- Study Guide
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s
Before you begin reading the novel
Before undertaking the novel, it makes sense to learn a little about the
author. Try this:
biographical notes at TheFreeDictionary.com: lots of explanatory
links to consult as needed
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.
- You might find interesting
Lothar Metzger's eyewitness account of the Dresden firebombing.
Some veterans' reactions to the event are featured at the Annenberg/CPB
History of World War II site at Learner.org. And, of course, a simple
Google search on the word pair Dresden firebombing will turn up lots
- As for the Battle of the Bulge, there is a lot of material on the web if
you're interested in learning more. A
Google search on the phrase will turn up a host of scholarly and
personal accounts. One of the best sites for a beginner would be the
one on the film PBS did on the
Battle of the Bulge as part of its American Experience Series
Issues to be mindful of as you read the
| (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
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
[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
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
- For more on these issues, see the agenda of curiosity set out in Item
(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:
- God grant me
- the serenity | to accept | the things I cannot change,
- courage | to change | the
things I can, and
- the wisdom | always to tell the difference
- Several facets of this wish are worthy of note:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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
- So some key issues this little pop-prayer brings to the table are
- What do the Trafalmadorians, and Billy, consider to be changeable
and what do they consider to not be changeable? (Can you cite the
- What does Vonnegut presumably consider to be changeable and what
does he presumably consider not to be changeable? (Can you cite
- 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])?
- Can you find any evidence, in the novel, that indicates, perhaps
indirectly, what Vonnegut might think on this issue?
- 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
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
- 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
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
- 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
"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
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
There are some quite thorough
book notes to the novel
by Erica Freund at BookRags.com. These may be more elaborate than you
- But highly useful in any case is her list of
annotations on objects and
places in the novel. This might be worth printing out and having on
hand to consult as you make your way through the novel.
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
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
Suggestions are welcome. Please send your comments to email@example.com
Contents copyright © 2004 by Lyman A.
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use;
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This page last updated
19 October 2004.