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Close Reading: Slaughterhouse Essay

“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.”

The first time that I read this novel in high school, this passage interested and confused me. The thought of there being more than two genders present on the planet caught me off guard. While gender is not ever a subject that confuses me, this idea did not make sense to me. Gender, on Earth, is confined to male and female. It begs the question of what the Tralfamadorians consider to be a gender, in the third and fourth dimensions.

Vonnegut leads us to assume that the genders must be those that he listed. We know that to make a human baby, you need a male and a female. Since he refers to homosexuality in this passage, it is safe to draw the connection that he considers homosexuals to be their own gender. That would lead readers to believe that the other sexes are a heterosexual male, heterosexual female, homosexual male and homosexual female. However, that only gives us four of the seven proposed genders.

Based off of that theory, it would be safe to assume that the other genders would be a transgender male, a transgender female, and hermaphrodites. For someone who is an active member of the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and ally) community, this was a plausible, and easy, connection for me. However, if we were to consider what Vonnegut says later on in the passage, it could be that he considers the other genders to be something entirely different.

If readers focus on the exact wording in the passage, it implies that the other five genders that exist in the fourth dimension are the homosexual males, homosexual females, women over sixty five years old, men over sixty five years old, and babies that live an hour or less after their own birth. If these are what Vonnegut has named as the fourth dimensional genders, he said that each of these is required for the birth of any Earthling child. In a way, this is correct. The Tralfamadorians state that there will be no Earthling babies without homosexual males, but there could not be babies with homosexual females. This statement was illogical to me. I believe that it is Vonnegut’s allusion to the different backgrounds that everyone comes from. No one’s family structure is exactly the same, and the discord that the Tralfamadorians speak of are the constantly changing social dynamics of the family structure.

When it passage says that there could be Earthling babies without women over the age of sixty five years old, but there could be babies without men over the age of sixty five years old, this is a completely true statement. In regards to lineage, no Earthling child would have been born without its ancestors, and there would be more than one over the age of sixty five. Since any Earthling child must come from some form of parents, it is safe to believe that the Tralfamadorians are alluding to the family unit as a whole.

The last category mentioned are the babies who “had lived an hour or less after birth.” While this does not necessarily mean that the death of these other Earthling children make it possible for another to be brought into the world, I believe that it means that everything happens for a reason. I think this is Vonnegut’s way of saying that while the death of any child is tragic, that everything in life is predetermined fate.

The Tralfamadorians tell Billy that while the human beings live and exist in the third dimension, there is more that they cannot see or even understand in the fourth dimension. This explains how the human mind and belief are limited. I believe that Billy, having met the Tralfamadorians, has surpassed the rest of the human race in terms of opening his mind to be able to fathom the fourth dimension. The aliens, while they represent free will throughout the novel, also represent a level of higher thinking that humans have yet to attain, and is quite possibly completely out of reach.

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