Slaughterhouse-Five Analysis

The Plot (Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death is a framed narrative in which Kurt Vonnegut himself appears in the first and last chapters, explaining how and why he wrote the novel. He also pops up occasionally in the action itself, because he was—like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, as he tells readers in the frame chapters—a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when Allied bombers incinerated the city on February 13, 1945.

The novel proper opens in 1944, when Billy, a chaplain’s assistant and inept foot soldier, is captured by the Germans. He and his fellow prisoners of war are taken by railroad boxcar to Dresden as forced laborers. Housed in a slaughterhouse bunker below the city streets, Billy is one of the only survivors when the city of Dresden is destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped in a ring around the ancient city, causing fires to burn toward its center. Billy emerges from the slaughterhouse to witness a moonscape.

The novel hardly moves in such a straight line; its structure rather mirrors Billy’s time travel. Chapter 2 opens with Billy coming “unstuck in time,” and thereafter the novel moves jerkily among its three plots: the story of Billy’s life, before and after the war; the bombing of Dresden; and life on Tralfamadore, a planet to which Billy was carried in 1967.

With the exception of World War II, Billy’s life is quite bland. Born in 1922 and drafted in 1940, after the war Billy marries the daughter of the founder of the Ilium School of Optometry he attends. He becomes a wealthy and conservative optometrist living in upstate New York. His imaginary life is much richer: Not only is he able to travel back and forth in time, but he claims he was kidnapped on the night of his daughter’s wedding and taken to a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, where he and the voluptuous film star Montana Wildhack are representatives of the earthling species on view.

In 1968, Billy is the only survivor of the crash of a chartered flight of optometrists headed for a convention. His wife, Valencia, is killed in her car rushing to visit Billy in the hospital. Soon after these tragedies, Billy starts to write letters to the newspaper and appears on an all-night radio show in New York City detailing his interplanetary and time-travel experiences. His life will end, he claims, when one of his fellow prisoners of war, Paul Lazzaro, assassinates him, in the future of 1976. His life story ends in the novel, however, on the planet Tralfamadore with his beautiful lover Montana Wildhack nursing their new baby.

Slaughterhouse-Five (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death, highlights Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut, survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by finding refuge in a meat locker under the slaughterhouse where he was employed as a prisoner of war. After the war, Pilgrim marries and becomes a successful optometrist in Ilium, New York; however, he cannot escape the horror and atrocity of war. Believing himself to be “unstuck in time,” Billy alternates among his memories of World War II, his life as a civilian in a world grown desensitized to violence and brutality, and a rich fantasy life on the planet Tralfamadore. On display in a Tralfamadorian zoo, Billy is mated with an Earthling named Montana Wildhack, a pornographic film star with whom, unlike with his real-life wife, Billy can share his memories of Dresden. While reliving his war experiences, Billy meets Roland Weary, a cruel and sadistic foot soldier who glorifies in the gruesome aspects of war and an ironic perception of himself as heroic, and Edgar Derby, a high school teacher who volunteered his service because he believed in the nobility of the Allied cause. Vonnegut’s brilliant characterization further adds to his picture of war as a brutal, dehumanizing force.

Impact

When Vonnegut dramatized his World War II experiences, including the February 13, 1945, firebombing of Dresden, then a cultural haven, by the Allied forces, he spoke to a nation torn, outraged, and struggling with its involvement in the Vietnam War. In chapters 1 and 10, Vonnegut directly addresses the reader and echoes the rallying cry of college students across the nation; he reminds us that nothing sensible can be made of war, no revelation, no absolution, nothing to further the evolution of humans. By presenting us with Billy Pilgrim, a man incapable of passion and who can no longer embrace life’s trivial joys or sorrows, Vonnegut mourns the annihilation of the human spirit by the brutal mechanisms of war. An instant success, Slaughterhouse-Five was praised by The New York Times and Time and Life magazines, forcing literary critics to reevaluate Vonnegut’s five earlier novels. While Vonnegut was signing contracts with the film industry, students all across the United States were touting the novel as evidence that U.S. involvement in Vietnam could result in nothing but senseless brutality, slaughter, and the ultimate death of hope or salvation.

Related Work

Slaughterhouse-Five, the 1972 film written by Stephen Geller, directed by George Roy Hill, and starring Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, provides a Hollywood version of the novel.

Bibliography

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Astute reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, marking the biblical references and Vonnegut’s personal testimony. Devotes similar attention to other novels by Vonnegut.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Explains Slaughterhouse-Five as one of Vonnegut’s “personal” novels, as opposed to the earlier ones that adhere to the stricter forms of science fiction. Draws correlations among the Vonnegut novels.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A complete study of the novel. Criticism is taken from sources that reviewed Slaughterhouse-Five when it was published. Numerous passages of Slaughterhouse-Five are explained in depth, as well as Vonnegut’s philosophy as it was seen by the reviewers of his time.

Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A short book with considerable insights into Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels by Vonnegut. The wit, sarcasm, and style of Vonnegut is prominent in the writing of this text.

Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Explores the construction, plot, and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five and considers Vonnegut’s sense of aesthetic distance from the work. Chapters include the contribution of Slaughterhouse-Five to the genre of science fiction and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.

Slaughterhouse-Five Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Cape Cod

*Cape Cod. Massachusetts setting of the novel’s present-time autobiographical frame in the first and last chapters, Cape Cod is where author Kurt Vonnegut lived while writing the novel during the 1960’s.

Ilium

Ilium. Fictional New York city where the main action unfolds. Modeled on New York’s upstate city of Schenectady, where Vonnegut once worked for General Electric, Ilium (after the Greek name for ancient Troy) is the place where protagonist Billy Pilgrim grows up, returns after serving in World War II, marries the daughter of the founder of his optometry college, and has a successful career as an optometrist.

The novel’s present-day setting of the late 1960’s is heavily middle-class and suburban and, in Vonnegut’s satirical prose, is revealed to be empty of such important American values as compassion and diversity. The novel’s loose plot turns on Billy’s waning enthusiasm for living. His sudden and inexplicable weeping episodes suggest that he is a victim of delayed stress syndrome, due to his horrific wartime experiences. His stress is manifested by his claim that in 1944 he became “unstuck in time.” Since then, he has traveled back and forth throughout time and interstellar space.

Vonnegut’s frame makes clear that the novel’s larger meaning applies to the late 1960’s, when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, riots were tearing cities apart, “and every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.” Scenes set in Ilium—such as Billy’s speaking at the Lions Club or driving through a black ghetto in his Cadillac with the windows rolled up tight—reveal an American city whose leading citizens seem oblivious to the country’s real problems.

*Dresden

*Dresden. German city destroyed by Allied bombing toward the end of World War II. The novel’s most intense action takes place during the war, in which Billy is captured by Germans and taken to Dresden and housed with other American prisoners in an abandoned slaughterhouse (which gives the novel its title)—a real place in which Vonnegut himself had been kept as a prisoner of war. While the city is leveled by an Allied firebomb attack that kills 135,000 inhabitants, both the prisoners and their guards are safely sheltered in a deep underground meat locker, which is “hollowed in living rock under the slaughterhouse.” The novel ends with Billy being freed. While the setting is the historical Germany of World War II, its action is clearly meant to remind readers of the war in Vietnam, where U.S. forces rained napalm firebombs on suspected enemies during the late 1960’s.

Tralfamadore

Tralfamadore (trahl-fahm-ah-DOHR). Imaginary distant planet that provides a setting for this and other Vonnegut novels. On the night of his daughter’s wedding in 1967, Billy is kidnapped by aliens and flown on a flying saucer to Tralfamadore. He is not missed on Earth, he explains, because the Tralfamadorians take him through a time warp that permits him to spend years on their planet, while being away from Earth “for only a microsecond.”

In contrast to his bland suburban life in Ilium and his horrific experiences in Dresden, Billy’s life on Tralfamadore is pleasant. The Tralfamadorians display him naked in a zoo they have built for him, and there he lives contentedly with another earthling, beautiful film star Montana Wildhack. On Tralfamadore Billy learns that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” This relativistic philosophy apparently allows him to live perpetually in the present. His uncontrollable weeping, however, suggests that something is amiss beneath his surface. Perhaps the controlled “zoo” setting and human free will—which Tralfamadorians say is a notion that exists only on Earth—are incompatible.

Slaughterhouse-Five Historical Context

The Firebombing of Dresden
The most important historical event which informs Slaughterhouse-Five took place almost a...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Setting

For many years categorized strictly as a writer of science fiction, Vonnegut has a propensity for mixing the ordinary and the otherworldly in...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Literary Style

Structure
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Slaughterhouse-Five's technique is its unusual structure. The novel's...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Literary Qualities

Vonnegut's title page statement that Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a "telegraphic schizophrenic manner" is a fairly accurate...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Social Sensitivity

The 1960s produced a string of novels of the absurd that reflect the bleakness of a time when unabated optimism was checked by the...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Compare and Contrast

  • 1940s: World War II was a decisive victory for the United States and its allies and was widely supported by Americans....

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Topics for Discussion

1. Describe the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life. How do the Tralfamadorians describe the fate of the universe? How do they react to this...

(The entire section is 155 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Read St. Luke's Gospel in the Bible and demonstrate how it has influenced Billy's "Tralfamadorian adventure with death."

2....

(The entire section is 84 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five 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....

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Related Titles / Adaptations

Just as Vonnegut mixes history and fantasy in Slaughterhouse-Five, he also combines new material with characters and references to his...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Media Adaptations

  • Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted for the screen by writer Stephen Geller and director George Roy Hill in 1972. The film stars...

(The entire section is 60 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five What Do I Read Next?

  • Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s 1952 novel, also deals with the limitations of science and technology.
...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five For Further Reference

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977. Analyzes Vonnegut's novels,...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Slaughterhouse-Five Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Astute reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, marking the biblical references and Vonnegut’s personal testimony. Devotes similar attention to other novels by Vonnegut.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Explains Slaughterhouse-Five as one of Vonnegut’s “personal” novels, as opposed to the earlier ones that adhere to the stricter forms of science fiction. Draws correlations among the Vonnegut novels.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A complete study of the novel. Criticism is taken from sources that reviewed Slaughterhouse-Five when it was published. Numerous passages of Slaughterhouse-Five are explained in depth, as well as Vonnegut’s philosophy as it was seen by the reviewers of his time.

Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A short book with considerable insights into Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels by Vonnegut. The wit, sarcasm, and style of Vonnegut is prominent in the writing of this text.

Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Explores the construction, plot, and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five and considers Vonnegut’s sense of aesthetic distance from the work. Chapters include the contribution of Slaughterhouse-Five to the genre of science fiction and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.