The slaughterhouse in Slaughterhouse-Five is both a real place and a metaphorical one. A slaughterhouse is a place where animals like cows and pigs are killed, often in large groups, for food. After being captured by the Germans, the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and his fellow prisoners of war are taken to live in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, an old and beautiful city in eastern Germany. Since Dresden was a civilian city with little military significance in World War II, it was believed to be safe from bombing. However, on February 13, 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden in an air attack that is believed to have killed about 130,000 civilians. This puts the Dresden bombing on the same scale of destruction as the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima later that same year. Billy and the other American prisoners survived the bombing by taking shelter in “an echoing meat locker which was hollowed in living rock under the slaughterhouse.” Kurt Vonnegut, the book’s author, survived the real-life bombing in the same way. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five was first and foremost a real place.
The slaughterhouse is also a metaphorical place. One of the great instances of situational irony in the novel is how Billy survives the bombing in a slaughterhouse, a place where animals are killed, while those outside of the slaughterhouse are, in fact, the ones slaughtered. In this way, the slaughterhouse becomes a shelter while the city of Dresden becomes a slaughterhouse. Many of the victims, whom Billy (and Vonnegut) were later forced to dig up, died untouched in their clothing from suffocation. This image recalls, with an ironic twist, the “dressed carcasses” of animals still stored in the meat locker where Billy and the POWs took shelter. In technical terms, a dressed carcass is the body of a slaughtered animal after the hide, head, tail, extremities, and internal organs have been removed. In the case of the civilians killed in the Dresden bombing, however, the phrase becomes sickeningly literal. The civilians who suffocated to death in large groups in basements reminiscent of meat lockers are “dressed carcasses” because they are the bodies of still-dressed dead humans.
It is not only the city of Dresden that becomes a metaphorical slaughterhouse—war itself is a kind of slaughterhouse, a place where humans are killed in large numbers like livestock, often by machines, and without a trace of compassion. The metaphor can be stretched even farther: the whole planet Earth is also a metaphorical slaughterhouse. As Vonnegut says in Chapter 1, “Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.” In other words, even if there weren’t wars to slaughter thousands, those thousands would eventually die anyway. As proof, there is the violence and death that marks Billy’s post-war life. Billy’s father-in-law and coworkers are killed in the plane crash he survives. His wife dies. His dog Spot dies. The son of God dies. And Billy himself dies. This idea of Earth as a metaphorical slaughterhouse is brought home in Chapter 10, which opens with a list of deaths that have occurred in the “real” world, outside of the novel, including those of Martin Luther King, Jr., soldiers in wartime, and the author’s father. By placing deaths like the natural death of his father alongside wartime casualties, Vonnegut makes them equivalent to each other. Death is death is death, he seems to be saying with this list. It is everywhere, on and off the battlefield. Earth is a slaughterhouse, a place where human beings are sent—by God? By aliens? By chance?—to die.