Study Guide for Slaughterhouse-Five [novel]

1. Brief Bibliography (arranged by date)

You might want to look at one or more of the following works:

  1. Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. A brief (96-p.) introduction to Vonnegut. (In Methuen's "Contemporary Writers" series. Note that another pamphlet on Vonnegut is out from Borgo Press--such pamphlets are good works for beginning one's studies, but necessarily too brief for detailed examination of any one work.)
  2. Morsberger, Katherine M. "Slaughterhouse-Five." In Survey of Science Fiction Literature. Frank N. Magill, ed. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1979, V, 2101-6.
  3. The "Master Plots" essay-review of Sh-5, with basic information on the novel (which I depend upon below), brief summary and analysis, and brief lists of "Sources for Further Study" and "Reviews."
  4. Klinkowitz, Jerome, and Donald L. Lawler. Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Works of Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Dell (Delta), 1977. Includes a chronology of KV's life and works, eight essays, "The Vonnegut Bibliography" (including secondary works on Vonnegut's art), and an appendix on "Vonnegut Abroad" ("A Note on Vonnegut in Europe" by Klinkowitz and "Kurt Vonnegut as an American Dissident: His Popularity in the Soviet Union and His Affinities with Russian Literature" by Donald M. Fiene).
  5. Tilton, John W. Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel. Lewisburgh, PA: Bucknell U. Press, 1977, esp. pp. 69-105.
  6. Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976, esp. pp. 81-96.
  7. Wymer, Thomas L. "The Swiftian Satire of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." In Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: BGU Popular Press, 1976, I, 238-62. Possibly the definitive essay on Sh-5 and certainly the primary source for my understanding of Sh-5--and of my comments below. Wymer continues his study of Vonnegut in "Machines and the Meaning of Human in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." in The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, ed. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), pp. 42-52.
  8. Klinkowitz, Jerome, and John Somer. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Dell (Delta), 1973. Thirteen essays on Vonnegut and his work, including Glenn Meeter's "Vonnegut's Formal and Moral Otherworldliness: Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five"; "The Vonnegut Bibliography" (including secondary works, to ca. 1972).
  9. Reed, Peter J. Writers for the Seventies: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1972.
  10. Tanner, Tony. "The Uncerain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Critical Quarterly, 11 (1969), 297-315; rpt. Tanner, City of Words . . . . New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
  11. For further readings, see Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983); the yearly MLA Bibliography; Klinkowitz's bibliographies cited above; the notes in the works listed; and the standard SF reference tools:

    Science Fiction Criticism: An Annotated Checklist. Thomas D. Clareson, compiler. Kent, OH: KSU Press, 1972.

    The Year's Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy: 1972-1975. Marshall B. Tymn and Roger C. Schlobin, compilers. Kent, OH: KSU Press, 1979. "The Year's Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy." Marshall B. Tymn and Roger C. Schlobin, compilers. In the journal Extrapolation, 1976-79. "The Year's Scholarship" appears as an annual monograph from KSU Press for 1980 and 1981 and then returns to Extrapolation.

2. General Information on Slaughterhouse-Five (Sh-5)

Subtitle:

"The Children's Crusade," added to that, "A Duty-Dance with Death." Further identified as a work by a World War II POW who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, "'The Florence of the Elbe,'" and as written "Somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from." (The title-page entry ends with the traditional greeting-farewell of "Peace.")

Setting:

Germany, Luxembourg, the USA, and a zoo on Tralfamadore (a planet that may exist only in the mind of Billy Pilgrim).

Time:

1922-13 Feb. 1976, primarily (the birth and death of Billy Pilgrim), with allusions to various events from shortly after the beginning of the universe (Adam and Eve) to the destruction of the universe.

Tense:

Usually past tense, but with occasional present. (Note changes in tense; where Time is important, tense changes should be important.)

Point of View:

Complex. In the "frame" in the first and beginning of the last chapters, first-person-protagonist narration; in the story of Billy Pilgrim, mostly third-person, omniscient narration, "over the shoulder" of Billy--but with occasional references to "KV" (Vonnegut as character), when he was there, near Billy but never meeting Billy.

Major Characters:

(after Morsberger; + next to character's name indicates that that person's death is narrated in Sh-5):

    1. "KV": Vonnegut as narrator and character
    2. Bernard V. O'Hare: World War II (WWII) buddy to Vonnegut and "KV"
    3. Mary O'Hare: Wife to B.V.O. and enemy of the glorification of war
    4. Billy Pilgrim (usually "Billy"): a man who became unstuck in time--or who simply became "unstuck"--in 1944, the antiheroic protagonist
    5. Valencia Merble: rich, fat, unattractive woman Billy Pilgrim marries; the marriage guarantees Billy Pilgrim's comfort and, perhaps, proves his madness
    6. Barbara and Robert Pilgrim: daughter and son to Billy Pilgrim and Valencia
    7. Montana Wildhack: beautiful actress of Billy Pilgrim's (erotic) dreams, with whom Billy Pilgrim is mated on Tralfamadore (assuming Billy Pilgrim "really" is on Tralfamadore)
    8. Paul Lazzaro: POW with Billy Pilgrim and murderer of Billy Pilgrim
    9. Roland Weary: American weirdo who is captured with Billy Pilgrim
    10. Edgar Derby: decent American high school teacher who is executed for looting at Dresden
    11. Eliot Rosewater: SF fan in bed next to Billy Pilgrim's in mental ward of veterans' hospital
    12. Kilgore Trout: prolific and utterly unsuccessful writer of SF stories, who has good ideas--but who may give Billy Pilgrim a terrible idea
    13. Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: Official Historian of U.S. Air Force
    14. Tralfamadorians: Intelligent creatures from the planet Tralfamadore, who capture Billy Pilgrim and display him and M. Wildhack in their zoo--"really" or only in Billy Pilgrim's mind.

Plot:

Mostly the life story of Billy Pilgrim, framed with "KV's" story.

Conflicts:

  1. Billy's ironic, antiheroic "victory" in remaining metaphorically unborn, asleep, unconscious, dead--and as free as he can manage from responsibility and pain.
  2. "KV's" (and Vonnegut's) successful struggle to bear witness to the horror of the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Theme:

"War is hell and all its glory moonshine," to quote Gen. Sherman, is as good as I can come up with. We can add to that the theme of human responsibility. Even if we are machines, we can struggle to be human machines, looking back on the past and striving to at least do less harm in the present and future (after Wymer).

Moral:

If Tom Wymer is correct, and I think he is, Vonnegut -- not just "KV" -- states his moral more or less directly:

    I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. (19; ch. 1)

If Vonnegut's advice seems obvious, consider the radical implications of every parent's giving such advice -- and of every child's taking such advice.

Theological Points:

  1. Vonnegut is not a Christian or even a theist; he may use traditional religious images (etc.) in untraditional ways.
  2. The Tralfamadorian view of time is Godlike; traditional theology holds that God's foreknowing what we (will) do does not determine what we (will) do.

Historical Point:

Sh-5 has the honor of being one of the novels most often removed from American libraries and in other ways censored. Consider why that might be so. Vonnegut has said that his politics are mostly what he learned in high school civics class, and, if his class was like mine, that assessment seems quite accurate. Still, be sure you figure out the several ways in which Sh-5 is a subversive book, starting with its dim view of massacres in even good causes and working down clear to Vonnegut's diction: he uses "dirty" words. Note very well (=N.M.B.) that conditioning people to follow linguistic norms is part of our general training in conformity and obedience and that one way to start deconditioning people is to get them to violate those norms. Note also that moralists sometimes and satirists often resort to very strong language and to "dirty" words as part of a strategy of shocking their audiences into the recognition of moral responsibility, which is sometimes opposed to conformity, obedience, manners, and even (mere) civility.

Organizing Question (mostly for courses existential and/or absurdist):

Is Billy Pilgrim a hero amidst the absurd? An anti-hero amidst the absurd? Is his "answer" to what to do in an absurd world to quit--to find himself a womb with a view of Tralfamadore, and with Montana Wildhack? Does he live by Tralfamadorian philosophy even before he learns of (or makes up) the planet Tralfamadore? Does Billy start out a victim of forces beyond his control and then become, in his passive little way, an agent for such forces? (See Wymer article, and his use of the work of Tony Tanner.)

3. Brute Force Criticism (page references from the 1971 Dell rpt.)

Title Page

See above, and note well (=N.B.) how Vonnegut describes himself and his book.

Dedication

To a woman who would protect babies (both literal babies and young men) and to the cab driver KV and B. O'Hare met in Dresden.

Epigraph

Repeated ch. 9, p. 197. Consider how Billy Pilgrim is both like and unlike the Christ child; N.B. that the "Baby" awakes.

Chapter One

pp. 1-2: The "I" introduces himself and his book (again). "If the accident will": I'm not sure what this means, but it is antithetical to the determinist philosophy of the Tralfamadorians.

pp. 2-3: Apparently the Dresden memory has been as useless to "Vonnegut" as the penis in the limerick has become for its "owner"; does the limerick have any significance beyond that? (Real question.) Note that the limerick does stress "fool," a word Vonnegut repeats often in Sh-5. If we're asked to play word association in Sh-5--and it is a very punny book--then the "fool/tool" association may be significant: later we're told explicitly that Billy Pilgrim is well hung, and he may be both a fool and a tool ("poor dumb schmuck" and a kind of passive but dangerous prick).

What is the function of the "Yon Yonson" song? For sure, it introduces us to a work from folk culture that is not linear but circles around on itself, as Sh-5 does (in a sense) and as the Tralfamadorian view of things says the universe does (in a different sense).

p. 3: If it makes no more sense to write an anti-war book than it makes to write "an anti-glacier book," why did Vonnegut write Sh-5--or is Sh-5 something other than an anti-war book?

4: Note the reference to "mustard gas and roses"; the phrase is repeated in other places in Sh-5.

pp. 4-5: Is the climax of Sh-5 the execution of Edgar Derby? If it is, where does the climax of Sh-5 occur? (How many times do we hear about "the execution of poor old Edgar Derby"?)

p. 6: N.M.B. the "So it goes" after the reference to the "dead people in the cellars of Dresden"; the phrase becomes a motif in Sh-5, and you should be sure you know its significance.

p. 7: I think this page has the first use of "babies"; note that word and its cognates--babies are important in Sh-5.

p. 8: KV says Vonnegut's father said that Vonnegut had never written a story with a villain in it. Is there a villain in Sh-5?

p. 9: Note "And so on" and "Three Musketeers" (here, the candy bar); these phrases also recur in Sh-5.

p. 11: Vonnegut gets in here a standard bit of folklore and antimilitarist propaganda: veterans who actually fought tend to be much less militaristic than those who are ignorant of war. Note also the secrecy of the Dresden raid; that becomes important later--in the real world as well as in Sh-5 (the "secret" bombings of Cambodia were something of a scandal during what's called "the Vietnam Era" and were significant for the following "Watergate" scandal, 1972 f.]).

pp. 14-16: The dedication cued you to pay close attention to the views of Mary O'Hare; do so--her ideas on books and movies and war and babies are important. The subtitle to Sh-5 cued you to pay careful attention to a Children's Crusade; do so here and later. (The historical Children's Crusade was a vicious fraud; subsequent, figurative "crusades" may have been--and may continue to be--just as vicious and fraudulent.)

pp. 17-18: The novel is moving toward the modern destruction of Dresden; KV puts that destruction into a historical context of destruction. Note also the juxtaposition of historical material with the idea of time and our ideas on past, present, and future.

p. 19: Again, here we get the moral of Sh-5, juxaposed to the assertion that ". . . there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." Only the birds speak after a massacre, and they only have an unintelligible question, "Poo-tee-weet?" Still, some of us might learn to say No when asked "to take part in massacres" or produce "massacre machinery." That might be something.

20-21: KV presents himself as trapped in time and a sort of slave to clocks and calendars; note this for later--in different ways we may all be stuck or unstuck in time.
I'm not sure what to make of the excerpt from Theodore Roethke, but it's quite suggestive: Billy Pilgrim may never really wake up, so in a sense he, too, wakes "to sleep" and is as slow as possible in waking; Billy Pilgrim's Tralfamadorian philosophy has him utterly fated, and he does not fear his fate--so long as it is fated and there's nothing he can do about it; Billy Pilgrim may learn nothing, which makes him quite different from someone who at least learns by going where he must. N.B. the idea that "The truth is death" and that "No art is possible without a dance with death"--see title page of Sh-5. Note also the idea of an obsession with time.

pp. 21-22: Lot's wife looks back upon the destruction of the wicked cities of the plain, and KV loves her for it and identifies with her looking back. Sh-5 is Vonnegut's looking back upon the destruction of Dresden, a wicked city (because its people went along with Nazism)--and looking back is a human thing to do. Can the Tralfamadorians look back? Does Billy Pilgrim do much remembering?

Chapter Two

p. 23: Vonnegut is completely ambiguous on how "real" Billy Pilgrim's time-travelling might be: "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. * * * He says." For our purposes, we might as well assume that Billy Pilgrim's time-travel is as real as any of the other fictional material in Sh-5, but keep in mind that that assumption is merely an assumption; time-travel is real for Billy Pilgrim, but Billy Pilgrim may be just "a senile widower" who is eminently unreliable.

pp. 23-27: A linear summary of Billy Pilgrim's life. Refer back to it if you get confused later.

p. 27: The central explanation for "So it goes": it's "what the Tralfama-dorians say about dead people." KV's usage is more general than even that. (Note also "And so on.")

pp. 28-29: Note the "blue and ivory" of Billy Pilgrim's feet; the colors are another motif in Sh-5. Note also what Billy Pilgrim thinks and believes his mission is; KV--and Vonnegut--may disagree.

p. 30: N.M.B. that Billy Pilgrim "first came unstuck in time" (if he did), "long before his trip to Tralfamadore"; he started his time-tripping when he was most miserable and most wanted to give up (see pp. 43 f.). The Tralfamadorians "were simply able to give him [Billy Pilgrim] insight into what was really going on"--or, they are Billy Pilgrim's mechanism for focusing his delusions, or they exist and are wrong about the nature of the universe, or they exist and are right about the nature of the Tralfamadorian universe but poor guides for the human universe. (All of the above? None?)

pp. 33-34: Introduction to Roland Weary. (Note brief discussion of "mother-fucker"; it may be as much of an explanation as Vonnegut will give us for his own use of "dirty" words. Having "motherfucker" yelled at him--Billy Pilgrim--"woke him up" [temporarily?].)

p. 34: N.M.B. that "Billy wanted to quit" and "could scarcely distinguish between sleep and wakefulness"--possibly Billy Pilgrim's general condition.

p. 39: Weary, Billy Pilgrim, and the two scouts are likened to "big, unlucky mammals," which, of course, "they were." If you see nonhuman animals as essentially machines, then this sentence may suggest that you should also see humans as machines (a Tralfamadorian view that Vonnegut takes seriously, but with very different conclusion from those of the Tralfamadorians).

pp. 40-41: Note the pornographic picture; aside from its intrinsic appeal to our purient interests, the picture shows up later and is introduced very shortly before Billy Pilgrim's first time trip. Also, Billy Pilgrim winds up in the zoo on Tralfamadore with a woman who knows a bit about pornography herself. (And the picture raises the question of "What is art?" The photographer who shot the picture may've died sooner than otherwise because he came up with an unacceptable answer to that question.)

pp. 42-43: "Weary's version of the true war story," which is false, is juxtaposed to what's happening to him "In real life," which is then juxtaposed to another Weary version of his "Three Musketeers" story--which is the lead-in the Billy Pilgrim's first time trip. (And all this, of course, is in a part of Sh-5 that is blatantly fictional, with only the indirect relation to Truth that is the duty of art.) If Weary here, is less than reliable, Billy Pilgrim may also not be reliable: he may have his own "version of the true . . . story."

The immediate intro. to Billy Pilgrim's first time trip is, "He was like a poet in the Parthenon" (Lord Byron?). He looks this way because he's scared, exhausted, and probably on the verge of giving up again. He may be about to find some "wonderful new"--and somewhat poetic?--"lies" to keep on living (see ch. 5, p. 101). Note what death and pre-birth are like.

pp. 43-44: The climax of Sh-5 is supposed to be the execution of Edgar Derby, and we soon learn of at least one other important execution. Billy Pilgrim's first swimming lesson "was like an execution." What is little Billy's response to being rescued from drowning? Does big Billy retain his early attitude (Note that going underwater can serve as an image of returning to the womb; so can dying.)

p. 45: Billy becomes "so vocal about flying saucers and traveling in time" after he "had his head broken in an airplane crash."

N.M.B. why Pvt. Slovik was executed. (If we are to avoid participation in massacres, must we challenge directly "the authority of the government"?)

p. 50: Billy Pilgrim goes on to become a respectable, rich citizen and president of his local Lions Club. Insofar as we identify with Billy Pilgrim and wish him well, we should be happy that he survives the war and becomes a success. Insofar as we note Billy Pilgrim's profound failings, we may see him going from being "a victim of outrageous fortune" to being "one of outrageous fortune's cruelest"--or at least most subtle and effective--"agents as well" (quoting Vonnegut's earlier novel, The Sirens of Titan [1959]; see Wymer, following Tanner).

p. 51: Billy Pilgrim rolls himself "into a ball" (fetal position?), and Weary moves to kick him in the spinal column, "the tube which had so many of Billy's important wires in it." Note this for Billy Pilgrim's attitude toward danger and for the possibility that at least our bodies are machines (an idea taught in some physiology courses at least until recently [I have a text you may come in and peruse]).
Billy Pilgrim and Weary are captured; at this point Billy Pilgrim is most obviously a "victim."

Chapter Three

p. 52: Note connection between war and sex; it'll recur. Note also the dog; dogs, especially barking dogs, also recur.

p. 53: Note reference to Adam and Eve; there's another reference to them in ch. 4, p. 75. Aside from completing the full time scheme of Sh-5--more or less Creation to the End of the Universe--what is the function of the Adam and Eve references?

p. 55: The German corporal gives Weary's boots "to the beautiful boy," which leads eventually to Weary's death. But Weary blames Billy Pilgrim for killing him; Lazzaro gives his word to revenge Weary, and ultimately Lazzaro kills Billy. Hence, Billy Pilgrim's death springs from this act of kindness by the corporal to the boy. Ignoring for a moment the possibility that Billy Pilgrim foreknows his death and does nothing to avoid it--might we see here a kind of determinism that can exist even if the Tralfamadorian view of the universe is false: a chain of cause and effect that requires only human stupidity and stubborness in seeking vengeance for real or imagined injuries?

p. 56: Billy Pilgrim seems to suffer from mild narcolepsy. Is that an appropriate disease for him to have?

p. 57: Note the bumper stickers; another sticker is mentioned in ch. 9(183). Is Billy Pilgrim politically active enough to even select his own bumper stickers? Are those stickers appropriate for a man of Billy Pilgrim's age and class? (NOTE: Supporting local police departments was more controversial in 1969 than it may've been when you reached political consciousness [assuming you've done so]; a number of local police forces had worked hard--sometimes violently--to suppress dissent, and "Law 'n' Order" was becoming a code for repression.)

Billy wonders "Where have all the years gone?" In ch. 2, his mother had asked how she could've gotten so old (44), and KV discusses his own aging.

Billy tries "hard to care" about the fate of European optometrists; do you think he succeeds in caring? What, if anything, does Billy Pilgrim care about?

p. 59: Why doesn't Billy Pilgrim talk with the black man in the Ilium ghetto?

pp. 59-61: What is Billy's response to the suggestion that we should bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age? (Should a survivor of Dresden have sympathy for the potential victims of massive bombing? For the actual victims of bombings?) [HISTORICAL NOTE: During the "Vietnam Era" we dropped on Indochina more tonnage of bombs than was dropped on all of Europe during WWII--or some such figures. Does Billy Pilgrim ever think about the bombing of Indochina?]

Note the prayer; it appears again between the breasts of Montana Wildhack. Does Billy Pilgrim have the wisdom "to tell the difference" between what he can and cannot change?

Did Billy Pilgrim tell his son not "to take part in massacres"? If the old legal formulation is correct and "Silence means consent"--and in morality it usually does--does Billy at least consent to massacres in his silence on the Vietnam War and in his failure to even discuss with his son the question of Robert's joining the Green Berets? See my "Historical Note" above; consult a map for the size of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; note that most of those bombs fell in a relatively small part of Indochina (and that our tonnage may have equalled all the tonnage in WWII--I used a conservative figure); and then imagine the carnage such bombing could have caused, to say nothing of other warfare (see the collage in my office if you need to aid your imagination).

Why does Billy weep "for no apparent reason"?

p. 62: Note tears versus sleep.

p. 65: Throughout Sh-5, note "killing machines," "blue and ivory," and various kinds of photographs and movies. The killing machines are obvious enough in a pacifistic work like Sh-5, but what's the significance of the blue and ivory and all the photos and such? (Real question.)

pp. 66-67: What should we make of Wild Bob? Should we approve of him, even though he "had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men--a lot of them children, actually"?

Note "I was there." (Cf. ch. 9, p. 191.) Does it aid Vonnegut's "Ethical Appeal." to have a narrator who can claim having been there? ("Ethical Appeal"--ethos--is presenting a Speaker who is or at least appears to be reliable: honest, intelligent, knowledgeable on the subject at hand, worthy to speak on the issue.)

p. 69: Note the "striped banner of orange and black"; cf. ch. 4, p. 72.

p. 70: Note the boxcars as organisms--and "like spoons"; spoons and nestling like spoons recur.

Chapter Four

p. 72: What's the color of the tent for Barbara's wedding, and how are Billy Pilgrim and Valencia "nestled"? What colors are Billy Pilgrim's feet--and how does Vonnegut use these motifs to give some logic to his jumps in narration, or (the equivalent) the jumps in Billy Pilgrim's time-travels?

p. 73: Billy Pilgrim is "guided" here "by dread and the lack of dread." Is that true for him in the rest of his story?

See ch. 1, p. 4 for KV's claiming to make phone calls while drunk. See ch. 1, p. 12 for KV's carrying a "bottle like a dinner bell."

pp. 74-75: If Billy Pilgrim weren't "really" travelling in time, what would it say about his psychology that he sees the movie (of American bombers) in reverse? Why does Billy Pilgrim, on his own, extrapolate from the movie the return of everyone to babies and ultimately the perfect and innocent couple, Adam and Eve?
Note that Spot barks; cf. dog in Billy Pilgrim's capture by the Germans.

pp. 76-77: Billy Pilgrim captured by Tralfamadorians Note that the Tralfamadorians paralyze Billy Pilgrim's will; did they need a very strong charge in their "zap gun" to do that? Why do they need to zap his will at all, if he has no free will?

"Why me?" asks Billy Pilgrim. (Cf. ch. 5, p. 91.) OK, why him? Is there a why? [PHILOSOPHICAL NOTE: "Why?" is a theological or metaphysical question; it is not an allowed question in scientific inquiry, since it leads to an "infinite redux": i.e., every why question can lead to another why question until the answerer says, "Because I say so!" or "Because that's how God arranged things!" or "Because that's the nature of things!" or "Because the moment is structured that way."] Note the image of "bugs trapped in amber"; it's central for any human understanding of the Tralfamadorian view of the universe.

pp. 79-80: Billy Pilgrim commits atrocities in his sleep, the men on the train say; Wymer says that that becomes a habit with Billy. Does Billy Pilgrim commit (figurative or literal) atrocities in his (figurative) sleep? Does he contribute to atrocity by never gaining full, responsible, adult consciousness?

Death of Roland Weary, accusing Billy Pilgrim of killing him.

p. 80: Note that the prison camp "was originally constructed as an extermination camp for Russian prisoners of war"; the Nazi cause is a bad one, so working against it is a good thing. This knowledge adds to the complexity of Sh-5. (Consider the possibility that Vonnegut uses a kind of "most rigorous proof" in his attack on war: the bombing of Dresden was part of one of the most moral wars ever fought, the allied crusade against Fascism.)

What is the imagery for getting the American POWs out of the boxcars? (Hint: excremental imagery is standard in satire. Satirist tend to undercut human pride by reducing us to shit. [Vonnegut, though, is more ambiguous on pride than more traditional satirists, for whom it is both ludicrous and "the root of all evils."])

pp. 82-83: Another dog barks; KV tells us explicitly that the stripping at the POW camp parallels Billy Pilgrim's stripping on Tralfamadore.

Background on Edgar Derby and the "true" story of who held Weary when Weary died (which may contradict Lazzaro's version in ch. 6, p. 141).

pp. 84-86: Intro. to Lazzaro and his promise to avenge Weary.

Gassing to death of billions of "Body lice and bacteria and fleas. . . . So it goes."

Billy Pilgrim in Tralfamadorian saucer, "Trapped in another blob of amber." Is Homo sapiens sapiens--the Wise, Wise Man--no more than "lice and bacteria and fleas"? Are we simply bugs trapped in amber? If we have no free will, what, aside from a hypertrophied cerebral cortex, makes us better than, say, bugs? If Lazzaro and Weary are relatively good guys--at least they're not Nazis--of how much value can our species be? (Keep your eye on Derby.)

Chapter Five

pp. 87-88: Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls features the use of sophisticated drugs for producing "ups" and "downs"; I haven't read the book, but it may also have enough sex in it for "ups" and "downs" to have another pun.

p. 88: N.M.B. the nature of Tralfamadorian books: Sh-5 is written "somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales" of the Tralfamadorians Note that ". . . they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep." As Wymer points out, this idea leads us (by way of a wretched pun) to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns (89).

p. 91: Note "Why me?" and the answer "Vy anybody?" (Consider a possible proportion equation: German guard/slugged American = Tralfamadorian "guard"/Billy Pilgrim.)

pp. 94-96: Note English prisoners and the candles and soap "made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State."

The play put on by the Brits is Cinderella, "the most popular story ever told"; Billy Pilgrim gets Cinderella's "slippers." Is Billy Pilgrim a kind of Cinderella character? Do we want him to be? (Is he the "Frog Prince"--our male version of Cinderella--but one who remains a frog?)

pp. 98-99: Billy Pilgrim's "morphine paradise" is juxtaposed to a reference to The Red Badge of Courage, an antiromantic war story of a boy's coming to manhood.

pp. 100-l: Billy Pilgrim in mental ward with Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to SF, and the works of Kilgore Trout.

N.B. the usefulness of SF for Billy Pilgrim and Rosewater's attempt "to re-invent themselves and their universe."

N.M.B. the idea of the "vital lie" (to use Henrik Ibsen's formulation in The Wild Duck): here, the idea that we need "a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living." Does Billy Pilgrim learn new lies from Trout--and go on with partial living?

p. 102: KV tells us that ". . . Billy didn't really like life at all."

p. 104: Trout on the 4th dimension. Might the cause of Billy Pilgrim's mental illness lie in the 4th dimension? Given that we do live in a 4-dimensional universe, does Billy Pilgrim's illness lie in his inability to deal properly with Time?

p. 105: N.M.B. the English colonel's comment on Billy: "How nice--to feel nothing and still get full credit for being alive."

p. 106: Explicit reference to the fact (from older people's point of view) "that wars . . . [are] fought by babies. . . . 'It's the Children's Crusade.'"

OK, "Old soldiers never die--young ones do," as we used to say back in the 1960s. Still, does Vonnegut undercut his argument on responsibility in putting quite so much stress on the babyhood of soldiers? The sentimental appeal works very well, but are we to put all the blame on "war-loving, dirty old men" (Ch. 1, p. 14)? Even if his father is a wimp and his mother a blimp and his sister a twit--even accepting the utter worst about the Pilgrim family--even then doesn't Robert Pilgrim bear some responsibility for becoming a juvenile delinquent and then cleansing himself in his own and others' blood in Vietnam? If Vonnegut insists that we do have some modicum of free will and some responsibility, shouldn't he blame the young men just a bit more?

Alternatively--in what sense are Lazzaro and Weary babies? They're certainly not objects for sentimental blubbering; are they babies in their immaturity? Should we excuse their nastiness because they're morally retarded?

p. 107: Be sure you know why Billy Pilgrim marries Valencia. (Also, note her favorite candy bar.)

pp. 108-10: For Vonnegut's running critique of Christianity, note Trout's The Gospel from Outer Space.

pp. 114-15: Tralfamadorians on human sex and human view of time. Can you accept the Tralfamadorian theories of human reproduction? If you find them implausible, should you accept uncritically their more plausible views of the human view of time? Should Billy accept their ideas uncritically? Does he "accept" their ideas as a way to rationalize what he's been doing all along?

pp. 115-17: Having covered sex, we get to the Tralfamadorians on violence, particularly the violence of warfare.

If the Tralfamadorian view of a determined universe is correct and if it were possible to "Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones," would it be wise to just "spend eternity looking at pleasant moments" and avoid doing stupid things like trying to prevent "war on Earth"? Even if we can't time-travel, is it best to concentrate on pleasant memories and repress and keep secret unpleasant ones? Why look back and turn into a pillar of salt? If the Tralfamadorians are correct, would it be prudent to follow their advice, but wise to strive against evil?

Note the "'Um,' said Billy Pilgrim"; it's repeated on p. 120, when Valencia comments on the wonder of Billy Pilgrim's marrying her. (Again, why does Billy Pilgrim marry Valencia? Doing so certainly helps his career, but what have we learned specifically of his motivation? Was it crazy for Billy Pilgrim to marry Valencia? Is it crazy of him to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy?)

p. 121: Note association of "sex and glamor with war"; cf. and contrast Howard W. Campbell's ideas on p. 130.

N.B. that Valencia is insightful enough to have a "funny feeling" that Billy Pilgrim is "just full of secrets"--he has more secrets than he knows.

p. 122: A proper epitaph for Billy Pilgrim and KV, they think. Is this for the reality of their lives or the ideal or what? (Real question.)

p. 123: Derby at his execution and Billy Pilgrim during his first night at the POW camp--both are doped up. Any significance? (Real question.)

p. 125: Young KV, at the POW camp, shits out, he says, everything but his brains--and then his brains, too. How literally should we take young KV if we are to believe much of what old KV tells us?

pp. 128-31: Howard W. Campbell, Jr., hero of Vonnegut's Mother Night (1961) --and who, in Mother Night, may or may not be a traitor and war criminal--on American POWs, and on America. Vonnegut may use Campbell here to get across some serious ideas of his own on American culture and economics.

Note the hard-nosed cynicism of Campbell on military uniforms and the conditioning of troops. (I got a cleaned-up version of this theory in Military Science 101, in reference to discipline in 18th-c. armies, esp. British and US.)

pp. 132-33: Barbara on Billy Pilgrim as child juxtaposed with arrival of Montana Wildhack, "a motion picture star" (see later for details on her early work). We also learn, "incidentally," that Billy Pilgrim has "a tremendous wang." Any theories on the significance of Billy Pilgrim's penis size? (Does the mild-mannered, eminently unstudly Billy Pilgrim think--as much as he thinks--with his genitals? Is the ultimate goal of his time-traveling shacking up with Wildhack in the Tralfamadorian zoo, where he can be just "a big," lucky "mammal," engaging in the primary biological duty of reproduction?)

pp. 133-34: Heavenly sex with Wildhack on Tralfamadore; cf. "heaven" of guards' car on POW train (e.g., ch. 4, p. 81). (Real question: Is heaven the fulfillment of our animal needs?) Sex scene on Tralfamadore juxtaposed with an Earthly "wet dream about Montana Wildhack."

Putting together some earlier possibilities (following Wymer): Is Billy Pilgrim's time-travel a way to avoid responsibility through a kind a sleep, with the ultimate goal of a dream, the wet dream of the Tralfamadorian womb with Wildhack?

Chapter Six

p. 139: Lazzaro on his idea of "the sweetest thing in life": for him "it's revenge." (Is Billy Pilgrim's "sweetest thing" at least superior to Lazzaro's?)

p. 141-43: Lazzaro's version of death of Weary. Then the death of B.P., on 13 February 1976, the 31st anniversay of the firebombing of Dresden, and part of America's bicentennial year. Note present tense. Note also destruction of Chicago and destruction of the USA as a world power.

p. 145: Billy Pilgrim explicitly identified with Cinderella (see above).

Note Englishman on pride and the will to live. Contrary to people with problems in most satire, does Billy Pilgrim suffer from too little pride?

Does he find "a very easy and painless way" to sort of live?

p. 148: Young KV on Dresden = Oz.

p. 153: Main title of book explained.

Chapter Seven

pp. 154-55: Tralfamadorian view of people as machines. Are the Tralfamadorians correct? Even if they are correct, does that alter our ethical responsibilities? In The Sirens of Titan the Tralfamadorians are literal machines themselves, but the one Tralfamadorian we see learns love and loyalty and is both human and humane. Even if we are machines, might we strive to be human and humane machines? (See Wymer essay in Mechanical God.)

N.M.B. that barbershop quartet.

pp. 155-57: Plane crash, with only Billy Pilgrim and copilot surviving. Question: since Billy Pilgrim knows they'll crash, why doesn't he say something? (Note the old Shelly Berman line from a comedy album from the late 1950s: "You'd rather die than make an ass of yourself.") N.M.B. that even bleeding his life out in the snow, "Everything was pretty much all right with Billy."

KV tells us that Billy Pilgrim dreams some true things in the hospital. "The true things were time-travel." In what sense, "true"?

pp. 160-61: Another kind of "spooning" and more tears: Derby's tears of gratitude.

Chapter Eight

pp. 162-64: Campbell's speech to the American POWs and Derby's response. Note rise of Derby as a character: no longer one of the "listless playthings of enormous forces" but a man taking a stand. His speech has all the profundity of a lecture in a high school civics class, but that's not what counts. Derby had something to say, and he said it; and, in context, he's essentially right and admirable.

pp. 166-67: Billy Pilgrim meets Kilgore Trout, the SF hack.

p. 168: Trout's The Gutless Wonder--a fable for our time. There's a satire here on a common human folly, in a particularly American form: our preference for manners and such over morality. It's OK that the robot drops jellied gasoline (napalm) on people, but it's not OK that he's got bad breath. "But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race"--even though he and the other robots "had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground." (Work out the "moral" of the fable; as I said, Sh-5 is a subversive book.)

p. 171: Trout on the truth of his art, which is as factual as advertising.

Note the ironies here and apply the resulting theory of truth to Sh-5.

pp. 172-75: Billy Pilgrim learns he has a secret and gets help (?) with handling it from Trout, Trout's "time window" theory.

p. 176: Billy Pilgrim flees into "his nice white house" at a song of the suffering of the poor, perhaps most particularly black poor (which would work nicely with Billy Pilgrim's driving away from the black man in the ghetto), but poor folk in any event.

We meet Robert and learn that he and Billy Pilgrim don't have that much to do with each other; they won't talk of Robert's future.

pp. 177-79: Billy Pilgrim remembers Dresden; he looks back on destruction--a human thing to do and one he usually avoids. His suppressed memory of Dresden, just after 13 Feb. 1945, is why the quartet affected him so deeply; he has remembered that he does have a secret from the war.

Chapter Nine

pp. 182-83: Death of Valencia, who really loved Billy and who cries thinking Billy killed or maimed or close to death.

Note that in 1969 a "Reagan for President!" bumper sticker put one at least in the pretty hard Right, if not at the far Right.

Billy Pilgrim dreams on, unaware of the death of his wife.

pp. 184-88: Rumfoord and historical material on aerial-bombing massacres: especially the 135,000 killed at Dresden.

p. 189: Enter Robert "of the famous Green Berets," looking good and "all straightened out"--and highly decorated for a young soldier. (He's also been wounded, but apparently not seriously: he's got a Purple Heart.)

p. 190: Billy Pilgrim "conscious . . . while Valencia was being put into the ground." In what sense, "conscious"? We learn that he's exerting considerable mental effort "preparing letters and lectures about the flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time."

pp. 191-93: Billy Pilgrim's "I was there" to Rumfoord. What comes of Billy Pilgrim's "witness"?

pp. 195-97: Billy Pilgrim in the coffin-shaped green wagon: "his happiest moment." N.M.B. that two obstetricians are the "horse pitiers" that force Billy Pilgrim to look at the horses' mouths and feet and recognize their suffering. "When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn't cried about anything else in the war." To paraphrase the Book of Jonah, he had a moment of pity for the horses but did not mourn over Dresden, that great city, with its 135,000 dead human beings. As the epigraph of the novel, repeated here, gets you to do--cf. and contrast Christ and Billy Pilgrim.

p. 198: The upshot--Dresden had to be destroyed. "Pity the men who had to do it"; "It was all right . . . . Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore," says Billy Pilgrim.

p. 201-2: Trout's story of kidnapped Earthlings.

p. 209: Wildhack's locket and prayer. Again, if we cannot change anything, do we need any courage? If we cannot change anything, do we need anything more than the serenity to accept everything?

Chapter Ten

p. 210: Return to initial KV narrator (with "I" in initial sentence and contemporary references).

Robert Kennedy: murdered while running for president in 1968, as an anti-war candidate and a candidate trying to reconcile blacks and whites.

Martin Luther King: Martin Luther King, Jr., to be exact: murdered while helping to resolve a garbage-handlers' strike; he also opposed the Vietnam war and, of course, tried to integrate blacks--as equals--into all of American society.

Both Kennedy and King were murdered with guns. (It's hard to say what accounted for most of the bodies in Vietnam. I was taught that artillery is the main killer on the battlefield, but there aren't exactly battlefields in guerilla warfare.) Anyway, guns were used in 'Nam, and they performed their function--so the bit about KV's (and Vonnegut's?) father and guns, including rifles, applies to all three paragraphs of the opening of the chapter.

The reference to Darwin is to the idea (vulgarly interpreted) of the survival of the fittest: those organisms survive and reproduce that are best adapted to their immediate environments; the deaths of the less fit produce more biological space, so to speak, for the multiplication of the currently superior forms. Hence, ". . . corpses are improvements."

p. 211: Note the "If" construction on Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians: "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true"--and even if it's true, "I am not overjoyed," although KV isn't too upset either. The ambiguity of the "reality" of Billy's experiences is kept to the end.

pp. 212-14: Aftermath of Dresden bombing.

Why we can afford Dresden massacres, biologically: we humans reproduce remarkably efficiently and can afford to kill off millions of people. Can we each have dignity when there are so many of us and when we can all be replaced so quickly and easily?

The last "I was there" by KV/Vonnegut: he was there to work in the corpse mines.

The corpse mines smelled "like roses and mustard gas"--completing the motif.

Edgar Derby is finally executed, his literary exit taking one short paragraph.

Billy ends up heading toward "an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped." Presumably he enters the wagon for his snooze while the bird makes the only comment appropriate after a massacre, "Poo-tee-weet?" Billy's response isn't recorded, and the implication that he's going to climb into the wagon isn't very promising. It's a kind of womb and coffin, and the implication is that he will never really--morally--awake or get himself born into the world of adult responsibility.

4. General Questions and Comments (and possible essay topics)

  1. is the effect of having a Vonnegut as author, narrator, and character in Sh-5? Why is the method of narration--including the handling of point of view and even verb tense--so complex?
  2. The film version of Sh-5 is a good movie and an effective anti-war statement. But it differs from the novel. How does it differ? What are the effects of the differences?
  3. I have finally decided that Thomas L. Wymer is right about Sh-5: in the novel's "thesis" layer, Billy Pilgrim is a victim and sympathetic, but in its "antithesis" layer, Billy Pilgrim is an agent of evil. But I only decided that after reading the novel nine or ten times (and seeing the film three or four times)--and after after going through the novel line-by-line for this study guide. What's so attractive about Billy Pilgrim that I'd miss for so long the "obvious" truth of Wymer's analysis? Since you can't answer that question, try this one: Why do so many readers tend to sympathize with Billy's spasmodic pilgrimage through the novel and his life? What's in his story that makes us sympathize with him while reading?
  4. Alternatively, argue that Wymer's reading is wrong: that Billy Pilgrim is the hero of Sh-5.
  5. Argue for or against the decorum (the artistic appropriateness) of Vonnegut's method of developing Billy Pilgrim's story: framing it with "Vonnegut's" story, skipping all over in time and space, using bad puns and a kind of "stream of consciousness" for what continuity there is between scenes.
  6. How can Sh-5 be effective as an anti-war novel if it's so subtle that many--most?--readers can't even recognize that Billy Pilgrim is an antihero? (Is the novel effective propaganda? [Subtlety in propaganda is rarely a virtue.] Is the film version effective propaganda? If so, why does it have a much more up-beat ending than the novel's?)
  7. I've asserted that Sh-5 is subversive. Argue for or against that assertion (noting, though, that many Americans who like to censor books love to censor Sh-5).
  8. I've attacked Vonnegut's stress on soldiers as "babies." Develop my attack into a full argument, or argue that my attack is wrong and wrong-headed.
  9. Argue for or against the assertion that Billy Pilgrim is quietly insane: that the Tralfamadorians exist only in his mind. Either way, be sure to discuss the psychology of Billy Pilgrim, noting how the Tralfamadorians fit into his sane or insane view of the world and way of dealing with a world that may, itself, be more than a little mad.

Supplement to Study Guide for Slaughterhouse-Five

5. Hypothesis Important for Slaughterhouse-Five

The US averages a significant military action (or actual war of late) about every generation, none since the War of 1812 involving an invasion of the US "Zone of the Interior" by foreign troops. One of the causes of war by the US, anyway, is that the memory of warfare doesn't get passed on effectively from one generation to the next.

Does this hypothesis hold up for Slaughterhouse-Five? Does it sound plausible enough to be worth testing in the real world?