Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

“So It Goes”

The phrase “So it goes” follows every mention of death in the novel, equalizing all of them, whether they are natural, accidental, or intentional, and whether they occur on a massive scale or on a very personal one. The phrase reflects a kind of comfort in the Tralfamadorian idea that although a person may be dead in a particular moment, he or she is alive in all the other moments of his or her life, which coexist and can be visited over and over through time travel. At the same time, though, the repetition of the phrase keeps a tally of the cumulative force of death throughout the novel, thus pointing out the tragic inevitability of death.

The Presence of the Narrator as a Character

Vonnegut frames his novel with chapters in which he speaks in his own voice about his experience of war. This decision indicates that the fiction has an intimate connection with Vonnegut’s life and convictions. Once that connection is established, however, Vonnegut backs off and lets the story of Billy Pilgrim take over. Throughout the book, Vonnegut briefly inserts himself as a character in the action: in the latrine at the POW camp, in the corpse mines of Dresden, on the phone when he mistakenly dials Billy’s number. These appearances anchor Billy’s life to a larger reality and highlight his struggle to fit into the human world.

References to Christianity

Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrestles with Christianity and its teachings, particularly the violence and death that are woven into the central narrative of the New Testament. As such, references to Christianity abound – at times, the characters and narratives of the novel mirror those of the New Testament, but at others, the novel stands in stark opposition to Christian imagery. The use of Christianity as a motif is diverse: Billy is a unique sort of Christ-figure, his life struggle and his knowledge of his own death mirroring Christ’s journey;  Kilgore Trout’s rewriting of Christ’s crucifixion calls attention to Christianity’s moral code; and the Children’s Crusade, perhaps the most important reference, exposes how Christian society has been willing to allow their children to die in supposedly holy wars. These references and more serve to illustrate how the Abrahamic tradition shapes our perception of war and life. But Vonnegut aims to show how these perceptions are often faulty and hypocritical, and he suggests that the philosophy of Christianity is not a satisfactory one for attributing meaning or morals to human life.