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Slaughterhouse-Five is an attempt by the author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to come to terms with the firebombing of Dresden, which killed over 100,000 Germans, mostly civilians, and destroyed one of Europe's most beautiful cities. He does this through description of his own war experience, and through the narrative of Billy Pilgrim, a fictional character whose path occasionally intersects Vonnegut’s.

Different characters experience war and death in different ways. Vonnegut, in Chapter One, reconnects with an old war friend (Bernard O’Hare) whose wife Mary is angry with Vonnegut. She fears he will portray war as a contest between heroes and not what it truly is, the slaughter of young men. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is a chaplain’s assistant sent to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and eventually taken prisoner by the Germans. The slaughterhouse where animals are killed in Dresden ends up protecting Billy and others, but it is revealed that many other shelters have collapsed and killed those inside. Later Billy’s wife, Valencia, is killed by carbon monoxide inhalation while driving to see her husband, who has nearly died in a plane crash in Vermont. Edgar Derby, a middle-aged schoolteacher who takes care of Billy in the POW camp, is executed for stealing a teapot at the close of the war. Paul Lazzaro, claiming to avenge Weary’s death (which Weary blames on Pilgrim), vows to kill Pilgrim in the future.

But the novel is not nihilistic in its representations of war and violence. In fact it presents two philosophies of death that eventually intertwine. The first, represented by the phrase “So it goes,” indicates that death is a part of life—something that cannot be helped. The second is the Tralfamadorian view of life “in four dimensions,” the fourth being time. Because Tralfamadorians see all moments of life (and of literature) as existing at the same time, one is capable of moving between moments of life and death—capable of becoming “unstuck in time.” This motivates the novel’s acceptance of death as part of life.

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War and Death ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five related to the theme of War and Death.
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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“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful . . . .”

Related Characters: Mary O’Hare (speaker), Kurt Vonnegut
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary O'Hare provides a much-needed perspective for Vonnegut, as he meets with his friend O'Hare and attempts to recollect, and research, how the war felt from the relative comfort of the 1960s. Mary understands that the tendency of fiction, especially of fiction describing war, is to make some sides into heroes, others into villains. This tendency, for Mary, is to be avoided at all costs. Making war "look wonderful," in this conception, means that the war is not being told truthfully. 

Vonnegut seems to take Mary's advice to heart. For the rest of the book, he does not spare the vivid and difficult details of war. He does not flinch from what is hard to explain, or from what, indeed, seems impossible. Of course, Vonnegut also inserts science-fictional elements into his narrative. He does this knowing that it will distort the superficial "truth-value" of the things he says. But he also does so to find another, deeper emotional truth - something that Mary appears to hold dear in her conversations with O'Hare and Vonnegut. 

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 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. 

Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and why the victim should laugh.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Roland Weary
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut, in this passage, describes the fight between Pilgrim and Weary, and shows how arbitrary the animosities of war can be. For, of course, the Germans and the Americans are enemies and should be fighting one another. The Americans, on the other hand, have no business fighting among themselves, at least according to official Army regulations.

But war is really a set of artificial constraints, especially in the way Vonnegut depicts it. The Germans do not necessarily, or in fact seldom, have personal grudges against the Americans. And the Americans, despite their general understanding that Nazi Germany has committed crimes of its own, do not necessarily believe that each and every German is their "natural" enemy. In fact, what Vonnegut takes pains to show is how bizarre and outlandish the notion of a "natural" enemy is. In Slaughterhouse-Five, men only have accidental, or provisional, enemies - enemies brought on by the circumstances in which people find themselves. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

But lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is an indication of both the whimsy and the religious seriousness of Vonnegut's writing. This scene is played, in part, for laughs - as, of course, Pilgrim couldn't "actually" see Adam and Eve in the boots of the soldier standing over him. But Vonnegut is not so much concerned with the explicit possibility or impossibility of the scenes he describes. For him, the validity of what Pilgrim believes he saw is the same as what someone might have "reported" from a given scene. Perception and external reality are described on equal footing throughout the text.

The story of Adam and Eve is, of course, a commonly-referenced one - if not the most commonly-referenced in Western literature. Yet it is almost certainly the case that no author has described Adam and Eve viewed in exactly this context - amid the horrors of war, in the polish of a boot. Vonnegut's ability to make new even the most tried-and-true of tropes is another feature of his writing. 

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. 

Human beings in there were excreting into steel helmets, which were passed to the people at the ventilators . . . . The human beings also passed canteens, which guards would fill with water. When food came in, the human beings were quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut takes great pains to illustrate exactly the human difficulties of the war. In this scene, war forces people together under the most horrific and cramped of circumstances. For Vonnegut, however, the scene does not end there. Instead, the humans forced into the same train-car are part of a shared experience, and they do not immediately turn on one another, or hurt one another. While acknowledging the frailty of their positions and their discomfort, they nevertheless participate in a communal series of excretions and ingestions, designed to keep them alive.

This is why Slaughterhouse-Five is not simply a book about death and the horrors of war. It is instead about the extremities of war, and about the good and the bad that can come from putting people into life-testing, and life-affirming, situations. Vonnegut continually forces the reader to confront situations in which characters are confronting the reality of their physical circumstances - of the dire, yet hopeful, straits they are placed in. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some . . . . The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. . . . Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another, very important instance of "coming unstuck in time." The planes from the film quite literally become what they were. The horrors of war, the violence into which characters are thrust, is run back, and pain, once the end position, is now the beginning. Humans and objects are allowed to escape their own destruction. The clock is wound back.

Part of Vonnegut's theory of time and free will depends on the fiction writer's ability to move quickly between situations that would unfold chronologically in life. Thus, although the violence of war is one-directional, going from completeness to destruction, the violence in this scene is allowed to run the opposite way.

The reasons for this are not stated explicitly - but the Tralfamadorians, Vonnegut's theorists of time, make clear that, once time is seen as operating in more than one direction, human suffering is understood in a vastly different light. It is seen as one part of the human condition, rather than as the necessary end-point of war and conflict. 

Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

Related Characters: Tralfamadorians (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another take on what it means to be in, and outside of, time. For the Tralfamadorians, time appears like the side of a mountain ridge - a series of peaks and valleys, which can be traversed at will. To humans, of course, time seems unidirectional and impossible to stop. But for Billy Pilgrim, who is "unstuck," time assumes the qualities of Tralfamadorian time.

Interestingly, then, Pilgrim is "trapped" in time when speaking to the Tralfamadorians - but in a manner different from normal human "entrapment" in time. Humans are trapped in time without knowing it. They are imprisoned in a present, and can view the past and speculate on the future. But they do not have the ability to traverse these moments. Pilgrim, however, in speaking to the Tralfamadorians, is able to understand just how the "present" is like an "amber" (sticky sap) in which one is stuck - and how one might move forward or backward to different moments at will. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

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. So it goes.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

With his characteristic directness, Vonnegut reminds the reader of the grim reality of the war. One feature, long rumored even during the time of the conflict, was that Germans were boiling the fat of prisoners to make soap, then passing along this soap to be sold. For Vonnegut, this rumor - which he includes as a part of the narrative - assumes both a literal and a metaphoric form. Literally, it is a sign of the terrible cruelty of the war, of its human cost.

Metaphorically, Vonnegut uses this scene to comment on the impossibility of getting, and remaining, clean during a conflict as all-consuming as this one. For even in the shower a person is "cleansing" oneself with the soap from another human body. As with other instances in the novel, war is a game in which no one can emerge innocent or unscathed, even the "good guys" (who are, in this case, the Allies). 

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 6 Quotes

Somebody behind him in the boxcar said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut writes himself directly into the novel as a character. Throughout, we have been reminded that Billy Pilgrim is not "real" in the sense of historical "reality." He is not a character one could find in a work of history, because he did not live - although Pilgrim is "real" in the sense that Vonnegut establishes and fleshes him out in the context of the novel.

But Vonnegut is real both as an author and historical person - the man who wrote the book - and as a character within it. His response to Dresden, a city he had until that point never seen, underscores his youth and inexperience, and the grandeur of a Europe he is about to witness destroyed. Characteristically, also, Vonnegut changes his own grammar, saying "That was I" and "That was me," searching for the appropriate way to convey what he had seen. 

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

He spoke of the brotherhood between the American and the Russian people, and how those two nations were going to crush the disease of Nazism, which wanted to infect the whole world. The air-raid sirens of Dresden howled mournfully.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Edgar Derby
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Derby is fighting against the horrible speech delivered by a man named Campbell, a defector from the American cause who wears a "red-white-and-blue swastika" on his armband, and who believes that the only way for the Americans to finish the war is by banding together with the Germans.

Derby, who has not spoken out in this way through much of the novel, argues that the war really is a war of ideals, and that American and Russian ideals, different though they may be, must unite in order to defeat National Socialism. Derby's argument is perhaps not exactly the argument that Americans themselves would use - he probably overplays the natural alliance between America and the Soviet Union, who would themselves become enemies within a year of the war being over. But his speech nevertheless offers, in distilled form, an argument for freedom and democracy over terror, demagoguery, and fear. 

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. 

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. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut returns to the narrative to begin the summary section of the novel, in which he describes his relationship to some of the characters whose lives he has depicted. Vonnegut argues that Tralfamadorian time implies that all human life extends infinitely in all directions, that it can be accessed at this or that point - that any human being, in other words, is capable of becoming unstuck in time, just like Pilgrim. 

Indeed, Vonnegut has offered a world in the novel in which any reader can become unstuck right along with Pilgrim. The novel is a technology for accessing different moments, different memories. These are moments from Vonnegut's life, but the things Vonnegut describes are relatable to the context in which any given reader might live. The novel is therefore a kind of time machine in the Tralfamadorian model, showing us how humans behave at different points, shuttling constantly between them. 

“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” I said to him lazily, “just ask for Wild Bob.”

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Wild Bob
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This line, which Vonnegut repeats from earlier in the novel, is a bond between O'Hare and Vonnegut, of which Vonnegut is reminded on a trip back to Dresden with his friend in the 1960s. Wild Bob died of pneumonia in the prisoner train car, and in telling his fellow soldiers they could ask for him in Cody, he's saying that he will have a life again, that he will be reborn - at least in memory - among the people of Cody.

Like "so it goes," this line, repeated by characters throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, is a reminder of the human element of war, and of the cost of war. Wild Bob was by all accounts a good man, and the life he led in Cody, his "real" life, was about as distant from his in Dresden as it could possibly be. Vonnegut and O'Hare think of Wild Bob when they think of the human souls the war took away - and the resilience and humor of those, like Wild Bob, who were not lucky enough to survive. 

Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the most famous lines in the novel. Vonnegut here uses the sound of a bird chirping in the trees - played for comedic effect - as a reminder of the indifference of nature to the violence humans inflict on one another. The birds would sing in the trees whether humans were kind to one another or not. They will sing in the trees before and after atrocities are committed. They would have sung if Americans had lost the war, just as soon as they sang when the Americans won.

Vonnegut does this not to argue that these distinctions, between right and wrong, good and bad, don't matter - for him, they matter an enormous amount. But he does claim, in the indifference of nature, that good and bad occur in a world that does not necessarily arc toward the former or latter. Goodness and badness are matters of human choice in a greater world filled with arbitrariness and seeming bad luck. The choices that humans make are a small counterweight against the randomness and indifference of the events surrounding.