Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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What is the real meaning of Billy's serenity prayer from page 60 in Slaughterhouse-Five, and how does he misuse it?

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"So it goes."

In Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim has become "unstuck in time." After surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Billy returns to a seemingly normal civilian life. He has the serenity prayer in his office, which Vonnegut quotes in full. Liberal theologian Reinhold Niebhur wrote the prayer, and it was popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. I don't think there's any "real" or deeper meaning to it. Vonnegut is using it ironically as a common device throughout the novel. He immediately undercuts any comfort the prayer could have with the next line:

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

Everything about the experiences in the novel contradicts any sense of a just, loving God. It all really negates the existence of any God at all. Vonnegut can't make any sense of the horrors of World War II; he resorts to irony, science fiction devices, and postmodernism. I don't think Billy misuses the prayer, because I don't think anything Billy does offers consolation for what he's been through. He is always a victim and nothing changes that.

Vonnegut, ultimately, doesn't have an answer to Billy's predicament, which is characteristic of postmodernism. He doesn't quite embrace nihilism or absurdity, and I'm not sure he has anything else to offer. In terms of connecting it with other characters from the novel, the serenity prayer can only be applied ironically. Few characters find anything like serenity, although Vonnegut's humanism sometimes gets in the way of this.

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