It begins like this: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come Unstuck in Time."
It ends like this: "Poo-tee-weet?"
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.Slaughterhouse-Five
is Kurt Vonnegut
's 1969 masterpiece about Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who witnessed the bombing of Dresden and subsequently gets kidnapped by Tralfamadorian aliens, who can see in all four dimensions and thus see all events in their lives in no particular order. Billy becomes Unstuck in Time
, marries a nice girl, experiences death for a while, befriends Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut's recurring Author Avatar
in The Verse
), and lives his life like most other humans — just less chronologically. Tralfamadorians don't believe you can change anything, but that doesn't mean you can't choose to focus on a particular time, and to enjoy life the way it happens. Billy learns to accept life as well as death — if something dies, then so it goes.
Why aliens, and why time travel? Because Vonnegut wanted to write about his experiences in World War II
, but he didn't want to write a story about Big Damn Heroes
. Instead, his character is simply a meek observer: Billy gets to see the war and the world from a distance, objectively, as if through the eyes of aliens.
It caused a bit of controversy when it came out, as people were unwilling to believe that "The Greatest Generation" during "The Good War" could do evil. But his story about the Bombing of Dresden in World War II
is factual, as Vonnegut was there, initially as a POW working at a slaughterhouse then involved in clearing the city of corpses and wreckage after the bombing. Although there is a question about how many died; it is said that in the book he got the numbers wrong. Still, 135,000 civilians or 25,000 civilians, dead is dead. So it goes.
An intensively autobiographical novel (minus the time travel and aliens bits), Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
is one of the books Vonnegut is most remembered for and contains philosophies about free will, fate, life, and death, often through the use of irony. For example, scholarly discussion usually holds that Billy and the Tralfamadorians are the examples of what is wrong
and that free will, and therefore moral responsibility to try to prevent war, futile though it may seem, are the correct paths.
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?"
Filmed in 1972 by George Roy Hill. Vonnegut liked it.
Tropes in this book include:
- Aliens Made Them Do It: The Tralfamadorians put Billy and porn star Montana Wildhack in a zoo together. They don't make them mate but they want them to. You put together a man and woman in a small area for the rest of their lives...
- Alternate Aesop Interpretation: In-universe, the moral of the New Testament is hypothesized as really being "Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected."
- Anachronic Order
- Anticlimax: In the introduction, Vonnegut says that the climax of the novel should be Edgar Derby's execution for looting a teapot. During the novel, we're reminded several times that this will happen; however, when it finally does, it's described in three sentences.
- Anyone Can Die: And so many do. It is a war, after all. Some characters' deaths (i.e., Billy, Derby) are explicitly mentioned by the narrator long before they ever occur, some are a little more unexpected (i.e., Roland Weary).
- Apocalypse How: A Class 5 on a universal scale. Played for Laughs, mostly.
- Arc Words: "So it goes." It appears no less than 106 times in the novel (and it's a quite short novel as well).
- Author Avatar: Kilgore Trout is a recurring author avatar (although he also has elements of Theodore Sturgeon, he of Sturgeon's Law and a Real Life science fiction author and Vonnegut's friend/mentor) in many of Vonnegut's novels; however, because of the intense personal nature of the story—Vonnegut himself actually witnessed or took part in many of the book's events—the author himself is present as a character as well.
- Bishounen: One of the German soldiers who first capture Roland and Billy, to the point where he's described as looking like Eve from the Bible.
- Bizarre Alien Sexes: The Tralfamadorians look like toilet plungers and have five sexes.
- More than that, the Tralfamadorians reveal to Billy that humans have seven sexes, it's just that we can only perceive two because the others exist in the fourth dimension.
- Blessed with Suck: Billy can see his entire life at once but is unable to do anything about it.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "So it goes."
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. At one point, when describing the bombing of Dresden, he shows a man standing in the same room as Billy Pilgrim and then writes, "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
- Not to mention the fact that the first chapter in the book was entirely about him describing some of his life and how he came to write his "famous Dresden novel".
- Brick Joke: In the first chapter, the narrator mentions drunkenly calling up old friends with his breath stinking of mustard gas and roses. In the fourth chapter, Billy gets an anonymous call and assumes the caller is a drunk whose breath smells like mustard gas and roses.
- Then, on the last page of the book, the smell of rotting bodies is likened to... guess what?
- The Cameo: Howard W. Campbell, the protagonist of Vonnegut's earlier work Mother Night makes an appearance, working for the Nazi propaganda effort. Eliot Rosewater, protagonist of another earlier book, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater also appears as Billy's roommate in the veteran's hospital.
- Child Soldiers: Mrs. O'Hare more or less considers young enlisted men to be this. We get to see more literal examples from the Germans who have a 12 year old scout and a 16 year old prison guard. The Children's Crusade is also discussed at one point.
- Classical Anti-Hero: Billy Pilgrim has many traits of this.
- Defiant to the End: The hobo. "You call this bad? This ain't bad."
- Dewey Defeats Truman: We get a glimpse of the "future" in which the US is divided into various sectors among other things. The year? 1976.
- Diamonds in the Buff: Montana's necklace; since she's naked, you can't look at it without also looking at her boobs.
- Disproportionate Retribution:
- Edgar Derby is shot by a firing squad for stealing a teapot from the ruins of Dresden. This after he wasn't even disciplined as far as we know for telling American traitor Howard J. Campbell to go fuck himself.
- Paul Lazzaro makes a list of people he plans to have assassinated at some point in the future for even minor offenses. He mentions feeding a wire-filled steak to a dog that once bit him for the sake of revenge.
- Divided States of America: In the future, before Billy dies, he's making a speech in the balkanized United States.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted. The aversion is also lampshaded in the first chapter.
- Eagleland: Type 2, especially in the writings of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. but to a lesser extent throughout the book.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Paul Lazzaro, the psychotic and murderous car thief from Illinois, is dismissive of the firebombing of Dresden.
He was proud of never having hurt an innocent bystander. "Nobody ever got it from Lazzaro," he said, "who didn't have it coming."
- Of course, how much they had it coming is from the point of Lazzaro, who has...skewed priorities.
- Extreme Doormat: Billy spends the whole war being pushed and ordered around by others. After coming back, he becomes an optometrist and marries a woman whom he doesn't love, because that's what people around him expect of him. He only starts taking initiative after his abduction experience.
- Fantastic Romance
- Foregone Conclusion: Billy knows he's going to die - in fact, he's died over and over again, but merely goes back to a time when he wasn't dead.
- The Tralfamadorians take this attitude on a universal scale as they all know a rocket test of theirs will destroy the entire universe and don't much care. They don't care because they see no point in caring. To their senses: It will happen. It is happening. It will always happen. It can not be stopped because it has always happened.
- Edgar Derby's death is brought up before he is even named or is introduced into the story.
- History Marches On: It's stated several times that 135,000 people were killed in the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut took this figure from David Irving's book, The Destruction of Dresden, which even appears in the novel. Back in the '60s, Irving was considered a respectable historian, and his figures were widely accepted. Since then, he came out as a Holocaust denier and fell into disgrace. It also turned out that he inflated the figures, and the actual casualties were no higher than 25,000.
- Humans Are Special: How much this specialness matters is arguable, but according to one Tralfamadorian, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe.... Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." Because of this, they're seen as idiots by the Tralfamadorians.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: Averted. Billy suggests the Tralfamadorians and other aliens feel this way about humans since they have war. It is quickly explained that humans aren't alone in their ability to make war and that most aliens have no opinion one way or another about them.
- It's Not Porn, It's Art: André Le Fèvre, the maker of the first dirty photograph in the world, which depicted the woman having sex with a pony tried to argue before court that "the picture was fine art, and that his intention was to make Greek mythology come alive". (Indeed, there are several stories in Classical Mythology where gods have sex with mortals taking the form of animals).
- Long-Lost Relative: Although they were not aware of it, Billy and a German prison guard were distant cousins.
- Long Title: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: A popular theory about the novel is that the Tralfamadorians only exist in Billy's head, brought on post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Meaningful Echo: Several.
- Meaningful Name: Tralfama - dorian. Like Dorian Gray, the Tralfamadorians are able to move through time, unaffected by it. Also, Billy Pilgrim himself. ('Billy' due to his childlike innocence - explicitly stated in the second chapter, and 'pilgrim' due to the religious aspects of his journey.)
- Mental Time Travel
- Non-Linear Character: The Tralfamadorians.
- Not Afraid to Die: Because he experiences time in a non-linear way, Billy is not the least bit afraid of his death - he knows that after a while, he'll go back to a time when he wasn't dead.
- The Nothing After Death: Billy experiences death as nothing but violet light and a hum.
- Oh, and X Dies: The narrator wastes no opportunity to remind us that Edgar Derby is going to be executed for stealing a teapot. (When that finally happens, it's told in a by-the-way sentence that doesn't even rate a paragraph of its own.)
- The movie makes a somewhat bigger deal about it.
- The first chapter, in which Vonnegut discusses his writing of the book, has Vonnegut toying with the idea of making Edgar Derby's death the climax of the novel — a sort of appropriately retroactive Lampshade Hanging.
- People Zoo: Billy and Montana are residents.
- Precision F-Strike: Subverted when one soldier shouts for Billy to "Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker!"
The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never fucked anybody
- Prescience Is Predictable: Averted. Even though the Tralfamadorians and Billy see the future and are powerless to change it, they accept it gracefully.
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy's wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: "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." Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
- Quintessential British Gentleman: The British prisoners are so friendly, even the German guards like them.
- Red Shirt: Any side character mentioned in the WW2 segments will probably be dead soon. Like, in a few pages. Doesn't mean that it's any less sad, or that it can't be jarring (honestly, who expected Roland Weary to go out like that?).
- The Rule of First Adopters: The narration states that Louis Daguerre made the first photograph in 1839, and only two years later, his assistant, André Le Fèvre made the first dirty photograph depicting a woman "attempting sexual intercourse with a Shetland pony".
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Considering that Billy can see how everything ends, it's easy for him to take this view.
- Shout-Out: There are numerous shout-outs to children's stories:
- "Drink Me".
- The narrator compares Dresden, Germany to Oz when the American prisoners are first brought to the city.
- The English prisoners put on a production of "Cinderella" and at one point, Billy puts on the combat boots that substituted for Cinderella's glass slippers.
- Roland Weary refers to himself and the two scouts traveling with him as The Three Musketeers.
- Starfish Aliens: The average Tralfamadorian looks like a green toilet plunger with a human hand stuck to the handle, with a single eyeball at the center of its palm.
- Stiff Upper Lip: The English officers are pretty optimistic for being POW's.
- Time Dissonance
- Title Drop: For both titles.
- Unreliable Narrator: It is mentioned in one single line near the start of the second chapter that the story is built on what Billy Pilgrim says happened to him. After that point every event is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, but the implication is that the entire book is really based on Billy's perspective, rather than that of an omniscient narrator. Billy's unreliability is never made explicit, but is hinted at — he's suffered PTSD, a severe head injury, and some other characters certainly think he's unreliable...
- Unstuck in Time: The Trope Namer.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There are a couple parts of the book that were based on Vonnegut's own experiences, such as the descriptions of Dresden post-bombing and Edgar Derby being executed for looting a teapot.
- World War II
- You Can't Fight Fate: One of the Tralfamadorians says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe.... Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."
- Deconstructed as it's being used ironically as this mentality is held up as an example of the wrong way to cope with war trauma.
- The narrator also says that the climax will be when Edgar Derby is shot for stealing a teapot, and that is probably the textbook example of a deliberate anticlimax.
- On a more meta example, the prologue explains exactly how the book will end.
- War Is Hell: Mrs. O'Here certainly feels this way and this is proven in a surprisingly non-Anvilicious way.
- Writers Suck: Kilgore Trout is a complete failure as a writer. His only fan, Eliot Rosewater (who introduces Billy to his work) says that Trout deserves his obscurity, because while his ideas are great, his execution is terrible.