Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Morality and Ethics

By Kurt Vonnegut

Morality and Ethics

Chapter 1, Section 6
The Narrator

I happened to tell a University of Chicago professor at a cocktail party about the raid as I had seen it, about the book I would write. He was a member of a thing called The Committee on Social Thought. And he told me about the concentration camps, and about how the Germans had made soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews and so on.

All I could say was, "I know, I know. I know." (1.6.2-3)

We can imagine someone justifying the firestorm of Dresden by saying, look, it's quid pro quo: the Germans were exterminating people, and the war had to be stopped as quickly as possible. But Vonnegut witnessed the deaths of thousands of noncombatants. He wants to find a way to talk about that experience, even though he knows that, as a country, Germany did terrible things during the war.

So he raises the issue of concentration camps to say that, yes, he knows—but still, aside from larger questions of morality, he saw the boiled bodies of schoolgirls. What could make that right or correct?

Chapter 1, Section 21
The Narrator

Those were vile people in both those cities [Sodom and Gomorrah], as is well known. The world was better off without them.

And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. (1.21.3-4)

By comparing himself to Lot's wife, the narrator acknowledges, again, that Germany bore a lot of guilt for what was happening in the war. But that does not mean that it is not human and necessary to bear witness to the suffering of ordinary Germans, as witnessed by Vonnegut himself.

Chapter 3, Section 9

There was a tap on Billy's car window. A black man was out there. He wanted to talk about something. The light had changed. Billy did the simplest thing. He drove on. (3.9.2)

Who knows what this man was going to say to Billy? Billy never will, because he refuses to listen. We get hints throughout the novel that Billy is not particularly compassionate, as when he sees a pair of disabled men trying to sell magazine subscriptions and refuses to answer the doorbell. When does Billy start trying to comfort others who are suffering? Why?

Chapter 3, Section 12

Billy was not moved to protest the bombing of North Vietnam, did not shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do. He was simply having lunch with the Lions Club, of which he was past president now. (3.12.1)

Why might Billy be unable to apply his own experiences of massacres and death to contemporary politics? How does his belief that people have no free will affect his ability to learn any lessons from his past?

Chapter 5, Section 14

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State. (5.14.4)

This is a particularly awful example of something that comes up again and again throughout the book: people often benefit from the suffering of others without knowing it. Another example is the suffering horses in Chapter 9 (see our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section). Can we hold the British officers responsible for using human soap and candles? Of course they don't know they are doing so—but they are also not bothering to find out. They are willing to stay ignorant and comfortable in their own compound, and none of them seem eager to disturb their status quo with the Germans.

Chapter 5, Section 31
Kilgore Trout

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh boy—they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes. (5.31.2-3)

Kilgore Trout often criticizes Christian theology for not doing enough to prevent human suffering. And despite having been a chaplain's assistant, Billy does not turn to Christ for comfort. What general comments or criticism might Slaughterhouse-Five be making about the Christian faith? What does Vonnegut propose in its place?

Chapter 5, Section 45

On other days we have wars as horrible as any you've ever seen or read about. There isn't anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments—like today at the zoo. (5.45.4)

Is the Tralfamadorian stance on war—that "we simply don't look at them"—morally viable? Does the book seem to offer an opinion about Tralfamadorian ideas of morality? If so, where and what is it?

Chapter 6, Section 3
Paul Lazzaro

"[Revenge] is the sweetest thing there is," said Lazzaro. "People f*** with me," he said, "and Jesus Christ are they ever f***ing sorry. I laugh like hell. I don't care if it's a guy or a dame. If the President of the United States f***ed around with me, I'd fix him good." (6.3.2)

Lazzaro has his own messed up moral code: if you do him wrong, he'll get revenge. The obvious problem with his code is that he is a nutcase, so he always thinks people are doing him wrong, whether they mean to or not.

Chapter 8, Section 3
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

"You're going to have to fight the Communists sooner or later," said Campbell. "Why not get it over with now?" (8.3.3)

Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is a fictional American Nazi who leaves the United States for Germany because he thinks Americans hate the poor. Whatever you may think of this suggestion, his primary appearance in this book is to try to convince the American POWs to join the German army to fight a common enemy. He is preaching expediency: the end justifies the means.

Chapter 9, Section 22
Billy Pilgrim

"[Dresden] was all right," said Billy. "Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore." (9.22.10)

Billy has found a way to make everything that has happened in his life seem okay: faith in Tralfamadore. What else has he tried to assuage the pain? Christianity (as a chaplain's assistant), money (he's making bank as an optometrist), and family (he marries a girl he doesn't like that much because he feels he needs to). But when all else fails, Billy goes for Tralfamadore.

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