Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe in the last year of World War
II. If you come to know a combat veteran well- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in
Vietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was the single most important event in his
life. The sights and scars of war remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories of
death and killing help to shape whatever future career he may make.
The same is true for Billy Pilgrim. What he saw and did during his six months on the battlefield and
as a prisoner of war have dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms with
the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of his war experiences.
Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He reorganizes his life so that all of it
occurs within the context of his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy's prewar and
postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was many years in the future when Vonnegut was
writing this book), but the real story of the novel is the story of Billy's wartime days. All the other events
in Billy's life are merely incidental to his time as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events
that come to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in Europe.
Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of "time-travel." Unlike everyone else, Billy
Pilgrim doesn't live his life one day after another. He has become "unstuck in time," and he
jumps around among the periods of his life like a flea from dog to dog.
When you meet him in Chapter 2, it is December 1944 and Billy and three other American soldiers
are lost in a forest far behind enemy lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his
past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in the future: it's 1965 and he is visiting
his mother in a nursing home. He blinks, the time changes to 1958, then 1961, and then he finds himself
back in the forest in December 1944.
Billy doesn't have much time to wonder about what has just happened. He's captured almost
immediately by German soldiers and put onto a train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy
has a great adventure in the future: on his daughter's wedding night in 1967, he is kidnapped by a flying
saucer from the imaginary planet Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him
in a zoo.
Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The train arrives at a prison camp,
and there a group of British officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.
Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in 1948, where he's visited by his
fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in
business as an optometrist by Valencia's father. Billy is introduced to science fiction by his hospital
roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout's writing is terrible, but Billy
comes to admire his ideas.
Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most popular exhibit in the zoo. His
keepers love talking to Billy because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that wars
could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.
Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After making love, Valencia wants to talk
about the war. Before Billy can say much about it, he's back there himself.
The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an "open city" (of no military
value) has come through the war unscathed, while almost every other German city has been heavily
bombed. Billy knows that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there's nothing worth
bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories, nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The
Americans are housed in building number five of the Dresden slaughterhouse.
Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968. A few years before that, he meets
Kilgore Trout. And on Tralfamadore he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of
Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat locker beneath the
slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day, Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything
has been reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is moving anywhere.
After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the others wake up one morning to
discover that their guards have disappeared. The war is over and they are free.
One way to keep straight the many characters in Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to
when they appear in Billy Pilgrim's life.
There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his
daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Professor Rumfoord), and the characters in his
adventure in outer space (the Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).
A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and actual persons in his life, such as
Bernard and Mary O'Hare. Some of the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by
Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell,
Jr., in Mother Night, and the Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O'Hares, you meet all
of these characters only when they interact with Billy Pilgrim.
- BILLY PILGRIM
Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When you first see a character's
name, you usually know something about that character even before you read about what he or she has
done. Billy Pilgrim's last name tells you that he is someone who travels in foreign lands and that his
journeys may have a religious or spiritual aspect.
Otherwise Billy doesn't appear very promising as the hero of a novel. Physically, he's a classic wimp.
He's tall, weak, and clumsy, with "a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches" and
the overall appearance of "a filthy flamingo."
He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child and his father threw him into a
swimming pool, he just went to the bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by
the Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and companionship, yet he keeps saying,
"You guys go on without me." After the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying
a stupid and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his daughter bully him constantly.
In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five Billy is a sheep among wolves. Some readers regard him as a
kind of Christ figure who sojourns in the wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and
peace for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy's assassination by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus'
martyrdom on the cross.
But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his "meek faith in a loving
Jesus" makes everybody else sick. His pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm,
make Billy look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.
Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to him, the thing that does the most
damage to his already fragile personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is such a
thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he has no answer.
Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to turn the other cheek rather than put up a
fight. This may be his weakling attempt at "the imitation of Christ," but to many readers it
looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable him to survive: a powerful imagination
and a belief that at heart people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness never lets him
despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it's his imagination that saves him.
Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to science fiction, Billy's fantasies
are aimless and childish. Then, in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who not
only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions of reality. This gives Billy the idea of
inventing a whole new fantasy world.
In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana Wildhack as Eve. In order for this
brave new world to work, Billy must become "innocent" again, and to do this he has to
discharge the guilt and despair associated with his past. He does this by reorganizing his life through
time-travel, gradually putting everything- but especially Dresden- in perspective. When this is
accomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free.
- ROLAND WEARY
A soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly at risk, the tension sometimes unbearable.
You know when you first see his name that Billy's fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted after many
months of fighting. What he needs is some rest.
Weary is a hard person to like: he's stupid, fat, and mean, and he smells bad. It's no surprise that his
companions want to "ditch" him most of the time. So Weary has had to learn to deal with
rejection, and one way he does this is by fantasizing a glorious and exciting war movie in which he is the
hero. Because Weary fears that his real-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war
movie concentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in real life.
Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid of him sooner or later. His "Three
Musketeers" story is only a fantasy. He will want revenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his
revenge by ditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even less popular than himself,
suckers him into a friendship, then ditches him first. This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim.
One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way he would have wanted- in the
arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Weary has finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last,
knowing that Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary's life, to kill Billy Pilgrim.
- PAUL LAZZARO
The American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest character in the book. Not only is he
disgusting to look at, he's nasty to the core, a real snake. In civilian life his friends are gangsters and
killers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing in life to him is getting revenge on people
who have crossed him.
It's not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both of them have regularly been
snubbed by the more popular and attractive people in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness
than Weary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he's speaking in the abstract, not
talking about torturing anyone in particular. But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, each
torture is tailor-made for a specific victim.
Vonnegut's description of Lazzaro is devastating: "If he had been a dog in a city, a policeman
would have shot him and sent his head to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies."
- EDGAR DERBY
At the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hats whenever they went outdoors.
But by then the derby, a hat with a dome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually
seen only on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derby is an older man than his fellow
American POWs, and his values are those he learned in an earlier era.
Because you know from the first that "poor old Edgar Derby" (as he is usually called) is
doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindness and generosity with a sinking heart. For Edgar Derby
doesn't deserve to die. It is Derby who cradles the dying Weary's head in his lap (whatever Paul Lazzaro
says), and it is Derby who volunteers to sit in the prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim
while the other Americans party with the Englishmen.
Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulled strings to get into the fighting
after the army told him he was too old. And in Dresden, when the American Nazi Howard W. Campbell,
Jr., tries to talk the prisoners into going over to his side, Derby stands up to him and makes a moving
speech about the ideals of America: "freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for
all." This takes courage, considering the position he's in.
- VALENCIA MERBLE PILGRIM
Billy first checks into the mental hospital after hearing himself propose marriage to this overweight,
not very bright daughter of Ilium's richest optometrist. He sees her as "a symptom of his
disease," his inability to deal with the alarming reality of the world and his lack of interest in life.
But he marries her anyway, apparently for lack of a good reason not to. The marriage is hardly a great
romance, but Billy finds it "at least bearable all the way." His unhappiness seems to have less
to do with her than with life itself.
Considering that Vonnegut frequently prefers female over male values, it's difficult to find much to
admire in Valencia. Not only is she unattractive, she's insensitive to the deep psychological damage Billy
underwent in the war, from which he continues to suffer.
But for all her faults, Valencia adores Billy and is helplessly devoted to him. She is so terrified of
losing him after he barely survives a plane crash that she wrecks her car on the way to the hospital,
passes out, and dies from carbon monoxide fumes.
- BARBARA PILGRIM
Barbara Pilgrim, Billy's put-upon daughter, has hardly had a chance to get married and set up her
own household when her father almost dies in a plane crash. While he is in the hospital, her mother
inadvertently kills herself in an auto accident. Then, when Billy comes home, he turns out to be
prematurely senile from brain damage and begins telling crazy stories about time-travel and aliens
kidnapping him in a flying saucer. Not only is she suddenly the head of the family, but her father's
making a laughing stock of himself (and her) in public.
No wonder Barbara's a "bitchy flibbertigibbet."
- BERTRAM COPELAND RUMFOORD
Billy meets Rumfoord while recuperating from the plane crash in 1968. Relentlessly virile and
athletic, this seventy-year-old Harvard professor and Air Force historian embodies every traditional
"masculine virtue" Billy finds so upsetting: blind patriotism, sexism (his young fifth wife is
just "one more public demonstration" that he's a "superman"), and a firm belief in
the survival of the fittest.
Vonnegut uses Rumfoord as the primary spokesman for what he calls the "military
manner" of thinking, which orders and then cravenly justifies atrocities such as the bombing of
- THE TRALFAMADORIANS
The Tralfamadorians are "two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber's friends"
topped by "a little hand with a green eye in its palm." They can see in four dimensions, and
this enables them to look at all time all at once, so death and the future hold no fear for them. The
Tralfamadorians, who live on a distant planet, are creatures of science fiction.
Because of their alien perspective, the Tralfamadorians view human behavior with an objectivity few
Earthlings can have. In this way, Vonnegut may be using the Tralfamadorians to tell you what he thinks
about human conduct. Whenever the Tralfamadorians speak, Vonnegut may be revealing his own
philosophy of life.
Some readers argue that the purpose of the Tralfamadorians is to resolve the contradictions in life
that have made Billy so upset. In this interpretation, the aliens function in the same way as dreams and
mythology: they "explain" things through images and stories.
Others see the Tralfamadorians as the "gods" in Billy's fantasy universe: they guide and
protect the creatures in their charge. This makes them a big improvement over the "gods"
Vonnegut sees as the rulers of the modern world- technology, which dehumanizes people, and
authoritarian cruelty, which destroys people in the name of the "survival of the fittest."
The Tralfamadorians give Billy a philosophy through which he finds peace of mind. They also give
him Montana Wildhack to mate with, and that brings him true happiness as well.
- MONTANA WILDHACK
Billy's lover in this alien zoo is a curious combination of ingredients. On the one hand, she is the
compliant sex kitten that bored, middle-aged males dream about in erotic fantasies. She is beautiful (and
naked), and makes the first sexual advances- though shyly, of course.
On the other hand, Billy requires more from his dream woman than mere sexuality. His entire
Tralfamadore fantasy is his attempt to reinvent the human race, with himself as the new Adam and
Montana as the new Eve. And so he makes her loving as well as sexy, understanding as well as seductive,
and a good mother to their child as well as a good lover to him. In Billy's ideal Creation, both must be
able to behave as decently as he believes Adam and Eve really wanted to behave.
For all of her prodigious virtues, Montana Wildhack comes off as rather bloodless compared to the
real-life women in the book, such as the annoying Valencia, the prickly Barbara, or the fiery Mary
O'Hare. But then Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It's a lot safer.
- ELIOT ROSEWATER
One of the richest and smartest men in America, Eliot Rosewater is also one of the most
disillusioned. His faith in American righteousness in World War II was shattered when he found that he
had killed a German fireman who was trying to put out a fire that American bombers had started.
He tried drinking, but that just ruined his health without alleviating what he saw as the alarming
unfairness of the modern world. So he committed himself to a mental hospital. There he meets a kindred
spirit in Billy Pilgrim, who comes to share with him the one consolation Eliot has found in life: the
peculiar wisdom in the science fiction of Kilgore Trout.
- KILGORE TROUT
The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has great ideas for novels. (The Gutless Wonder is about a
robot with bad breath; in The Gospel from Outer Space Jesus is a nobody until God adopts him.) But his
prose style is frightful. After thirty years and more than seventy-five novels, Trout has only two fans, Eliot
Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim, and even they are appalled by his writing.
Kilgore Trout is a manic version of Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote science fiction and for years
suffered from an indifferent public. Vonnegut uses Trout's books to make fun of many of the values
Americans hold dear. At the same time, he gets in a few good swipes at the pretensions of his own
In Slaughterhouse-Five (as in the two other Vonnegut novels in which he appears) Kilgore Trout
plays a small but important role. His books offer Billy inspiration for therapeutic fantasies, and he
personally gives Billy the courage to face his Dresden experience.
- HOWARD W. CAMPBELL, JR.
Campbell is an American Nazi propagandist who writes a scornful account of the behavior of
American POWs in Germany and who shows up at the slaughterhouse in Dresden to recruit candidates
for his Free American Corps. He tries to bribe the Americans by promising them a terrific meal, but Edgar
Derby puts Campbell in his place by calling him "lower... than a blood-filled tick." Campbell
In an earlier book, Mother Night, Vonnegut told Campbell's whole story- he's really an American spy
who delivers coded messages to the Allies through his racist radio broadcasts. But in Slaughterhouse we
see him only in his "official" role as the Nazi he pretends to be.
- MARY O'HARE
Vonnegut dedicates this book to a real person, Mary O'Hare, the wife of his old war buddy Bernard V.
O'Hare. He first meets her when he tries to get Bernard to reminisce with him about their war
experiences, with the idea of generating material for his "famous book about Dresden." This
makes Mary angry. She cares deeply about life- she's a nurse- and to her, all war does is kill people. She is
strong-minded and courageous enough to tell off an almost perfect stranger when she thinks he's wrong.
Vonnegut admires Mary O'Hare and wishes more people were like her. He believes that if enough
women like her told off enough "old farts" like him, enough people might see the absurdity of
war and we wouldn't have wars any more.
- BERNARD V. O'HARE
When Vonnegut visits Bernard O'Hare after the war, O'Hare appears to be little more than a
henpecked husband, and acts embarrassed when Vonnegut tries to get him reminiscing about the war.
But O'Hare had refused to pick up souvenirs in Dresden, so even then he must have hated the war and
the "profit" some people made from it (his buddies with their "trophies,"
Vonnegut with his book). He's a gentle man who reproaches no one: when Vonnegut asks why Mary is
mad, O'Hare lies to spare Vonnegut's feelings. And even though he disapproves of Vonnegut's project, he
is kind enough to leave a book about Dresden on the nightstand for him.
O'Hare is a great friend, and Vonnegut obviously likes him a lot. He's the only war buddy Vonnegut
has kept in touch with, and together they return to Dresden in 1967.
- KURT VONNEGUT
The author himself appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly in the first chapter, where he struggles
vainly to get a handle on writing his Dresden book. His breakthrough comes when Mary O'Hare reminds
him that it's really babies who fight wars, not grown men. From that moment on everything goes right for
Vonnegut also pops up here and there in Billy Pilgrim's POW story, but he's really just reminding
you that what those American prisoners of war saw and did really happened- and that he was there at the
time. In the last chapter he tells about his return to Dresden as a tourist in 1967 with Bernard O'Hare.
There are three main settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.
- War-ravaged Europe, through which Billy travels as a POW and ends up in Dresden.
- Peacetime America, where Billy prospers as an optometrist and pillar of society in Ilium, New
- The planet Tralfamadore, where Billy and his fantasy lover Montana Wildhack are exhibited in a
Each setting corresponds to a different period in Billy Pilgrim's life, and the story jumps from one
setting to another as Billy travels back and forth in time.
The physical contrast between the devastation of Europe and the affluence of postwar America is
tremendous. It's ironic that Billy, who suffered extreme privations as a prisoner of war, is made to feel no
better by the material wealth he later acquires as a successful optometrist in Ilium, N.Y.
Ilium is the classical name for Troy, one of the richest cities in the ancient world. In The Iliad, the
Greek poet Homer (ninth century B.C.) tells the story of the Trojan War, in which Troy was eventually
destroyed by the besieging Greeks. Some readers believe that Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut's
Iliad, for Troy was reputedly as beautiful as Dresden was before it was bombed.
Billy begins to be happy about life only in an artificial but cozy habitat on another planet.
Tralfamadore is an invention of Billy's imagination, a paradise in which he, as Adam, and a new Eve (the
former pornographic movie star Montana Wildhack) can start the human race over again. Within the
dome that protects them from the poisonous atmosphere of Tralfamadore, Billy and Montana are tended
and watched over by a new set of gods, the wise and kindly Tralfamadorians.
But notice that in each of the novel's main settings Billy is confined: first as a POW, then as a
prisoner of the meaningless contraptions of modern life, finally as an exhibit in an alien zoo. And
throughout the book Vonnegut portrays Billy as a prisoner of time. Billy cannot change the past, the
present, or the future, no matter how much he moves around from one to the other. The persistent image
of a bug trapped in amber is Vonnegut's clearest expression of this idea.
Slaughterhouse-Five is first and foremost about war and how human beings cope with it. In treating
this subject, Vonnegut explores several major themes, but no single one of them explains the whole
novel. You'll find that some of the following statements ring more true to you than others, yet you can
find evidence in the book to support all of them.
- WAR IS ABSURD
Vonnegut attacks the reasoning that leads people to commit atrocities by drawing character portraits
(Roland Weary and Professor Rumfoord) and by quoting from official documents (President Harry
Truman's explanation of the reasons for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). And he gives you a
look at the ruins of Dresden so you can see the "ground zero" consequences of what he calls
the military manner of thinking- which rationalizes a massacre by saying it will hasten the end of the war.
But more important than this generalized condemnation, Vonnegut focuses on the enormity of war
and its disastrous effect on human lives, even long after it is over. Billy Pilgrim's problems all stem from
what he experienced in the war. The hobo freezes to death in the boxcar; Roland Weary dies from
gangrene in his feet; Edgar Derby is shot for stealing a teapot; the harmless city of Dresden is bombed
into the ground: it shouldn't be possible for such things to happen, Billy feels. And yet he was there and
saw them happen with his own eyes. His science fiction fantasies and time-traveling are his attempt to
cope with the psychological damage the war inflicted on him. The fact that he succeeds (by going senile)
is perhaps the most absurd thing of all.
- AUTHORITY IS TO BLAME FOR ATROCITIES
To Vonnegut, both the boss and the underling escape guilt when an atrocity is committed: the boss's
hands are clean because others did the dirty work, and the underling was only following orders. He
maintains that this was just as true of the Allies as it was of the Nazis in World War II. The Nazis built
the death camps, and the Allies bombed Hiroshima and Dresden.
Vonnegut believes that a great evil of authoritarianism is the assumption of righteousness, the claim
that "God is on our side." In other writings he expresses regret that the Nazis were so plainly
evil because that just made it easier for the Allied authorities to claim that anything they did to defeat the
Nazis was justified.
To Vonnegut this is the same kind of authoritarian arrogance that led the Nazis into evil acts in the
first place. There is no moral justification for atrocities, Vonnegut says, even though some defenders of
the Dresden bombing maintain that it did accomplish its goal: to end the war sooner by demoralizing the
- MODERN LIFE IS MEANINGLESS
Billy Pilgrim's indifference to life comes as much from his peacetime experiences as from anything
that happened to him in the war. During the war he could at least tell whether he was alive or dead. But
his postwar life is empty in spite of his material wealth and the respect of his peers.
Vonnegut highlights this apparent contradiction by having Billy find peace and happiness only
through fantasy (or senility). Vonnegut seems to say that in real life, life doesn't work.
- ART VS. REALITY
Vonnegut spends a good deal of time in Slaughterhouse-Five talking about fiction. In Chapter 1 he
shows how a writer distorts reality by forcing it to fit into the mold of a "good story." In
Chapter 5 he discusses the good and bad effects fiction has on our understanding of life. In Chapter 9 he
pokes fun at the pretensions of writers and critics who take fiction too seriously. And the
"fragmented style" in which Slaughterhouse-Five is written may be an attempt to reinvent the
novel. As Eliot Rosewater says, fiction just "isn't enough any more."
Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of art itself. Art selects and orders its material, and the final
product is a coherent whole. But life is messy and redundant: it can't be contained in the neat formula of a
story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the case of such a horrifying event as the Dresden
massacre, art has nothing intelligent to say.
Some readers believe that Vonnegut overstates the problem in Slaughterhouse-Five, that the book
itself is the solution. just as Billy Pilgrim reinvents his life so he can cope with it, Vonnegut reinvents the
novel so that it can cope with the absurd and often monstrous events of the modern world.
- TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZES PEOPLE
Machine imagery abounds in Slaughterhouse-Five, and wherever it turns up, it means bad news for
human beings. Obviously, without sophisticated technology, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima
would not have been possible. But Vonnegut portrays even peacetime technology as making people into
robots whose lives revolve around tending and improving machines. Billy's father-in-law, Lionel Merble,
for example, is turned into a machine by the optometry business.
There are several additional themes that Vonnegut only touches on in Slaughterhouse-Five, but which
are given fuller treatment in his other books.
- FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM
At first the heroes of almost all Vonnegut's novels believe in free will. (Free will is the idea that
human beings make choices and decide their own destinies, that their actions make a difference in
shaping their futures.) But inevitably Vonnegut's heroes discover that their choices were manipulated by
outside forces, that their fates were predetermined all along. Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut's most passive
hero. He finds happiness and peace of mind only after adopting the deterministic philosophy of his
imaginary masters, the Tralfamadorians.
- DARWIN VS. JESUS
Vonnegut feels that Charles Darwin legitimized cruelty with his theory of natural selection. Although
Darwin limited his theorizing to biology, other thinkers like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer
(1820-1903) applied this theory to social matters, and took Darwin's idea that the strong are favored in
natural survival one step further, implying that only the strong should survive. It is this version of
"social" Darwinism that Vonnegut disapproves of. In contrast, although he has been an atheist
all his life, Vonnegut has always admired the Christian virtues of pacifism, tolerance, and love.
- ORGANIZED RELIGION
Vonnegut doesn't have much good will toward organized religion. For him it is no different from any
other form of authority, and therefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How many atrocities have
been justified by the claim that "God is on our side"?
People are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course the destruction of Dresden brought
death on a massive scale. Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, "So it
goes." In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude toward death by emphasizing that death is a
common aspect of human existence. Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion that
people who are dead in the present remain alive in the times of their past. Perhaps the author is saying
that we too should be consoled: the dead still live in our memories.
On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains the nature of novels on that planet:
"Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing a situation, a scene. We
Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship
between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once,
they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle,
no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many
marvelous moments seen all at one time."
When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shock of recognition. It sounds a lot
like the very book you're reading, and you realize that the author is describing the effect he wants his
novel to have.
The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five is the fact that the text is made up of
clumps of paragraphs, each clump set off by extra space before and after it. A few of the clumps are only
one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and a half. Each of them makes a simple statement or
relates an incident or situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotal style: the book is a
collection of brief incidents, and the effect of each one depends on how the author tells it.
Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say a great deal in a few words.
"Three inoffensive bangs came from far away." The report seems an innocent one until you
find out that the scouts have just been shot. The contrast between the "inoffensive" sound and
its deadly meaning provides a startling effect.
There is irony too in that "inoffensive," for what is inoffensive to one person's ears is
fatally offensive to another person's life. Irony is a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly
straightforward statement or situation actually means its opposite. Irony occurs again and again in the
incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that, for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, a
soldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is irony in a former hobo's telling Billy- inside
a boxcar prison that could be taking them to their death- "I been in worse places than this. This ain't
so bad." And because Dresden was an "open city" during most of the war, it was full of
refugees who had fled there for safety. Almost all of them died in the bombing. That is ironic.
Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, a form of ridicule that uses mockery
and exaggeration to expose the foolishness or evil of its subject. Professor Rumfoord is a satirical portrait
of the all-American male ideal. And, almost every description of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern
life in some way. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath is cleared up (advertising
values), or a money tree is fertilized by the dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its
"fruit" (material values).
Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billy as a filthy flamingo and a broken
kite, the Russian prisoner as "a ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial."
Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gun makes "a ripping sound like the
zipper on the fly of God Almighty." But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breaking
tenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tears when Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt
Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) to historical events. He evokes the
Children's Crusade in order to draw a parallel between the "babies" he and O'Hare were in
World War II and the thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European children were sent off to
conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works of literature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer
Celine, the medieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. He paraphrases the Sodom and
Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentions Jesus occasionally. These allusions deepen our understanding
and appreciation of Billy's story by suggesting historical and literary parallels to the personal events in
POINT OF VIEW
In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks to you directly in the first person about
the difficult time he had writing his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim's story told by a third-
Because an outside narrator is telling Billy's story, you learn not only what Billy is doing and thinking
at any time but what the other characters are up to and what's on their minds. Because Vonnegut
explains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, that his own experiences in Dresden were
the inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-person narrator and
Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, the author is looking at the events of his own life- past,
present, and future- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way that Billy is trying to order
the events of his own life.
On several occasions the author actually reminds you directly that, while he's telling Billy's story, he-
Kurt Vonnegut- was there, too. You're reading about events that are based on the author's experience as a
POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you that you're being told a story by a much older man,
someone with a quite different outlook on life from that of the "baby" who went to Dresden.
The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to comment frequently on the action, on
life, and on writing itself.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians read the clumps of symbols, or
messages, that make up their books all at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphs
that make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you
provides the structure of the novel.
Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue in which he tells his own story of writing
his "famous book about Dresden."
The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim's story. Vonnegut begins this
narrative with a short, factual history of Billy's life to the present in 1968. You soon discover why he does
this: in the pages that follow, Billy's adventures are not related entirely in chronological order, and that
little outline history in the early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzle over the
proper sequence of events.
The portion of Billy Pilgrim's history that is presented chronologically is the six months from
December 1944 to May 1945, when Billy was a soldier and then a POW in Europe. This period is by far
the most important in Billy's life, and the novel is about how Billy comes to terms with what he saw and
heard and did in those six months. When Billy finally works it all out in his mind, he is free, the author
has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended.
Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determined by the sequence of events Billy
experienced in the final months of World War II. Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happenings of
his life. He even believes that he first "came unstuck in time" in the Luxembourg forest in
1944, though the narrator seems to suggest that this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the
brain damage Billy sustained in the plane crash in 1968.
Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memories and adding his fantasies, it's
important that you keep your bearings as you follow Billy's own rearrangement of his history. For this you
may find helpful the following chronological sequence of the important events in Billy's life.
1922 Billy born in Ilium, New York.
1941 America enters World War II.
1944 Billy, now a soldier, captured by Germans in the Battle
of the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headed
1945 Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, is
January housed in Slaughterhouse-Five.
1945 Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies. POWs and guards survive
February in an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out of
the rubble the next day.
1945 War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes home
May to Ilium.
1948 Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries Valencia
Merble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometry
business in Ilium prospers.
1967 Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and taken
to Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo and
mated with Montana Wildhack.
1968 Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies while
Billy is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tell
about the Tralfamadorians.
1976 Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flying
saucers and time.
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
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