Study Guide
to
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five

Before you begin reading the novel

Before undertaking the novel, it makes sense to learn a little about the author.  Try this:

The novel is centered around the time-travel experiences of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who is based on, but not to be taken as identical with, Vonnegut himself.  Two intense personal experiences that Vonnegut reworks into Billy Pilgrim's life are his capture by the Germans in the World War II Battle of the Bulge and his witnessing of the firebombing of Dresden, where he had been taken as a POW. 

You might want to get acquainted with these events before you embark on the novel.  The links above are a good place to start.  Eventually you may want to learn more. 


Issues to be mindful of as you read the novel

(1) Key to the novel is the opening section in which, apparently, the author speaks in his own voice about a visit he made to talk with an old war buddy Barnard V. O'Hare as he was completing the manuscript for the novel.  It explains how the novel came to be outfitted with its subtitle ("Or The Children's Crusade | A Duty-Dance with Death") and how it came to be dedicated to O'Hare's wife.  This section makes explicit the author's purpose in writing the novel, as well as his skepticism about whether there is any hope it might contribute to its intended effect.

[The chapter itself provides you with the essential information you need to understand this allusion.  But, hey, one reason to read is to discover windows upon history you might want to explore one day.  Just in case, I've cooked up a page with links to information on The Children's Crusade, some of which you might be moved to explore.]

A striking fact about the film is that it dispenses with this "frame" narrative.

(2) As you read the novel, be alert for the signs it posts as to what episode the author decides to cast in the role of the climax of the work. 

  • How (if it does) does this decision accord with the announced purpose of the novel as a whole?
  • The film settles upon a different episode as its climactic moment.  How does this affect a viewer's conception of the overall theme of the film?

(3) Similarly, you'll want to contrast the way Vonnegut chooses to conclude his novel with the way George Roy Hill chooses to conclude the film.

  • How do these choices affect the sense we make of these works as a whole?

(4) Here is something that might help to bring these three formal features into thematic focus:

Billy Pilgrim's view of history is what he takes from the Trafalmadorians.  This view is resolutely deterministic.  (See how this is so?) 

As such, it appears inconsistent with the frame narrative's indication of Vonnegut's purpose in writing the novel.  (Can you see how this is so?)

One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to interpret Billy Pilgrim's time travel as hallucinatory, and his Trafalmadorian beliefs about history as a refuge, by a sensitive human being, from on the one hand the terror and on the other hand the spirit-stultifying boredom of the actual history that he has lived through, which his sensibility finds unbearable.  A measure, in other words, of the horrific inhumanity of modern war, and of the empty materialism of modern life, is (on this interpretation) that it is capable of driving a decent human being into protective madness.  At the same time, such a reading leaves history open to change by deliberate human action, for example, the appeal by an individual of conscience to other individuals of conscience who, through concerted action, might be able to prevent the recurrence of war and to invent a more humane social life than we see in middle-class Ilium.

Given the differences just pointed to between the novel and the film, the question arises:  does the film leave its viewers with a conviction that history is open to human agency?  Or does it leave us with the sense that nothing can be done to prevent a future that is in effect "already written," as the Trafalmadorians hold?  Is the sane human response to the human condition social action?  Or is it the aesthetic contemplation of "happy moments" as a mode of amnesia towards the unavoidable ugliness of the rest of what is?

  • For more on these issues, see the agenda of curiosity set out in Item (6), below.

(5) Or consider the prayer Billy has framed on his office wall in his optometry practice.  (This is in section 12 of Chapter 3:  p. 77 in the Delta trade paperback edition; p. 60 in the Dell mass paperback edition.)  Note that it breaks down into 4 parts, which we'll emphasize here by changing the formatting:

  1. God grant me
  2. the serenity  | to accept  | the things I cannot change,
  3. courage       | to change  | the things I can, and
  4. the wisdom  | always to tell the difference
  • Several facets of this wish are worthy of note:
    1. Although a place seems to be made for human agency (item 3 is about making changes), the ultimate emphasis even here is on the passivity of the petitioner:  he or she is powerless, in himself/herself, to muster the three necessities (including the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish what is changeable from what is not):  it's all up to God, on whose decision the petitioner's abilities are dependent, and must wait.  (2, 3 and 4 are all governed by 1.)
    2. Ultimately, the value of both serenity (in resignation) and courage (in opposition) depend on wisdom:  if we confuse what we cannot change with what we can -- mistaking what we can change for what we can't, or what we cannot change for what we can -- our serenity or courage is misplaced.
    3. The framework in which change, if possible, is imagined is implicitly individual:  from the way the prayer is phrased, we would suppose that the change that concerns us is what the particular single person who utters the prayer is able to accomplish by his own efforts.
  • So some key issues this little pop-prayer brings to the table are
    1. What do the Trafalmadorians, and Billy, consider to be changeable and what do they consider to not be changeable?  (Can you cite the evidence?)
    2. What does Vonnegut presumably consider to be changeable and what does he presumably consider not to be changeable?  (Can you cite the evidence?)
    3. What place, if any, does concerted action (social co-operation, collective effort) have in effecting significant change in the social, historical domain -- for example, in restraining war, or in devising ways of life that are humanly fulfilling, instead of trivial and mechanical (for example, devoted to consumption of commodities and to social climbing [getting into the country club and the like])?
      1. Can you find any evidence, in the novel, that indicates, perhaps indirectly, what Vonnegut might think on this issue?
      2. Here's a statement you might find interesting:  Vonnegut's acceptance speech on the occasion of his being given the Carl Sandburg Literary Award by the Friends of the Chicago Library.  Keep in mind, though, that it's much later (2001) than the novel (1969) -- and that it's not a part of the novel.  (It's possible that Vonnegut's views have significantly changed since he wrote the novel, or that, if not,  he deliberately kept this aspect of his worldview out of the novel, for one reason or another.)

 

(6) A simple but potentially richly suggestive device Vonnegut uses to tie together episodes separated in time and place is motif.  You might find it useful to print off a list of important motifs in Slaughterhouse-Five.  Keep it on-hand, and use it to jot down page references to episodes where these ideas turn up.  What associations and connotations accrete around each?

 

(7) What parallels do you notice between Billy's experiences in Germany and his experiences with the Trafalmadorians?  (And how about his experience with learning to swim?)  What do these similarities suggest?

 

(8) What are the chief features that distinguish Trafalmadorian art from other kinds of verbal art?

Vonnegut's novel certainly appears to be very different from a traditional novel, not least in its plotting.  In Chapter 1 the character who appears to be the novelist himself speaks of himself in a tone of ironic self-deprecation:  "As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times.  The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper."  He then goes on to describe in detail this outline.

  • Does this outline fit the novel that you end up reading?
  • Is Vonnegut concerned with suspense?  If not, how does he keep you, the reader, interested in reading on to the next sentence, the next page?
    • Has he dispensed with "climaxes and thrills"?  (Can we have a climax without suspense?  If so, how might this work?)
      • What are we to make of the repeated discussion that comes up, in the course of the novel, about what is to serve as its climax?  Is it that Vonnegut eventually decides against having a climax?  Or does a particular episode pretty well end up serving as a climax?  (If so, does he seem to change his mind in the course of the novel as to which episode this will be?)
  • Is Vonnegut unconcerned with characterization?  Or is his point rather that his characterization of his protagonist (and other characters) is fairly simple -- flat rather than round, and static rather than dynamic?

Is Vonnegut's novel itself an example of Trafalmadorian art? 

  • Consider the description of Trafalmadorian books that we encounter in section 3 of Chapter 5.
    • Does this description seem to fit what we find in Slaughterhouse-Five itself?
    • Can you see the connection between the content, form, purpose and assumptions behind these Trafalmadorian works of literary art and the kind of consolation that Billy offers the boy who has lost his father in Vietnam (in the final section of Chapter 5)?
      • Does the Slaughterhouse-Five the novel seem designed to afford us a similar consolation?  Or does it seem calculated to evoke a different sort of response?
    • You might find interesting a excerpt from The Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography on the "Trafalmadorian Structure of Slaughterhouse-Five".  Don't take it as gospel.  Test its claims and inferences against the facts of the novel and against your own judgment.

Could it be that Vonnegut's work itself is neither a traditional novel nor an instance of Trafalmadorian art, but something different from each?

  • The challenge here would be to try to point to the relevant contrasts, and then to imagine why these might be thematically important, in terms of the indications the novel gives about its reason for being.

 

(9) When you finish the novel, return to the epigraph between the dedication and the beginning of Chapter 1.  What would you imagine to be the frame of mind in which Vonnegut put this passage from a famous Christmas carol here?

 


Resources on the novel

There are some quite thorough book notes to the novel by Erica Freund at BookRags.com.  These may be more elaborate than you need. 

Here are some places where you can see other people's reactions to the novel.  I strongly advise postponing a look at them until you've read the novel yourself, and formed your own initial impression of it.  In any case, before you spend time on these, be sure to see what your classmates are thinking on the course Message Board.  And put in some questions, comments, replies of your own.


Resources on the film

Here are some useful items focusing on the film.  Consider whether you might want to experience the film directly first, without knowing exactly what's coming, and then consult one or more of these later, as an aid to collecting your thoughts.  (The other approach, of course, is to dispense with suspense and bring a copy of Erlich's study guide, for example, along with you to the showing, for making notes on as the film unwinds.  My own view is that the film is quite intelligible -- and besides, you know something of how things jump around, and what the jumping around is between and among, if you've already read the novel, as I hope you will have done.)


More on Vonnegut

Several excellent starting places are listed in our course page of links.  


  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu

  Contents copyright 2004 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 19 October 2004.