Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Kurt Vonnegut

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Horses

After the bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim and several POWs return to the slaughterhouse to pick up souvenirs. Billy does not actually spend much time looking for things; he simply sits in a green, coffin-shaped horse-drawn wagon the POWs have been using and waits for his comrades. As Billy lies in his wagon in the afternoon sun, two German doctors approach him and scold him for the condition of his horses. The animals are desperately thirsty, and in their travel across the ashy rubble of Dresden, their hooves have cracked and broken so that every step is agony. The horses are nearly mad with pain. Billy weeps for the first and last time during the war at the sight of these poor, abused animals (9.19-20).

Given that this scene is the only time Billy cries during the whole war, it must be pretty significant. In fact, the parallels between the horses' suffering and Billy's own seem striking. These horses have no way of understanding the destruction around them, nor the orders being given to them. With no way of protesting their treatment, they obediently keep walking through the ruins of Dresden even though every step on the sharp rocks damages their hooves. Like Billy himself, the animals are innocent victims of great suffering without ever understanding why. No wonder Billy finds himself in tears.

There is also a parallel between the horses and Roland Weary, the first character we see die in the book. Weary is the bully who attempts to shoot Billy before the Germans capture both of them. When the Germans take Weary prisoner, they force him to exchange his excellent boots for a pair of wooden clogs a German recruit is wearing. The clogs are so rough on Weary's feet that he injures himself marching, gets gangrene, and dies. Weary's bloodied feet appear at the beginning of Billy's wartime experience, and the horses' cracked hooves at the end. Perhaps the suffering of the horses reminds Billy of all of the terrible, pointless pain he has seen in this war, starting with foolish, violent Weary and ending with the Dresden firebombing.

The Stars

You may have noticed that the tiny sections in Slaughterhouse-Five are separated by little rows of three stars. These are not just there for decoration; Billy Pilgrim discovers that all Tralfamadorian books are laid out this way (5.3). The Tralfamadorians tell Billy that the stars contain their own short messages to create a single, beautiful scene.

Slaughterhouse-Five uses a lot of elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is told out of chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. (Check out Billy Pilgrim's "Character Analysis" for more on this). And the Tralfamadorian idea that there is no point in moralizing since we can't change the past or the future may explain why Slaughterhouse-Five does not offer a single, easy moral lesson.

By using elements from the made-up part of the novel to structure both the autobiographical and the fictional sections of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut suggests to the reader that all of Billy Pilgrim's adventures are part of the same overall narrative. The plot may distinguish between the narrator's and Billy's stories, but they both emerge from the same place: Vonnegut's efforts to write about the firebombing of Dresden. The structure of Slaughterhouse-Five never lets us forget that "Billy Pilgrim" is a thinly disguised fictional device Vonnegut can use to ponder the trauma of war – and the big questions of life and death – while still telling a pretty good story.

Prayer and Montana Wildhack's Locket

Montana Wildhack wears a locket on which is written, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference" (9.33.21). The same words appear framed on Billy's optometry office wall in Chapter 3, Section 12. We find this prayer really striking for two reasons.

First, the prayer appears in both Billy's real life and his Tralfamadorian life, strongly hinting that his Tralfamadorian experiences are made up. He has taken bits and pieces from things he has seen in his daily life and read in science fiction novels to make up a world he wants to live in.

Second, this prayer expresses something profound that Billy is really looking for. He does want to find a way to accept what he cannot change (the past), the courage to change what he can (his current reality), and the wisdom to tell the difference. In a sense, Tralfamadore is all about granting this prayer: the Tralfamadorian belief in unchanging time means nothing can be changed, so there's Billy's serenity right there. And Billy's abduction gives him a perspective on his reality, which allows him to find the courage to tell the world about his new philosophy – to try to change humanity's sorrow and pain over death. It's pretty brave to try to change the world.

Note that even though this is a prayer, it's the Tralfamadorians that grant Billy this new serenity and courage, not God. God in the novel is strongly associated with the pain of death. Billy's mother's crucifix focuses on the agony of the crucifixion, and Kilgore Trout's two novels about Christ both emphasize his death and its purpose. Billy has seen enough pain and suffering among the innocent in his own life; he doesn't need Christianity to give him new examples. Instead of turning to the suffering Christ, Billy looks to space aliens for relief from his misery.

"Mustard Gas and Roses," "Nestled Like Spoons," and "Blue and Ivory"

A lot of the imagery in Slaughterhouse-Five repeats across sections and in different contexts. For example, the narrator describes his own breath when he is drunk as "mustard gas and roses" (1.3.2) – which is what his dog, Sandy, specifically does not smell like (1.4.14). This is also the odor of the corpses at Dresden a couple days after the firebombing, which Billy Pilgrim discovers as he digs through the rubble of the city in Chapter 10. This repetition of description serves to connect the "Billy Pilgrim" portion of the novel with the narrator's own personal memories and experiences.

Other examples of repetition of imagery include descriptions of characters "nestled like spoons": Billy and the hobo/private in the prison boxcar (3.29.3), Billy and his wife Valencia (4.1.2), and the American soldiers on the floor of the shed in the British compound (6.10.1) all nestle like spoons as they sleep.

There is also Billy's "ivory and blue" (4.1.4) bare feet as he walks barefoot through his Ilium, New York home, the "blue and ivory claw" (4.5.1) of his cold hand clinging to the vent in his boxcar on the way to a German POW center, and the "blue and ivory" (6.16.4) feet of the dead hobo lying outside the train that will take Billy to Dresden.

The repetition of these phrases – mustard gas and roses, nestled like spoons, and blue and ivory – demonstrates that no part of this story is isolated from any other. Each section, as brief as it may be, fits into a larger consideration of wartime and its aftermath. (By the way, for a discussion of the most famous repeated phrase in the whole book, "So it goes," check out our section on the theme of "Fate and Free Will.")