Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death solidified Vonnegut’s career and established his reputation as an anti-war author, celebrated for his use of satire and symbolism.
War, and its destructive power, is one of the most important themes readers can find in Slaughterhouse-Five. The firebombing of Dresden is one of the most important moments in the novel and is arguably, the event that shatters Billy’s mind and allows him to experience what he sees as jumps in time.
It should be noted that for a time, Billy seemingly forgot about Dresden and everything he’d experienced during WWII. He lived a good, prosperous life, what many would call the American dream. But, suddenly, that’s all destroyed when he remembers what he’s experienced. Beneath his exterior is someone who has still not recovered from what he saw in Dresden. When spending time with the Tralfamadorians, Billy learns about their views on time and death. This could be if one considers the entire experience a hallucination, a way of reconciling the deaths Billy saw. No one, he learns, is truly dead.
Along with war, free will is certainly one of the most obvious and important themes at work in Slaughterhouse-Five. One of the pivotal moments of the novel occurs when Billy while speaking with the Tralfamadorians, learns that they have no concept of free will. In fact, one of them tells him, of all the planets they’ve visited, Earth is the only one where they’ve heard people talking about the concept. It’s something that’s considered completely absurd. They have an acceptance of their fate that aligns with their views on time (everything is happening at once, non-linearly).
Billy is repeatedly faced with conflicts that test his belief in free will. He learns more about life and starts to believe that there’s nothing he can do to change where he’s going or what death he’s going to experience in the end.
Kurt Vonnegut, as a writer and narrator, is an important part of this novel. He announces in the first pages that he’s trying to write about Dresden in a way that people can understand. He’s attempting to convey the chaos and horrors of way, and it’s only through his non-linear novel that he’s able to do so. Readers will likely spend many pages of this novel questioning what’s real and what’s not. Did Billy really get abducted by aliens? Did he really see what he saw in Dresden? And does it matter if he did or did not?
The Tralfamadorians play an important role through their revelations of truth. Without the information about time and the fourth dimension Billy gets from them, he wouldn’t have had a way to come to terms with his life, death, and the deaths of so many others.
Analysis of Key Moments in Slaughterhouse-Five
- The character Billy Pilgrim is born in New York and attends a semester of college before being drafted for WWII.
- Billy fights at the Battle of the Bulge before being taken prisoner. He shifts in time for the first time.
- He arrives at a POW camp and has a breakdown.
- Billy and the other prisoners are sent to Dresden to manufacture malt syrup.
- Allies attack Dresden and he takes shelter in a meat locker.
- Billy is discharged from the military, finishes school, and marries the daughter of his school’s founder.
- He commits himself to the hospital and gets sick treatments.
- After his daughter’s wedding, he is kidnaped by the Tralfamadorians and put in a zoo.
- He’s in a plane crash that kills everyone onboard except for him.
- Billy writers a letter to the town’s newspaper about the Tralfamadorians.
- He reveals his alien experience on a talk show. He also talks about non-linear time.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
Slaughterhouse-Five is written with sparse sentences, many of which are declarative, absurd statements. Overall, the paragraphs are short and concise. Vonnegut does not use any flowery language to make war seem more interesting, romantic, or horror-filled than it already is. He, presumably, tells things exactly as it happens, and he has the authority to do so considering how many of Billy’s experiences mirror his own. For example, consider quote from Slaughterhouse-Five:
It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
Vonnegut breaks down Billy’s experiences during WWII in reverse, demonstrating, simply and directly, what war is.
In regard to the tone used in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut goes back and other between mocking the events he’s describing and the people experiencing them while also speaking about them in a detached manner. He describes war as it is without getting overly emotional about it. There is a great deal of humor in Vonnegut’s writing, but a lot of it is related to dark subject matter that makes it hard to take any joy in it. He takes this satiric approach to the story as a way of further defining how absurd and pointless war is.
Throughout the novel, readers can also find examples of figurative language. These include similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and more. For example, early on in the novel, Vonnegut writes the following line: “The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty” and “He was like a poet in the Parthenon.” These are great examples of similes. There are also metaphors like “He was a roaring furnace under all his layers of wool and straps and canvas.”
Analysis of Symbols
The bird that says “poo-tee-weet” is a clever and important symbol in the novel. It doesn’t have the words to express what war is or what the future of the human race is going to be. It’s the only thing that anyone says, though, after the massacre at Dresden and therefore becomes a symbol of the unintelligible and absurd. It’s one great example of the existentialist elements of this novel and how Vonnegut is trying to find a way to define war and death despite its senselessness and purposelessness.
The novel ends with the bird using the same phrase. It’s left without an answer, meaning that neither Vonnegut nor Billy has been able to come up with a reason for war, or specifically how Dresden could’ve happened.
Jesus and the Cross
This impactful symbol appears numerous times throughout the novel. Religion and its purpose is addressed in a book written by Kilgore Trout, an allusion to the role he played in history. Just as Billy moves through time, and in the end, tries to act as a messenger conveying the Tralfamadorian view on life and time, so too does Jesus. This can also be related to the fact that Billy is well aware of how he’s going to die, as Jesus was.
The slaughterhouse in which Billy and his fellow POWs work is an important part of the novel. It’s there that they shelter from the firebombing of Dresden. It shelters him at that moment, but after, he’s as fragile as he’s ever been. The symbol of the slaughterhouse is broader, though. It relates to the theme of war and the deaths of the men, women, and children in Dresden. It was a slaughterhouse at that point in the war.