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Editors: Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile
Date: 1998
Novels for Students
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was not especially well known or commercially successful, despite having already published five novels and two short story collections. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in that year marked Vonnegut's artistic and commercial breakthrough. Based on Vonnegut's own experiences as a World War II prisoner who witnessed the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come "unstuck in time." Without any forewarning, he finds himself suddenly transported to other points in time in his own past or future. In chronicling the extraordinary events that happen to Billy, from witnessing the Dresden firebombing to being kidnapped by aliens, Slaughterhouse-Five summarizes many of the themes of Vonnegut's work. These include the dangers of unchecked technology, the limitations of human action in a seemingly random and meaningless universe, and the need for people, adrift in an indifferent world, to treat one another with kindness and decency. Almost thirty years after its initial publication, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut's most discussed and widely admired novel.

Author Biography

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Kurt and Edith (Lieber) Vonnegut. Vonnegut's father was a successful architect, and his mother's family ran anPage 259  |  Top of Article equally successful brewery. However, the onset of Prohibition, followed by the Great Depression, as well as anti-German sentiment in the wake of World War I, put the Vonnegut family under severe economic and social distress. As an undergraduate at Cornell, Vonnegut wrote articles for the school newspaper opposing American entry into World War II. After Pearl Harbor, however, Vonnegut put aside his reservations about the war and joined the U.S. Army in January, 1943. World War II saw his family's fortunes sink even lower, leading to his mother's suicide in May, 1944. Vonnegut was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. In February, 1945, while in a German prison camp, he witnessed the Allied firebombing of Dresden, an experience which later became an important part of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

After being liberated by Soviet troops in April, 1945, Vonnegut returned to the United States and was awarded the Purple Heart. He married Jane Cox in September of that year and enrolled in the graduate program in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His master's thesis was rejected, however, and in 1947 Vonnegut moved to Schenectady, New York, where he went to work as a public relations writer for the General Electric Research Laboratory. His experiences at General Electric also found their way into his fiction, most notably his first novel, Player Piano (1952). While working for GE, Vonnegut was also writing fiction. After publishing several short stories and his first novel, he resigned from the company in 1951 and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to become a full-time writer.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Vonnegut published several novels and numerous short stories. Novels such as The Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat's Cradle (1963), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) increased his reputation from that of a little-known author of science fiction to an "underground" favorite with a small but loyal audience. After God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater appeared, Vonnegut taught at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, an experience which encouraged him to be more innovative and autobiographical in his writing. The result was Slaughterhouse-Five, the publication of which marked the beginning of Vonnegut's widespread fame.

Although Vonnegut's works of the 1970s received uneven critical response, his popularity continued to grow. In 1971, having separated from his wife, he moved to New York City. In that same year, the University of Chicago accepted Cat's Cradle in lieu of a thesis paper and finally awarded

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Vonnegut his master's degree in anthropology. In 1979, he married photographer Jill Krementz. During the 1970s and 1980s Vonnegut continued to produce novels, such as Breakfast of Champions (1973), Slapstick (1976), Jailbird (1979), and Galapagos (1985), as well as various essays and articles collected in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons (1974) and Palm Sunday (1981), and a play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970). Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Vonnegut has achieved a level of fame unusual for an American writer. As a commentator on social issues and an outspoken opponent of censorship and militarism, he continues to be not merely a well-known novelist, but a significant figure in American culture.

Plot Summary

Part I—Introduction

Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come "unstuck in time." At any point in his life, he may find himself suddenly at another point in his past or future. Billy's experiences as an American prisoner of war in Germany during World War II are told in more or lessPage 260  |  Top of Article chronological order, but these events are continually interrupted by Billy's travels to various other times in his life.

At several points in the novel, including the whole of Chapter One, Vonnegut addresses the reader directly. In the opening chapter, the author mentions his own real-life experiences as a prisoner of war—in particular, his witnessing of the Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden—and discusses the difficulties he had over the years in writing about his war experiences. He also tells of his visit with Bernard O'Hare, who was a prisoner along with Vonnegut, and of their trip back to Germany. When O'Hare's wife learns that Vonnegut is planning to write a book about he war, she becomes angry, thinking that Vonnegut will glamorize the war. The author promises her that he will not and that he will call his book "The Children's Crusade."

Part II—Billy Pilgrim in the War

Chapter Two begins Billy Pilgrim's story. Born in Ilium, New York, in 1922, Billy is drafted into the Army during World War II. Assigned to the post of chaplin's assistant, Billy is sent overseas to Europe, where, in 1944, his regiment is all but destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge. The only survivors are Billy, two experienced scouts, and Roland Weary, a sadistic bully whose hobbies include collecting instruments of torture. The other three soldiers are reasonably well-clad and armed, but Billy has "no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots." While wandering with the other three soldiers, Billy has his first experience of being "unstuck in time," travelling in quick succession to several points in his past and future before returning to 1944.

Eventually, the two scouts desert Billy and Roland, for which Roland blames Billy. The two are quickly captured by a band of German soldiers who have ambushed and killed the two scouts. They are then transported to a prison camp aboard a horribly overcrowded train. Several prisoners die along the way, including Roland Weary, who has contracted gangrene. Before he dies, Weary blames Billy for his death and asks the other soldiers to avenge him.

After ten days on the train, Billy and the other prisoners arrive at a prison camp originally used to exterminate Russian prisoners. After being processed into the camp, the Americans are enthusiastically greeted by the British prisoners, who have been in the camp for over four years. While the Americans are in terrible shape physically and emotionally, the British have kept themselves in excellent condition. Appalled at the sorry state of the Americans, the British offer them food and clothing, and even entertain them with a play of Cinderella. The Americans are made sick by the rich food. Billy, who is in even worse shape than many of the others, falls into an hysterical fit during the play and has to be restrained and tranquilized. He is taken to the prison hospital, where he meets Paul Lazzaro, who had befriended Roland Weary on the prison train and promised Weary that he would one day kill Billy as an act of revenge.

The American prisoners are transferred to the German city of Dresden, an "open city" with no strategic value that is supposed to be safe from attack. They are housed in an abandoned slaughterhouse—Slaughterhouse-Five. At one point they are visited by Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who has gone over to the Nazis. When Campbell tries to talk the prisoners into switching sides, he is roundly condemned by Edgar Derby, a forty-four-year-old schoolteacher who has nursed Billy in the prison hospital and who is by now the unofficial leader of the American prisoners.

One night, while the Americans are underground in the slaughterhouse meat locker, Dresden is firebombed by the Allies, who have chosen to attack the city despite its lack of military significance. When the soldiers return to the surface the next morning, they find the entire city has been destroyed and almost all its inhabitants have been killed:

The guards told the Americans to form in ranks of four, which they did. Then they had them march back to the hog barn which had been their home. Its walls still stood, but its windows and roof were gone, and there was nothing inside but ashes and dollops of melted glass. It was realized then that there was no food or water, and that the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon.

Which they did.

The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them had learned that they were treacherous, jagged things—hot to the touch, often unstable—eager, should certain important rocks be disturbed, to tumble some more, to form lower, more solid curves.

Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.Page 261  |  Top of Article 135,000 civilians are killed in the raid, almost twice the number who would later die at Hiroshima.

The German guards who had been in the meat locker with the Americans march the prisoners to a suburb, where they are taken in by a blind innkeeper and housed in a stable. The Americans are then taken back into Dresden and forced to dig through the ruins for bodies. Edgar Derby, after being caught taking a teapot from the ruins, is executed by a firing squad. Eventually, however, the war in Europe ends, and Billy and the surviving prisoners return home.

Part III—Billy Back Home

Back in Ilium, Billy resumes classes at the Ilium School of Optometry, where he had been a student before the war. During his senior year, he becomes engaged to Valencia Merble, the wealthy daughter of the owner of the optometry school. Shortly after his engagement, Billy suffers "a mild nervous collapse," checks himself into a veteran's hospital near Lake Placid, and undergoes electroshock therapy. Six months after leaving the hospital and graduating from optometry school, he marries Valencia.

Billy's life from this point on is one of unexpected material prosperity, as his father-in-law sets him up in a lucrative optometry practice. He and Valencia have two children, Barbara and Robert. However, Billy continues to come "unstuck in time," periodically and without warning, a condition he does not discuss with anyone.

Part IV—Billy on Tralfamadore

In 1967, on his daughter's wedding night, Billy is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The aliens take him back to their home planet and display him naked in a cage. After being on display for some time, Billy is joined by Montana Wildhack, a movie actress. They become lovers and have a child together. Finally, Billy is returned to Earth, while Montana stays behind to take care of their child. When Billy returns, it is only a moment after he left. He has not even been missed.

While on Tralfamadore, Billy learns of the aliens' philosophy of time and death. For Tralfamadorians, time is not a linear progression of events, but a constant condition: "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist." Like Billy, the aliens can travel back and forth to different moments in time. They do not consider death a significant event, since when a person dies he or she "is still very much alive in the past." The Tralfamadorians advise Billy "to concentrate on the happy moments of life, and to ignore the unhappy ones."

Part V—Billy Back on Earth

At first, Billy does not tell anyone of his kidnapping. A year later, however, while on a chartered flight to an optometrists' convention, his plane crashes, and everyone on board is killed except for Billy and the copilot. Valencia, desperately trying to get to the hospital to see Billy, is killed in an auto accident.

After his release from the hospital, Billy returns home, but soon travels to New York, where he shows up at a radio talk show and, mistaken for someone else, is allowed to go on the air. He tells the story of his captivity on Tralfamadore and is "gently expelled" from the studio. Billy's daughter Barbara and her husband come to New York and take Billy home, after which he begins to write letters to newspapers telling of his experiences with aliens.

Billy dies on February 13, 1976—the anniversary of the Dresden bombing. He is gunned down by an assassin hired by Paul Lazzaro, who is still alive and has never forgotten his promise to kill Billy. However, Billy the time traveller "has seen his own death many times" and is unconcerned. After the shooting, Billy "experiences death for a while" and then "swings back into life again" at a point in 1945, "an hour after his life was threatened by Lazzaro." Billy, like the Tralfamadorians, regards death with a shrug and a "So it goes." There will always be another moment.


Billy Pilgrim's father

Billy Pilgrim's father, whose full name is not given, is a barber in Ilium, New York. He dies in a hunting accident while Billy is in military training in South Carolina. Billy attends his funeral shortly before being shipped overseas.

Billy Pilgrim's mother

Billy's mother, whose name is not given, survives into old age. Billy visits her in a rest home in 1965.

Wild Bob

Wild Bob is an American prisoner of war who dies en route to Dresden. Shortly before he dies, hePage 262  |  Top of Article gives a speech to imaginary troops encouraging them to continue fighting the Germans and inviting them to visit him in the United States after the war. His delusions as to his troops and the glories of combat represent the overall absurdity of both war and the attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Howard W. Campbell Jr.

An American who has gone over to the Nazis and works in the German Ministry of Propaganda, Campbell visits the American prisoners in Dresden and tries to convince them to leave the Allies. Campbell is also the main character in Vonnegut's earlier novel Mother Night.


See Wild Bob

Edgar Derby

Derby is a high school teacher from Indianapolis who becomes the unofficial leader of the American prisoners in Dresden. He is a fundamentally decent man and a natural leader. He is also very kind to Billy Pilgrim. After the firebombing of Dresden, he is caught stealing a teapot and is shot by the Germans for plundering—a pointless death that underscores the absurdity and tragedy of war.

English colonel

See Head Englishman

Head Englishman

The head of the English prisoners of war is a colonel. He is friendly but slightly condescending to the Americans, who do not share the English prisoners' determination to remain disciplined, organized, and cheerful during their captivity.

Paul Lazzaro

Lazzaro is an American prisoner of war in Dresden who befriends Roland Weary and promises to avenge Weary's death, which Weary blames on Billy. Lazzaro survives the war and hires the assassin who kills Billy in 1976.

Lionel Merble

Lionel Merble is Billy Pilgrim's father-in-law. He sets Billy up in a successful optometry practice. He is killed in a plane crash when he and Billy are travelling to an optometrist's convention; Billy and the copilot are the only survivors. Although not a bad man, Lionel Merble may be seen as representing the callousness and shallow materialism of postwar America.

Bernard V. O'Hare

Bernard is Vonnegut's "old war buddy" with whom Vonnegut witnessed the Dresden firebombing. A real-life person with whom Vonnegut travelled back to Dresden in the 1960s, Bernard makes an appearance at the novel's beginning.

Mary O'Hare

Mary O'Hare is Bernard's wife and another real-life person to appear in the novel. Mary objects to Vonnegut's writing about Dresden, worrying that he might make war seem romantic and glamorous. Vonnegut promises that he will subtitle his book "The Children's Crusade."

Barbara Pilgrim

Barbara is Billy Pilgrim's daughter. It is on the night of her wedding that Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. After her mother's death, Barbara assumes a parental role with the increasingly detached Billy and is both impatient with and embarrassed by Billy's stories about the Tralfamadorians.

Sidebar: HideShow

Media Adaptations

  • Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted for the screen by writer Stephen Geller and director George Roy Hill in 1972. The film stars Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, Ron Leibman as Paul Lazzaro, and Valerie Perrine as Montana Wildhack. Available on MCA/Universal Home Video.
  • The novel is also available in abridged form as a sound recording, read by the author, on Harper Audio, 1994.

Billy Pilgrim

At one point in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes, "There are almost no characters in this story … because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces." This description certainly applies to Billy. From his earliest childhood memories of being

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tossed in the deep end of a pool to learn how to swim, or being dragged against his will on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, Billy has been at the mercy of "enormous forces." As a soldier captured after the Battle of the Bulge by German soldiers, Billy is pathetically unprepared for the pressures of combat and reacts to the horrific events he witnesses, including the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, with varying degrees of disassociation and withdrawal. It is while he is a prisoner that he first becomes "unstuck in time," finding himself travelling into the past and future with no warning. This time travel is both a literal science-fiction event and a metaphor for the alienation and dislocation Billy, and contemporary humanity, feel in the face of overwhelming and inexplicable cruelty and violence.

Billy is later kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The aliens' philosophy explicitly rejects the concept of free will. They believe that events cannot be changed by a person's actions. This idea reinforces the theme that Billy, and everyone else, is at the mercy of forces largely beyond our control. In fact, the only active response Billy has during the entire novel is his attempt to publicize his abduction by aliens. It is appropriate that the closest relationship Billy has is not with his wife or family but with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose novels see through the illusion of logic and control.

After the war, Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, and has two children. His life is mundane, but he continues his time-traveling experiences, which are, like everything else, beyond his power to control. His time spent with the Tralfamadorians helps him to gain a peaceful perspective on life. In the end, Billy comes to accept the fact that he cannot change events, and he devotes life to teaching the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians to the people of Earth.

Robert Pilgrim

Robert is Billy Pilgrim's son. After having "a lot of trouble" in high school, Robert joined the military, became a Green Beret, fought in Vietnam, and "became a fine young man."

Valencia Merble Pilgrim

Valencia is Billy Pilgrim's wife. A wealthy but unattractive woman, she is hopelessly in love with Billy, but Billy never really loves her and sees her as "one of the symptoms of his disease." While Billy is hospitalized after surviving his plane crash, Valencia is killed in a traffic accident while rushingPage 264  |  Top of Article to be with Billy in the hospital—another innocent victim of an absurd and indifferent universe.

Eliot Rosewater

Eliot Rosewater is a friendly eccentric with whom Billy Pilgrim shares a hospital room after Billy's breakdown. Rosewater and Billy "both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war." It is Rosewater who introduces Billy to science fiction, especially the novels of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater is also the title character of Vonnegut's earlier novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord

A Harvard professor and official Historian of the U.S. Air Force, Rumfoord shares a hospital room with Billy Pilgrim after Pilgrim's plane crash. Rumfoord is a fervent patriot and an outspoken supporter of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. He is, like Roland Weary, yet another example of the delusional belief in the romance of war and humanity's ability to control the uncontrollable.


The alien race that kidnaps Billy Pilgrim are from the planet Tralfamadore. Although never represented as individuals, the Tralfamadorians provide the philosophy of time and free will that underlies the novel.

Kilgore Trout

Kilgore Trout is a science fiction novelist and Billy Pilgrim's favorite writer. He lives in Illium and supports himself by delivering newspapers. Billy meets Trout for the first time in 1964 and befriends him. Trout represents yet another way of trying to cope with the absurd tragedy of human existence. Some critics have also seen him as a projection of Vonnegut's own anxieties about being typecast as a science fiction writer. Both Trout and his novels are mentioned in other Vonnegut novels.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

One of the unusual aspects of Slaughterhouse-Five is that its author appears as a character in his on novel. Vonnegut appears throughout the first and last chapters, where he discusses his difficulty in writing the novel and his visit back to Dresden some twenty years after his imprisonment there.

Roland Weary

Weary is one of the three other soldiers captured with Billy Pilgrim after the Battle of the Bulge. He is a sadistic bully who despises Billy and whose hobbies include collecting instruments of torture. He imagines that there is great camaraderie between him and the two scouts with whom he and Billy are lost, but the scouts eventually abandon both Weary and Billy. Weary dies of gangrene on the train to Dresden, blames Billy for his death, and asks other soldiers to avenge him. Weary's aggressively violent nature and delusional belief in the romance of war represent the militarism and hatred that Vonnegut is condemning in the novel.

Montana Wildhack

Montana is a twenty-year-old American movie star who is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians to be a mate for Billy Pilgrim during his captivity. She and Billy have a child while they are being kept by the Tralfamadorians.


Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who is "unstuck" in time. The two central events Billy keeps returning to are his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and his time as a prisoner of war during World War II, during which he witnesses the Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden.

Alienation and Loneliness

Alienation may be defined as, among other things, an inability to make connections with other individuals and with society as a whole. In this sense, Billy Pilgrim is a profoundly alienated individual. He is unable to connect in a literal sense, as his being "unstuck in time" prevents him from building the continuous set of experiences which form a person's relationships with others. While Billy's situation is literal in the sense of being a science fiction device—he is "literally" travelling through time—it also serves as a metaphor for the sense of alienation and dislocation which follows the experience of catastrophic violence (World War II). This violence is, for Vonnegut and many other modern writers, a fact of life for humanity in the twentieth century. It is appropriate that what is arguably the closest relationship Billy has in the novel is with the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, another deeply alienated individual: "he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war."

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Free Will

One of the most important themes of Slaughterhouse-Five is that of free will, or, more precisely, its absence. This concept is articulated through the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians, for whom time is not a linear progression of events, but a constant condition: "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist." All beings exist in each moment of time like "bugs in amber," a fact that nothing can alter. "Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." What happens, happens. "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future." Accordingly, the Tralfamadorians advise Billy "to concentrate on the happy moments of life, and to ignore the unhappy ones."

Apathy and Passivity

Apathy and passivity are natural responses to the idea that events are beyond our control. Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five Billy Pilgrim does not act so much as he is acted upon. If he is not captured by the Germans, he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. Only later in life, when Billy tries to tell the world about his abduction by the Tralfamadorians, does he initiate action, and even that may be seen as a kind of response to his predetermined fate. Other characters may try to varying degrees to initiate actions, but seldom to any avail. As Vonnegut notes in Chapter Eight, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces."


Given the absence of free will and the inevitability of events, there is little reason to be overly concerned about death. The Tralfamadorian response to death is, "So it goes," and Vonnegut repeats this phrase at every point in the novel where someone, or something, dies. Billy Pilgrim, in his travels through time, "has seen his own death many times" and is unconcerned because he knows he will always exist in the past.


The world as depicted in Slaughterhouse-Five is a world in which patriotism twists into nationalism and militarism and becomes an excuse for acts of violence and mass destruction. Those who claim to be patriots, such as "Wild Bob," the American prisoner of war who gives speeches to imaginary troops, or Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord, an Air Force historian who defends the Dresden raid, are deluded at best and malevolent at worst. More realistic is the reaction of the German soldiers in Dresden to the American prisoners: "There was nothing to be afraid of. Here were more crippled human beings, more fools like themselves."

Sidebar: HideShow

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the Dresden, Germany, firebombing of World War II and compare Vonnegut's account of the event with the historical record.
  • Research the history of UFO sightings in the United States and compare Billy Pilgrim's experience with the Tralfamadorians to actual reported sightings and "abductions."
  • Compare and contrast Slaughterhouse-Five with another well-known novel of war, such as The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front.

War and Peace

Slaughterhouse-Five deals with many different themes, but it is most of all a novel about the horrors of war. For Vonnegut, war is not an enterprise of glory and heroism, but an uncontrolled catastrophe for all involved, and anyone who seeks glory and heroism in war is deluded. Although World War II is regarded by most as a justified conflict which defeated the genocidal regime of Nazi Germany, Vonnegut sees only victims on all sides, from the American soldier executed by the Germans for looting to the 135,000 German civilians killed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden. The horrors of the war are so overwhelming that Vonnegut doubts his ability to write about them. Speaking directly in the first chapter, he says of the novel, "It is so short and jumbled and jangled … because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." The only response to the nightmare of war is a profound alienation and distancing, made literal by Billy Pilgrim's being "unstuck in time." Appropriately, Billy's condition offers the most striking image of peace in the novel, as he becomesPage 266  |  Top of Article unstuck in time while watching a war movie on television and sees it backwards:

The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes…. The steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals … [which] were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Science and Technology

Although Slaughterhouse-Five does not deal as directly with issues of science and technology as do other Vonnegut novels such as Player Piano and Cat's Cradle, the limitations of technology remain an important theme. The destruction of World War II would not have been possible without "advances" in technology (the long-range bombers that destroyed Dresden; the poison gas used on concentration camp inmates). And the extraordinarily advanced technology of the Tralfamadorians not only cannot prevent the end of the Universe, but actually causes it: "We [Tralfamadorians] blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers."



Perhaps the most notable aspect of Slaughter-house-Five's technique is its unusual structure. The novel's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come "unstuck in time"; at any point in his life, he may find himself suddenly at another point in his past or future. Billy's time travel begins early on during the major experience of his life—his capture by German soldiers during World War II and subsequent witnessing of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany. Both the centrality of this event and its radically alienating effect on the rest of Billy's life are represented by the novel's structure. Billy's experiences as a prisoner of war are told in more or less chronological order, but these events are continually interrupted by Billy's travels to various other times in his life, both past and future. In this way, the novel's structure highlights both the centrality of Billy's war experiences to his life, as well as the profound dislocation and alienation he feels after the war.

Point of View

Another unusual aspect of Slaughterhouse-Five is its use of point of view. Rather than employing a conventional third-person "narrative voice," the novel is narrated by the author himself. The first chapter consists of Vonnegut discussing the difficulties he had in writing the novel, and Vonnegut himself appears onstage as a character several times later in the novel. Instead of obscuring the autobiographical elements of the novel, Vonnegut makes them explicit; instead of presenting his novel as a self-contained creative work, he makes it clear that it is an imperfect and incomplete attempt to come to terms with an overwhelming event. In a sentence directed to his publisher, Vonnegut says of the novel, "It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."


Slaughterhouse-Five is, among other things, a work of science fiction. As such, both Billy Pilgrim's travels through time and his abduction by aliens are presented as literal events. However, as in the best science fiction, these literal events also have symbolic significance. Billy's being "unstuck in time" is both a literal event and a metaphor for the sense of profound dislocation and alienation felt by the survivors of war, while the aliens from the planet Tralfamadore provide a vehicle for Vonnegut's speculations on fate and free will.


Style—the way an author arranges his or her words, sentences, and paragraphs into prose—is one of the most difficult aspects of literature to analyze. However, it should be noted that Slaughter-house-Five is written in a very distinctive style. In describing overwhelming, horrible, and often inexplicable events, Vonnegut deliberately uses a very simple, straightforward prose style. He often describes complex events in the language one might use to explain something to a child, as in this description of Billy Pilgrim being marched to a German prison camp:

A motion-picture camera was set up at the border—to record the fabulous victory. Two civilians in bearskin coats were leaning on the camera when Billy and Weary came by. They had run out of film hours ago.

One of them singled out Billy's face for a moment, then focused at infinity again. There was a tiny plume of smoke at infinity. There was a battle there. People were dying there. So it goes.

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In writing this way, Vonnegut forces the reader to confront the fundamental horror and absurdity of war head-on, with no embellishments, as if his readers were seeing it clearly for the first time.

Black Humor

Black humor refers to an author's deliberate use of humor in describing what would ordinarily be considered a situation too violent, grim, or tragic to laugh at. In so doing, the author is able to convey not merely the tragedy, but also the absurdity, of an event. Vonnegut uses black humor throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, both in small details (the description of the half-crazed Billy Pilgrim, after the Battle of the Bulge, as a "filthy flamingo") and in larger plot elements (Billy's attempts to publicize his encounters with the Tralfamadorians), to reinforce the idea that the horrors of war are not only tragic, but inexplicable and absurd.

Historical Context

The Firebombing of Dresden

The most important historical event which informs Slaughterhouse-Five took place almost a quarter of a century before the novel was published. On February 13 and 14, 1945, allied aircraft dropped incendiary bombs on the German city of Dresden—a so-called "open city" with no significant military targets. The bombing raid created a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed an estimated 135,000 people, almost all of them civilians. This was nearly twice the number of people killed by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Dresden bombing remains the single heaviest air strike in military history. The raid remains controversial to this day, as many historians have suggested that the raid served no real military purpose and did nothing to hasten Germany's defeat. Approximately one hundred American prisoners of war, captured at the Battle of the Bulge, were in Dresden during the bombing. Vonnegut was one of them.

The Vietnam War

The war between communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam began in 1954 and ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory and the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. This same time period also covered most of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a political conflict which led

Dresden, Germany, after the Allied bombing attack during World War II. As a prisoner of war, Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing of the city. Dresden, Germany, after the Allied bombing attack during World War II. As a prisoner of war, Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing of the city.

to the United States entering the Vietnam War on the side of South Vietnam. The year before Vonnegut's novel was published, 1968, saw the American presence in Vietnam peak at 543,000 troops. As American involvement increased, so did opposition to the war among Americans. By 1969, a sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, had chosen not to run for reelection because of his role in prosecuting the war. Also, antiwar sentiment had taken the form of mass demonstrations and the migration of thousands of young American men to Canada, Sweden, and other countries in order to avoid the draft.

Although Vonnegut's novel is centered on events which took place in the 1940s during World War II, it is very much a product of the Vietnam era. Vonnegut even makes direct references to Vietnam in Chapter Three, when Billy Pilgrim, in 1967, listens to a speech by a Marine urging increased bombing of North Vietnam. And in Chapter Ten Vonnegut refers to the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy while observing that "every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam." It is perhaps no surprise that a novel which faced head-on the horrors of war, as well asPage 268  |  Top of Article American responsibility for some of those horrors, struck a chord with the reading public at a time when many Americans were beginning to think their country had made a terrible mistake.

The UFO Phenomenon

An important element of Slaughterhouse-Five is Billy Pilgrim's abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In the 1990s, "alien abduction" has become a well-recognized cultural myth, as countless individuals claim to have been abducted by aliens from outer space. Public speculation about UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) and the possibility of life on other planets is at an all-time high, fueled by both popular entertainment (television shows such as Star Trek and The XFiles, movies such as E.T. and Independence Day), scientific discoveries (the identification of planets outside our solar system), and news events (the Heaven's Gate mass suicides of 1997).

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: World War II was a decisive victory for the United States and its allies and was widely supported by Americans. Americans' knowledge of the war came from delayed accounts in newspapers, on radio, and in newsreels shown in movie theaters. By the end of the war, the United States was the top military and economic power in the world.

    1960s: American involvement in the Vietnam War eventually lost the support of most citizens, perhaps in part because of extensive television news coverage, which brought the realities of war into American living rooms. The war concluded in 1975 with the United States withdrawing from Vietnam—the only war America ever lost. While still the "leader of the free world," the Vietnam War deals a strong blow to American prestige around the world.

    Today: The United States's most recent military conflict, the Persian Gulf War against Iraq, was an overwhelming victory, in part because of American determination to avoid "another Vietnam." The war enjoyed widespread support among Americans. However, media coverage was carefully controlled by the military. Although the end of the Cold War after the collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the only true "superpower," its economic supremacy is being challenged by countries like Japan, China, and Germany. There is a reluctance within the U.S. government and the populace to commit U.S. troops to military conflicts overseas.

  • 1940s: Before the first wave of UFO sightings begins in 1947, popular awareness of "aliens from outer space" was mostly confined to the readers of pulp science fiction magazines.

    1960s: The U.S. Air Force reports almost three thousand UFO sightings between 1965 and 1967; congressional hearings on the issue are held in 1966. The science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s, television shows such as "Star Trek" and "The Invaders," and the American space program all dramatically increase public awareness of the possibility of life on other planets.

    Today: Claims of "alien abductions" become almost commonplace. Popular television shows and movies, such as "The X-Files" and "Independence Day," and extraordinary public events, such as the Heaven's Gate mass suicide, in 1997, bring public awareness of the UFO phenomenon to all all-time high. The first planets outside the solar system have been discovered, and scientists, led by such astronomers as the late Carl Sagan, now seriously speculate about the possibilities of life on other planets.

Although Vonnegut's novel predates the current wave of popular awareness of UFOs, the phenomenon was already well-documented when Slaughterhouse-Five appeared in 1969. Beginning in 1947, reports of UFOs came in waves from all over the world. Between 1965 and 1967, the U.S.Page 269  |  Top of Article Air Force received almost three thousand reports of UFO sightings. In 1966, there was even a congressional hearing on the subject, and the Air Force appointed scientist Edward U. Condon to investigate the matter. Condon's conclusion—that there was "no direct evidence whatever" that UFOs were in fact extraterrestrial spacecraft—was the subject of great controversy.

Science Fiction

Slaughterhouse-Five is, among other things, a science fiction novel, and it is also a novel with a strong awareness of the history of science fiction. Vonnegut began his writing career labeled as a science fiction writer, a classification he never fully escaped until the 1960s. In its use of the alien Tralfamadorians, his novel shows a keen awareness of the staples of both written "pulp" science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s and the popular movies of the 1950s. The character of Kilgore Trout is especially interesting in this regard. Some critics have seen Trout—a visionary writer doomed to poverty and obscurity because of his work in a literary genre considered to be inferior to "real" literature—as a projection of Vonnegut's own fears of how he might have wound up if he had not escaped the "science fiction" label. Others have suggested that Trout is modeled on actual science fiction writers of the 1950s, especially Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon.

Critical Overview

There is a substantial body of criticism on Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s work in general, and on Slaughterhouse-Five in particular. While critics have often found Vonnegut's fiction as a whole to be uneven in quality, they have frequently praised him for Slaughterhouse-Five, which is widely regarded as the author's finest work.

The tone for much of the criticism that followed the book's release was set by Robert Scholes in his review of Slaughterhouse-Five, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review shortly after the novel's publication in 1969. Scholes praised Vonnegut's humor, noting that it "does not disguise the awful things perceived; it merely strengthens and comforts us to the point where such perception is bearable." He asserted that the absurd elements of the novel are appropriate and necessary to deal with the absurdity of the world. He considered the novel to be "an extraordinary success … a book we need to read, and to reread … funny, compassionate, and wise." The noted critic Granville Hicks, reviewing the novel in Saturday Review, compared Vonnegut to Mark Twain as both a humorist and moralist.

Much of the later criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five has emphasized the book's unusual and innovative structure. In Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels (1977), Richard Giannone observed that "Vonnegut the witness draws moral force by undermining conventional narrative authority" and "comments on the reality of Dresden by treating the problems of fiction." In his 1990 study "Slaughterhouse-Five ": Reforming the Novel and the World, Jerome Klinkowitz observed that the Tralfamadorian concept of time is also "the overthrow of nearly every Aristotelian convention that has contributed to the novel's form in English over the past three centuries." And in an earlier study of Vonnegut, Klinkowitz links the author's experiments with narrative form to those of other experimental writers of the 1960s, such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon.

Several critics have also focused on Slaughterhouse-Five as a work of science fiction. Reviewing the novel in the New Republic, J. Michael Crichton compared it to works by such well-known science fiction authors as Robert A. Heinlein, J. G. Ballard, and Roger Zelazny, all of whom were, like Vonnegut, popular among the youth "counterculture" of the 1960s. James Lundquist spent a chapter of his 1977 study of Vonnegut examining Vonnegut's connections to science fiction, noting especially the character of science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout. Interestingly, critics from within the science fiction field are frequently uncomfortable with Vonnegut's use of science fiction devices. Thomas D. Clareson, writing in Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction, agreed with noted British science fiction novelist and critic Brian W. Aldiss that Vonnegut's use of time travel and other science fiction devices is "intrusive."

While the critical reception of Slaughterhouse-Five has been overwhelmingly positive, some critics have expressed reservations concerning the novel's apparent endorsement of passive acceptance as an appropriate response to evil. Crichton suggested that Vonnegut "refuses to say who is wrong … ascribes no blame, sets no penalties." And Tony Tanner, in his 1971 book City of Words, worried that Vonnegut's vision is one of "moral indifference." The overwhelming popular success of Slaughterhouse-Five has also been somewhat tem pered by the fact that it is one of the novels mostPage 270  |  Top of Article frequently banned from high school classrooms. This is presumably because of its unsparing violence and occasionally explicit language. Nonetheless, Vonnegut's novel has maintained a level of popular and critical success seldom achieved by any book. Most readers and critics have agreed with Tanner, who, despite his concerns about "moral indifference," concluded that Vonnegut's most famous work is "a masterly novel" of "clarity and economy—and compassion."


F. Brett Cox

F. Brett Cox is an assistant professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia. In the following essay, Cox explains how Slaughterhouse-Five represents Vonnegut's efforts to come to terms with his personal war experiences. Other aspects of the novel are of secondary concern when compared to Vonnegut 's anti-war theme.

In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had already published five novels and two short story collections, but he was not especially well known or commercially successful. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in that year was an artistic and commercial breakthrough for Vonnegut. According to the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, one of the leading authorities on Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut's "first bestseller. [It] catapulted him to sudden national fame, and brought his writing into serious intellectual esteem." Other critics have noted the novel as a summation of many of the themes of Vonnegut's work: the dangers of unchecked technology, the limitations of human action in a seemingly random and meaningless universe, and the need for people, adrift in an indifferent world, to treat one another with kindness and decency. Almost thirty years later, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut's most discussed and widely admired novel.

Many critics and scholars have suggested that Vonnegut's breakthrough in Slaughterhouse-Five occurred because here, for the first time, he addressed directly the pivotal event of his own life. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and, while a prisoner of war, witnessed the firebombing of the German city of Dresden—an "open city" with no significant military targets. On the night of February 13, 1945, Allied bombers dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed an estimated 135,000 people, almost all of them civilians. This was nearly twice the number of people killed by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Dresden bombing remains the single heaviest air strike in military history.

Vonnegut's effort to come to terms with such an overwhelming—and, in the view of many historians, unnecessary—catastrophe took the form of a novel with a highly unusual structure. Rather than employing a conventional third-person "narrative voice," Slaughterhouse-Five is narrated by the author himself. The first chapter consists of Vonnegut discussing the difficulties he had in writing the novel, and Vonnegut himself appears onstage as a character several times later in the book. In a sentence directed to his publisher, Vonnegut said of the novel, "It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."

The novel's "short and jumbled and jangled" structure reflects the condition of its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Like Vonnegut, Billy is taken prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the Dresden firebombing. Billy's response, however, is not to write a novel but to become "unstuck in time." Beginning during this captivity behind German lines, Pilgrim finds himself liable at any time, suddenly and without warning, to travel to any given moment in his own past or future. Although the novel follows Billy's war experiences in more or less chronological order, a scene of Billy in a German prison camp may be followed immediately by a scene of his wedding night, or a time when his father taught him to swim as a child.

Billy's condition is, on one level, a symbol of the shock, confusion, dislocation, and desire for escape that result from the horrible experiences of war. His time travels could, perhaps, be interpreted as the delusions of an emotionally unstable man. It is important to remember, however, that several of Vonnegut's earlier novels, such as Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat's Cradle, were science fiction novels. Billy's time travel may be symbolic, but it may also be interpreted as an actual event, an example of science fiction's ability to make metaphors concrete.

The most overtly science-fictional element in Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, Billy's abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore on his daughter's wedding night many years after the war.Page 271  |  Top of Article In using an alien civilization as a vehicle for commenting on humanity, Vonnegut is again using the traditions of science fiction. The Tralfamadorians also appear in Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. During his captivity on Tralfamadore—where he is displayed naked in a cage and, eventually, mated with a movie actress from Earth named Montana Wildhack—Billy learns of the aliens' philosophy of time and death. It is a philosophy that explains his own condition.

For Tralfamadorians, time is not a linear progression of events, but a constant condition: "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist." Like Billy, the aliens can travel back and forth to different moments in time. They do not consider death a significant event, since when a person dies he or she "is still very much alive in the past." Billy does, in fact, know when he is going to die, and is unconcerned. At the moment of his death, he finds himself returning to an earlier point in his life. The Tralfamadorian response to death is "So it goes"—a phrase Vonnegut writes at every point in the novel where death is mentioned. All beings exist in each moment of time like "bugs in amber," and there is nothing that can alter that fact: "Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." Accordingly, the Tralfamadorians advise Billy "to concentrate on the happy moments of life, and to ignore the unhappy ones."

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s 1952 novel, also deals with the limitations of science and technology.
  • The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is Stephen Crane's classic story of the Civil War that, like Vonnegut's novel, portrays the horrors of war in an unromanticized fashion.
  • Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) is a classic novel of World War I that, like Vonnegut's novel, portrays German soldiers as ordinary people caught up in the horrors of war.
  • Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948) was one of the first major American novels based on its author's experiences in World War II.
  • Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978) was one of the first major American novels based on its author's experiences in Vietnam.
  • Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is another example of science fiction as social criticism.
  • Vonnegut's 1962 novel, The Sirens of Titan, also features the Tralfamadorians.
  • Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon (1966) uses both science fiction devices and an unusual narrative structure to tell a story of alienation and displacement.
  • More Than Human (1953) is the most famous novel by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, whom some have cited as a model for Kilgore Trout, Jr.
  • Venus on the Half-Shell was published in 1975 with Vonnegut's permission as a science fiction novel by "Kilgore Trout, Jr." It was actually written by Philip Jose Farmer, a well-known science fiction writer who for much of his career, like Trout, wrote visionary works for little financial gain or popular recognition.

Such a philosophy can, of course, lead to being passive and resigned rather than trying to oppose evil and make the world better. Some critics have noted this tension in the novel and worried that it could be read not as moral outrage but as, in the words of the critic Tony Tanner, "culpable moral indifference." A possible answer to this charge may be found in one of Vonnegut's direct comments to his readers: "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramaticPage 272  |  Top of Article confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces." There are certainly characters and dramatic situations in Slaughterhouse-Five, but the characters are fragile, wounded people at the mercy of forces completely beyond their control.

Those characters who claim to have some degree of control are, almost without exception, clueless, or cruel, or both. Roland Weary, the soldier who torments Billy while they wander behind enemy lines, believes he is a great warrior. Along with the two scouts with whom he and Billy find themselves, he considers himself one of "The Three Musketeers," a closely-bound fighting unit. In fact, Weary is a sadistic, incompetent bully whom the experienced scouts abandon. "Wild Bob," a colonel on the prison train with Billy, delivers a speech in which he assures his nonexistent troops that they have the Germans on the run and invites the troops to a reunion in his hometown after the war: "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!" Shortly thereafter, "Wild Bob" dies of pneumonia. The British prisoners of war, who make a great show of thriving in adverse conditions, owe their prosperity to a clerical error which causes the Red Cross to send them extra supplies. Years after the war, Billy shares a hospital room with Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord, an Air Force historian who has no patience with "bleeding hearts" and tries to convince Billy that the Dresden raid was justified. Billy responds by quoting another person with delusions of control: '"If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming,' said Billy Pilgrim behind his white linen screens, 'just ask for Wild Bob.' " Confronted by the inexplicable horrors of war, and by a world in which people like Weary and Wild Bob and Rumfoord find glory in wholesale death and destruction, Billy's passivity is, perhaps, understandable.

Slaughterhouse-Five is, then, not an answer to the tragedy of war, but a response. The novel's innovative structure, distinctive prose style, and skilled use of humor and satire have all been much commented upon by critics. But it is the horror of war, as represented by the Dresden firebombing, and the attempts of decent people to come to terms with those horrors, that lie at the heart of the book and provide its most memorable scenes. One such scene is when the American POW's emerge from the meat locker under Slaughterhouse-Five to see the charred wreckage left after the bombing:

… the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon…. The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them learned that they were treacherous, jagged things…. Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead…. There were to be no moon men at all.

Slaughterhouse-Five was published during the height of the Vietnam War, a point in history when many Americans were beginning to think their country had made a terrible mistake. It is perhaps no surprise that a novel which faced head-on the horrors of war (and American responsibility for some of those horrors), while at the same time suggesting that the only proper response to these horrors was to maintain a degree of ironic distance while being kind to victims, struck such a chord with the reading public and made its author a cultural icon. That Vonnegut's novel has remained a classroom staple is a tribute to both its artistic achievement and the power of its message. Slaughterhouse-Five is, in the words of Tony Tanner, "a masterly novel" of "clarity and economy—and compassion."

Source: F. Brett Cox, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Charles B. Harris

In the following excerpt, Harris examines the author-as-character, and the distancing and buffers set up by Vonnegut as self-protection.

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Source: Charles B. Harris, "Time, Uncertainity, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five," in Centennial Review, Summer, 1976, pp. 228-43.

David L. Vanderwerken

In the following excerpt, Vanderwerken discusses Billy Pilgrim, focusing on the causes of his breakdown and how he is influenced by Tralfamadorianism.

The reader's central problem in comprehending Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five lies in correctly understanding the source of Billy Pilgrim's madness. Vonnegut continually undercuts our willing suspension of disbelief in Billy's time travel by offering multiple choices for the origin of Billy's imbalance: childhood traumas, brain damage from his plane crash, dreams, his shattering war experiences, and plain old fantasy. Yet if, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, only a "first-rate intelligence" has the "ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," an inquiry into the two opposed philosophical systems that Pilgrim holds in his mind—Tralfamadorianism and Christianity—may lead us to the fundamental cause of Billy's breakdown.Page 275  |  Top of Article Clearly, Billy is no "first-rate intelligence," and he hardly can be said to "function"; he simply cracks under the strain of his dilemma. For some critics, however, Vonnegut's method of juxtaposing two explanatory systems, seemingly without affirming one or the other, becomes a major flaw in the novel…. I would argue that, on the contrary, Vonnegut's position is clear; he rejects both Tralfamadorianism and divinely oriented Christianity, while unambiguously affirming a humanly centered Christianity in which Jesus is a "nobody," a "bum," a man.

In the autobiographical first chapter, Vonnegut introduces the opposed ideas, which the narrative proper will develop, evolving from his twenty-three-year attempt to come to terms with the horror of Dresden. The Christmas card sent to Vonnegut's war buddy by a German cab driver, expressing his hope for a "world of peace and freedom … if the accident will," dramatizes, in miniature form, a central tension in the novel. Human history is either divinely planned—Christmas signifies God's entrance into human history—and historical events are meaningful, or human history is a series of random events, non-causal, pure "accident," having no ultimate meaning as the Tralfamadorians claim. Both viewpoints deny free will; man is powerless to shape events…. Either position allows one serenely to wash his hands of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim washes his hands, so to speak, and becomes reconciled to his Dresden experience under the tutelage of the Tralfamadorians: "'[Dresden] was all right,' said Billy. 'Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.'"

The Tralfamadorians provide Billy with the concept of nonlinear time, which becomes the foundation for a mode of living: "'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 said before, bugs in amber.'" Although men on earth are always '"explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided,'" Billy learns that "'there is no why. ' "

In short, Tralfamadorianism is an argument for determinism. Yet, this is a determinism without design, where chance rules. The universe will be destroyed accidentally by the Tralfamadorians, and wars on earth are inevitable…. The upshot of the Tralfamadorian philosophy finds expression in a cliché: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."

When Billy, full of revelations, returns to Earth "to comfort so many people with the truth about time," the implications of Tralfamadorianism become apparent. Although Billy's first attempt to "comfort" someone, a Vietnam war widow's son, fails, Billy blossoms into a charismatic national hero at the time of his assassination in 1976. The public appeal of Tralfamadorianism is obvious. Simply, it frees man from responsibility and from moral action. If all is determined, if there is no why, then no one can be held accountable for anything, neither Dresden nor My Lai. In his personal life, Billy's indifference and apathy toward others are clearly illustrated. Chapter Three offers three consecutive examples of Billy's behavior: he drives away from a black man who seeks to talk with him; he diffidently listens to a vicious tirade by a Vietnam Hawk at his Lions Club meeting; he ignores some cripples selling magazine subscriptions. Yet the Tralfamadorian idea that we can do nothing about anything fully justifies Billy's apathy. When Billy preaches this dogma as part of his "calling," he does a great service for the already apathetic by confirming their attitude; he provides them with a philosophical base for their apathy. If one ignores the ghetto or the Vietnam War, neither exists. By exercising one's selective memory, by becoming an ostrich, one may indeed live in a world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Perfect. No wonder Billy is a successful Comforter; he has fulfilled Eliot Rosewater's request that "new lies" be invented or "people just aren't going to want to go on living."

If Tralfamadorianism is a "new lie," it recalls an "old lie"—God. There is little difference between God's will and accident's will in the novel. For Vonnegut, man's belief in an all-powerful Creator, involved in human history, has resulted in two great evils: the acceptance of war as God's will; the assumption that we carry out God's will and that God is certainly on our side, which justifies all atrocities. Sodom, Gomorrah, Hiroshima, Dresden, My Lai IV—all victims of God's will. Vonnegut directs his rage in Slaughterhouse-Five at a murderous, supernatural Christianity that creates Children's Crusades, that allows men to rationalize butchery in the name of God, that absolves men from guilt. Since, for Vonnegut, all wars are, finally, "holy" wars, he urges us to rid ourselves of a supernatural God.

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While Vonnegut indicts Tralfamadorianism and supernatural Christianity as savage illusions, he argues in Slaughterhouse-Five for a humanistic Christianity, which may also be an illusion, but yet a saving one.

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut associates Billy Pilgrim with Bunyan's Pilgrim and with Christ. A chaplain's assistant in the war with a "meek faith in a loving Jesus," Billy finds the war a vast Slough of Despond; he reaches Dresden, which "looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim," only to witness the Heavenly City's destruction. Often, Vonnegut's Christian shades into Christ Himself. During the war, Billy hears "Golgotha sounds," foresees his death and resurrection, " 'it is time for me to be dead for a little while—and then live again,' " identifies himself fully with Christ: "Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically. Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross." After his kidnapping in 1967 by the Tralfamadorians, Billy assumes the role of Messiah: "He was doing nothing less now, he thought, than prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore." Vonnegut has created a parody Christ whose gospel is Tralfamadorian, who redeems no one, who "cried very little although he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol." Indeed, Pilgrim's dilemma is that he is a double Savior with two gospels—a weeping and loving Jesus and a Tralfamadorian determinist. His opposed gospels drive him mad, render him impotent, result in his crackpot letters to newspapers and in his silent weeping for human suffering. Possibly Billy could have resolved his dilemma if he had paid closer attention to the human Christ in the novels of Billy's favorite writer—Kilgore Trout.

While Vonnegut often mentions Trout's books and stories for satiric purposes, Trout, "this cracked messiah" who has been " 'making love to the world'" for years, also serves as Vonnegut's spokesman for a humanistic and naturalistic Christianity. In Trout's The Gospel from Outer Space, a planetary visitor concludes that Christians are cruel because of "slipshod storytelling in the New Testament," which does not teach mercy, compassion, and love, but instead: "Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn 't well connected." Trout's visitor offers Earth a new Gospel in which Jesus is not divine, but fully human—"a nobody." When the nobody is crucified: "The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity." What Vonnegut suggests here is that Christ's divinity stands in the way of charity. If the "bum" is Everyman, then we are all adopted children of God; we are all Christs and should treat each other accordingly.

As mentioned earlier, both Tralfamadorian determinism and the concept of a Supreme Being calling every shot on Earth nullify human intention, commitment and responsibility. But Vonnegut's humanistic Christianity in the face of a naturalistic universe demands moral choice—demands that we revere each other as Christs, since all are sons and daughters of God. Not surprisingly, Vonnegut's position echoes that of Stephen Crane…. The corre spondent's insight that we are all in the same boat adrift in an indifferent sea, and that once we realize that we have only each other, moral choice is "absurdly clear," is Kurt Vonnegut's insight as well. (Vonnegut mentions The Red Badge of Courage.) The courage, sacrifice, and selflessness in The Red Badge appear in Slaughterhouse-Five also.

While Vonnegut offers several versions of ideal brotherhood in his works—the Karass, the Volunteer Fire Department, and, despite Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s assessment of American prisoners, moments of brotherhood in Slaughterhouse-Five—he also suggests an alternative for the individual, a slogan that becomes a way of living. On the same page where Vonnegut says, "Billy was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do," appears the following prayer and Vonnegut's comment:


Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

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The Serenity Prayer, sandwiched between episodes concerning Vietnam, is Vonnegut's savage indictment of Billy Pilgrim. In short, Billy lacks the "wisdom" to see that Dresden is of the past and cannot be changed, but that the bombing of North Vietnam lies in the present and can be changed. However, to protest the bombing requires moral "courage," a quality obviated by his Tralfamadorian education.

The seemingly innocuous Serenity Prayer, the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous, appears once more in a most significant location—on the last page of Chapter Nine. The truth of Raymond M. Olderman's observation in his Beyond the Waste Land that "Vonnegut is a master at getting inside a cliché" is verified when we consider that Vonnegut has transformed the AA motto into a viable moral philosophy. Vonnegut knows that we have to accept serenely those things that people cannot change—the past, linear time, aging, death, natural forces. Yet the Prayer posits that, through moral courage, there are things that can be changed. War, for example, is not a natural force like a glacier, as Harrison Starr would have it. While Billy believes that he cannot change the past, present, or future, Vonnegut suggests that in the arena of the enormous present, we can, with courage, create change: "And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

If there is a broad moral implication in Slaughterhouse-Five, it is aimed at America. Vonnegut, like his science fictionist Kilgore Trout, "writes about Earthlings all the time and they're all Americans." Vonnegut's message for America is this: America has adopted the Tralfamadorian philosophy, which justifies apathy. We have lost our sense of individuality; we feel powerless, helpless, and impotent; we consider ourselves the "listless playthings of enormous forces." What Vonnegut would have us do is develop the wisdom to discriminate between what we can or cannot change, while developing the courage to change what we can. We have met Billy Pilgrim and he is us.

Source: David L. Vanderwerken, "Pilgrim's Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five," in Research Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 147-52.


Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Victor Gollancz, 1986.

Thomas D. Clareson, Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period (1926—1970), University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

J. Michael Crichton, review of Slaughterhouse-Five, in New Republic, April 26, 1969.

Richard Giannone, Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels, Kennikat Press, 1977, pp. 82-97.

Granville Hicks, "Literary Horizons," in Saturday Review, March 29, 1969, p. 25.

Jerome Klinkowitz, Kurt Vonnegut. Methuen, 1982, pp. 63-69.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Slaughterhouse Five": Reforming the Novel and the World, Twayne, 1990.

Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler, editors, Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1977.

James Lundquist, Kurt Vonnegut, Frederick Ungar, 1977, pp. 69-84.

Robert Scholes, review of Slaughterhouse-Five, New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1969, pp. 1, 23.

Tony Tanner, City of Words, Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 194-201.

For Further Study

Clark Mayo, Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space; or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas, Borgo Press, 1977, pp. 45-52.

Discusses Slaughterhouse-Five as a response to "the horror and absurdity of war" with emphasis on the novel's unconventional structure.

Leonard Mustazza, Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Bucknell University Press, 1990, pp. 102-15.

Discusses Slaughterhouse-Five in terms of Billy Pilgrim's attempts "to construct for himself an Edenic experience" and the "linkage x2026; between Eden and Tralfamadore."

Peter J. Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Crowell, 1972, pp. 172-203.

Discusses Slaughterhouse-Five as "an effort to bring together all that Vonnegut has been saying about the human condition and contemporary American society." Reed calls the novel "remarkably successful" and "one of Vonnegut's best."

Stanley Schatt, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., G.K. Hall, 1976, pp. 81-96.

A detailed summary and critique of the novel. The book also contains an extensive bibliography of critical works on Vonnegut.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3124800023