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Slaughterhouse-Five | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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What is the significance of the repeated phrase So it goes first introduced in Chapter 2 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

"So it goes" is easily the most famous quotation from Slaughterhouse-Five, and it may be the most famous quotation from any of Kurt Vonnegut's work. The line refers to the Tralfamadorian concept of death, which, because Tralfamadorians can see all moments of time at once, they view the moment of death as only one of many moments in a given life. Tralfamadorians choose to focus on the moments in which a person is alive and turn away from the moment in which a person is dead by saying, "So it goes." In the novel the line is used when anything or anyone dies, whether it is a tree, a dog, or thousands of people. In one sense the phrase criticizes the human indifference to deaths that happen all around them, but it also calls attention to that indifference. By calling attention to human indifference to death, the phrase challenges the reader to overcome that indifference even as it emphasizes death as an inevitable part of existence.

What is the significance of Roland Weary's dirty photo in Chapter 2 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Roland Weary menaces Billy Pilgrim by forcing him to look at a photo he bought in Paris depicting a woman engaging in a sex act with a Shetland pony. Weary's possession of the photo indicates deviance on his part, but the novel also provides a history of the photo. It is the first dirty photograph in history, taken by a man named Andre LeFevre, an assistant to Louis J.M. Daguerre, the inventor of photography. LeFevre is arrested for selling copies of this photo, in the same Paris location where Weary bought his copy. Although LeFevre argues it is a depiction of Greek mythology, he is sentenced to six months in prison and dies of pneumonia there. This backstory illustrates how any new technology has the potential to be used for potentially corrupt purposes. Foreshadowing Weary's own death, LeFevre's fate also illustrates how punishments can be meted out with unintended consequences far more serious than the initial infraction.

What is important about the condition of the dog in Chapter 3 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

When Roland Weary and Billy Pilgrim are captured by a group of German soldiers, the soldiers are accompanied by a German Shepherd they borrowed from a farmer that morning. The dog's name is Princess, which provides some indication of her readiness for war: she is a farm dog, a family pet, not trained for battle or enforcement work. She is shivering in the cold and her tail is tucked between her legs, indicating fear and submission. She does not understand what is happening around her and thinks it is some kind of game she does not know. Her condition is meant to elicit sympathy, and her lot is similar to Billy Pilgrim's: he is cold, afraid, and does not fully understand what game is being played around him either. The same could be said of all the men in this scene, even the ones who are older and have some experience with war.

In Chapter 3 of Slaughterhouse-Five why is Billy Pilgrim described driving through a ruined ghetto?

In a scene set in 1967 Billy drives his Cadillac through "Ilium's black ghetto," much of which has been burned out. The novel explains the people who lived there hated it so much they set fire to it. The contrast of Billy's air-conditioned luxury car with the poverty outside provides a brief glimpse of American racial and economic tensions of the 1960s. Billy thinks the area looks a bit like some of the towns he saw during the war, and ghetto, the word the narrator uses, was first used to describe a section of 17th-century Venice where Jews had to live. Prosperity has not touched the entire nation as it has touched Billy, nor have injustice and racism ended with the defeat of the Nazis.

What makes Wild Bob's story important in Chapter 3 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Wild Bob is the colonel of a unit entirely wiped out in battle, with the sole exception of Roland Weary. He calls himself Wild Bob because he hoped his troops would call him that, but they are all gone now. While waiting to be loaded into the prisoner transport train, Wild Bob imagines he is addressing his "boys" for the last time, giving them a pep talk, telling them they have nothing to be ashamed of and praising their actions in battle. He promises to hold a reunion barbecue in his hometown of Cody, Wyoming, and tells Billy "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!" Within hours he is dead of pneumonia in the officers' car. In addition to being deluded about the presence of his troops, Wild Bob has some of the illusions about war Mary O'Hare so despises in Chapter 1. He is old enough to know better, but he believes he is a hero to his troops and imagines himself adored by his troops—many of them teenagers like Roland Weary—although in reality they have all been killed. His delusions are sad because he is isolated and about to die, but his hopefulness in the face of death is admirable. He even believes himself to be a local celebrity back home, although he seems to have given himself the nickname Wild Bob at some point during the war.

What is the significance of the hobo on the prisoner transport train in Chapters 3 and 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

The presence of the "former hobo" raises questions about Billy's memory or perception of reality because it seems highly unlikely a hobo of any nationality would have found his way onto a transport car for prisoners of war in Germany. His primary function in the story is to tell Billy, repeatedly, how he has seen worse conditions than those in the train car. In the train car the men are so crowded they must sleep in shifts because they don't all fit into the space. They get little food and must defecate into helmets, which they must pass to a man near a vent to be dumped. Yet the hobo continues to say they don't have it so bad, right up to the moment he dies. Of course he is correct in saying that—as bad as the conditions are, they could be worse—but he also trivializes the squalor of the train car. When his last words are "This ain't bad," he shows that there may be worse things than death, or worse ways to die than from exposure and hunger in a train car. Later events in the novel, such as the firebombing of Dresden, demonstrate the truth of his words.

Why is it significant Billy Pilgrim watches the war movie backward in Chapter 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

When Billy watches the war movie backward it shows him a beautiful alternate reality in which bullets are pulled out of bodies, bombs are sucked back into planes, the planes return to their landing points, cities are saved from destruction, and weapons are taken to factories where they are dismantled. Even the metals and elements used to create the weapons are taken away to mines and put back into the earth where they can cause no more harm. Everyone goes home and lives peaceful lives. This is the vision of war Billy wishes for: one in which everyone survives and nothing is destroyed, cities are built, and humanity is saved. Billy lives much of his life backward as if it were possible for the world to run in reverse, so this is a simple idea for him. The author seems to be implying if time could only run in the other direction, as it sometimes does for Billy, the destruction of war could be avoided.

Why does Roland Weary blame Billy Pilgrim for his death in Chapter 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Roland Weary has created a story for his part in the war, in which he and the two infantry scouts who are with him in the forest develop a friendship and become the Three Musketeers, performing heroic and courageous deeds together. Because he is ill equipped, cannot move quickly through the forest, and is generally unmotivated to save himself, Billy Pilgrim ruins that story for Weary, and Weary blames Billy for his capture and the scouts' deaths. When they are captured and Weary must trade his boots for unsuitable shoes, he develops gangrene in his feet. Behind German lines the odds were against Weary, the scouts, and Billy, but Weary doesn't believe their capture was a matter of chance; he blames Billy Pilgrim for what has happened. Because he cannot inflict any more violence on Billy, he recruits the other men in his train car to do it, feeding them his fantastical stories of his own heroism to motivate them to avenge him.

What is the significance of the detail Valencia Pilgrim has no ovaries or uterus, which is revealed in Chapter 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

The condition of Valencia Pilgrim's reproductive system seems an unusual thing to mention, but it underscores the empty nest she and Billy face after their daughter's wedding. They are getting older; Billy is 44 years old when his daughter gets married, and Valencia is near the same age as her husband. The removal of her reproductive organs highlights how there will be no more children for the couple and may feed into Billy's anxiety on the night of his daughter's wedding, the night he first meets the Tralfamadorians. His time as a parent is over and he must move on to another phase of his life alone with his wife. Valencia's infertility also provides sharp contrast with the relationship Billy forms on Tralfamadore with Montana Wildhack in later chapters. Unlike Valencia, Montana is young and fertile. Shortly after she comes to Tralfamadore she and Billy conceive a child. If Tralfamadore is an elaborate fantasy Billy has constructed to cope with his life, the baby with Montana represents his desire to be a parent and perhaps to have a better relationship with a new child than he has with his grown children.

Why is Edgar Derby's background important in Chapter 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Derby is significantly older and more experienced than the rest of the soldiers around him. As a tennis coach Derby is in better physical condition than most of the younger men; he is also more educated than many of them. He teaches high school history, a course called Contemporary Problems in Western Civilization. Presumably his subject matter gives him a better understanding than most about the war's causes and the strategies in play. He volunteered for the war because he has a strong sense of duty. He is by most standards an ideal soldier, but twists of fate and chance have landed him in the same prison camp as Paul Lazzaro and Billy Pilgrim and hundreds of other young men who are less qualified and prepared than Derby. Moreover, in a cruel twist of situational irony those unqualified and unprepared young men will survive the war and take home souvenirs from the wreckage unscathed, but Derby will not. By providing Derby's background Vonnegut causes both Derby's role and his death to have a greater impression on the reader.

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