Slaughterhouse Five

Literary significance

Literary techniques

The story continually employs the refrain "So it goes" when death, dying and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori, as comic relief and to explain the unexplained. It appears 106 times.[6][7]

As a postmodern, metafictional novel, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five and apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled," because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." As in Mother Night but more extensively, Vonnegut manipulates fiction and reality. The first sentence says: "All this happened, more or less." (In 2010, that sentence was ranked No. 38 on the American Book Review's list of "100 best first lines")[8] The author later appears in Billy Pilgrim's World War II as another sick prisoner, which the narrator notes by saying: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book".

The story repeatedly refers to real and fictional novels and fiction; Billy reads The Valley of the Dolls (1966), skims a Tralfamadorian novel, and participates in a radio talk show, part of a literary-expert panel discussing "The Death of the Novel."


The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the novel. The story begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fiction. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction.[9] The story purports to be a disjointed narrative, from Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.

The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, so that he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads: Billy's experience of war (interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life), which is mostly linear, and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy's existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden's destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden.[10] Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences, that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.[11]

Point of view and setting

The narrator begins the novel telling of his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a description of self, book and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to the story of Billy Pilgrim: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", thus the transition from the writer's perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient narrator. The use of "Listen" as an opening interjection mimics the epic poem Beowulf.

Kilgore Trout, whom Billy Pilgrim meets operating a newspaper delivery business, can be seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, though the two differ in some respects. Trout's career as a science-fiction novelist is checkered with thieving publishers and the fictional author is unaware of his readership.

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