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
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.