling success ... such a wonderful thing to do"


How does Vonnegut suggest that demonizing the enemy is part of "the old Lie"? 

1 m-2 t Gerhard Muller: "I went back there with an old war buddy ... if the accident will"

180 b-181 b the blind innkeeper: "Billy's story ended ... Sleep well"


How does Vonnegut argue for an active rejection of war -- rather than a quietist acceptance? 

Quietism: noun 1. (in the Christian faith) devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism. 2. calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them: i.e. political quietism (from Apple's American Dictionary).

From "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag": "Well, come on generals, let's move fast; / Your big chance has come at last. / Gotta go out and get those reds / 'Cause the only good commie is the one that's dead / You know that peace can only be won / When we blow them all to kingdom come. [...] Come on mothers throughout the land, / Pack your boys off to Vietnam. [...] Be the first ones on your block / To have your boy come home in a box."

Group work

How do the following excerpts suggest arguments against quietism?

59 t-61 m - The ghetto and The Lion's Club: "He was stopped by a signal ... The speaker at the Lion’s Club ... bombing Vietnam back into the Stone Age ... and not very moist" (For background on the severity of rioting in 1967, see Long hot summer of 1967 and The Long Hot Summer: Riots in 1967)

i)  -  26 b-27 m & 29 m Corrective lenses: "The most important thing I learned ... which is 'So it goes'"  &  "He was doing nothing less ... his little green friends on Tralfamadore"

ii)  -  116 b-117 m Annihilation: "We know how the Universe ends ... the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid ... Of course"

iii)  -  134 b-135 m At the optometrist: "But Billy went into his examining room ... Father -- what are we going to do with you?"

iv)  -  142 t-143 t American power: "He has had to cross ... never again be a threat to world peace. ... Not even Billy Pilgrim is there"

v)  -  168 t-m The Gutless Wonder: "It was about a robot ... welcomed to the human race"

From "The Bravery of Being Out of Range": "Just love those laser guided bombs / They're really great / For righting wrongs / You hit the target / And win the game / From bars 3, 000 miles away // 3, 000 miles away / We play the game / With the bravery of being out of range / We zap and maim"

210 m 1968 America: "Robert Kennedy ... military science in Vietnam"

Corrective Lenses


What is Vonnegut suggesting about religion through Rosewater, Trout, and Trout's novels? Why is the The Big Board crucial to Billy's state of mind and to what Vonnegut suggests about religion, science-fiction, and psychology? Why is Trout so unlikeable? Why is the omission of Trout and his stories problematic in the 1972 film?

108 m-110 t The Gospel from Outer Space: "So Rosewater told him ... a bum who has no connections!"

104 t-m & 111 t Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension & Trout's biggest fan (Rosewater): "Maybe he was working too hard ... So were Heaven and Hell"; "Billy got that diamond in the war." / "That's the attractive thing about war," said Rosewater. "Absolutely everybody gets a little something"

171 m-172 m "Did that really happen? ... Maggie's cleavage"

101 t-m "Kilgore Trout ... or people just aren't going to want to go on living"

201 m-202 t The Big Board: "The name of the book ... Olive oil went up"

Off the Flatcar

How does Vonnegut get readers to think in radically new ways?

115 t-b The flatcar: "The guide invited the crowd to imagine ... That's life"

73 m-75 m War in reverse: "Billy answered. There was a drunk on the other end ... Adam and Eve, he supposed"

This is one of the trickiest aspects of this novel: Vonnegut mocks quietist otherworldly, Tralfamadorian-style thinking, yet he also encourages readers to think in outlandish Tralfamadorian ways. How can you separate what Vonnegut's satirizing from what he's encouraging? You could start by comparing the passages for VIETNAM above with the ones for OFF THE FLATCAR.

Timeline 2

How would you complete the timeline? How is the novel framed by i) Vonnegut, ii) Mary, iii) 1960s travel (cabs, airplanes, etc.), iv) communists, and v) the Cold War?

How does Vonnegut’s “Now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod” (in the title page of the novel) relate to the final section, materialism, the Cold War, the cab driver, the blind inn-keeper, and Wild Bob?

While Vonnegut makes clear in Chapter 1 that he doesn't agree with the quietism of Tralfamadorean detachment or resignation, he nevertheless repeats their phrase "So it goes." Is he suggesting that there is -- despite its possible callousness -- something valuable or true about this resignation or detachment?

Questions Related to the Final Exam

Why is Vonnegut so much more visible than Koch?

What do the two Billies need to escape from? Is Hamilton, like Billy Pilgrim, also an escape artist? To what degree do the authors suggest that we, the readers, might also be escapist or quietist?

While both protagonists (Hamilton and Billy Pilgrim) seem generally happy and sure of themselves, where do the authors suggest that they share some of the negative feelings -- uncertainty, confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, etc. -- of secondary characters like Billy Kwan, Kumar, Jill, Mary, Wild Bob, etc.?

Why is it that while Vonnegut indicates his own uncertainty and ambiguity, many of his characters are confident and single-minded? Is this situation reversed in YD -- that is, Does Koch appear confident while his characters seem confused, uncertain, angry, etc.?

What functions do Billy in YD and Trout in SHF serve in the development of i) other characters, ii) conflicts and bonds, iii) theme, or iv) narrative strategy?

In the Best of All Possible Worlds

Toward the end of the conference with Styron and Heller (in the conference video embedded in Slaughterhouse-Five Context), the authors are asked to recommend a book they’ve read recently. Vonnegut replies, “Candide,” which was written by Voltaire in 1759. In the following excerpt from Chapter 5, Candide is travelling with the Anabaptist Jacques and the philosopher Pangloss -- who believes that everything (pan) that's bad can be explained (glossed) in terms of goodness, because we live in 'the best of all possible worlds.' After the great Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755 (which killed 30-40,000 people), the group finds something to eat in the ruins and then helps to feed the striken inhabitants.

[…] il est vrai que le repas était triste ; les convives arrosaient leur pain de leurs larmes; mais Pangloss les consola, en les assurant que les choses ne pouvaient être autrement : « Car, dit-il, tout ceci est ce qu’il y a de mieux ; car s’il y a un volcan à Lisbonne, il ne pouvait être ailleurs ; car il est impossible que les choses ne soient pas où elles sont, car tout est bien. »

[…] It’s true that the meal was a sad one; the guests washed down their bread with tears; but Pangloss consoled them by assuring them that things couldn’t be otherwise: "For," he said, "all of this is what’s for the best; because if there’s a volcano in Lisbon it couldn’t be somewhere else; because it’s impossible that things cannot be where they are; therefore all is well.”


In class, we'll see Slaughterhouse-Five in light of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," Anthem for Doomed Youth," Country Joe's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag," and Roger Waters' "The Bravery of Being Out of Range."

Like Greene and Vonnegut, the English poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) saw war first-hand. All three condemn the notion that war is glorious. Greene's statement "I hate war" is similar in its bluntness to Owen's assertion (in "Dulce et Decorum Est") that the nobility of war is "The old Lie." Owen wrote some of the most powerful anti-war poems in the English language. Sadly, he died during WWI in France one week before the Armistice -- on November 11, 1918. 

Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Dulce et Decorum Est (1917-18)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

* From the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Angry Satire

How do "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag" (Country Joe & the Fish, 1967) and "The Bravery of Being Out of Range" (Roger Waters, 1992) echo Vonnegut's satirical anger? 


Well, come on all of you, big strong men, / Uncle Sam needs your help again. / He's got himself in a terrible jam / Way down yonder in Vietnam / So put down your books and pick up a gun, / We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.

[Chorus] And it's one, two, three, / What are we fighting for? / Don't ask me, I don't give a damn, / Next stop is Vietnam; / And it's five, six, seven, / Open up the pearly gates, / Well there ain't no time to wonder why, / Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Well, come on generals, let's move fast; / Your big chance has come at last. / Now you can go out and get those reds / 'Cause the only good commie is the one that's dead / And you know that peace can only be won / When we've blown 'em all to kingdom come.

Come on Wall Street, don't be slow, / Why man, this is war au-go-go / There's plenty good money to be made / By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade, / But just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb, / They drop it on the Viet Cong.

Come on mothers throughout the land, / Pack your boys off to Vietnam. / Come on fathers, don't hesitate / To send your sons off before it's too late. / And you can be the first ones in your block / To have your boy come home in a box.

The Bravery of Being Out of Range (Roger Waters, from Amused to Death, 1992)

You have a natural tendency / To squeeze off a shot / You're good fun at parties / You wear the right masks // You're old but you still / Like a laugh in the locker room / You can't abide change / You're at home on the range // You opened your suitcase / Behind the old workings / To show off the magnum / You deafened the canyon // A comfort a friend / Only upstaged in the end / By the Uzi machine gun / Does the recoil remind you // Remind you of sex / Old man what the hell you gonna kill next / Old timer who you gonna kill next / I looked over Jordan and what did I see

Saw a U.S. Marine in a pile of debris / I swam in your pools / And lay under your palm trees / I looked in the eyes of the Indian // Who lay on the Federal Building steps / And through the range finder over the hill / I saw the front line boys popping their pills / Sick of the mess they find // On their desert stage / And the bravery of being out of range / Yeah the question is vexed / Old man what the hell you gonna kill next // Old timer who you gonna kill next / Hey bartender over here / Two more shots / And two more beers

Sir turn up the TV sound / The war has started on the ground / Just love those laser guided bombs / They're really great // For righting wrongs / You hit the target / And win the game / From bars 3, 000 miles away // 3, 000 miles away / We play the game / With the bravery of being out of range / We zap and maim

With the bravery of being out of range / We strafe the train / With the bravery of being out of range / We gain terrain // With the bravery of being out of range / With the bravery of being out of range / We play the game / With the bravery of being out of range


From "Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five at Forty: Billy Pilgrim—Even More a Man of Our Times," by David Vanderwerken, in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 54, issue 1, 2013) 

[...] While Vonnegut indicts Tralfamadorianism and supernatural Christianity as savage illusions, he argues in Slaughterhouse-Five for a humanistic Christianity, which may also be an illusion, but yet a saving one.

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut associates Billy Pilgrim with John Bunyan's Pilgrim and with Christ (see Hinchliffe's thorough analysis). A chaplain's assistant in the war with a “meek faith in a loving Jesus” (Vonnegut 26), Billy finds the war a vast Slough of Despond. He reaches Dresden, which “looked like a Sunday school picture of heaven to Billy Pilgrim” (129), only to witness the Heavenly City's destruction. Often Vonnegut's Christian shades into Christ Himself. During the war, Billy hears “Golgotha sounds” (119), foresees his own death and resurrection—“‘it is time for me to be dead for a little while—and then live again’” (124), and identifies himself fully with Christ: “Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically. Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross” (169). After his kidnapping in 1967 by the Tralfamadorians, Billy the optometrist assumes the role of Messiah: “He was doing nothing less now, he thought, than prescribing corrective lenses for earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore” (25). Vonnegut has created a parody Christ whose gospel is Tralfamadorian, who redeems no one, who “cried very little although he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol [the novel's epigraph]” (170). Indeed, Pilgrim's dilemma is that he is a double Savior with two gospels—a weeping and loving Jesus and a Tralfamadorian determinist. His opposed gospels drive him mad, resulting in his crackpot letters to newspapers and in his silent weeping for human suffering. Possibly Billy could have resolved his dilemma if he had paid closer attention to the human Christ in the novels of Billy's favorite writer—Kilgore Trout.

While Vonnegut often mentions Trout's books and stories for satiric purposes, Trout, “this cracked messiah” (143) who has been “‘making love to the world’” (145) for years, also serves as Vonnegut's spokesman for a humanistic and naturalistic Christianity. In Trout's The Gospel from Outer Space, a planetary visitor concludes that Earthling Christians are cruel because of “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament,” “which does not teach mercy, compassion, and love, but instead, ‘Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected’” (94). Trout's visitor offers Earth a new Gospel in which Jesus is not divine, but fully human—a “nobody” (94). When the “nobody” is crucified, “The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity” (95). What Vonnegut suggests here is that Christ's divinity stands in the way of charity. If the “bum” is Everyman, then we are all adopted children of God; we are all Christs and should treat each other accordingly.

In another Trout work, Jesus and his father do contract carpentry work for the Romans. They build a cross: “Jesus and his father built it. They were glad to have the work. And the rabble-rouser was executed on it” (Vonnegut 175). If Jesus is human, then He is imperfect and must necessarily be involved in direct or indirect evil. This Jesus participates fully in the human condition. Later in the same novel, a time-traveler, stethoscope in hand, returns to the day of Christ's crucifixion to verify Christ's death—“There wasn't a sound inside the emaciated chest cavity. The Son of God was dead as a doornail” (176). This validation of Christ's mortality is crucial for Vonnegut's hope for us. While Trout also invents Tralfamadore in his novel, The Big Board, Trout is not the “villain” who warped Billy's weak mind as Josh Simpson has suggested: “[Tralfamadore] exists only in Billy's mind, having been placed there by Kilgore Trout's particular brand of literary ‘poison’ [.… T]he ideas contained in Kilgore Trout's science fiction novels are, ultimately, responsible for [Billy's] complete divorce from reality” (267). Yes and no. Trout's human-centered Christianity restores individual agency precluded by Tralfamadorianism.

As mentioned earlier, both Tralfamadorian determinism and the concept of a Supreme Being calling every shot on Earth nullify human intentions, commitment, and responsibility. But Vonnegut's humanistic Christianity in the face of a naturalistic universe demands moral choice—demands that we revere each other as Christs, since all are sons and daughters of God. Not surprisingly, Vonnegut's position echoes that of the Methodist preacher's kid turned hardcore Naturalist writer, Stephen Crane. In “The Open Boat,” the journalist, the correspondent, has an epiphany in which he grasps the indifference of nature:

It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mouth, and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words […]. (309)

The correspondent's insight that we are all in the same boat adrift in an indifferent sea, and that once we realize we only have each other, moral choice is “absurdly clear,” is Kurt Vonnegut's as well. Vonnegut cites The Red Badge of Courage (90), and the courage, sacrifice, and selflessness in that humane war novel appear in Slaughterhouse-Five also. Several acts of kindness, all of which carry Christian overtones, occur: the rabbi chaplain, “shot through the hand” (48) who lets Billy sleep on his shoulder; the American prisoners who were “quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared” (61) on Christmas day; the blind German innkeeper who gave succor to the American prisoners who survived Dresden by allowing them to “sleep in his stable” (156). These few and fleeting moments of brotherhood represent, for Vonnegut, the best in humankind.

While Vonnegut offers several versions of ideal communities in his works—the Karass, the Volunteer Fire Department, and, despite Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s assessment of American prisoners, moments of brotherhood in Slaughterhouse-Five—he also suggests an alternative for the individual, a slogan that provides a way of living. On the same page where Vonnegut says “Billy was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do,” appears the Serenity Prayer and Vonnegut's comment:









Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future. (52) [60]

The Serenity Prayer, sandwiched between episodes concerning Vietnam, is Vonnegut's savage indictment of Billy Pilgrim. In short, Billy lacks the “wisdom” to see that Dresden is of the past and cannot be changed, but that the bombing of North Vietnam lies in the present and can be changed. However, to protest the bombing requires moral “courage,” a quality obviated by his Tralfamadorian education.