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Slaughterhouse-Five | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What does the title page of Slaughterhouse-Five reveal about the novel?

The epigraph begins by declaring the author is of German descent; this fact demonstrates that, if not for the immigration of a past generation, the author might have just as easily been fighting for the other side during World War II. The statement about easy circumstances on Cape Cod contrast with the lines that follow about his experience as a prisoner of war during a brutal bombing—he has come far since the war, like many others of his generation. The final lines of the epigraph explain that the novel imitates the style of Tralfamadorian fiction in that it is meant to be experienced as a whole and all at once rather than follow a linear plot. His use of the word schizophrenic in this description implies Billy Pilgrim's time travels may be delusions. The final line is "Peace," which can be read as a plea for peace or a declaration of peaceful intent in the writing.

In Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five why does the narrator like the taxi driver's line "if the accident will"?

Much of Slaughterhouse-Five deals with the randomness of events and how little in life is within any individual person's control. Much of life, just like the novel, unfolds without a sense of cause and effect—like an accident. The relationship between the narrator and his cab driver when he returns to Dresden after the war is pleasant and friendly. He even takes the narrator and his friend on a tour of sites from their time in the war. Later the cab driver sends the narrator a greeting card, hoping they might meet again. But this pleasant friendliness between the two men happens only by accident. Chance may have led the two men to meet on the battlefield 20 years earlier compelled to kill one another. Instead, they have met after the war and found an amiable relationship. There is no lingering animosity on either side. This encounter happens by chance, and only chance or accident might allow them to meet again someday.

Why are the two limericks in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five important to understanding the narrator's problems?

In the first limerick a man blames his sexual urges for driving him into ruin and ill health, and finally he curses his sex organ for being useless. The limerick expresses a paradox in the way the narrator feels about his memories of the war and Dresden, which he refers to as "useless." His Dresden memories compel him to write about war, but the very experience that compels him to write is the same one that has left him too damaged to write a coherent book that is adequate to the experience of war. The second limerick is also circular: the speaker says his name and what he does, but what he does turns out to be that he tells people his name and what he does, "and so on to infinity," as the narrator says. The infinite loop of this limerick may reflect the dangers of recursion in a novel in which the author inserts himself, as Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five, or it may be a restatement of his paradoxical inability to either forget or write about Dresden. His comment about the limerick—"and so on"—is also a refrain of the first chapter that resonates with the later refrain "and so it goes." Both refrains anticipate the rest of the novel: events Billy is helpless to halt ("and so on") lead to horrors the narrator is incapable of commenting on except with deliberate understatement ("and so it goes").

What is the significance of the narrator's response to the professor who tells him about Nazi atrocities in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

When the narrator tells a professor about having seen the Dresden bombing, the professor responds with stories about the concentration camps, soap made from the fat of dead prisoners, and other atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. The narrator says, "I know, I know. I know." It is not clear whether the professor offers his remarks about Nazis as justification for the bombing of Dresden. Certainly for the narrator the bombing of civilians in Dresden is not justified by the Nazis' acts of genocide; the answer to slaughter is not more slaughter. However the narrator does not indicate whether the professor makes a political argument. The significance of the narrator's response may be in his framing of the response: "All I could say was, 'I know.'" When he meets the professor he is still unable to write his novel. "All he can say" is the mute fact of his experience; the war's horror surpasses his ability to comment or interpret.

Why does the narrator recount the story of the man killed in the elevator in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

When the narrator comes home from the war his first job is working as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. His first story covers the death of a war veteran who worked as an elevator operator. The man is killed when his wedding band catches on a decorative lovebird symbol in wrought iron on the elevator door; he is "squashed" when the elevator starts to move. This is the kind of senseless event that marks much of the novel. The elevator operator has survived a world war only to die after he returns home and is married and has a baby. As well, a marriage symbol kills him, which adds an extra layer of absurdity and situational irony, in which the opposite of what is expected to happen occurs. When the narrator returns to his office, one of his colleagues, Nancy, asks him to call the widow and get a reaction statement; Nancy is avid for lurid emotional detail. Nancy then asks if the scene in the elevator bothered him, and the narrator replies he saw worse during the war. Partly a deflection of his colleague's nosiness, this statement indicates the extreme horror of what the narrator witnessed in war.

Based on Chapter 1 why is Slaughterhouse-Five subtitled "The Children's Crusade"?

When the narrator goes to visit his old war buddy Bernard V. O'Hare as part of his research for the novel, O'Hare's wife, Mary, is sure the narrator is planning a book that will glorify war because he and Bernard were very young, "just babies," when they fought in World War II; she criticizes him for taking this perspective. The narrator assures her glorifying war is not his intention and promises her he will call the book The Children's Crusade, and this makes her happy. He also provides a short history of the medieval Children's Crusade, which was started in 1213 by two monks. According to the narrator the Children's Crusade was basically a scam. Children from Europe were lured into going on a holy mission to Jerusalem but were actually sold into slavery in northern Africa. The implication is that sending young people into war, whether in 1213 or 1944, is a scam perpetrated by older men who want to serve their own interests at the expense of others.

Why does the narrator describe the items soldiers brought home from the war in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

The soldiers the narrator travels home with all have souvenirs of war. The narrator himself has a ceremonial sabre. Others have caches of gemstones. One man has a cheap plaster Eiffel Tower with a clock in it, but he is very proud of this item. Later in the novel one of the characters will observe that the attractive thing about war is everyone "gets a little something," as if these trinkets, valuable or not, can make up for the suffering and danger the soldiers have experienced. In Chapter 1 the narrator mentions Edgar Derby, a model soldier executed for looting after the Dresden bombing when he was found in possession of a teapot. The men in this wagon, the narrator included, have done nothing substantially different from what Derby did; they just managed not to get caught. Justice in war is random, to the point of being unjust.

In Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five why does the narrator provide a history of Dresden from centuries ago?

On several occasions in the novel the narrator provides a description of Dresden's beautiful architecture, its dazzling skyline, and its nickname "the Florence of the Elbe." Here he also provides a glimpse of the city's cultural importance as a center for art and music. Then he describes a siege waged by the Prussians in 1760. According to the narrator's source, the destruction was "boundless." This passage illustrates, first, Dresden is a city that has survived and recovered from devastation in the past. Second, the passage illustrates how the source's description of boundless devastation is relative (and inadequate) compared to the destruction wrought in 1945 when the city was leveled by bombs from the air. For example the central church, the Frauenkirche, survived the 1760 siege with little damage, but it was destroyed by the bombing in 1945. The history of how Dresden has survived the centuries makes its destruction in 1945 all the more pointed.

Why is it important that the narrator adds "he says" when talking about Billy Pilgrim's condition in Chapter 2 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

A central question in Slaughterhouse-Five is whether Billy's experiences with time travel and Tralfamadore are real or simply the flashbacks and delusions of a man who has sustained both profound psychological damage in a war he was not emotionally prepared for and profound physical damage in a plane crash. These two small words in the first paragraphs of Billy's story support this question. The evidence for Billy's soundness of mind is not entirely clear, which seems to be a deliberate choice designed to make the reader question what is and is not real in the novel. In this way the reader experiences the story in the same way Billy Pilgrim experiences the world: with a constant feeling of uncertainty. At the start of Billy's story the narrator uses the phrase he says twice in reference to Billy's being unstuck in time, which implies a certain unreliability to Billy's version of his life as the narrator has heard it. In a sense the narrator can avoid taking responsibility for the events in the novel.

What are the Tralfamadorians' ideas about time and death, and why do they appeal to Billy Pilgrim in Chapter 2 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

The Tralfamadorians can see the fourth dimension, time. Humans cannot. So humans experience time as a sequence of events. If they could see the fourth dimension, however, they would understand the interconnection between moments and could see all moments at once, as the Tralfamadorians do. When all moments are visible then death ceases to matter because it is simply another moment out of many in a given life. There is one moment in which a person is dead, but there are many more moments in which that person is alive and will continue to be alive forever. For someone like Billy Pilgrim, who has seen death on such a large scale and had his life threatened repeatedly, this concept provides comfort. The 130,000 people he saw killed in Dresden are only dead in one moment, but in other moments they are alive and happy. His father, his wife, his friend Edgar Derby: they are all alive in other moments. Only Billy's limited vision as a human prevents him from seeing those moments, but he believes those moments exist.

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