Slaughterhouse 5 Themes Essay, Research Paper
The Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five
The first theme of Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the
most obvious, is the war and its contrast with love, beauty,
humanity, innocence etc. Slaughterhouse-Five, like Vonnegut’s
previous books, manages to tell us that war is bad for us and
that it would be better for us to love one another. To find the
war’s contrast with love is quite difficult, because the book
doesn’t talk about any couple that was cruelly torn apart by the
war (Billy didn’t seem to love his wife very much, for example.)
V onnegut expresses it very lightly, uses the word “love” very
rarely, yet effectively. He tries to look for love and beauty in
things that seemingly are neither lovely nor beautiful. For
example, when Billy was captured by the group of Germans, he
didn’t see them as a cruel enemy, but as normal, innocent people.
“Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the
face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy. The boy was as
beautiful as Eve.” (Vonnegut 1969 p.53).
An interesting contrast in Vonnegut’s books is the one
between men and women. Male characters are often engaging in
fights and wars, and females try to prevent them from it. The
woman characters are often mentally strong, have strong will, and
are very humane and loving. A good example is Vonnegut’s dialogue
in the first chapter, when he talks with his old friend O’Hare in
front of O’Hare’s wife:
Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she
was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking
to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much
larger conversation. ‘You were just babies then!’ she
‘What?’ I said.
‘You were just babies in the war–like the ones
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish
virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
‘But you’re not going to write it that way, are
you.’ This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
‘I – I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Well, I know,’ she said. ‘You’ll pretend you
were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the
movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those
other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will
look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.
And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies
So then I understood. It was war that made her so
angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s
babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly
encouraged by books and movies. (ibid p. 14-15)
Another place where Vonnegut expresses the previously mentioned
qualities of women is the part where Billy becomes “slightly
unstuck in time” and watches the war movie backwards:
When the bombers got back to their base, the
steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped
back to the United States of America, where factories
were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders,
separating the dangerous contents into minerals.
Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. (ibid
In reality, of course, the women were building the weapons
instead of dismantling them.
The most often expressed theme of the book, in my opinion,
is that we, people, are “bugs in amber.” The phrase first appears
when Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorian flying saucer:
‘Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,’ said the
loudspeaker. ‘Any questions?’
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired
at last: ‘Why me?’
‘That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr.
Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?
Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs
trapped in amber?’
‘Yes.’ Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his
office which was a blob of polished amber with three
lady-bugs embedded in it.
‘Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the
amber of this moment. There is no why.’ (ibid p.76-77).
This rather extraterrestrial opinion can be interpreted as our
being physically stuck in this world, that we don’t have any
choice over what we, mankind as a whole, do and what we head for.
The only thing we can do is think about everything, but we won’t
affect anything. This idea appears many times throughout the
novel. This is one of the examples, when Billy proposes marriage
Billy didn’t want to mary ugly Valencia. She was
one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going
crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her,
when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his
companion for life, (ibid p.107).
This excerpt directly shows that Billy didn’t like Valencia very
much and that he actually didn’t want to marry her. However, he
was “stuck in amber”. Or, for example, Billy knew the exact time
when he would be killed, yet didn’t try to do anything about it.
Anyway, he couldn’t have changed it. The death bears comparison
with mankind’s fate. The main thing Vonnegut probably wanted
people to think about has something to do with wars on Earth.
Vonnegut says so in the part where Billy discusses the pro blems
about wars with the Tralfamadorians (p.117). They tell him that
everything is structured the way it is and that trying to prevent
war on Earth is stupid. This means that there always will be wars
on Earth, that we, people, are “designed” that way. There might
be people striving for eternal peace, but those people must be
very naive and probably don’t know humankind’s nature. We know
that wars are bad and we would like to stop them, but we are
“stuck in amber.”
This point of view also might explain why there are no
villains or heroes in Vonnegut’s books. According to Ernest W.
Ranly, all the characters are “Comic, pathetic pieces, juggled
about by some inexplicable faith, like puppets,” (Riley 1974
p.454). If there is no-one to take the blame for the bad
happenings in the book, it can only mean that the villain is God
Himself (”or Herself or Itself or Whatever” – from Vonnegut’s
Hocus Pocus, 1990). God Almighty had to be the one who put us
into the amber, who had created us the way we are.
There are almost no characters in this story, and
almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the
people in it are so sick and so much the listless
playthings of enormous forces, (Vonnegut 1969 p.164).
Another theme of the novel is that there is no such thing
as a soldier. There is only a man, but never a soldier. A soldier
is not a human being any more. Vonnegut expresses this most
obviously in this extract from the time when Billy was imprisoned
When the three fools found the communal kitchen,
whose main job was to make lunch for workers in the
slaughterhouse, everybody had gone home but one woman
who had been waiting for them impatiently. She was a war
widow. So it goes. She had her hat and coat on. She
wanted to go home, too, even though there wasn’t anybody
there. Her white gloves were laid out side by side on
the zinc counter top.
She had two big cans of soup for the Americans.
It was simmering over low fires on the gas range. She
had stacks of loaves of black bread, too.
She asked Gluck if he wasn’t awfully young to be
in the army. He admitted that he was.
She asked Edgar Derby if he wasn’t awfully old to
be in the army. He said he was.
She asked Billy Pilgrim what he was supposed to
be. Billy said he didn’t know. He was just trying to
‘All the real soldiers are dead,’ she said. It
was true. So it goes, (Vonnegut 1969 p.159).
Stanley Schatt said: “Vonnegut opposes any institution, be it
scientific, religious, or political, that dehumanizes man and
considers him a mere number and not a human being,” (Riley 1973
p.348) and I think that this attitude shows up in many other
books by Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano, Hocus Pocus etc.)
Another obvious theme of the book is that death is
inevitable and that no matter who dies, life still goes on. The
phrase “So it goes” recurs one hundred and six times: it appears
everytime anybody dies in the novel, and sustains the circular
quality of the book. It enables the book, and thus Vonnegut’s
narration, to go on. It must have been hard writing a book about
such an experience and it probably helped the author to look upon
death through the eyes of Tralfamadorians:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he
thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in
the particular moment, but that the same person is just
fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear
that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the
Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it
goes,’ (ibid p.27).
The Main Message of the novel
As you noticed, the book has different messages; everybody
may see something else as its main meaning. I think that Vonnegut
wanted to tell us, the readers, that no matter what happens, we
should retain our humanity. We should not let anybody or anything
reign upon our personalities, be it a god, be it a politician or
anybody else. We should be ourselves – human and humane beings.
I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel
room for tales of great destruction. The sun was risen
upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read. Then
the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone
and fire from Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those
cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of
the cities, and that which greaw upon the ground.
So it goes.
Those were vile people in both those cities, as
is well known. The world was better off without them.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look
back where all those people and their homes had been.
But she did look back, and I love her for that, because
it was so human.
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it
goes, (Vonnegut 1969 p.21-22).
Brifonski and Mendelson (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.8
Detroit: 1978; Gale Research Co
Riley, Carolyn (Editor); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.1
Detroit: 1973; Gale Research Co
Riley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.2
Detroit: 1974; Gale Research Co
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.; Slaughterhouse-Five; or Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death
New York: 1971; Dell Publishing