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Literature / Slaughterhouse-Five

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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, or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel 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 and later 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. note  Still, 135,000 civilians or 25,000 civilians, dead is dead. So it goes.

An intensively autobiographical book (minus the time travel and aliens bits), Slaughterhouse-Five 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.

Filmed in 1972 by George Roy Hill. Vonnegut liked it.

Adapted into a graphic novel in 2020 by Ryan North and Albert Monteys. Vonnegut was dead in that time. So it goes.

Tropes in this book include:

  • 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: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.
  • 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: In the distant future, an accident during a test of a new Tralfamdorian rocket will start a chain reaction that will utterly annihilate the universe.
  • 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: Two in this novel.
    • Billy Pilgrim is a stand-in for Vonnegut's experiences as a POW during World War II and as a witness to the bombing of Dresden.
    • Kilgore Trout is a recurring author avatar (although he also has elements of fellow sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, Vonnegut's friend/mentor) in many of Vonnegut's novels
    • 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 as first-person narrator.
  • Ax-Crazy:
  • 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. (Granted, humans do indeed have far more combinations of genitals, chromosomes, and sexual traits than the general public tends to acknowledge, and in three dimensions no less—Vonnegut may not have known.)
  • Blessed with Suck: Billy can see his entire life at once but is unable to do anything about it.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. The first chapter is about him describing some of his life and how he came to write his "famous Dresden novel". To drive it home, at one point, he describes a man standing in the same room as Billy Pilgrim during the bombing of Dresden and then writes, "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
  • 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?
    • Early in the book, Roland Weary shows Billy a photo from the 1800s of a woman attempting to have sex with a pony. Towards the end of the book, Billy visits a dirty bookstore in New York City years later, and an employee shows him a copy of the same photo.
  • 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. Also a case of Demoted to Extra.
  • 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.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Billy Pilgrim, like most of Vonnegut's protagonists, personifies this trope thanks to his passivity in the face of tragic and farcical misadventures.
  • Dated History: 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.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Kilgore Trout, especially when managing newspaper delivery boys.
  • Death Seeker: Billy isn't afraid of death. He doesn't mind living so much, but to put the degree this trope influences his character in perspective, he was quite annoyed when his father saved him from drowning while he was a child as it was a rather calm and almost pleasant experience.
  • 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.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Billy during the second World War as his visions of the future all but assure him that he's going to make it out of the conflict all right. This disturbs everyone around him, but on his end, he urges them to prioritize their safety over his own because at least his is guaranteed.
    • More extensively, every time someone dies, up to and including Billy's wife, a whole airplane full of his colleagues, his father-in-law among them, and Billy himself, it's succinctly punctuated by the phrase "so it goes," with no other emotional response.
  • Divided States of America: In the future, before Billy dies, he's making a speech in the balkanized United States.
  • Eagleland: Type 2, especially in the writings of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. but to a lesser extent throughout the book.
  • The Eeyore: Kilgore Trout, as was the case in his role in Vonnegut's other novels.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Paul Lazzaro, the psychotic and murderous car thief from Illinois, is dismissive of the firebombing of Dresden. However, even Lazzaro is disgusted by Howard W. Campbell Jr's treasonous support of the Nazis during the war. Lazzaro's threat to kill Campbell was the only moment when he and Edgar Derby were on the same side of an issue.
    He was proud of never having hurt an innocent bystander. "Nobody ever got it from Lazzaro," he said, "who didn't have it coming."
  • 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.
  • Failed Future Forecast: We get a glimpse of the "future" in which the US is divided into various sectors, among other things. The year? 1976.
    • Towards the end of the book it is also mentioned that human population would reach seven billion before 2000, which only happened in 2011.
  • Fantastic Romance: Between Billy and a fellow abductee Montana Wildhack. They have a child together, and get along fairly well after a fashion.
  • 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 isn'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 cannot 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.
  • Gag Penis: When Billy is naked in the alien enclosure, the narrator takes time to note that "Billy Pilgrim had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one." In the graphic novel, the narration box covers rather a lot.
  • Gold Digger: Billy marries Valencia because the resulting marriage will be both bearable and, more importantly, profitable.
  • 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.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Near the end of the book, Billy visits a porn shop. The clerks treat Billy like he's a disgusting pervert because he wants to read one of the novels they keep in the window instead of consuming the pornography most of their customers are there for.
  • 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).
  • Karmic Death: Two of Weary's "Three Musketeers" who ditched him and Billy because they thought they stood a better chance of not getting captured by German troops that way are shot to death minutes after. Roland Weary, a disturbed bully obsessed with torture, is forced to march in hinged clogs that wound his feet and wrack them in ceaseless pain; he eventually dies of gangrene from his injuries.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Although they were not aware of it, Billy and a German prison guard were distant cousins.
  • 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. In the same vein, there are also hints that Billy's time-travelling is just him reliving his wartime experiences and daydreaming about possible future events.
  • Meaningful Name: Tralfama — dorian. Like Dorian Gray, the Tralfamadorians can move through time while 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: Maybe? It's never made clear whether Billy is really "unstuck in time" or just has PTSD. Either way, he sure doesn't travel in time physically.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: In the distant future, a Tralfamadorian pilot will ignite an experimental fuel which, unintentionally on its inventor's part, will cause a lethal cosmic chain reaction and destroy the entire universe. So it goes.
  • Nice Girl: Even though Billy doesn't feel the same way, Valencia genuinely loves him and is distraught when he ends up in the hospital.
  • Nice Guy: Edgar Derby is one of the few individuals who is friendly towards Billy at the POW camp. Unfortunately, he's also very naive to the point of being Too Dumb to Live.
  • 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 isn'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:
  • Pocket Protector: The "bulletproof Bible" that saves Roland Weary's life.
  • 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.
  • Pretty Boy: 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.
  • 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".
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Billy, in spades. It's entirely possible that his time-traveling and alien encounters aren't real but instead are his coping mechanisms.
  • 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 growing from the handle, with a single eyeball at the center of its palm.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The English officers are pretty optimistic for being POWs.
  • Survival Mantra: Billy has a framed print of Serenity Prayer in his office, and some of his clients say it helps them.
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: The Tralfamadorians, and Billy after being abducted by them, occasionally state that particular events have happened, are happening, and always will happen.
  • Time-Traveling Jerkass: Given that they're the ultimate cause of its destruction via a testing accident, the Tralfamadorians are this.
  • Title Drop:
    • "Slaughterhouse-Five" is where Billy and the other prisoners of war are herded in, and where they survive the Dresden bombing.
    • "Children's Crusade" is brought up at the start, in Kurt Vonnegut's own preface.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Edgar Derby picks up and pockets a porcelain cup after the Dresden bombing as a souvenir, in full view of the German soldiers guarding the POW cleanup crew, despite being repeatedly told that looters will be shot.
  • 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 and a severe head injury, and some other characters certainly think he's unreliable...
  • Unstuck in Time: The Trope Namer, even though it's possible that Billy isn't, actually, time-travelling, just crazy.
  • 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. "All this happened, more or less."
  • War Is Hell: Mrs. O'Hare certainly feels this way and this is proven in a surprisingly non-Anvilicious way. It is the core, but admittedly futile and redundant, theme of the book.
  • World of Jerkass: Most of the people Billy meets, both at the POW camp and in his hometown, are either sadistic sociopaths, crass jerks, or complete idiots.
  • Writers Suck: Kilgore Trout is a complete failure as a writer. Even 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.
  • 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.


Alternative Title(s): Slaughterhouse Five