Slaughterhouse Five: Depicting is not the Same as Condoning

Slaughterhouse Five: Depicting is not the Same as Condoning

Banned Books Week is the week in which we pay attention to the books that school districts have removed from schools and kept students from reading. Book banning is censorship, plain and simple. Personally, I cannot abide censorship in any form, because censorship handicaps communication, which is the only way humanity has to reach understanding.

Since Amy covered many of the dumbest reasons for banning books, I would like to look at one novel in particular, and one particular criticism levied against it. I would like to talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and a 1972 circuit judge ruling that said the novel is “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian,” because I think this ruling speaks to a problem with perception in American society that has plagued us far too long. Slaughterhouse Five is depraved, immoral, psychotic, and vulgar (the anti-Christian claim is preposterous and I won’t dignify it further) and it needs to be.

This article is not a review or deep analysis of the novel. There are many other sources on the internet that can provide that information, and I recommend you read the book anyway. Instead this article will discuss elements of the novel in relation to the charges filed against it by that circuit judge. I do not plan to go too deep into details  but here is a Spoiler Warning just in case.

The Charge
Slaughterhouse Five follows Billy Pilgrim and his experiences during World War II, in which he was captured by the Germans and sent to a prison camp in Dresden. Vonnegut uses events in his own life to flesh out the novel, as he too fought in WWII and was captured and sent to Dresden. Though the novel covers most of Billy Pilgrim’s life, it hinges on the allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. That event changed Billy’s life and is what likely caused him to “come unstuck in time” (Vonnegut 23). Through the rest of novel Billy Pilgrim lives and relives significant moments in his life out of sequence, including being abducted by aliens and taken to their home planet Tralfamadore.

Billy survived the horrors of war and witnessed a horrific tragedy at Dresden and, arguably, suffered a break from reality as a result. His story, which is also the author’s story to an extent, cannot be told without the depravity, immorality, vulgarity, and the subsequent psychosis that comes with them. War encapsulates all those elements and a novel that revolves around a war should not be judged because of their presence. Which brings me to my next point-

Depicting Something is not the Same as Condoning It

This seems to be a problem in the American cultural mentality. Great books are constantly thrown out of schools due to “objectionable and unpleasant material,” because someone got it into their head that the Hunger Games encourages kids to kill each other (I heard that argument on the radio when some moron called in). The unpleasant content serves a purpose. Instead of throwing out the book because of its unpleasant content, ask why its there. What is the novel trying to say by using kids murdering each other or the bombing of Dresden?

We live in an unpleasant world, filled with unpleasant people, who often do unpleasant things, and a book showing that to the reader is not saying that the unpleasantness is okay. Its showing the reader the unpleasantness is there and they should be mindful of it. Furthermore, young students who have not yet entered the real world need to know that, if they have not personally experienced the world’s harshness already. And if the student has seen the ugly side of life, maybe reading a book about it can help them cope.

A book’s capacity to show the world to readers is vitally important. You can say the world has bad people in it, and a student may take your word for it, but if you show them those bad people (from the safe space of a book), they can begin mentally preparing themselves for the trials that lie ahead of them. By banning books we are handicapping the children’s ability to deal with reality.

If you have not read Slaughterhouse Five, I cannot recommend it enough. It is one of my favorite novels and Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. He was a brilliant satirist and a mad genius and the world is a poorer place without him in it. Fortunately, we still have his novels and short stories. I will also recommend Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions as they are both works of genius.

I wanted to write about Slaughterhouse Five because I recently found out that it is on one of the school reading lists, in my area and I wanted to shed some light on this great novel and the power it wields. I would also like to tell schools and parents, do not ban books just because you disagree with them. If something in a book bothers you, read the whole thing. Try to understand it. A school district in Missouri voted 4-0 in favor of banning Slaughterhouse Five and only one of the board members had actually read the book. That is unacceptable.

For more information on banned books visit the American Library Association website.

  • In my years of arguing with people about Harry Potter on the internet, I most often found that those who were adamant about condemning the content had never even cracked the spine.