Slaughterhouse-Five

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Slaughterhouse-Five, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Money and Success Theme Icon

The novel contains a meditation on the nature of success. Vonnegut and O’Hare are both wealthy in the late 1960s, during the novel’s composition. Vonnegut never expected to have any money, yet he hopes his “Dresden novel” will be a big hit. Kilgore Trout, then, is Vonnegut’s foil, since his books are barely read by the public. But Trout’s ideas, which begin as fictions, are central to the philosophical investigations of the novel.

Pilgrim is not a good soldier. No one wants to lie near him on the railcar; he appears even to be a bad sleeper. But in later life he becomes a successful optometrist and marries Valencia, daughter of another successful optometrist. After his experiences with the Tralfamadorians it is shown, briefly, that Billy has become a famous speaker on the nature of time and death. Billy’s son Robert is a “success,” a soldier in the Green Berets in Vietnam, though he has become, in essence, a well-trained killer. Neither Vonnegut nor Pilgrim valorizes this kind of success.

These investigations of money and success lead to the larger issues of the war, and intertwine with the other themes. Was the firebombing of Dresden a “success”? In a small sense it was, since of course the unarmed citizens could mount no defense. But in a larger sense, the Allies have succeeded only in proving the futility and barbarity of war. Similarly, despite Pilgrim’s successes after the war, he appears to find purpose in life only after meeting with the Tralfamadorians. They show him the true nature of time, the inconsequence of his activities on earth, and the importance of enjoying the pleasant moments in the life he has led.

Money and Success ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Money and Success appears in each chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Money and Success Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five

Below you will find the important quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five related to the theme of Money and Success.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He didn’t look like a solider at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut notes that Pilgrim has very little of the soldier about him - and he does so throughout the text. In this, Pilgrim is exactly not like the "heroes" Mary O'Hare fears Vonnegut might use to populate his text. Instead, Pilgrim is a man swept into war without really choosing that war, and without knowing how to fight. For Pilgrim, war is a set of confusions one might survive. It is not about tactics or the defeat of the enemy - it is about desperate self-preservation.

Again, Vonnegut displays his humor here. Despite the horrors of the war and the genuine fear, on Pilgrim's part, that he might die, the scene is played for laughs. Vonnegut's black or "gallows" humor is one of the text's primary features, and it is another way that Vonnegut tries to portray war fully - to show that, even in war, people recognized the ludicrousness of their situations, often as they unfolded. 

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Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

This prayer for serenity, and for acknowledgement of what is and is not in someone's power, is a common one - it did not originate with Vonnegut, and it has been used in other contexts since Slaughterhouse-Five. But the prayer has a particular resonance for Vonnegut's novel. Because in the text, there are in fact some things that people might not necessarily believe are open to being changed - like, for example, narrative time - and these things are changed over the course of the novel, most famously in the notion that Billy Pilgrim has "come unstuck in time."

What Vonnegut appears to be saying, then, is more complex than what one might typically associate with this serenity prayer. Vonnegut, with his characteristic irony, wants in fact to encourage people to consider changing, or at least to look at anew, parts of their lives they thought to be set in stone, immutable. Thus Pilgrim is able to move through his past and into his future - things no human "should" be able to do. 

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 7 Quotes

Billy thrust it into the vat, turned it around and around, making a gooey lollipop. He thrust it into his mouth . . . and then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

When Billy finds this enormous vat of sugar, he has not eaten for days, and his body is about to fall apart. In this way, Vonnegut links Pilgrim's appetites to the discussion of machine-hood, above - Pilgrim is, after all, a person who needs food in order to survive, and war has created a set of circumstances in which food is terribly hard to come by.

The scene is also a comic one, another in a sequence of many throughout the novel, in which a man's serious problems (in this case, hunger) are contrasted with the humorous circumstances of wartime conflict and restriction. It may not have been funny to Pilgrim at the time, to eat an enormous lollipop in the throes of terrible hunger. But the scene is revealed to be a humorous one in its recounting. This links to Vonnegut's continual assertion of "so it goes" - that even the worst events in human life will be followed by other, sometimes funnier events. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds . . . It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer. So it goes.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Kilgore Trout
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the metaphors Vonnegut uses to describe human behavior. Here, Vonnegut depicts the persuasive power of human greed. Humans, in this example, will always flock to the money tree - they will always be drawn to the bills that fall from it. Even though these bills will appeal to humans, they will not be distributed equally, but will instead cause the humans to fight with one another, and eventually to kill each other. But this is okay for the money tree, because the dead bodies of humans can then be used to fertilize the tree and encourage it to grow more. This continues the cycle, producing more of the tree, and more money, and more humans who wish to take that money.

Vonnegut therefore establishes a symbolic basis for the capitalist system that, in the years after the war, sweeps across the world. It is a system that makes people (superficially) happy, but also one that causes great discord and strife - the very strife that "fertilizes" the system and allows it to continue. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them . . . that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Bertram C. Rumfoord
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rumfoord, an army general who has been laid up in the hospital alongside others who have been wounded, has a theory of human strength and weakness that one finds throughout Vonnegut's novel - a theory that Vonnegut vehemently opposes. Rumfoord believes that war, like other extreme human activities, can "sort" humans into categories of strength and weakness. In other words, Rumfood believes that war is an accurate bellweather for who should survive and who shouldn't, because it forces people to come to terms with the power of their own wills.

But for Vonnegut, this justification is basically absurd. War, in Vonnegut's rendering, is not at all about one's fate, or about being rewarded for heroism and punished for cowardice. In his novel, war is a machine of chance, of fate, where humans actually play a relatively small part. Cowards are often rewarded - like Rumfoord himself. And heroes often fall in battle, without even being recognized as heroes.