Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

You know it as Slaughterhouse-Five, but it goes by another name, too. The complete title of Kurt Vonnegut's acclaimed novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, A Fourth-Generation German-American Low Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, 'The Florence of the Elbe,' a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

Weird, yes. But when you get to know the book, it actually makes a lot of sense. Even the bit about the flying saucers. Allow us to explain.


Slaughterhouse-Five isn't told in the standard, chronological way. On  the contrary, its main character, Billy Pilgrim, is an unwitting time traveler. One moment he's living in 1945, then 1968, then 1954.

Arguably the novel's most compelling sections take place during World War II, when young Billy is serving as a U.S. soldier. The Germans capture Pilgrim, who's lost behind enemy lines, and take him to Dresden, a beautiful city untouched by war. There, he and other POWs are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse, where they escape the Allied bombing of Dresden in an underground meat locker. Although they are safe, they can still hear the firebombs pounding above. And when they emerge, everyone has been killed, and everything destroyed.

Pilgrim returns to these memories frequently. But after coming home from the war, he marries, graduates from optometry school, and becomes a respected businessman. Despite such positive steps, tragedy seems to follow him. First, he turns up the sole survivor of a plane crash. Next, his wife dies in a car accident.  Following these events, Pilgrim starts telling people he was kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who taught him that the past, present, and future don't really exist. Instead, they believe time is a conceptual whole. Pilgrim accepts the Tralfamadorian theory, and as he floats through the unalterable events of his life, he accepts that he has no power over his fate.


Dresden, Germany was indeed firebombed on the night of February 13thy, 1945, and Kurt Vonnegut was one of the POWs who witnessed the attack. On that evening, Allied forces killed at least 25,000 people (although some estimates that as many as 130,000 people died). Vonnegut decided to write about his experience in Dresden as soon as he returned from the war, but it took him more than twenty years to finish the book. While crafting the novel, he realized that conventional narrative structure imposed logic on events -and that the events he witnessed in Dresden had none. Slaughterhouse-Five therefore lacks conflict, climax, and conclusion. Thus, the short, episodic style of the novel doesn't allow the reader to draw morals from the story, nor allow the characters to find peace. To underscore this point, he inserts himself into the narrative, making it clear that even the author can find no way to form a lesson from such horror.


ANTI-PLOT, NON-HERO: Vonnegut abandons traditional storytelling by drastically altering chronology. This strategy allows him to reflect Pilgrim's disjointed reality and avoid a conventional plot. Vonnegut also discards the traditional literary hero. Christ-like in his suffering, Pilgrim does not act, but is instead acted upon -a victim of destiny without any motivation beyond basic survival. Through Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut paints all participants of war as the "listless playthings of powerful forces."

LITTLE GREEN CREATURES IN FLYING SAUCERS: The science-fiction segments of Slaughterhouse-Five strike most readers as bizarre, even distracting. Out of nowhere,. Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped, displayed in an alien zoo, and mated with a movie star. Vonnegut never says his alien stories are imaginary, but Pilgrim does read science-fiction novels with similar plots. Real or not, the Tralfamadorians are a coping mechanism that enables him to accept empty tragedies. He clings to the Tralfamadorian saying about life and death: "So it goes."


Literary VIPs

BILLY PILGRIM: Slaughterhouse-Five focuses on POW Billy Pilgrim. His first name (Billy, not William) marks him as permanently childlike. His last name identifies him as a voyager, but with one poignant exception: Billy is on a pilgrimage without a purpose.

KURT VONNEGUT: Vonnegut appears as a character in his own book, both in the semi-autobiographical first and last chapters and occasionally in the body text itself. He uses these appearances to remind the reader that many of the events are true, and that he experienced them himself.

Scenes to Remember

* Vonnegut visits his war buddy Bernard O'Hare to talk about Dresden. He's surprised by the hostility of O'Hare's wife, Mary, who accuses his books of portraying war as glamorous, as in a movie with Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. Vonnegut promises her Slaughterhouse-Five won't have a part in it for Sinatra.

* Two days after the war ends, Pilgrim rides on the back of a green cart pulled by two horses. If he could choose to remember only the happy times and ignore the bad, this would be the moment he'd choose: lying in the sunshine with the birds singing in the trees. This is Pilgrim's happiest memory -not his wedding day or the birth of his children, but an experience of simple animal comfort.

Famous Last Words

* "I happened to tell a University of Chicago professor at a cocktail party about the raid as I had seen it, about the book I would write. He was a member of a thing called The Committee on Social Thought. And he told me about the concentration camps, and about how the German had made soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews and so on. All I could say was, 'I know, I know, I know.'"*
*Though horrified by Nazi atrocities, Vonnegut refused to allow for a "just war" or a "right side." He tried to curtail the inevitable criticism of the book by addressing it within the novel itself.

* "I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've sad before, bugs in amber."


The above article by Elizabeth Lunday is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2005 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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@krikkit: it is a very good book in my opinion, but like many other famous books, part of it's genius is in innovation which is hard to appreciate in hindsight.

in general his style could also be off putting, and no, none of his books are hard reads. vonnegut wrote with disregard, often strange and silly things that most people would hold back, for fear of criticism. i for one feel that cats cradle is a little too wacky...but it is still good, and ultimately, being in the vein of science fiction, vonneguts real gold is his ideas.

asimov is similar, his books are dense with great ideas, they play out like chess puzzles, but he is often criticized for lacking characterization and writing in a somewhat stale way.

@joanie: this certainly isn't his best, i think i actually like it more than cats cradle, but i think everybody can agree its not truly his masterpeice. blackbeard is my personal favorite. i also love godbless you mr. rosewater. (it's a novel about finances!!!)
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@ Masada:

Oh I understand his work just fine in the academic sense, not many people can't. I just find his themes rather trite, and his story telling dry. I have never walked away from a Vonnegut book fulfilled in any way.

Yeah yeah, I get it Kurt, humans are complex creatures capable of great beauty and horrible evils. I can get the same thing from Dr. Who reruns, and more creative science fiction too.
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If you don't get his work, just say "I don't get it." But ripping on the work will do nothing to its credibility - which is rather voluminous.
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Is it just me, or is the most overrated book in print?

Vonnegut is a way overrated author too. I have friends who spend their days bagging groceries who write more compelling and creative stories.

I call his books "airplane books", because they are cheep, only take four hours to read, and are only mildly better than the in-flight movie.
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