A study of the novel produces the following Slaughterhouse Five theme.
Theme: The Destructiveness of War
Comments: The central and unifying event in the novel is the fire bombing and complete destruction of Dresden during World War II. Compare the city’s description before and after the bombing:
- Before: “The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuos and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim.” (148). Vonnegut referred to it as “Oz.” (148).
- After: “Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves. “It was like the moon,” said Billy Pilgrim. (179).
The destruction of Dresden symbolizes the destruction of individuals who fought in the war, in addition to the millions who died. This destruction of men includes those like Billy Pilgrim who are not able to function normally because of the experience.
Free Will vs. Determinism
A further study of the novel produces the following Slaughterhouse Five theme
Theme: The Illusion of Free Will
Comments: The illusion of free will is brought to light by the intrusion of the Tralfamadorians in Billy’s life and Billy’s becoming unstuck in time. According to the Tralfamadorians, every moment is the way it is and nothing can change it. Billy uses this explanation to escape from reality, a reality that has completely removed his dignity and left him scarred.
It is important not to confuse the Tralfamadorian view with that of the author. The scene in which Billy becomes partially unstuck in time and watches a movie backwards illustrates a cause and effect relationship, the type of relationship the Tralfamadorians consider absurd.
A more accurate interpretation of free will in the novel is that individuals are free to choose, but their decisions cannot change the inevitability of certain events–war and death, for example
Sight and Billy Pilgrim
Theme: The Importance of Seeing Things as They Are
Comments: Vonnegut attempts to see the destruction of Dresden logically before concluding “It (the novel) is so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” (2). The novel’s plot structure reflects the inability to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Billy’s profession is symbolic and ironic. He presents several lenses from which to view time, war, and reality. He also fails to see things as they are, escaping into a world of Science Fiction, in which nothing he does or sees has cause or effect.
This post is part of the series: Study Guide for Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Time travel is of no use on your next class discussion. This study guide is.