Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Themes

By Kurt Vonnegut

  • Fate and Free Will

    In Slaughterhouse-Five, the primary upshot of what Billy Pilgrim learns from the plunger-shaped aliens is this: if we cannot change anything about time, there is no such thing as free will.

    We suppose there are worse lessons to learn from aliens (or toilet plungers).

    After all, free will means the ability to alter your own future. In fact, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy that the whole idea of free will seems to be unique to Earthlings. Everyone else in the universe knows better. Billy uses this knowledge to comfort himself about the realities of aging, death, and pain.

    But we don't think Billy's resignation is necessarily a good thing. Sure, it makes him feel better, but it also lets him off the hook: if you can't improve the world, why bother?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What connections does the novel seem to draw between having "character" and having free will? Who are the real characters in the novel, if any?
    2. Why is the Tralfamadorian idea of time incompatible with free will?
    3. Does Billy Pilgrim exercise his own will at any point in the novel? If so, when?

    Chew on This

    Edgar Derby only becomes a character when he chooses to stand up against American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr. It's this decision to stand up for what he believes in that distinguishes Derby from other people in the novel.

    When Billy chooses to tell the world about Tralfamadore, perhaps it's the first and last independent decision he makes. However, his effort to make his own choices gets undercut by his daughter and the general public, who all think Billy is a nutterbutter. Everyone in the novel operates under so many social and familial constraints on their freedom that the attempt to make one's own choices appears insane.

  • Warfare

    Slaughterhouse-Five ain't about officers or heroes. It's about privates, most of whom don't want to be—and shouldn't be—on the battlefield. And it's about prisoners of war, men who have been deprived of any kind of control over where they go and what they do.

    There is nothing—we repeat, nothing—romantic about war in Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, the villains of the novel are the ones who continue to romanticize violence and killing, men like Bertram Copeland Rumfoord and Roland Weary.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How does the narrator counteract potential justifications for the bombing of Dresden within Slaughterhouse-Five? How does he represent characters who approve of this firebombing?
    2. Which characters in the book glorify war? How does the narrator represent these characters? What kind of commentary might Slaughterhouse-Five be making on those who glorify war?
    3. Why does Slaughterhouse-Five avoid any direct representations of the battlefield? Why should a book about World War II focus so much on people who are not fighting?
    4. Vonnegut refers to the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. While the content of the novel clearly focuses on World War II, how is Slaughterhouse-Five also a book about America in the 1960s?

    Chew on This

    By giving villainous characters like Roland Weary and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord a love of war (or a love of the idea of war, at least), Vonnegut conveys his strongly anti-war sentiments to the reader.

    By avoiding representations of the battlefield and focusing instead on prisoners of war, Vonnegut draws the reader's attention not to war itself, but to the suffering it causes.

  • Time

    Billy Pilgrim and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five both spend a fair amount of their time reliving their experiences in World War II... and not because they just had so much fun.

    The narrator recalls the war through personal memories, historical research, and a trip with his war buddy to Dresden, the site of his most painful experiences. Billy travels to the past a little more literally: he never knows when he's going to be sent from his optometry practice or his home right back to the POW compound or the slaughterhouse in Dresden where he spent part of the war.

    Billy has so little control over his own life that he doesn't even know when he will be, let alone where, from one moment to the next. His only cure is to take refuge in the beliefs of the Tralfamadorians: that death, free will, and time itself are all illusions.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does the Tralfamadorian idea of time appear to affect the very structure of Slaughterhouse-Five?
    2. Why does the narrator distinguish between Billy's memories of the barbershop quartet in Chapter 8, Section 14, and Billy's time-travel? Can Billy remember things without moving through time?
    3. The one moment in the book when Billy flashes forward to a time beyond Tralfamadore is his vision of his own death in Chapter 6, Section 7. Is this scene described any differently from his usual time-travel back to the various points of life he has already lived? Are there any indications in the text that we are not supposed to take Billy's predictions for 1976 seriously?

    Chew on This

    Slaughterhouse-Five uses the Tralfamadorian idea of time as an organizing principle to blur the lines between the novel's form and content.

    Billy's death scene, in which he is surrounded by adoring crowds and goes bravely to his death at the hands of Paul Lazzaro, reads like a fantasy. On the other hand, his flashbacks to his early history show how fundamentally powerless he is and has always been.

  • Suffering

    From Billy's uncomfortably-realistically-detailed crucified Christ (Chapter 2, Section 19) to the horses with shattered hooves in the rubble of Dresden (Chapter 9, Section 19), much of the suffering in Slaughterhouse-Five explicitly targets innocents. Say it with us: life ain't fair.

    Billy is a foolish, inexperienced boy who is sent to the front lines of a war he does not understand. The injustice of suffering—that it should strike the people who seem least equipped to understand or deal with it—is yet another reason Billy turns to science fiction and Tralfamadore to make himself a new reality. His current, agonizing reality no longer makes any sense to Billy, so he needs another one.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Vonnegut spend time on the suffering of animals (the horses in Chapter 9, Section 19 and the frightened German shepherd in Chapter 3, Section 1)?
    2. How do characters like Roland Weary and Paul Lazzaro add to the suffering of their comrades? Can we deduce anything about human nature from their behavior as POWs?
    3. How does Vonnegut seem to link Christianity with suffering? Why can't Billy find comfort for his suffering in the Christian church?

    Chew on This

    By showing the thoughtless cruelty to animals of even well-meaning characters like Billy, Vonnegut demonstrates that suffering is often an unintended side-effect of war.

    Billy does not use the Christian faith as a comfort for his postwar stress and misery because he associates the church with the painful sacrifice of an innocent man, of which Billy has already seen plenty.

  • Morality and Ethics

    The Tralfamadorians are pretty clear that their novels hold absolutely zero moral lessons. After all, what would be the point of a moral lesson when you can't do anything to change the future? Slaughterhouse-Five, with its stars and tiny sections, seems to be imitating a Tralfamadorian novel. So it makes sense that the narrator doesn't spend much time preaching about right or wrong: that's not the point of this book.

    What Vonnegut seems to be asking his readers to do instead is to think about how much human suffering the war brought for both sides. Some of the most evil characters in the book—Bertram Copeland Rumfoord and Paul Lazzaro—are the ones who think they are absolutely right. This kind of righteous self-assurance is what leads to war in the first place.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Vonnegut may not give us clear-cut moral lessons (us versus them, Americans versus Germans), but he does have a strongly ethical anti-war message. How does Vonnegut present this anti-war message through Billy Pilgrim's plot in the novel?
    2. Why do the Tralfamadorians not believe in morality? What do they have instead?
    3. Do we ever see any moments in the novel when Billy could intervene morally and doesn't? Why not?

    Chew on This

    The narrator tells his sons in Chapter 1 that they are not to participate in massacres, but Billy Pilgrim willingly sends his son Robert off to Vietnam, presumably to kill people. This difference between the narrator's and Billy's choices exposes a fundamental difference between the two men's characters: Billy is resigned to war, while the narrator is trying to prevent fighting.

    By focusing on the suffering of individual human beings, such as the German refugee girls killed in the Dresden firebombing, Vonnegut shifts attention about the morality of war away from big questions of national politics and toward smaller, less justifiable instances of personal pain.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    Because Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, Vonnegut sure isn't presenting us with any heroes.

    And to make sure we don't wonder if the men in the novel have the self-determination or free will to make heroic choices, Slaughterhouse-Five relies a lot on absurdity. Billy Pilgrim is described repeatedly as clownish; he looks so ridiculous that a German surgeon on the streets of Dresden criticizes him for making a mockery of war. Paul Lazzaro and Roland Weary are both so self-absorbed that they don't even seem to notice that they are on a battlefield half the time. And even poor Edgar Derby, who is so idealistic and committed, can be reduced to tears by the unexpected taste of syrup in his mouth by the end of the war.

    Still, the real foolishness in the book is not at the individual level. We can't help but think there must be something wrong with a system that would send poor, innocent Billy Pilgrim to war.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Why is Billy Pilgrim, the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five, repeatedly represented as a clown? How does this differ from traditional representations of men in wartime?
    2. We know that Billy Pilgrim, Roland Weary, and Paul Lazzaro are all fools, but what about Edgar Derby? How does Vonnegut represent his idealism and faith in truth and justice?
    3. There is enough folly to go around among the individual characters of Slaughterhouse-Five, but how does Vonnegut hint at the foolishness of the men in command of the war?

    Chew on This

    Edgar Derby's belief in justice may be foolish, but the narrator also expresses sympathy for his efforts to resist a system he believes is wrong

    Billy Pilgrim continues to appear clownish throughout his entire wartime experience because the narrator explicitly wants to describe World War II as a Children's Crusade. Billy is the ultimate foolish innocent sent into a battle he does not understand.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Obviously, Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about prisoners of war... and it doesn't get much more confined than that. But even more, it's a book about the many, many ways people get trapped: by the army, by family, and by their own beliefs in God or glory. It isn't only the Germans or the U.S. Army who take away Billy's choices. He also finds himself caving in to the expectations of his mother, his optometry office, and even his own daughter. Billy sees very little real freedom in his life, which is perhaps why he is so eager to accept that there is no such thing as free will.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What comparisons does Vonnegut suggest between the Germans who took Billy captive and the Tralfamadorians? What significance might these comparisons have?
    2. Billy is (obviously) a prisoner of war, but what else might we say he is a prisoner of? What other kinds of less-tangible confinements do he and the other characters suffer?
    3. In what ways does Billy remain a prisoner of the Germans even after he returns home at the end of the war?

    Chew on This

    The Germans and the Tralfamadorians both take away Billy's freedom, but the Tralfamadorians go a step further by giving him the tools he needs to accept his confinement.

    Even after Billy is freed from German captivity, he remains mentally a prisoner of his war experiences—until he can replace these memories with life on Tralfamadore.

  • Men and Masculinity

    In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator promises Mary O'Hare that he will write a novel about World War II that will not attract the attention of manly men like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra. One way in which Vonnegut certainly succeeds in making war seem utterly unappealing (besides, you know, the death and pain and misery) is by emphasizing the hunger and illness of the soldiers fighting it.

    Paul Lazzaro's stomach is shrunken with hunger, Edgar Derby weeps at the taste of syrup, and all the American POWs spend their first night in the British compound with explosive diarrhea. The book really foregrounds the unattractive, absurd realities of male bodies under stress. The only soldiers with big muscles and washboard abs are the English officers, who have been prisoners for the whole war, and who barely fight.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Who are the stereotypical "real men" in this novel? Why are they not fighting on the front lines? What kind of commentary might Vonnegut be giving about the realities of war?
    2. As with everything Tralfamadorian, the aliens' idea of gender really differs from Earth's binary two-gender system. What might be the purpose of these multiple genders?
    3. How do American male bodies get depicted in Slaughterhouse-Five? Why?

    Chew on This

    Kurt Vonnegut depicts the bodies of the American POWs as weak and poorly fed to demonstrate that this is a war being fought by fools and children rather than heroic manly men.

    The contrast between British and American POWs shows that maintaining a fighting man's body in captivity is one thing, but staying healthy, warm, and strong on the front lines is quite another.

  • Literature and Writing

    As we discussed in "Genre," Slaughterhouse-Five really draws attention to the fact that it's a book and is being written by an author. This is part of what makes it a textbook "postmodern" novel—or "pomo," if you want to sound slick about it.

    With a more traditional novel, you read it as though it's a direct representation of something that really happens (even though you know it's fiction). In other words, you forget that you're reading a novel. But readers of Slaughterhouse-Five can never fall into this illusion. The narrator introduces the book and pops up throughout its "fictional" sections to remind us that "Billy Pilgrim" is a product of his imagination. At the same time, the blurring between the narrator's life and Billy Pilgrim's experiences challenge our ideas of what is fiction and what is truth.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. We know the narrator opens and ends Slaughterhouse-Five, but where else in the book does he directly address the reader? Why?
    2. What value does Slaughterhouse-Five assign to science fiction as a genre? How does the book draw on science fiction conventions to make its own points about fate and free will?
    3. How do Tralfamadorian novels differ from Earth novels? How does Slaughterhouse-Five mimic a Tralfamadorian novel?

    Chew on This

    The narrator appears occasionally in the "Billy Pilgrim" portions of the novel to remind us that, while the events Billy encounters in Germany may seem farfetched or unfamiliar, they are based on the narrator's lived experience.

    Vonnegut uses the fictional structure of the Tralfamadorian novel to structure Slaughterhouse-Five. This emphasizes that both the narrator's introduction to the novel and Billy Pilgrim's portion of the story arise from the same place: Vonnegut himself.