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.
War and Death ThemeTracker
War and Death Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five
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.
“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 . . . .”
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.
He didn’t look like a solider at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” I said to him lazily, “just ask for Wild Bob.”