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Kurt Vonnegut | Biography


Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is best known for satirical novels and short stories highlighting the absurdities of American culture and politics. His father was an architect and his mother came from a wealthy Indianapolis family, but the family's fortunes were substantially diminished by the Great Depression. After an illustrious high school career during which he wrote for his school's newspaper, Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell University, describing himself as a mediocre student.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. As the army prepared for D-Day, he was transferred to Camp Atterbury, near Indianapolis, where he developed a close friendship with a soldier from Pennsylvania named Bernard V. O'Hare. During his time at Camp Atterbury, Vonnegut's mother, Edith, died from an overdose of sleeping pills in May 1944. A month later Vonnegut began his journey to Europe with the army. His regiment arrived in France on December 6, 1944. On December 19 his unit was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, which was the final German offensive campaign during World War II.

Vonnegut and the other prisoners were transported via rail in cattle cars to a POW camp at Bad Orb, but he was transferred to a camp near Dresden in January 1945. The prisoners were housed in a concrete-block slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany, where he witnessed the massive firebombing of the city in 1945.

After the war Vonnegut led a civilian life, publishing his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952, and then four other books before finally finishing his "Dresden novel." By 1969 Vonnegut had developed a niche following as a satirical science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five brought his work into the mainstream and earned him widespread fame. It was met with generally positive reviews from critics. The New York Times reviewer said of the novel, "It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works." Fellow author Harlan Ellison in the Los Angeles Times called it "funny, satirical, compelling, outrageous, fanciful, mordant, fecund and at the bottom-line, simply stoned-out-of-its-mind." The New Yorker's less enthusiastic reviewer noted Vonnegut's deliberate simplicity "occasionally skids into fatuousness," but the reviewer nonetheless conceded a favorable comparison to Hemingway. Critics, readers, and reviewers in the ensuing years have likewise hailed it as a classic of American literature and lauded its inventive tone and structure.

Most notably Slaughterhouse-Five was published at the peak of the Vietnam War (fought between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975; the United States was an ally of South Vietnam) in a year when protests against the war were rampant across the United States. The novel was embraced by the antiwar movement for its criticism of government indifference and senseless brutality. It resonated with soldiers who were returning from the battlefields of southeast Asia. In the ensuing years it has remained a go-to for opponents of war; Slaughterhouse-Five has not gone out of style because violence has not gone out of style.

Throughout his life Vonnegut maintained his antiwar stance and continued to tackle social, political, and economic issues in his writing, publishing a total of 14 novels, 6 plays, and 9 collections of short stories and essays before his death on April 11, 2007, in New York City.

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