Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five was Kurt Vonnegut's sixth novel and the one that has affected readers most strongly with its satire and inventiveness. Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who, like Vonnegut himself, is taken as a prisoner of war during World War II and survives the firebombing of Dresden, Germany.

An exploration of the meaning of fate and free will, the novel's mix of humor, science fiction, and antiwar sentiment resonated with Americans who were waking up to the horrifying effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers and society. Frequently banned, the book is beloved by readers, critics, and other writers who admire its ironic acceptance of the worst things human beings can do, summed up in the book's most often-quoted line: "So it goes."

1. Vonnegut graded his work and gave Slaughterhouse-Five an A+.

In a 1981 collection of autobiographical essays, Palm Sunday, Vonnegut gave letter grades to all his novels. He gave only Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle top grades, while Slapstick and Happy Birthday, Wanda June got Ds.

2. The line "So it goes" appears 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The line "So it goes" appears in Slaughterhouse-Five every time there is a death. That's 106 times in all. The words convey an attitude of stoicism and acceptance of the worst. The number 106 might have had a special meaning for Vonnegut: the author was a soldier in the 106th Infantry Division during World War II.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five was a huge hit as soon as it was published.

Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's sixth novel, was an immediate success, reaching number one on best-seller lists. In their review, The New York Times called it a "highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story."

4. Slaughterhouse-Five was one of the 100 most-banned books of in the first decade of the 21st century.

Slaughterhouse-Five has been challenged or banned from schools numerous times, with officials calling it "depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian" and "just plain filthy." Decades after its publication, it still landed at 46 on the American Library Association's Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000–09. In 2011 the book was banned in a school district in Missouri, and in response, the public library there offered a free copy of the book to any high school student who requested it.

5. Slaughterhouse-Five was actually burned in one school district.

In 1973 the tiny town of Drake, North Dakota (population about 650), made headlines when it banned Slaughterhouse-Five after a student complained about the book's language. To get rid of the offending volumes, school officials burned 32 copies in the school furnace. The teacher who'd assigned the book was allowed to stay for the rest of the school year; all but five of his students transferred out of his class. Vonnegut responded to the news of the book burnings with a scathing letter, emphasizing that he is a "good citizen" and arguing, "If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own."

6. Readers sent Vonnegut sympathy cards on the anniversary of Billy Pilgrim's death.

In mid-February 1976 Vonnegut began receiving sympathy cards in the mail. He was bewildered, because nobody he knew had died. Twenty or more cards arrived each day, and finally the writer realized they were acknowledging the date that Slaughterhouse-Five's main character, Billy Pilgrim, died: February 13, 1976.

7. The character Wild Bob was probably based on a real soldier.

Wild Bob, the character in Slaughterhouse-Five who repeatedly says, "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!" is supposedly based on William Cody Garlow, a major in the 423rd Infantry regiment, in which Vonnegut was a private. Though it's unclear whether the two knew each other, Vonnegut would certainly have known about the major and the fact that he was a grandson of the renowned buffalo hunter and Wild West legend Buffalo Bill Cody. The entire regiment was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive, in 1944.

8. Vonnegut was fired from a leadership position as a prisoner of war.

In 1944 at age 22, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and was given a leadership position in a Dresden POW camp because he spoke a little German. As he told his family in a letter while waiting to be shipped home after the war, he was fired after telling the guards "just what [he] was going to do to them when the Russians came."

9. Vonnegut has been compared to other writing greats, like Voltaire.

Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, said of Vonnegut, "I guess he's the closest thing we had to a Voltaire." Writer John Irving recalled, "He could write the most condemning stuff about human nature while being both funny and kind." And Graham Greene called him "one of the most able of living American writers."

10. It's possible to go on a Vonnegut-related tour of Dresden, Germany.

After the firebombing of Dresden, which destroyed most of the city, it was rebuilt to look as much like the original as possible. Tours called "In the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse No 5 Tour Dresden" have been offered in the city. it highlights areas that were firebombed and the cellar that remains of the slaughterhouse where Vonnegut and his fellow soldiers were held. The description of the tour ends, of course, with the words, "So it goes."

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