The Real Horses of the Apocalypse: Slaughterhouse-Five and the Haunting of Billy Pilgrim
Apocalyptic imagery and the dead bodies of the past and present haunt many literary texts about war. While most apocalyptic stories are told through a purely fictional scope, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five relives the Dresden fire-bombing and the impact this traumatic destruction had on the environment, and the mind of Billy Pilgrim. Through the lens of ecogothic theory, Slaughterhouse-Five reveals how war transforms glorious ecologies into nothing but barren wastelands of human depravity where lush green imagery is replaced by dark grey ash. In the novel, the hanging bodies of dead animals in the slaughterhouse surround Billy Pilgrim before the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the fire-bombing, Billy exists in an ashy wasteland where he is brought to tears by the sight of the dehydrated and overworked horses. These horses serve as Vonnegut’s version of the horses of the apocalypse. These three gothic images embody the lack of humanity in World War II that brought about monstrous situations like Dresden.
There are many things a reader can point to in Slaughterhouse-Five that can be examples of what haunts the main character, Billy Pilgrim. The atrocities of the war, and the hell he lived through before and after the Dresden bombing, are what drives this simple and kind man to insanity, where he imagines travelling through time and living in an alien zoo. Most writings focus around the cruelty of man, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when analyzing Billy Pilgrim. Very few writings, focus on the ecological traumas and the ghosts of non-humans that haunt this man. The ghosts of dead and suffering animals break Billy’s emotional barrier, which can be linked to one common phrase.
If Billy Pilgrim has a catch phrase, it is “so it goes,” as he constantly repeats this after any type of death, both human and non-human. In this sense, Billy recognizes the equality of all living things that exist around him. “So it goes” is Billy’s way to numb himself to the death and destruction he experiences throughout his life. This is Billy’s attempt to separate himself from the atrocities he has witnessed, and is also an indicator of new imagery that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Although, the phrase “so it goes” is a coping mechanism to Billy, it is important to note that he does not discriminate in its usage. Donald Greiner emphasizes that the ghosts of humans and non-humans follow Billy’s consciousness by explaining that “The phrase ‘so it goes’ which is repeated at every reference to death, be it champagne or civilians, is his most effective means to create distance” (48). This phrase is poignant to an ecogothic reading because it is used judiciously with all living things. Whether human, animal or an inanimate object, Billy Pilgrim mourns the death of everything with this phrase. The main examples that draw this reading of Slaughterhouse-Five into the realm of ecogothic is when Billy uses the phrase in the slaughterhouse, and when he chooses not use this phrase in the presence of the suffering horses.
The phrase “so it goes” is used many times in reference to animals and the environment while at Dresden. The title of the novel is not Kurt Vonnegut trying to be clever; it is named after the place the soldiers called home while living as prisoners of war in the town of Dresden, Germany. The slaughterhouse building is described as a “cement block cube with sliding doors in front and back. It had been built as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered” (Vonnegut 152). This is the start of the ecogothic elements of the novel. Up until this point, the focus of death and terror was single-handedly about the atrocities of war. Now, in the POW camp, the Americans are living in a slaughterhouse; one of the most relevant examples of eco-horror in modern history.
A slaughterhouse represents different things to people based on their philosophies. For a carnivore, it is a factory that separates them from the ugly-side of how that hamburger makes it to their plate. In other words, it is a carnivore’s version of “so it goes.” For a vegan, and the soldiers in Dresden, a slaughterhouse is hell on earth. In the book, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green, Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda’s essay “Red” focuses around slaughterhouses and the color of blood. They begin their essay by expounding on the purpose that slaughterhouses serve for modern society: “The position of blood at the heart of the slaughterhouse’s operations reveals the larger cultural repression necessary to the industrial production of meat. What must not be seen or acknowledged by the modern consumer is the death, the spilled blood, of the animal” (28). This brings out the irony of the slaughterhouse being the shelter for these prisoners in Dresden.
Slaughterhouses are necessary evils for people who enjoy eating meat. They separate the unpleasantness of the atrocities within those walls from the consumer. The Dresden firebombing of World War II was seen as a necessary evil by the allies, who also thought it best to keep the bombing hidden from the public. There are two examples from World War II in which the allies took the “low-road” that the Nazis employed in warfare and tried to hide its results from the public:
Britain’s Royal Air Force employed magnesium incendiaries against Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945… These two raids resulted in roughly 75,000 civilian casualties. The United States attempted at first to distance itself from such “baby killing” tactics, but, as the war progressed, such distinctions blurred. (Jones 117)
Late in the war, allies believed that “indiscriminate area bombing of population centers, as opposed to precision bombings of military targets, as a means to shatter German morale” (Greiner 44), would help them win the war. When these tactics not only failed, but socially backfired on the military, they responded by hiding the facts as classified.
Even Vonnegut himself, a survivor of the Dresden bombings, was received with apathy by his own air force. In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut retells a story about writing to the air force to ask about the Dresden bombings and what purpose it held; in which he received a reply that stated “the information was top secret still” (Vonnegut 11). Thus the Dresden bombings served the same purpose as an actual slaughterhouse. The proprietors of the bombings felt it necessary to conduct the raid and subsequently keep the public ignorant of the atrocity.
So Kurt Vonnegut made the story as public as he possibly could with this novel. Billy Pilgrim lives through the same irony as Vonnegut had himself. The slaughterhouse in which they called home was still fresh with the dead animals for which its initial purpose served. The ecological haunting of Billy Pilgrim begins to reveal itself within these concrete walls when he sees the dead animals, as Billy states that: “Down in the locker were a few cattle and sheep and pigs and horses hanging from iron hooks. So it goes” (Vonnegut 165). Billy’s choice to not discriminate his haunting “so it goes” is a reminder of the impact death to non-humans has in this novel. Earlier in the novel he even uses his phrase after mentioning that cart wheels were greased with the fat of dead animals (Vonnegut 157).
This gothic imagery of the slaughterhouse also serves as an analogy to the soldiers’ plights in Dresden. Lawrence Broer describes the imagery of the slaughterhouse as a place that “becomes a grotesque image of human beings dehumanized by war, hanging like butchered animals on hooks” (61). Billy is not in a much better position than these dead animals. One could argue that death would be a merciful release from the horrors that Billy will face for the rest of his life. Billy is in fact dehumanized by war, with the most literal imagery being when he is put on display in the Tralfamadorian zoo.
These events are the pre-apocalyptic usage of Vonnegut’s irony and Billy’s catch phrase, yet the gothic nature of the novel is ubiquitous. From the very first chapter the readers know that the firebombing is on the horizon. Every soldier and civilian mentioned in Dresden is doomed to a brutal death or survivor’s guilt. Before the bombs drop, Billy is haunted by the hanging bodies of dead animals in the slaughterhouse that he is forced to reside in. The ecogothic elements begin in the slaughterhouse and end with the single vision that brings Billy to tears. In the middle of these two images, the horror of war that turns a lush landscape into a hellish nightmare of ash, makes Billy’s mental torment inescapable.
The town of Dresden wears two masks in this novel. At first it is a utopian landscape worthy of pastoral praise when it is first introduced to the reader, through Billy’s eyes: “The boxcar opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim” (Vonnegut 148). Vonnegut describes Dresden like the idyllic landscapes that immortalized Wordsworth and Coleridge. Billy equates the image of Dresden with Heaven. The beauty of this town is the one moment of solace the American soldiers get in the novel. Vonnegut sets up the readers by revealing the natural beauty of the town.
This imagery serves the purpose to lull the readers and the soldiers into a false sense of comfort. This is an important notion for Vonnegut. To Vonnegut, Dresden could have solely represented a hell on Earth filed with death. Instead, he makes sure to praise the beauty of Dresden before showing the death and destruction brought on by mankind. In a war novel, it is important to remind ourselves that the gothic and apocalyptic imagery of nature is caused by humans. Dresden’s scenery is heaven on Earth before mankind drops the machines of war on the beautiful town.
Just as Vonnegut makes sure to describe the “before” in terms of the landscape and slaughterhouse, he briefly describes the night when the bombs dropped: “There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked;” and follows up with the mentioning of the locals “all being killed with their families. So it goes” (Vonnegut 177). This mentioning of “so it goes” is unquestionably the survivor’s guilt. Billy had nothing to do with the death and destruction of the people, land, and creatures outside of the slaughterhouse that night, but he “certainly suffers from immersion in the collective deaths of [the] civilians and from the guilt of survival” (Greiner 41).
The survivors of this bombing not only had to live with the guilt of their survival, but now they had to recover in a post-apocalyptic environment, as Dresden is described as: “one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn…Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes” (Vonnegut 178). The firebombing described as a flame that “ate everything organic” is a perfect representation of the flames of war symbolism in an ecological sense.
As Vonnegut describes the bombs as “giant footsteps;” this is the perfect symbolism for how mankind tries to prove they can stomp out anything that gets in their way, particularly during wartime. No person or thing is spared in the time of war, as everything organic falls under the “giant” feet of war. The only end to destruction of this nature is complete annihilation. That is precisely what Dresden receives. Billy must live with the survivor’s guilt of this bombing, which unleashes itself in the sight of a mistreated work horse.
War and the apocalypse go hand-in-hand in many writings throughout history. The Book of Revelations consists of a war ushered in by the four horsemen, in this famous quote from John: “Then I looked and saw a pale horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed close behind. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, by famine, by plague, and by the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:1-8). Four different horses and their riders, each symbolizing the worst of humanity. These creatures meant to bring about terror and despair in the apocalypse. This biblical version of the horses of the apocalypse is popular even in today’s modern culture in concerns about ecology.
Modern culture looks at topics, such as global warming, as signs of an impending apocalypse. In an article in The Economist the author introduces the topic with the four horsemen: “‘The four horsemen of the apocalypse’: that was the disparaging appraisal by Richard Tol of the University of Sussex of a report published in Yokohama on March 31st by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (Yokohama). This article’s focus around weather changes and “terrestrial ecosystems facing sudden and irreversible change,” is modern society’s fear in regards to the apocalypse, and once again the four horsemen are used to represent the worst of mankind. The only difference being that in this context it is in regards to the ecological destruction of the world. These horses are powerful images of the apocalypse and yet their ostentation is precisely the wrong approach in a world facing an Ecogothic crisis.
Conquest, War, Famine, and Death are all rolled up into one image of these despicable and sympathetic beasts in Slaughterhouse-Five. This novel portrays the true image of the horses of the apocalypse when that day finally comes to humankind. After all the trauma and pain that Billy Pilgrim suffers in his World War II journey, there is one sight that breaks his emotional barrier protected by the phrase “so it goes”:
Billy opened his eyes. A middle-aged man and his wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed—that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet…When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war. (Vonnegut 196-97)
Billy lived through many atrocities in the war. He was a POW captured by Nazis; suffered through food poisoning, starvation, and malnutrition. His own country and allies dropped napalm on the town in which he and hundreds of his fellow soldiers were being held captive. The firebombing destroyed thousands of innocent lives, both human and non-human alike.
Billy’s comforting and haunting phrase “so it goes” is explicitly reserved for talk about death. In this situation, Billy cannot repress his emotions with his catch phrase. These horses that the Americans are treating like machines continue to suffer. The one consolation to death is that the suffering is over and that every living thing will end this way. That is why Billy Pilgrim can justify every death with the phrase “so it goes.” In this situation, these horses lived through the Dresden bombing and are rewarded by being treated like prisoners of war. Billy cannot repress his emotions with “so it goes” because this is not the average life of a horse. These miserable creatures are being tortured beyond torture.
The hanging dead bodies of the horses in the slaughterhouse met an end and escaped further cruelty, which led Billy to compartmentalize their death into “so it goes.” But here, Billy is brought to tears at the sight of creatures that cling to life. A common expression amongst vegans is that all living things desire to live. Here, these horses are fighting to stay alive, despite the pain they are suffering. Their fight to live, makes Billy’s catch phrase disappear.
This is the true monstrosity of the horses of the apocalypse. These despicable beasts embody ecogothic better than any other imagery in the novel. If TS Elliot is correct that the “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper” the true horses of the apocalypse are going to resemble the apocalyptic creatures in Dresden. Mankind’s “giant footsteps” of war will destroy all that is in their paths and leave behind desolate landscapes filled with pathetic beings clinging to life.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not a Gothic novel, but implements gothic monstrosities when the tale reaches the town of Dresden. Billy is haunted by many things throughout the war and while he tries to suppress those ghosts with “so it goes,” he cannot bring himself to bear the sight of the mistreated horses. Through the lens of ecogothic, Slaughterhouse-Five is a haunting tale of war’s crime against ecology in the firebombing of Dresden.
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Elliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men.” Allpoetry.com. Web. 22 Jan. 2017
Greiner, Donald J. “Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fiction of Atrocity.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 14.3 (1973): 38-51. Print.
Jones, Thai. “Firestorm: Napalm and the American Century.” Dissent 60.3 (2013): 116-119. Print.
Menely, Tobias, Ronda, Margaret. “Red.” Ed. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN 2013. 22-41. Print.
The Bible. Print. King James Vers.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. Random House. NY 1969. Print.
Yokohama, J.P. “Apocalyptish.” The Economist. Mar. 21, 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2017