The primary antagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five is not a character, but World War II itself. As his father mentions in the first chapter, Vonnegut “never wrote a story with a villain in it,” and this rings true as Billy Pilgrim struggles with the traumatic effects of war far more than he is antagonized by characters around him. Billy copes with his trauma by becoming “unstuck in time,” which first happens after a particularly distressing defeat at the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout the rest of the novel, Billy goes in and out of time, maneuvering between various moments in his life in an effort to suppress memories of war, especially the bombing of Dresden. Billy doesn’t come to terms with this tragic event until nearly twenty years later, when a barbershop quartet reminds him of the German guards in Dresden. Unexpectedly, Billy fills with grief, and wonders why the song affects him “so grotesquely,” especially after supposing for years “that he had no secrets from himself.” Apparently, time-traveling has not provided a fool-proof outlet for Billy to escape his trauma, and his unresolved memories of the war still hold power over him.

Read about another book in which war is the primary antagonist, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.