The basic run-down of the book:
Written by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the great American writers of "black comedy" during the Vietnam War. (1969, precisely) It became a big hit with the mostly college age, "intellectual-hippie" crowd. It tells the story of a man named Billy Pilgrim, and his experiences with life. The main inspiration for the book was Vonnegut's own experiences during the firebombing of Dresden in World War Two. This is considered one of Vonnegut's masterpieces. And on a side note, is one of my favorite books.

For an elaboration on the novel, focusing on the tone, structure and style, read my (pared down) term paper:


In the novel Slaughterhouse Five, author Kurt Vonnegut uses an existentialistic tone of pessimism, passivity, and detachment to fictionalize an atrocity and effect a change in his readers.

The importance of Vonnegut's tone to the work begins in chapter one. The narrator in this chapter is the author himself, and he uses a colloquial, confiding tone to draw the readers in and to present to them the point of the novel and what expectations they should have of it. In chapter one the contradictions of tone are introduced, and the cyclical nature of the novel is created. The beginning and end of the book are in the same place, and are made known to the reader even before the true story has started.

Another important function of the tone in chapter one is the way it positions the characters for the remainder of the book. Although it is not stated, it is clearly implied that the main character is Vonnegut, not the protagonist Billy Pilgrim, and also that Pilgrim is closely related to Vonnegut but is not the same person. Vonnegut imparts this through telling the readers the background of the novel with a friendly tone, endearing the readers to him as if he were telling a story to friends.

After chapter one, the real fiction of the story begins, and Billy Pilgrim is introduced as the protagonist. Most of the characters in the book are oversimplified, allowing Vonnegut to suggest something of the complexity of human nature through indirection. Billy, on the other hand is developed fully. The Tralfamadorian structure gives Billy dimension and substance and brings him eerily to life despite his pale ineffectuality as a person.

Billy is represented throughout the book with a dual-persona. He becomes a mask not only for Vonnegut-as-character, but for Vonnegut the author as well. In Vonnegut's telling of the novel he is attempting to come to terms with his own experiences with human atrocity in the firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut uses Billy Pilgrim to narrate the entire tale of a young draftee’s horrible experiences. Vonnegut is writing a book about his own past but it is a very painful thing for him to relate, so he uses Billy's character among other elements to distance himself from his memories.

Vonnegut saves a unique tone for discussing Billy, one that he uses nowhere else in the work. This sets Billy distinctly apart from the other characters and situations. He speaks of Billy with a light tone, almost one of amusement or affection as if Billy is his plaything. On the other hand, Vonnegut gives Billy an approach to the world that is passive and detached. Billy's quietism disgusts Vonnegut, and he wants it to disgust his readers too. His tone makes it clear that Vonnegut sympathizes with escape into dream and fantasy to cope while suggesting that man is the only one to do something about the conditions and qualities of human life on Earth.

Vonnegut and Billy are closely related throughout the book. Billy Pilgrim's attempt to come to terms with the horrors of Dresden is Vonnegut's own attempt. Billy Pilgrim creates an imaginary world, Tralfamadore; Vonnegut creates an imaginary world, Slaughterhouse Five.

A central part of the novel is centered on the theory of time travel. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He sees all parts of his life at once, due to his awakening to the true nature of time on the planet Tralfamador. The Tralfamadorians abduct Billy and force him to view time and his world as they do, where all moments occur at the same time. This ability allows Billy to become completely indifferent to all events in the world around him because he can always just jump into another more pleasant moment.

At first glance it appears to the reader that Vonnegut is advocating culpable moral indifference as exampled by Billy's passive happiness and resignation. In actuality Vonnegut feels that to do this would be a moral outrage. He wants his readers to rebel against the suggestion that if there is any salvation for men, it lies in their innocence or their stupidity and consequently their inability to understand how totally they are a product of circumstance and not free will.

The way Vonnegut goes about bringing this realization to his reader's attention could be called reverse psychology. He satirically portrays a world in which there is no hope, no purpose, and no salvation for the universe. He wants this to shock readers. The book centers on innocents who are victims both of other people, and, more particularly, of an inability to meaningfully affect their own lives. For Vonnegut, civilization's problem is not that people don't take responsibility for their lives but that they can't. Ultimately the book is not so much an anti-war novel as it is a novel against the way Billy and, as Vonnegut sees it, American civilization, lives in a world without free will.

Vonnegut wants to frustrate the common reader's expectations of the way things in the world are treated in order to force them to reevaluate whether these ways are really the best. He uses the phrase "so it goes" in relation to every instance of death in the novel. One of the effects of "so it goes" on the reader is the effect produced by the disjunction of tone and subject. Readers expect death to be treated with more concern. The paradox Vonnegut is presenting with the phrase is that death keeps life in motion. He wants us to see that beyond man's interior universe is only the emptiness of eternal space and that because of this life must renew itself arbitrarily. This is the most important lesson in the book. This expression of fatalism serves as a source of renewal, for it enables the novel to go on despite – even because of – the proliferation of deaths.

Shocking his readers into some sort of rebellious action is Vonnegut's main goal. In treating death with such casualness throughout the novel Vonnegut brings to the readers attention the true definition of a massacre and how casually death is treated in the instance of one. He wants the readers to feel confused and betrayed by the light treatment of something so massive. He uses a mild voice to express his outrage that things like the Dresden massacre of Billy's time and the Vietnam War of the time the novel was published have been allowed to happen.

An off-hand, calm remark from Vonnegut may be expressing terrible implications. The understanding he has already formed with his readers in chapter one makes this evident. He wants readers to share the sadness and indignation he feels in viewing the damned human race. Along with these he gives a dead pan, absolutely serious telling of a ludicrous story involving time-travel and alien abduction. This gives the tale many of the common earmarks for a science fiction novel, Slaughterhouse Five, however, is not.

The novel is not science fiction, though it has a science fiction feel in its style. The genre of science fiction is simply another trick Vonnegut feels comfortable enough in to use to give him the option of a circuitous approach to Dresden. Along with science fiction, Vonnegut uses a peculiar syntax which, combined with satire, irony, pessimism, and humor, allows him to affect a gentle tone while writing a scathing attack on the institutions of war, and on modern human civilization juxtaposed with ancient human nature.

He uses very plain, parable-like storytelling with loose declarative sentences. His unconnected timeline gives a telegraphic, schizophrenic manner to the book and hides the bombing of Dresden. This style provides an excellent format for him to develop his intellectual themes while keeping the novel simple and easy to read.

The main targets of Vonnegut's satirical tone besides the institution of war include government, love, religion, and lies. He uses satire as an attack on satire itself, and upon the idea of a world with definite answers that satire implies. He also satirizes the false claims of our deceitful times, while celebrating the imagination's liberating power to escape from the spiritual tyranny we are caught in. Though he presents his satire in an ironic, pessimistic tone, his irony is cynicism, in the end the book is more idealistic if it brings about the intended changes.

The satire in the book goes hand in hand with the humor. Vonnegut feels that fiction serves the great moral purpose of breathing life back into life in dark times he uses the therapy of laughter to evoke the brightness that is concealed by fear. His humorous tone emphasizes the comic absurdity of the human condition. The tone of his humor is dark and despairing, however, it evokes an essentially comic vision of man. To him the human condition has become absurd and terrifying for man himself has become the most terrifying thing in it. It is because of this that Vonnegut demands serious action from his readers, while still being sensible enough to accept the things that cannot be changed.

Vonnegut believes that only with the irony, wit, and detachment of a comic vision and with the escape into new fairy-tales can man endure the world and himself in out time. He uses his humor as a symbol to deal with the horrors of war and madness. This reverse approach again serves to jolt awake his readers into questioning the oddness and wrongness of treating death with humor.

Slaughterhouse Five is mostly commonly classified as an anti-war novel. The subject matter of the book is not simply Nazi atrocity; it is runaway technology, inflated views of human destiny, amoral science, the distribution of wealth in America, and the senselessness of war as a continued experience. In writing an anti-war novel, Vonnegut is creating an anti-passivism novel. He uses a mocking voice, seemingly parodying itself, denying any aim in life, demanding not to be believed, yet always taken seriously.

This is the unspoken understanding between writer and reader. In the book Vonnegut frustrates the readers expectations purposefully in order to bring about in him an experience of the absurd. Vonnegut ultimately feels that the human condition is a sad one and that in so many instances man is trapped. Thus, he wants to bring to the reader's immediate attention the need for all the lonely people to treat one another with kindness and decency due to the limitations of human action in a seemingly random and meaningless universe. To him this seems obvious, seeing as man has little or no power to affect his world in drastic ways. He feels that there is an obligation among peoples for spiritual nurturance, and that this can only be realized after the mind has confronted annihilation and the responsibilities of it's society.

Vonnegut's final stand is for man to confront the evil within himself and his society. The novel is a symbol of the battle of man versus his own violence and Vonnegut stresses how the dark forces of the human spirit are also the signal qualities of American life. In his world, sentimentality, egotism, blind patriotism, materialism, and unchecked technology are the enemy. The only force left to combat this is conscience and feeling. In the world of Slaughterhouse Five, man has no power for: improving or changing his condition, creating meaning, purpose, order or beauty, knowing himself or his world, making life livable, or bearing the human condition. If this is true, then it is impossible for human beings to be other than cruel to each other and thus impossible for there to be any change in human suffering. In light of this, Vonnegut creates Billy to calmly accept everything that happens as being correct in a serene passivity. He forces him to view the world aesthetically and thus every moment is marvelous and tragic.

Kurt Vonnegut presents Slaughterhouse Five with such an honest, calm, and friendly tone that it is easy for his readers to become convinced that the world of Billy Pilgrim is indeed the same as their own. The book was published in a crucial time period: The Vietnam War, and it is making a statement not only about Vietnam, or World War Two, but about war in general as it relates to the human condition. The book examines the hypocrisies surrounding the American way of life and the things that man bases his life on. Vonnegut is trying to come to a conclusion with the help of his readers and characters as to whether man bases his life on lies or simply dreams.

For example, Billy's mother is not religious but she buys a crucifix from a gift shop to make herself feel better about her life. Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops. Ultimately in the novel, Vonnegut pits the ancient Christian news of victory over death against the Tralfamadorian message of no death. Kurt Vonnegut is asking his readers to make their own decisions for which option is truly the best one based upon the tone he uses in his novel Slaughterhouse Five.



Works Cited:
Brennan, James. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers.
Buchan, James. "An Old Irony." Spectator.
Burhans, Clinton S. "Kurt Vonnegut" Modern Fiction Studies.
Cox, F. Brett. "An Overview of 'Slaughterhouse Five'." Exploring Novels.
Giannone, Robert. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels.
Harris, Charles B. "Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr: A Reading of 'Slaughterhouse Five'."
Hicks, Granville. "Vonnegut." Saturday Review.
Kennard, Jean E. "Kurt Vonnegut J.: The Sirens of Satire." Number and Nightmare.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut.
McGinnis, Wayne D. "The Arbitrary Cycle of 'Slaughterhouse Five'"
Schatt, Stanely. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time…He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says. Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.” (Vonnegut 29)

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.” (Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, page 1)

“Each clump of symbols is a brief urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chose them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen at one time” (Vonnegut 112).


While still bound to the conventions of the written novel, Kurt Vonnegut clearly intended to emulate his own description of alien novels. The book is written in short sections of several paragraphs, each telling an ancedote or a detail that advances the story. Often, Billy time-travels between each section, moving to another part of life that often parallels the action in another time. Rather than have the plot progress linearly in the Earthling sense of time, the author brings the reader into a completely new world, with its own forces and rules, with virtues that almost completely contradict our own.

Three times in Slaughterhouse-Five, the author starts a passage with the mandate “Listen:” (pages 29, 101, and 173). This order gives the narration the feel of a legend passed on orally, like the speaker is imploring his audience to quiet doen because something important is going to happen. This parallels the first line of Beowulf, which has been translated as “Listen”, “Hear me!”, or in the quote above, “So.” Beowulf almost certainly began as an oral tradition, and even though the structure of the Slaughterhouse-Five seems very unconventional, the author still employs classic storytelling techniques to draw attention to key changes in the narrative.

Note: SL5 can also be divided in sections seperated by "Listen:".

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