Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five

By Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five Introduction

All you True Detective fans out there are probably familiar with the old chestnut "time is a flat circle."

All you Nietzsche devotees are probably on board with his "amor fati."

But it was a bonafide weirdo (and bonafide genius) named Kurt Vonnegut who first brought the idea of being "unstuck in time," or seeing your whole life before you—birth, death, the whole shebang—to the American masses.

So who is this Vonnegut nut?

Kurt Vonnegut is probably most associated with the 1960s and its crazy experimental fiction. But before he became popular with Bohemians and hippies and the literati, Vonnegut was a soldier, fighting in World War II as an American advance infantry scout in the 106th Division. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and brought to Dresden. On February 13, 1945, while Vonnegut was in Dresden as an American POW (prisoner of war), Allied bombers dropped a huge wave of "incendiary devices" on the city—bombs made of super explosive materials like phosphorus and jellied petroleum (a.k.a. napalm for you Vietnam War buffs out there).

Dresden went up in flames and pretty much the entire city was destroyed. This single firebombing had a death toll, the novel tells us, of 135,000 people, though there is some debate about actual numbers. (Read more about Dresden here.)

It took a while before Vonnegut could really write about his experiences during the Dresden firebombing, and not just because it was so personally painful. The firebombing was classified top-secret for years. But when he finally set pen to paper, out came Slaughterhouse-Five: a novel that follows a man with the unfortunate name of Billy Pilgrim as he gets captured by Germans, taken to a POW camp in Dresden, and witnesses the firebombing. Sound familiar?

Oh yeah, but it also follows Billy Pilgrim as he gets captured by aliens, put in a zoo as part of the Earthling exhibit, and learns how to observe life from a fourth-dimensional perspective. Lucky Billy floats around in the chronology of his life, observing his death, birth, and everything that comes in between basically simultaneously.

Slaughterhouse-Five finally came out in 1969. And that, as it turned out, was massively good timing from a publicity perspective. Slaughterhouse-Five expressed the popular horror at the idea of war—this novel doesn't pull any punches when it comes to describing the sheer absurdity and terror that war brings. Literary history was made: Slaughterhouse-Five remains one of the great anti-war novels.

With this hugely successful publication, Vonnegut cemented his reputation as one of the spokespeople for America's 1960s and 1970s counterculture... and as one of the great 20th-century American writers.

Billy Pilgrim might die (and shrug off his mortal coil with his catchphrase "So it goes"), but Vonnegut's brand of eloquent madness will live on forever.

What is Slaughterhouse-Five About and Why Should I Care?

A common topic of discussion over here on the Shmoop couch while watching an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race or The Bachelorette is that life is not fair. In fact, you may have noticed that life is often actively cruel. Our favorite contestants get dinged early, talented singers come in second on The Voice… the injustice of it all!

We have all occasionally found existence meaningless or hard to get through, and we find various ways (like, say, reality TV or Sherlock Holmes novels) to cope. Sometimes we just need a way to chill out, remove ourselves from the situation at hand, and find the zen mental state necessary to sit back and say, "So it goes."

Billy Pilgrim, the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five, has way more proof than we do of how crummy life can be. He is, after all, a prisoner of war and witness to one of the most horrible massacres in history. Who can blame Billy for escaping into cheesy science fiction whenever life gets to be a bit much? In fact, his pain is so deep and goes so far beyond our day-to-day relationship and family troubles that he really starts to lose himself—literally—in fiction.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about war, but even more than that, it's about what comes after war, when someone who has lived through it has to rebuild his sense of self. Billy's trips to the alien planet Tralfamadore and his fanboy relationship with sci-fi author Kilgore Trout are way more extreme than our weekly Top Model catharsis. But it's a difference of degree rather than kind.

We all sometimes need a refuge from our lives. And Billy's reality is so much worse than ours that we can totally see why he decides to go on a permanent mental vacation.

Slaughterhouse-Five Resources

Film and Theater Productions

Slaughterhouse-Five, 1972
This film version stars a bunch of people we've never heard of.

Slaughterhouse-Five, the Opera
Seriously. Vonnegut wasn't too thrilled.

Slaughterhouse-Five, the Play
Wonder if Vonnegut went to the premiere?

Videos

Jon Stewart Interviews Vonnegut
When Vonnegut died two years after this 2005 interview, Jon Stewart paid tribute to him at the end of an episode by putting up a screen that read, "So it goes."

PBS Interview with Kurt Vonnegut
A tribute to Vonnegut that aired after his death in 2007.

A Subtitled Serbian Production of the Play
The steady-cam makes us a little seasick. Also, why so serious?

"Visiting Slaughterhouse-Five in Germany"
This guy goes to the original slaughterhouse where Vonnegut was a prisoner of war.

Images

Kurt Vonnegut, Lookin' Good
Well, here he is.

Photograph of Kurt Vonnegut as an Older Man
Well, here he is again.

Kurt Vonnegut Smiling
Aww, he looks cheery!

Other

"15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has or Will"
The Onion A.V. Club does good work: these excerpts from Vonnegut's novels really give us a broad sense of his work as a whole. Of course, this list includes one of the most famous three-word quotes of all time, taken from Slaughterhouse-Five: "So it goes."

Vonnegut's Official Biography
This biography provides some details about Vonnegut's life and also focuses on his development as a visual artist. Two of his own illustrations make it into Slaughterhouse-Five: Billy Pilgrim's dream tombstone and Montana Wildhack's breasts with her locket hanging between them.

Original New York Times Review of Slaughterhouse-Five
They liked it.

The Banning of Slaughterhouse-Five
As you might expect, with all its sex, violence, and religious skepticism, Slaughterhouse-Five has often been banned, including in many school libraries.

"How to Write With Style"
Kurt Vonnegut tells us directly how to write with style. We know we're taking notes on this one. [PDF file]