Kurt Vonnegut

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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.

War and Death

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…

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Time, Time-travel, and Free Will

The first sentence of Chapter Two illustrates the importance of time in the novel: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Vonnegut attempts one form of time-travel, memory, in his conversations with O’Hare about the war. But they find their memories are incomplete. The novel’s second option, then, is actual travel through time. Billy Pilgrim can do this because he has learned of Tralfamadorian time, where the past, present, and future exist at once.

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Science Fiction and Aliens

Vonnegut uses science fiction and aliens as means of knitting together events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, and of enabling philosophical discussions about the nature of time and death. Vonnegut was a science fiction writer early in his career, and Kilgore Trout, a character in the novel who is an obscure and crude writer of wildly imaginative science fiction, might be seen as a caricature of Vonnegut. The author comments that Rosewater and Pilgrim, ravaged…

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Money and Success

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.


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Witness and Truth

The novel returns, again and again, to a theme of witness and truth. Vonnegut announces in Chapter One that he is trying to write an account of the Dresden firebombing. Vonnegut evokes the disruption and strangeness of war by disturbing the linear narrative of the novel itself, and by increasing the “unreal” nature of the story. The author later follows Billy’s associations of the barbershop quartet to track his memories about the war. Thus the…

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