An Absence of Villainous Villains

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, there is a conspicuous absence of really villainous antagonists. Neither are there real heroes; Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is constantly ready to give up. Vonnegut seems to be making the statement that there really is no good or evil, only different perspectives. In his own words from Chapter 1:

“I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.
Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know–you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’
I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.”

Be that as it may, there are several rather nasty personalities who appear during the course of the story, and they are worthy of consideration. There is only one Nazi who appears throughout the novel, which is curious considering that a significant portion of the plot unfolds during the Second World War. Probably the Nazis could not be depicted as anything less than villainous. The rank-and-file German soldiers are always presented as farmers and laborers, ordinary people who have been conscripted like Billy Pilgrim.

That one Nazi is Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American defector. Campbell avoids true villainy by virtue of the fact that he is not a true Nazi either. Vonnegut reveals in Mother Night that he is in reality an American spy, though perhaps he contributes more to the Nazi cause in his attempt to put on a convincing show. He does not subscribe to their ideologies of Fascism and anti-Semitism. He does share their anti-Communism, as do most of his countrymen. Campbell agrees only to fight on the Russian front. That Hitler and Stalin were both villains few will deny. The decision to side with one against the other was a necessity of war. Campbell sees what his government would not yet admit, that the Communists will be the next great enemy of the United States. “Might as well fight them now,” he says.

Roland Weary is an eighteen-year-old tank gunner with delusions of grandeur and a propensity for violence. He finds himself at odds with Billy Pilgrim’s lack of will to live and violently goads Billy to go on. Because of this, he convinces himself that he has saved Billy’s life, and perhaps he has. This feeds a delusion in which he fancies himself one of the Three Musketeers and often waxes nostalgic about the war while it is still going on. He resents Billy Pilgrim for getting in his way. When he comes to die, he blames Billy for the events leading up to his death.

Paul Lazarro promises to avenge Weary. He is one who, according to Tralfamadorian philosophy, is not to be trifled with. He is extraordinarily well connected, able to have anyone killed who so much as looks at him cock-eyed. But his threats and violence seem to spring from a deep-seated insecurity. Perhaps he bullies because he has been bullied. What can be said of Paul Lazarro is that he keeps his word. He threatens to have Billy Pilgrim killed to avenge the death of his friend Roland Weary and, some thirty-one years later, he carries out that threat. Billy Pilgrim knows of this in advance, not only because he was warned but because he is “unstuck in time.” Some have called him literature’s least likely Christ figure because of his serene acceptance of this unjust sentence. He knows that Paul Lazarro has no free will, that the moment is structured to occur exactly as it does.

Bertram Copeland Rumfoord is an unsympathetic old codger but hardly a villain. He views the massacre that took place at Dresden on February 13, 1945 with the cold objectivity of a military historian and lacks interest in the human, personal, individual side of that story. He is very rude to Billy Pilgrim, dismissing anything he says because he believes Billy is a lunatic. He claims that the destruction of Dresden was necessary even though it had no war industry or significant troop concentrations.

Edgar Derby is no villain. On the contrary, he is one of the few people in Germany who is kind to Billy Pilgrim. Derby is, at worst, a petty thief. He steals a tea kettle from someone who will certainly not miss it. It has always been quite common for soldiers to steal souvenirs and supplies from corpses. Billy Pilgrim does it. But Edgar Derby is executed for this while Billy and countless others get away with it. The horrible irony is that Derby is executed by agents of the same military that killed the owner of the tea kettle. The US military is, in essence, saying that murder is morally acceptable but theft is not. According to US law, neither is acceptable. Still, few would argue that theft, particularly under the circumstances in which Derby committed the crime, warrants the death penalty.

World War II is typically presented in terms of good and evil, Allies and Axis, white and black. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he reminds the reader of what many would like to ignore and forget: that the Allies were not as good as they presented themselves, that they killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in cities like Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Implicit in this is a criticism of the use of incendiary devices on non-military targets in Vietnam, which was happening when Slaughterhouse-Five was first published. Vonnegut’s antiwar stance is the logical result of his disbelief in the concept of a clear good and evil, his belief that there are only differing perspectives.

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