What does the phrase "so it goes" mean in the novel?

The phrase “so it goes” appears after every mention of death and mortality in Slaughterhouse-Five. This seemingly flippant phrase reflects a Tralfamadorian philosophy that comforts Billy Pilgrim: while a person is dead in one particular moment, they are still alive and well in all of the other moments of their life, because all of time exists at once. Billy appreciates the simplicity of the Tralfamadorian response to death, and every time he encounters a dead person, he “simply shrug[s]” and says “so it goes.” The repetition of this phrase also illustrates how war desensitizes people to death, since with each passive mention of “so it goes,” the narrator is subtly tallying the death toll.

What is the Children's Crusade?

Slaughterhouse-Five’s subtitle “The Children’s Crusade” refers to the youthfulness of the soldiers who fought in World War II. Writing in his own voice at the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut describes how he visited Bernard V. O’Hare, an old war buddy, and was reprimanded by O’Hare’s wife, who hated the idea of Vonnegut glorifying masculine war heroes in his novel instead of describing the soldiers as innocent “babies.” She believed that “war would look just wonderful” if Vonnegut chose not to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers fighting in the wars. To honor Mrs. O’Hare’s request that he not inappropriately glorify war, Vonnegut promises to include the subtitle “The Children’s Crusade.”

Who is the narrator?

Vonnegut is the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five. From the very first chapter, Vonnegut establishes himself as a character in his own novel, and he explicitly details his plans for the story to come, even going so far as to list the first and last lines of Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut explains that he was actually a prisoner of war during the Dresden bombing, adding a layer of truth to his later descriptions of Billy Pilgrim in Dresden. Besides the first and last chapters in which he speaks autobiographically, Vonnegut only periodically inserts himself into Billy’s story. He chooses to reveal his presence most often through the repetitive phrase “so it goes” after every mention of death. This commentary blurs the distinction between Vonnegut as the narrator, a character, and the author.

What does the epigraph mean?

Before the novel begins, Vonnegut quotes four lines from the Christmas carol “Away In A Manger” to draw a comparison between Billy Pilgrim and Jesus Christ. Just as the quoted carol describes “the little Lord Jesus” not crying at all, Vonnegut describes Billy as crying very little, “though he often saw things worth crying about.” The only time Billy cries in the war is when he sees the miserable condition of the horses, but he somehow refrains from crying about every other tragedy he encounters, including the bombing of Dresden. In Chapter Nine, Vonnegut breaks the fourth wall and explicitly explains that he chose this epigraph to reveal how little emotion Billy showed in the war.

Why is Billy upset when he sees the barbershop quartet?

A barbershop quartet performs a song at Billy and Valencia’s anniversary party, and Billy feels upset because the singers remind him of the German guards in Dresden. At first, Billy can “find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely,” and he flees upstairs to escape the party and control his unexpected emotions. Upon reflection, he realizes that the open-mouthed quartet resembled the expression he saw on the faces of the German guards when they first came out from underground to witness the destruction of Dresden. Apparently, Billy never processed this encounter, and his reaction to the quartet “was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside.”

Are the Tralfamadorians real?

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim claims to have been abducted by a race of aliens called Tralfamadorians who teach him a life philosophy that helps him let go of some of the traumas of war and allows him to travel through time. But do the Tralfamadorians actually exist, or are they simply a side effect of Billy’s trauma and increasingly addled mind? The Tralfamadorians are often described in ways that are suspiciously like already existing entities or experiences in Billy’s past. For instance, like the Germans, the Tralfamadorians abduct Billy, making him undress as the first act of his imprisonment. After Billy is taken prisoner in Dresden, a German soldier punches an American POW. When the POW asks why he was assaulted, another German answers, “Vy you? Vy anybody?” Likewise, when Billy asks the Tralfamadorians why they’ve chosen to abduct him, they answer, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?” The Tralfamadorians and their philosophy also bears resemblance to the alien species featured in Kilgore Trout’s science fiction novels, of which Billy is a fan.

However, despite these correlations, Slaughterhouse-Five does not treat the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s imagination. They are never confirmed to be either real or imagined, and their status remains ambiguous. Within the chaotic, strange world of the novel, that the Tralfamadorians are real seems just as likely as not. And for Billy, there is no question that the Tralfamadorians exist in one way or another, as they actively alter his perspective on life. Whether or not the Tralfamadorians actually exist is less important than their thematic purpose: introducing Billy to the philosophy of predeterminism.

Why doesn’t Billy Pilgrim cry during the war?

Despite witnessing unimaginable horrors, including numerous charred corpses of German civilians killed in the Dresden bombing, Billy Pilgrim cries only once during the war, upon seeing how he and his troops have unintentionally mistreated his horses. It’s clear that Billy suffers from what he experienced in WWII, but both during the war and later in life, he’s often unable to find a healthy outlet for his emotions. While the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians gives him some relief, it is made clear throughout the novel – particularly through the birds chirping “Poo-Tee-Weet?” after the bombing – that there are few to no words or expressions of emotion that can encapsulate the horrors of war. Keeping his emotions in check may have been necessary for Billy to mentally handle his wartime experiences, but tears may also have felt like too small a gesture for the magnitude of the atrocities of WWII.

Additionally, in the epigraph of the book, Jesus Christ is said to have not cried during his birth in the manger. This quote immediately connects Billy and Christ in their lack of tears, signifying that the two share a similar life journey.

Why do the Tralfamadorians look like toilet plungers? 

When Billy Pilgrim first shares his experiences with the Tralfamadorians, he describes them as “two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends.” The significance of the Tralfamadorians’ appearance is that they – sort of like a plunger – are going to free Billy from the depressing life perspectives that have been plaguing him. It’s clear from Billy’s experiences and behavior that he is struggling with trauma and wartime PTSD. He’s suffocated by horrific and distressing memories, but he doesn’t have an outlet for the heavy emotions that come with these remembrances. Kurt Vonnegut uses a bit of body humor to make an amusing allegory: Billy Pilgrim is “backed up” with emotions and trauma, and the Tralfmadorians and their philosophies are the plungers that are going to unclog him.

Is Billy Pilgrim a Christ figure?

In the epigraph of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut references Christ, and how he didn’t cry during his birth. Later in the novel, this passage is connected back to Billy Pilgrim, who also notably does not cry during the war. Billy – whose last name is a synonym for a spiritual journey – has a symbolic connection with Christ. Billy and Christ see terrible things during their time on Earth, and both are aware of the imminence and manner of their own deaths. In fact, even Billy’s timelessness seems relevant in a religious sense. The fact that he believes his death is not truly a death is particularly reminiscent of Christ. And, perhaps to not cry is to, like Christ, accept his duty and fate as a sacrifice to a cause greater than him.

However, Slaughterhouse-Five questions whether the narrative of Christ is truly helpful for humanity. Billy is no ordinary Christ-figure, because both Christianity and Billy’s philosophies are consistently scrutinized throughout the novel. Vonnegut strips both Billy and Christ of any romanticized notions of heroism, instead focusing on their vulnerable humanity: “Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.” In fact, the novel suggests that Christianity is, in some ways, a religion of cruelty; one of Kilgore Trout’s books even follows an alien who “made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” Slaughterhouse-Five critiques Christianity for seemingly taking no issue with sacrificing its own children to brutal wars. So, while Billy does share a lot of similarities with Christ, the novel does not regard him as a tragic hero but rather as simply another figure among many in a universe that doesn’t make sense and has no ultimate purpose.

Why does Slaughterhouse-Five utilize a non-linear narrative structure?

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy that their novels have “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” They are simply snapshots, with no necessary relation between scenes, that show life in its many complexities. Vonnegut is attempting to write his novel utilizing the structure of the Tralfamadorians. His plot and characters jump between time and space, settling on seemingly random scenes – some funny, some mundane, some beautiful, and some tragic.

Like the Tralfamadorians, Vonnegut does not believe that the final product will shed any sort of meaningful light on war, life, or why things are as they are. Billy’s pilgrimage is one of confusion, terror, flashbacks, and perhaps even insanity, if the Tralfamadorians are assumed to be only the imaginings of a traumatized mind. In the end, Vonnegut doesn’t have any answers when it comes to the chaos of Billy’s life. In fact, the novel ends with yet another question. The only thing that Vonnegut can truly offer when confronted with the jumbled mess that life is: “So it goes.” Vonnegut even remarks on the impossible task of writing a book that encapsulates war, saying, “I’ve finished my war book now . . . This one is a failure, and had to be.” While a more organized structure may have been easier to digest, it would have done a disservice to the subject matter of the book.