Slaughterhouse Five Analysis

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five' is a kooky, dark exploration of the horrors of war and the nature of space and time. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the themes and ideas behind this anti-war classic.

The Shuffled Narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five

The plot of Slaughterhouse-Five can be difficult to follow if you're looking for the standard beginning, middle, and ending. That's because the protagonist of the book, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time. He experiences his life out of order, and the easiest way for Vonnegut to demonstrate that is to show us the disordered life that Billy experiences.

In order, Billy's life goes something like this: he goes to war, is captured and sent to a German POW camp in Dresden where he's kept in an old slaughterhouse with the other Americans. Dresden is destroyed by an Allied firebombing. Billy returns to his home in New York, becomes an optometrist, marries and has children. Years later, he's abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore who explain their concept of time to him: they see their entire lives at once, and they're able to look at specific moments of their choice. The aliens keep Billy in a zoo-type enclosure with an actress for a while, then send him home.

Back home, Billy is in a plane crash. His wife dies on her way to visit him and his daughter puts him in a nursing home, but Billy decides to tell the world his story. He goes on the radio and sends letters to newspapers, but he's only taken seriously after he predicts his own death: murder by a hired gun.

Vonnegut jumps around in this story frequently -- we start with old Billy, then jump back to the war, then forward, then back, and on and on. The plot of Slaughterhouse-Five is as jumbled as Billy's life and the Tralfamadorians' perception of time. We'll look at why in a second.

Authors vs. Narrators

Vonnegut himself is present at several points in the narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five in many forms: as an intrusive narrator, a narrator that addresses the reader directly, and as a character in the story. Vonnegut in real life was actually a POW at the Dresden slaughterhouse he describes, and he puts himself there with Billy Pilgrim in a cameo role.

Vonnegut also spends the whole first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five on himself and his journey to writing the book. We don't meet Billy Pilgrim until Chapter 2. And while Billy Pilgrim is fictional, Vonnegut tells us right at the beginning of the book that 'All this happened, more or less.' Inserting himself as both narrator and character lets Vonnegut tie the book to reality even as its events get weirder.

The Title

The full title of the book is Slaughterhouse-Five: or, The Children's Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death. Let's break it down.

'Slaughterhouse-Five' (schlachthof-funf in German) is the name of the slaughterhouse where Vonnegut and the other Allied POWs were kept in Dresden. Since the bombing of Dresden was the inspiring event for Vonnegut to write the book, it makes sense that he would title the book after that spot.

The rest of the title has a few layers. The Children's Crusade is a real event, where a huge number of kids, some as young as six, from 13th-century Europe tried to go to join the Crusades. None of them made it -- most died, and many were sold into slavery. Vonnegut is tying this waste of young life to World War II generally, and the bombing of Dresden specifically.

The last part, A Duty-Dance with Death, which Vonnegut cribbed from the book Celine and his Vision about World War I, also comments on the war -- most of the young men fighting were drafted, going to face death involuntarily. But the larger commentary is that death is everyone's duty. We're alive, so at some point we'll have our own dance with death.

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