For your banned book club: Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for political authority, and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including war, death and deprivation. As recently as 2000, it was removed as required reading for sophomores at a Coventry, Rhode Island High School after a parent complained it contained vulgar language, violent imagery and sexual content.  A few members of our group loved this book best, for Vonnegut’s weird and provocative philosophical tangents.

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.

— Kurt Vonnegut

Who is this Kurt Vonnegut?

  • American novelist, satirist, graphic artist.
  • Born November 11, 1922, Indianapolis, setting for many of his novels.
  • New York State Author for 2001-2003.
  • Attended Cornell University 1941-1943, writing column for student newspaper.
  • Trained as chemist; worked as journalist before joining U.S. Army in WWII.
  • After war, attended University of Chicago as graduate student in anthropology.
  • Worked as police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago.
  • Worked in public relations for General Electric.
  • Unadorned writing style attributed to reporting work.
  • Experiences as advance scout in the Battle of the Bulge, witnessing bombing of Dresden, Germany as a prisoner of war, influenced Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • Self-proclaimed humanist and socialist.

What do you think about Slaughterhouse Five?

  1. Describe the alien Tralfamadorian philosophy of life. How do the Tralfamadorians describe the fate of the universe? How do they react to this vision of the future? Does this seem like a promising outlook for responding to your world?  Can you see your own time and experience as one part of a larger picture, or is that a skill that comes later in life?
  2. Billy thinks of himself as a prophet. How is he or is he not?
  3. What is the relationship between Billy and Vonnegut?
  4. At the beginning of the novel, why does the writer-narrator compare himself to Lot’s wife, who defied God by looking back at Sodom and for doing so was turned into a pillar of salt? How does he feel about this looking back?  How do you feel about it?
  5. Has Billy lost touch with reality; is his time travel just a function of his madness?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
  6. Billy is an optometrist. Does his profession imply anything about his attempts to see the world?
  7. What does it mean to these characters, or to real people, to feel “unstuck in time”?
  8. These characters are alienated and lonely.  Do you recognize these emotions in the people in your world? Under what circumstances?
  9. What do you think about Billy’s apathy and passivity?  What about people you know?  Do you believe he chooses his outlook?
  10. This novel has been cited for “containing foul language [and] promoting deviant sexual behavior,” called “vulgar and offensive,” and considered “dangerous” because of violent, irreverent, profane, and sexually explicit content.  Is this true?  And if it is true, is this kind of content a problem for teenagers? Why or why not?

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