From World War II Dresden, Germany to post-war New York, to the alien planet Tralfamadore; Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic novel Slaughterhouse-Five transports its readers through time and space.
Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic novel Slaughterhouse-Five is renowned for its raw retelling of the World War II bombing of Dresden, Germany – narrated by Vonnegut himself, a World War II veteran. The story isn’t simply about Vonnegut, but about protagonist Billy Pilgrim, a fellow World War II veteran who has become ‘unstuck in time’. The narrative is not chronological, instead as it follows Billy through various moments of his life, from the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, to post-war New York in which he lives in the relative present, to the alien planet of Tralfamadore in which he is captured and kept in an alien zoo. The non-linear structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is a large part of what makes Vonnegut’s novel so grippingly compelling: it encapsulates both historical fiction and science fiction, all the while making a significant commentary on truth, violence, and witness. If you haven’t picked up this American classic yet, add it to your list – in the meantime, let’s check out the locations that comprise Billy Pilgrim’s journey.
Located in Eastern Germany and serving as the capital of Saxony, Dresden thrives today as a widely populated and culturally rich area of Germany. The blows dealt to the city in the final months of World War II have not stopped Dresden from becoming the historically and architecturally ripe and beautiful location it is in present day. Reconstruction of the city post its World War II bombing (the same bombing Billy Pilgrim is held captive throughout in Slaughterhouse-Five) has been both thorough and overwhelmingly successful, a testament to Dresden’s resiliency. There are a number of must-see sights within Dresden for travelers, including but not limited to: the Katholische Hofkirche, a renovated Roman Catholic Cathedral that speaks to Dresden’s stunning architecture and history, the Semperoper Dresden Opera House, whose cultural art and performance prowess is unmatched, and Bruhl’s Terrace, sometimes referred to as ‘The Balcony of Europe’ from which Old Town Dresden can be viewed in panorama, as you walk above the river Elbe. Between its Baroque influences and proximity to Saxony – Switzerland’s stunning natural landscape – Dresden is a lesser traveled counterpart than its neighbors Berlin or Munich, and worth the hype all the same.
Upstate New York
Upstate New York is known for its breathtaking natural landscapes and outdoor recreation activities, from hiking to small-town exploring to chasing waterfalls. Billy Pilgrim’s relative present is set in Vonnegut’s fictional town of Ilium, New York. Based on cross-references between the novels in Vonnegut’s literary universe, Ilium can be inferred as geographically similar to real Eastern New York state towns Troy, Albany and Schenectady. For literary similarity’s sake, one might examine Troy as closest to fictional Ilium, as it’s believed that the moniker Vonnegut bestows his fictional town is derived from the motto of Troy: Ilium fruit, Troja est, or “Ilium was, Troy is”. Troy itself harbors a rich atmosphere defined by Victorian architecture in its downtown area. Furthermore, it is home to the Troy Music Hall, preserved from and dating back to the 1870s.
Tralfamadore, Outer Space
Within Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadore serves as a planet on which beings who exist in non-linear time call home. The Tralfamadorians that capture Billy Pilgrim experience all of time simultaneously, watching the universe come to be and end all at once. Their likeness to Billy’s coming ‘unstuck in time’ functions in Vonnegut’s discussion as to relativity and what may be defined as truth, what may be defined as tragedy. This is not time travel but rather a time-jumble: every period of time exists everywhere, all at once. What I believe Vonnegut says here, and with Tralfamadore, is that the summation of our experiences is what shapes us as people. This lesson can be taken into consideration in traveling, as exploring the world and broadening our horizons is one way in which we can harness time to our own benefit, investing ourselves and our perspectives fully into each journey we may be on, near or far.