Slaughterhouse-Five

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Slaughterhouse-Five Symbol Analysis

Slaughterhouse-Five Symbol Icon
Although Slaughterhouse-Five as a physical space only appears in the novel in a few sections, it is a powerful symbol running through the entire work. It is, ironically, in this slaughterhouse where animals were killed and butchered that Billy, Derby, Lazzaro, and others are spared from the slaughter taking place outside: the firebombing of Dresden by Allied (US and UK) forces. But Billy is only protected by the slaughterhouse for so long: he eventually dies on Lazzaro’s order, in the 1970s, and his life between the war and his death is punctuated by violence and loss. Derby emerges from the slaughterhouse but is tried and executed for petty theft only days later. And Dresden, the larger “slaughterhouse” of Germany, becomes the novel's great and silent tragedy. Rumfoord, writing his own history, seeks more information about the bombings, as does Vonnegut as he researches his novel. Yet the more that is learned about the physical Slaughterhouse-Five, and about the Allied firebombings in Dresden, the more difficult it becomes to write about the horror of these events. Thus it has taken Vonnegut twenty-three years to compose his fragmented, time-shifting novel, and the book ends with the incineration of bodies that were not able to find a safe-haven from battle.

Slaughterhouse-Five Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five

The Slaughterhouse-Five quotes below all refer to the symbol of Slaughterhouse-Five. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
War and Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dell edition of Slaughterhouse-Five published in 1991.
Chapter 1 Quotes

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, Vonnegut's narrator - who identifies as Vonnegut himself - is concerned with representing the truth of what happened to him, and to people he knew, in the Second World War. Vonnegut claims that he wishes to write a book about WWII from the perspective of someone in Dresden during the firebombings. Vonnegut believes that this part of the war has not be given its due - neither from the perspective of Americans trapped there during it, nor from the German perspective. Many innocent people were killed by the Allied attack on the city of Dresden, which the Allies claimed was also an important military target.

But Vonnegut is less concerned with assigning guilt or innocence to those who acted in the war. Instead, he looks to find the "truth" of the events he saw - how time happened, how people perceived things in the world. This is why Vonnegut has trouble starting the book, and even with writing it as a "fiction." This is why he inserts himself into his own attempt to fictionalize a very real atrocity. 

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I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

This section indicates several things about Vonnegut's character, and about his temperament as an author. First, Vonnegut has a profound, and serious, sense of humor. Of course no father would instruct his sons to commit atrocities in wartime - in this way, Vonnegut is not telling his children anything they do not already know. But in saying the obvious, Vonnegut is also pointing up the horrors of the war through which he himself lived. Because there were, of course, men to whom these warnings were not obvious - the atrocities were, after all, committed (and are still being committed all around the world).

Vonnegut is also a writer of deep moral purpose, whose concern with the balance and tone of his sentences is far less than his concern for the impact of his words. This is not to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not an elegant novel - it is. But it is not polished in the manner of some fictions. It has, instead, the immediacy of speech, of words spoken from one person to another. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut makes a serious justification of the social impact of science fiction. He argues that writers like Pilgrim and Trout are invested in sci-fi not simply because it is an interesting way to think about the world and its future - although it is that, too. Vonnegut argues that science fiction can be a vehicle for social change - a way of imagining how problems might be solved, a way of constructing another universe in which humans might live.

This is another example of Vonnegut's self-reflexive commentary in Slaughterhouse-Five - his analysis of what it means to write a novel while writing a novel. Just as the novel itself is partially science fiction - and therefore concerned with creating a new world - Vonnegut's characters write novels that envision and create new worlds in which peace might be possible, in which the wars of the 20th century might be left behind. Both Vonnegut and Trout are therefore engaged in the same utopian act of writing.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut takes up a very simple and tragic part of his story - that of the "dumbness" of luck, or fate. Those Germans who felt that they were putting themselves safely to bed - it was they who died in the air raid, as they could not have known that the Americans would strike in exactly the place where they felt most secure. Others, who did not have homes to go to, did wind up safe. Indeed, POWs, who were trapped in a barracks and therefore more or less protected from the Allied bombing (including Vonnegut), found themselves in the safest position of all, and survived an attack by their own army against German military and civilian populations. 

Generally, in Vonnegut's account of the war, it is precisely when a person feels most safe that that person finds himself or herself in harm's way. War is the ultimate game of change - it cannot be regulated, or even explained - and it is difficult to describe. But war can absolutely be experienced, which is why Vonnegut attempts to convey World War II from as many different vantages as he does in the novel. 

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Slaughterhouse-Five Symbol Timeline in Slaughterhouse-Five

The timeline below shows where the symbol Slaughterhouse-Five appears in Slaughterhouse-Five. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
...denture. The Americans are taken to their “home”: the fifth building of the Dresden Schlachthof-funf: Slaughterhouse-Five. (full context)
Chapter 7
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
...a very young German soldier named Werner Gluck is leading Billy and Derby to the slaughterhouse kitchen. They stumble upon a group of 30-some young girls showering—Billy and Werner have never... (full context)
Chapter 8
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
...the anti-American book read by the Germans in the POW camp, visits Billy’s group in Slaughterhouse-Five two days before the bombing of Dresden. He wishes to recruit Americans to fight with... (full context)
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science Fiction and Aliens Theme Icon
Money and Success Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
The Americans, their guards, and Campbell go to a meat locker beneath the slaughterhouse. The first night nothing happens, but the second night the bombing takes place and 130,000... (full context)
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
...flees upstairs. In his room he remembers—he does not “come unstuck”—the booming sounds above the slaughterhouse during the bombing, and the fact that everyone above was being killed. Everything in the... (full context)