Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Men and Masculinity

By Kurt Vonnegut

Men and Masculinity

Chapter 4, Section 17

A German measured Billy's upper right arm with his thumb and forefinger, asked a companion what sort of an army would send a weakling like that to the front. They looked at other American bodies now, pointed out a lot more that were nearly as bad as Billy's. (4.17.5)

Not only is Vonnegut seriously challenging all the heroic stereotypes of the war genre; he is also specifically criticizing the idea that American bodies are the best in the world. These patriotic stereotypes get turned on their ears in Slaughterhouse-Five, where nearly all the American soldiers are pretty busted.

As America throws more troops at World War II, many of the recruits are too young, too old, or not athletic enough to be there. Still, war demands bodies, no matter what they look like.

Chapter 5, Section 12

The Englishmen were clean and enthusiastic and decent and strong. They sang boomingly well. They had been singing together every night for years.

The Englishmen had also been lifting weights and chinning themselves for years. Their bellies were like washboards. The muscles of their calves and upper arms were like cannonballs. They were all masters of checkers and chess and bridge and cribbage and dominoes and anagrams and charades and Ping-Pong and billiards, as well. (5.12.5)

The Englishmen have been living in captivity for years, eating and resting and staying warm. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe has been suffering and dying. There is a total irony here: the people who are actually fighting the war are ill-equipped boys, and the men who wish they were fighting the war are all cooped up in this compound in the middle of a German prison for Russians.

Chapter 5, Section 40

Most Tralfamadorians had no way of knowing Billy's body and face were not beautiful. They supposed that he was a splendid specimen. This had a pleasant effect on Billy, who began to enjoy his body for the first time. (5.40.1)

Everything is relative. The only reason everyone thinks Billy looks like a clownish, unattractive fellow is because we have billions of other humans to compare him to. Billy also loves to conform to other people's ideas: when everyone thinks he looks like a fool during the war, he dresses like a clown. When the Tralfamadorians think he is a perfect specimen of manhood, he starts to groom himself and exercise.

Chapter 5, Section 41

The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him to imagine sex in the invisible dimension. They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals. There couldn't be babies without women over sixty-five years old. There could be babies without men over sixty-five. There couldn't be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth. And so on. (5.41.3)

We are really interested in this whole idea that babies need more than just one man and one woman to survive. They depend on a network of seven genders in ways we Earthlings can't understand, because we're blinded by our limited, three-dimensional view of the world. For one thing, it implies that there is no such thing as a superfluous or extra person: each individual human being is vital. Here is yet more evidence that Vonnegut is trying to counteract the idea that war or killing might sometimes be necessary.

Chapter 5, Section 55

A German major came in [to the camp hospital] now. He considered the Englishmen as close friends. He visited them nearly every day, played games with them, lectured to them on German history, played their piano, gave them lessons in conversational German. He told them often that, if it weren't for their civilized company, he would go mad. His English was splendid. (5.55.8)

The German major, like the Englishmen, sees very little real action outside their prison camp, so he has the luxury of befriending the English soldiers. They can all be gentlemen together. The reality of war is much crueler, as Billy learns when he sees the Dresden firestorm. These German-English relations seem to arise from an older ideal of war, in which both sides depend on mutual respect. By contrast, all of the bombing that allows the American Air Force to torch Dresden from the sky is the result of mutual ignorance, in which neither side is willing to admit to the humanity of the other.

Chapter 5, Section 61

Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one. (5.61.2)

Throughout the book we've been told that Billy is a totally pathetic specimen of manhood. And yet, check it out—he has a huge penis. Of course, Tralfamadore may just be Billy's fantasy land, so who knows, the penis may just be part of the dream.

Chapter 5, Section 64

In time, Montana came to love and trust Billy Pilgrim. He did not touch her until she made it clear that she wanted him to. After she had been on Tralfamadore for what would have been an Earthling week, she asked him shyly if he wouldn't sleep with her. Which he did. It was heavenly. (5.64.1)

This whole thing with Montana—don't even get us started. This idea that Montana would fall in love with Billy after a week is pretty hilarious. Billy wants to have sex with Montana, but he also wants to have at least a little bit of power over her, so he imagines waiting for her to come to him because she wants him so badly.

After this whole book, in which Billy has been deprived of choice so many times, here he has his dream girl shyly asking him if he wants to have sex with her, as though he'd be doing her a favor: a perfect fantasy.

Chapter 6, Section 13
The Englishmen

What the Englishman said about survival was this: "If you stop taking pride in your appearance, you will very soon die." He said that he had seen several men die in the following way: "They ceased to stand up straight, then ceased to shave or wash, then ceased to get out of bed, then ceased to talk, then died." (6.13.1)

The narrator specifies several times that Billy has a straggly beard for much of his time as a POW—and yet he lives. Of course, he is not exactly the Englishman's model soldier. Perhaps a soldier of the English officer's kind would die from lack of self-respect, but Billy doesn't seem to have had much self-respect to start with.

Chapter 7, Section 9

[A kitchen worker near the slaughterhouse] asked [the German guard, Werner] Gluck if he wasn't awfully young to be in the army. He admitted that he was.

She asked Derby if he wasn't awfully old to be in the army. He said he was.

She asked Billy Pilgrim what he was supposed to be. Billy said he didn't know. He was just trying to keep warm. (7.9.3-5)

This is a kind of funny spin on the Goldilocks story: too young, too old, just wrong. All this surprise over Billy's physical condition emphasizes how shocking it is that he should be selected for survival among these much stronger, perhaps even more deserving men. And yet, he survives.

Chapter 9, Section 2

Rumfoord's left leg was in traction. He had broken it while skiing. He was seventy years old, but had the body and spirit of a man half that age. He had been honeymooning with his fifth wife when he broke his leg. Her name was Lily. Lily was twenty-three. (9.2.2)

Bertram Copeland Rumfoord is like Superman: he's wealthy, well-respected, loves war, and has a hot wife young enough to be his granddaughter. But he is a terrible person. Vonnegut does not seem to think much of hyper-violent, hyper-sexed masculinity.

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