Slaughterhouse Five

Imagery is perhaps Vonnegut's most powerful literary tool in Slaughterhouse-Five. Explain the function of images in the book.

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First, take a look at the article cited below;


The Bird Who Says “Poo-tee-weet?”

The jabbering bird symbolizes the lack of anything intelligent to say about war. Birdsong rings out alone in the silence after a massacre, and “Poo-tee-weet?” seems about as appropriate a thing to say as any, since no words can really describe the horror of the Dresden firebombing. The bird sings outside of Billy’s hospital window and again in the last line of the book, asking a question for which we have no answer, just as we have no answer for how such an atrocity as the firebombing could happen.

The Colors Blue and Ivory

On various occasions in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy’s bare feet are described as being blue and ivory, as when Billy writes a letter in his basement in the cold and when he waits for the flying saucer to kidnap him. These cold, corpselike hues suggest the fragility of the thin membrane between life and death, between worldly and otherworldly experience.


Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

A lot of the imagery in Slaughterhouse-Five repeats across sections and in different contexts. For example, the narrator describes his own breath when he is drunk as "mustard gas and roses" (1.3.2) – which is what his dog, Sandy, specifically does not smell like (1.4.14). This is also the odor of the corpses at Dresden a couple days after the firebombing, which Billy Pilgrim discovers as he digs through the rubble of the city in Chapter 10. This repetition of description serves to connect the "Billy Pilgrim" portion of the novel with the narrator's own personal memories and experiences.

Other examples of repetition of imagery include descriptions of characters "nestled like spoons": Billy and the hobo/private in the prison boxcar (3.29.3), Billy and his wife Valencia (4.1.2), and the American soldiers on the floor of the shed in the British compound (6.10.1) all nestle like spoons as they sleep.

There is also Billy's "ivory and blue" (4.1.4) bare feet as he walks barefoot through his Ilium, New York home, the "blue and ivory claw" (4.5.1) of his cold hand clinging to the vent in his boxcar on the way to a German POW center, and the "blue and ivory" (6.16.4) feet of the dead hobo lying outside the train that will take Billy to Dresden.

The repetition of these phrases – mustard gas and roses, nestled like spoons, and blue and ivory – demonstrates that no part of this story is isolated from any other. Each section, as brief as it may be, fits into a larger consideration of wartime and its aftermath. (By the way, for a discussion of the most famous repeated phrase in the whole book, "So it goes," check out our section on the theme of "Fate and Free Will.")