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Slaughterhouse-Five

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

author  Kurt Vonnegut

type of work  Novel

genre  Antiwar novel; historical fiction; science fiction; semi-autobiographical fiction

language  English

time and place written  Approximately 1945–1968, United States

date of first publication  1969

publisher  Dell Publishing

narrator The author; or arguably, sometimes an anonymous narrator with a similar point of view

point of view  The author narrates in both first and third person. The first-person sections are confined mainly to the first and last chapters. The narration is omniscient: it reveals the thoughts and motives of several characters, and provides details about their lives and some analysis of their motivations. The narrator primarily follows Billy Pilgrim but also presents the point of view of other characters whom Billy encounters.

tone The narrator’s tone is familiar and ironic, and he uncovers touches of dark humor and absurdity that do not diminish the lyrical and emotional power of the material. His portrayal of Billy is intimate but ambivalent, and he occasionally emphasizes the diction of reported speech (prefacing a passage with “He says that” or “Billy says”) to draw a distinction between reality and Billy’s interpretation of events.

tense  The majority of the book is written in the past tense, but the narrator occasionally uses the present tense—especially in the first and last chapters—when speaking from a personal point of view as Kurt Vonnegut. The reporting of Billy’s speech is in the present tense (for example: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Or so he says.”) Occasionally the tense switches to future, as when Billy describes his future death.

setting (time)  The narrative provides a detailed account of Billy’s war experiences in 1944–1945, but it skips around his entire life, from his early childhood in the 1920s to his death in 1976. The author’s narration is set in 1968.

setting (place)  The narrative thread of 1944–1945 concerns Billy’s army service in Germany and briefly in Luxembourg, where he is captured after the Battle of the Bulge. Most of the rest of Billy’s life takes place in Ilium, New York. He also travels to the planet Tralfamadore and lives there in a zoo.

protagonist  Billy Pilgrim

major conflict  Billy struggles to make sense out of a life forever marked by the firsthand experience of war’s tragedy.

rising action  Billy and his fellow prisoners are transported across Germany and begin living in a slaughterhouse prison and working in the city of Dresden.

climax  Dresden is incinerated in a deadly firebomb attack. But Billy misses the moment of destruction, waiting out the attack in a well-protected meat locker. Psychologically, Billy does not come to terms with this event until nearly twenty years later, when the sight of a barbershop quartet on his wedding anniversary triggers his suppressed sense of grief.

falling action  The falling action occurs in the realm of Billy’s later life as he progresses toward a newfound consciousness and an increasingly tenuous mental state. Billy experiences alien abduction and prepares to share his new insights with the world.

themes  The destructiveness of war; the illusion of free will; the importance of sight

motifs  “So it goes”; the presence of the narrator as a character

symbols  The bird who says “Poo-tee-weet?”; the colors blue and ivory

foreshadowing  The narrative convention that Vonnegut dispenses with most thoroughly in this book is foreshadowing. He outlines all the events of Billy’s life before proceeding with the story.