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Main Ideas


Main Ideas Tone

Overall, the tone of Slaughterhouse-Five is resigned, detached, and gently mocking. However, the tone shifts with the point of view. During the first and last chapters, when the author is speaking directly to the reader in the first person, the tone is familiar and self-deprecating. “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time,” Vonnegut writes in Chapter 1. In this moment, Vonnegut seems to be confiding in the reader. This confession makes him appear sympathetic because it takes him, as the author, off of a pedestal. What’s more, he calls Slaughterhouse-Five a “lousy little book.” This shows he does not have a high opinion of the novel or perhaps even of himself as an author. This familiar and self-deprecating tone of Chapter 1 helps Vonnegut establish himself as a trustworthy narrator.

In Chapter 1, Vonnegut establishes the other aspects of the tone that stay consistent throughout the novel: resignation, detachment, and gentle mocking. Resignation is most clearly visible in the novel’s refrain, “So it goes.” Vonnegut repeats “so it goes” anytime he recounts a death or otherwise tragic incident. This refrain ties into the theme of the illusion of free will as it displays the narrator’s acceptance of the inevitability of death. It also relates to the theme of the destructiveness of war, which is so pervasive that the narrator now simply sees death and destruction as given and inevitable. The repetition of “[s]o it goes” also contributes to the detached tone. Rather than focusing on the emotional effects of a specific death, the narrator simply says, “So it goes.” Vonnegut’s tone is also gently mocking. This aspect of the tone is noticeable when he describes the British POWs in the German camp in Chapter 5. The British prisoners are “darling elves” putting “party favors” out while dressed “half for battle, half for tennis or croquet.”

Vonnegut’s tone changes with the point of view shift to the third person and Billy Pilgrim’s story. The tone, though still resigned, detached, and mocking, no longer reads as familiar or confiding. Instead, Vonnegut adopts a specific tone that he reserves for Billy, one that reflects an amused contempt. In Chapter 2, he describes Billy as a “funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.” Instead of showing sympathy for Billy’s awkward appearance, Vonnegut makes light of it. Although Vonnegut makes sure to distance himself from Billy and his ideas by noting “Billy said” or “Billy thinks,” the two seem to have had a nearly identical experience of the war. In this way, Billy seems to be a stand-in for Vonnegut in the narrative. With this reading, Vonnegut’s specific contempt for Billy could be read as redirected contempt for himself.