Themes in Slaughterhouse Five

Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will cover some of the common themes in Kurt Vonnegut's, ''Slaughterhouse Five'' concerning war, the existence of free will, and death. Vonnegut uses some personal experiences and combines them with humor and science fiction to entertain us and provide some powerful messages about society.

Do you ever look back at your life and wish that you could change some of your decisions? If you were a Tralfamadorian, this would not be a consideration because you would understand that your fate is predetermined and that the events in your life (past, present, and future) have already happened. Kurt Vonnegut used the novel, Slaughterhouse Five to comment on war, death, and the concept of free will.

War and Violence is Nonsensical

An image of Dresden after the bombing.
Dresden Aftermath

Kurt Vonnegut begins the story by writing a chapter as himself. He states that most of the story happened, sort of. This is true; Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war in Dresden during WWII. Vonnegut was in a below-ground slaughterhouse during the bombing of Dresden. So, we understand that parts of the story are based upon the writer's own experiences. Vonnegut survived a war, something that probably had lasting effects on him.

One way to understand the theme of 'War and Violence is Nonsensical' is to look at the format of the book. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is 'unstuck in time', meaning that the narration jumps around, much like Pilgrim. In one chapter, we will read about Pilgrim's experiences in war and then jump back to Tralfamadore, where he is peacefully trapped in a zoo. These jumps could show the reader a way that soldiers cope in dealing with their memories of the war. They find a safe place to go when they begin to remember the brutality and violence that they have experienced.

Chapter One is written in Vonnegut's voice. When he decides to write the book, he is confronted by the wife of a friend of his from war. She asks him not to write the novel showing only the heroics that occurred during the war because she feels that it encourages children to become soldiers. He agrees that if he finishes the novel, there will not be a part for John Wayne or a famous actor who will glamorize the story. Upon completing his novel, one important line that shows his feelings toward the war is, 'It is so short and jumbled and jangled because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.' This line demonstrates his distaste for the extreme violence that he has witnessed in his life.

Another way to illustrate this theme would be to look at the character of Roland Weary. He sensationalizes the war in his head; it is like he is creating a movie of the events he has experienced. He also admires his father's collection of torture devices, something that many of us can probably not relate to. He becomes a bully and an unlikeable character, and eventually beats up Billy Pilgrim, an event that gets the two captured by the Nazis. The Germans are even confused when they encounter the two Americans fighting amidst horrors of the war.

When Weary is dying of gangrene, he tells Lazarro and the rest of the men in the box car that Pilgrim is responsible for his death. This causes Lazarro to seek vengeance on Pilgrim, and it results in Pilgrim's death. Vonnegut creates an unpleasant character that values those things that Vonnegut dislikes: war and violence.

Of course, Pilgrim survives the bombing of Dresden, yet another devastatingly violent act within the pages of the book. He is subsequently placed in a veteran's home because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. This shows the consequences of war; Billy has been honorably discharged from the Army, yet he must seek assistance because he has been permanently damaged as a result of the wars.

Free Will is Nonexistent

The concept of free will is largely rooted in religious doctrine. Vonnegut was a self-professed non-believer. Vonnegut addresses this theme with his creation of the Tralfamadorians and Billy Pilgrim's life.

This theme is illustrated in many ways throughout the novel. Billy Pilgrim is abducted by the Tralfamadorians, an alien species, on his daughter's wedding night. The Tralfamadorians are two-feet high and resemble a toilet plunger. They have a hand with one eyeball on top of the plunger, like a head.

The Tralfamadorians explain their philosophies to Pilgrim while he is in their care. They explain that they live in four dimensions and that all moments of time are occurring at once, meaning that time is not linear as humans believe. They also explain that events have already occurred or are occurring, so things cannot be changed. In fact, Earth is the only planet where free will is discussed. In essence, the Tralfamadorians enlightened Pilgrim when they provided their explanation of free will.

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