Introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five

One of the acclaimed works of the American author, Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death was first published on 31st March 1969. Soon after its first appearance, the book was known as a failure and yet became a surprise hit. It was also banned from the schools and library due to the conflicting content. Later, it stood at the top for sixteen weeks on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and was later adapted for various films and course books across the globe. The story of the novel revolves around Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes “unstuck in time” and weaves narratives around multiple stages of his life. The book also contains explicit language with graphic content making it unsuitable for young readers.

Summary of Slaughterhouse-Five

The novel begins when the writer describes the basics of his writing, highlighting the difficulties he faced while writing this anti-war novel and his experiences as a war prisoner during WWII which has eventually caused him to pen down this book. After providing some glimpses of his personal life, he accounts for the life story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran whose war experiences are similar to that of his own. Billy’s horrifying past experiences have left him “unstuck in time” from where he bounces back and forth in time, visualizing strange occasions like his birth, death, and other out-of-order moments. These life experiences and peculiar time travel ability allow the story to deviate from a strict chronological pattern.

The story goes thus that Billy Pilgrim, a son of a barber, is born in 1992 in Ilium, New York. Unfortunately, he has not had a remarkable childhood; instead, his childhood is marred by some incidents that haunt him throughout his life. He recalls that he has attended optometry school but has soon left to join WWII. Billy never believed in the concept of war and feared to fight. Then he is appointed to be a chaplain’s assistant. In this position, he goes to South Carolina for training, but his father’s unfortunate death interrupts his training. Later, in December 1944, Billy is stationed in Luxembourg, joining the Battle of the Bulge.

Unfortunately, during the fight, his troops disperse during a retreat, leading Billy to join the company of two scouts and a tank gunner, Roland Weary. Weary is cruel towards Billy and mock his cowardice. They fail to avoid the cruelty of war; scouts die facing the enemies, while Billy and Weary go to a war prisoner camp in Germany, where Weary dies of gangrene which was caused by wearing the wooden clog forced by Germans, blaming Billy for his death. Weary also mentions avenging his death to his fellow prisoner Paul Lazzaro. After a few days, Billy along with other fellow American soldiers is dispatched to Dresden where they are kept in a former slaughterhouse. After a few weeks, Dresden faces a ruthless bombardment from the American and British fighter crafts, killing countless people and damaging most of the buildings.

However, Billy and his fellow soldiers survive because they are in the airtight slaughterhouse at the time of the horrible attack. Once the bombing is over, these soldiers are assigned with the clean-up task; they are supposed to dispose of the corpses and clean the rubble. After playing his role in the war, Billy returns home but suffers a nervous breakdown, leading him to spend time at a psychiatric hospital where he receives treatment. During his stay at the hospital, he meets and shares the company of another wounded war soldier, Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the mesmerizing science fiction of Kilgore Trout. Once recovered, he marries Valencia Merble, the obese daughter of the Principle of the Optometry school and helps him set up his business, and has two children, Robert and Barbara.

On the night of his daughter, Barbra’s wedding, Billy tells in a radio talk show that some aliens have taken him to a fourth-dimensional planet, Tralfamadore. His significant encounter with that strange creature gives him a new and completely different concept of time. They believe that all moments in our lives occur simultaneously and always. They put him into a zoo and gives him a mate, Montana Wildhack, a pornographic movie star from Earth who was also abducted. Montana and Billy adore each other’s company, make love, and expect a child. Soon afterward, Billy returns to the earth after a short pause, and ironically, nobody notices that he has gone missing for months. Later, on the way to an optometry convention in Montreal, his plane crashes in Vermont, causing him severe head injuries, and was proceeded to go under brain surgery. His wife, Valencia, too, dies following a car crash.

The now-widowed Billy is taken under the care of Barbara to his home in Ilium but he flees to New York and decides to make people aware of the strange planet he has visited and their strange yet inspiring doctrine that there is no such thing as free will: no one can change the sequence of time. While in Times Square his visits a pornographic book store and finds a magazine with Montana Wildhack’s story of her disappearance. To act upon his will, he travels to New York to express his experience on a radio program and writes various letters to Ilium’s local newspaper. On the one hand, he is desperate to introduce a new philosophy to the world, while on the other hand, his daughter Barbara feels that her father suffers from some psychological disorders. Surprisingly, Billy claims to know how he will die, and he dies exactly the way he has recorded earlier. He dies in 1976 after the USA has been partitioned into twenty separate countries and China has attacked with Thermonuclear weapons. Paul Lazzaro, the one who promised to avenge Weary’s death commissions a hitman and shoots Billy with a laser gun. In the end, the writer again appears to suggest that life is like a nonsensical verse that never alters or ends. Instead, it repeats itself following the same cycle.

Major Themes in Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. War and Death: The destructiveness of war is one of the major themes of the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The war causes emotional, physical, and psychological damage to many characters like Billy Pilgrim, Bernard O’ Harry, Paul Lazzaro as well as the writer. The text revolves around the Dresden bombing, which kills almost 100,000 Germans and turns the city into rubbles. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, witnesses the horrific bombing and this incident brings lifelong suffering to him, making him unstable emotionally and even psychologically.
  2. Effects of War: Effects of the war is another significant theme of the text. The writer shapes the aftermaths of war through the main character, Billy Pilgrim, who remains “unstuck in time.” He moves back and forth in time, is abducted by the Tranlsfamadorians, and learns new doctrines from them which he, later, intends to spread among the people. Hit by the traumatic experiences of war, the writer himself admits that there is nothing intelligent to say about war.
  3. Men and Masculinity: The novel does not revolve around the glorification of war; instead, the writer prefers to present the other side of the picture, which is often unheard of or only experienced by soldiers. He narrates the absurd, unpleasant, and devastating realities of war and the lives of those who survive these brutalities. He recounts the horrible experiences of war that how it brings countless deaths and traumatic experiences to those who participate in it. Keeping Billy in the center of the text, he portrays a realistic image of the war zone like that of the Dresden bombing where people suffer from unavoidable mental and emotional distress, now known as PTSD or Post-traumatic stress and disorder.
  4. Imagination versus Reality: The writer has skillfully used various literary elements to highlight the absurdities of war in Slaughterhouse-Five. By using dark humor, satire, and elements of science fiction, he has brilliantly given this text a unique touch. The writer appears many times in the book, interacting directly with the readers, to make it clear that the strange alien world is the product of his imaginations. He derives the readers to his point that Trafalmadorians and their philosophy of time are not nonsensical; rather, it is a truly human condition.
  5. Acceptance: Acceptance also holds thematic significance in the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The repeated occurrence of the phrase “so it goes” after every death shows the passive stance of the writer that people should accept everything that befalls them. Billy Pilgrim is portrayed as a highly positive and passive character who takes everything in life and this acceptance creates troubles for him.
  6. Foolishness: The novel presents various characters that are either absurd or foolish. Billy, the protagonist, does not believe in war, yet he faces the humiliation and cruelty of war. Edgar Derby, who seems to be a sane person, shows his odd side due to the unexpected taste of syrup in his mouth. These incidents lead us to realize how the system changes people and their perceptions and robs them of their dignity and sanity.
  7. Concept of Time: The novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, presents a perfect blend of science fiction with the absurd reality of war. The writer explores the philosophy of time to portray the life of Billy Pilgrim who remains unstuck in time. Although the main plot revolves around the Dresden bombing, yet Billy’s time travel and his perception about the present, past, and future helps the readers understand the writer’s philosophy that all time happens simultaneously and no one dies in reality at the moment of death.
  8. Free Will: The writer utilizes his imagination by creating Tralfamadorians and Billy to address this occurrence in the book. Tralfamadorians believe that no one can change fate, and all moments occur and reoccur in time. Following this notion, the writer portrays Billy’s life who is deployed in the war against his free will. First, his father subjects him to his teaching, and later the war takes him in and finally, the aliens kidnap him. This shows that his life goes against his desires or will, making him believe that the concept of free will is nothing but an illusion.
  9. Escapism: Although the novel revolves around the significant incident of the Dresden bombing, the writer is able to explore how the affected people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Billy also suffers from psychological illness and to avoid the bitter realities of war on the imaginative planet, he gets solace from Tralfamadore to escape the horrific memories of war. Hence, the new world offers him a comfort zone and makes him forget the disturbing world.
  10. Memory: Memory also plays a pivotal role in Billy’s life. Billy and Vonnegut seem to be derived lessons from the memory of the Dresden massacre. Billy leaps back in time to that drastic bombing repeatedly, simply because the deadly event haunts him.

Major Characters in Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. Billy Pilgrim: Billy Pilgrim is the central character of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The author presents him as an epitome of goodness with mild manners. He readily adapts himself to life situations rather than opposing them. His adaptive nature makes him composed even during traumatic situations where so many people give up on life. He is portrayed as a soldier, a prisoner of war, and an optometrist whose participation in war provides suggestive lenses to the world. His only flaw is that he gets unstuck in time, making him travel to other places and time with a resultant clash between imagination and reality. The realities and principles that he learns from Tralfamadorians change his perceptions toward free will and time.
  2. Pilgrim: Mr. Pilgrim is Billy’s father, who is a stout and stern kind of person with patriarchal beliefs. He seems to be a self-righteous man as he trains Billy during his childhood by throwing him into the water to teach him the tactics of swimming, bringing shock and embarrassment to him. Unfortunately, he died in an accidental shot when Billy departed for military training in South Carolina.
  3. Kurt Vonnegut: The writer himself becomes part of this novel to justify his book’s stance. He adds himself in the opening and closing chapters to frame Billy’s unstable life and the reasons behind his predicament. For many years, he has tried to document his Dresden experiences in a book but has stayed unable to do so. Therefore, his brief appearance in the story clarifies his writing goal, including nothingness of life and anti-war emotions.
  4. Bernard O’Hara: Bernard O’Hara is Vonnegut’s friend and a soldier who becomes a prisoner of war with the writer in Dresden. He appears in the book’s opening chapter when the writer visits him and his wife, intending to collect reminisces about their horrific war experience with his help. Unlike the author, he is also a nonfictional character that helps ground the text of the novel in reality.
  5. Mary O’Hare: Bernard O Hara’s wife, Mary appears in the opening chapter, where she shows her concerns for the writer’s attempt to record the traumatic war experiences. She believes that Vonnegut is going to glorify that war in his book, but the writer promises to explain the ugly truth about the war and its negative impacts on the people.
  6. Gerhard Müller: Gerhard is also a nonfictional character in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He is the taxi driver who takes the writer and O’Hara to Dresden and later sends O’Hara Christmas greetings as a gesture of peace and love. Although he stands as a minor character in the book, his short and meaningful appearance and innocent gestures bring a pause in the text’s pervasive violence and tension.
  7. Barbara Pilgrim: Billy’s daughter, Barbara marries an optometrist in the story. After her mother’s demise and her father’s accident, she intends to look after her father whose philosophy about time and aliens seems nonsensical to her.
  8. The Tralfamadorians: The Tralfamadorians are fictional characters of the book. They are the construct of the protagonist’s mind, a space that he creates to cope up with the troubling war experiences. They are shown as alien; green, two feet high and plungers shaped with an eye in the center and a hand at the top. They kidnap and take Billy to their planet and teach him the new doctrine related to time. They perceive time in the fourth dimension, believing all times exist continuously and simultaneously. Their ideas fit Billy’s experiences, leading him to think that the dead continue to live in other moments.
  9. Montana Wildhack: This popular young actress, Montana, appears in the book when Tralfamadorians kidnap Billy. She is brought to be his mate in their zoo.
  10. Robert Pilgrim: The son of Billy and Valencia Pilgrim, he becomes a Green Beret and takes part in the Vietnam War.

Writing Style of Slaughterhouse-Five

The unusual writing style of the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, exhibits the unique yet distinct approach of the author, Kurt Vonnegut, in that he fictionalizes the man at war and the way he gets affected by the inhumane war experiences. The book follows a non-linear structure clubbed with impressive science fiction elements to explore the phenomenon of innocence and fate. The skillful use of science fiction elements and the perception of spastic time show how Vonnegut has given his text a realistic touch. However, the book’s satiric tone suggests that the writer intends to present a far different view of the insensitivity and brutality of war. The tone seems deplorable as well as satiric at times but the diction suits the storyline from its informality.

Analysis of Literary Devices in Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises Billy’s participation in the war. The rising action occurs when Billy and other soldiers are captured and transported across Germany where they are placed in a slaughterhouse prison. The falling action occurs when Billy is caught between the doctrines of the newly found world and his desire to share this philosophy with the world.
  2. Anaphora: The novel shows the use of anaphora at different places throughout the novel as given in the examples below,
    ‘Me, and Mike, ve vork in mine.
    Holy sh*t, ve have good time.
    Vunce a veek ve get our pay.
    Holy sh*t, no vork next day.”(Chapter-Seven)
    ii. ‘I know,’ said Billy.
    ‘That’s war.’
    ‘I know. I’m not complaining.’ (Chapter- Nine)
    iii. ‘My name is Yon Yonson,
    I work in Wisconsin,
    I work in a lumbermill there.
    The people I meet when I walk down the street,
    They say, ‘What’s your name?
    And I say,
    ‘My name is Yon Yonson,
    I work in Wisconsin.’ (Chapter- One)
    The above examples show the repetitious use of the phrases “Holy sh*t”, “‘I know”, “I work in Wisconsin” and “My name is Yon Yonson.”
  3. Allusion: The novel shows the use of allusion as given in the below example,
    On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorians mind, he says, is Charles Darwin- who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. So it goes” (Chapter- Ten)
    The extracts allude to the presence of God.
  4. Consonance: Slaughterhouse-Five presents the conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables. For example,
    ‘It had to be done,’ Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.
    ‘I know,’ said Billy.
    ‘That’s war.’
    ‘I know. I’m not complaining.’
    ‘It must have been hell on the ground.’
    ‘It was,’ said Billy Pilgrim.
    ‘Pity the men who had to do it.’
    ‘I do.’(Chapter- Nine)
    Just mark the vowel sounds of /n/, /l/ and /h/.
  5. Assonance: The novel shows the repetition of vowel sounds as given in the below example,
    Leven cent cotton, forty cent meat,
    How in the world can a poor man eat?
    Pray for the sunshine, ‘cause it will rain.
    Things gettin’ worse, drivin’ all insane;
    Built a nice bar, painted it brown
    Lightnin’ came along and burnt it down
    No use talkin’ any man’s beat,
    With ‘leven cent cotton and forty cent meat
    ‘Leven cent cotton, a car-load of tax,
    The load’s too heavy for our poor backs. (Chapter- Eight)
    Just mark the vowel sounds of /o/, /e/ and /a/.
  6. Allegory: Slaughterhouse-Five shows the use of allegory by presenting the main idea of how man is subjected to violence and mental illness during a war.
  7. Conflict: Several conflicts are running parallel in the novel such as the internal and external struggles of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. The internal conflict is his mental struggle to survive the brutalities of war and the external struggle lies in his efforts to save his life during the bombing.
  8. Climax: The climax of the novel occurs when Billy dies exactly the way he imagined his death.
  9. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
    There was a Lufthansa plane that was supposed to fly from Philadelphia to Boston to Frankfurt. O’Hare was supposed to get on in Philadelphia and I was supposed to get on in Boston, and off we’d go. But Boston was socked in, so the plane flew straight to Frankfurt from Philadelphia. And I became a non-person in the Boston Fog, and Lufthansa put me in a limousine with some other non-persons and sent us to a motel for anon-night. (Chapter- One)
    ii. Billy travelled in time back to the hospital in Vermont. Breakfast had been eaten and cleared away and Professor Rumford was reluctantly becoming interested in Billy as a human being. Rumford questioned Billy gruffly, satisfied himself that Billy really had been in Dresden. He asked Billy what it had been like, and Billy told him about the horses and the couple picnicking on the moon. (Chapter- Nine)
    These examples show the use of different images such as the image of fog, movement, and image night. The second example also shows the images of sound, touch, and sight.
  10. Metaphor: The novel shows the use of metaphors as given in the below examples,
    A doctor and a nurse ran out to find out what the trouble was. Poor Valencia was unconscious, overcome by carbon monoxide. She was a heavenly azure. One hour later she was dead. So it goes. Billy knew nothing about it. He dreamed on, and traveled in time and so forth.”(Chapter- Nine)
    ii. Lionel Merble was a machine. Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines. (Chapter- Seven)
    The first one compares Valencia with a cloudy sky, while the second compares his father-in-law with a mechanic.
  11. Motifs: The most important motifs of the novel include “And so on”, “Adam & Eve”, “Listen” and “birds.”
  12. Mood: The novel shows a sympathetic mood, though it becomes tragic, ironic, and highly satiric at times. Sometimes, it also becomes gloomy and sympathetic when Billy suffers head injuries and seems stuck between two worlds.
  13. Narrator: The novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, is narrated in both the first-person point of view and the third person point of view. The first person narrator is Billy Pilgrim, the mouthpiece of the author, and the third person narrator is the author, Kurt Vonnegut.
  14. Onomatopoeia: The novel shows the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named such as,
    “One Bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?” (Chapter-Ten)
  15. Protagonist: Billy Pilgrim is the protagonist of the story. The novel starts and ends with a nonsensical description of the life of Billy and his first-person narrative when the author does not intervene.
  16. Refrain: Slaughterhouse-Five shows the melancholic refrain, “So it goes,” that appears one hundred and six times in the text.
  17. Setting: The setting of the novel is Ilium, New York, planet Tralfamadore and Luxembourg, Germany, where Billy takes part in the Battle of Bulge and Dresden where they are trapped in a slaughterhouse prison.
  18. Simile: The novel shows the use of similes as given in the below examples,
    I was carrying a bottle of Irish whiskey like a dinner bell. (Chapter-One)
    ii. He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola. (Chapter-Two)
    iii. They had teeth like piano keys. (Chapter-Three)
    iv. Billy and his wife, Valencia, nestled like spoons in their big double bed. (Chapter-Four)
    These examples show the comparison through the use of “like.” The first example shows the comparison of Irish whiskey with a dinner bell, the second shows a child compared to a bottle, the third is where teeth is compared to piano keys, and the fourth shows Billy and his Wife compared to spoons.
  19. Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five shows the symbols of the “Poo-tee-weet?” and blue and ivory colors. Whereas the jabbering bird symbolizes the nothingness of war and life, the colors stand for life and death.
  20. Tone: The novel shows a dark, ironic, satiric, and, at times, humorous tone.
  21. Theme: The novel uses the thematic strands of the destructiveness of war, the illusion of free will, and the fluidity of time.