The science fiction elements of the novel include time travel. Billy leaps in time, experience his life's events out of order and repeatedly. He learns on the alien world of Trafalmadore that all time happens simultaneously; thus, no one really dies. But this permanence has its dark side: brutal acts also live on forever. Memory is one of the novel's important themes; because of their memories, Vonnegut and Billy cannot move past the Dresden massacre. Billy leaps back in time to Dresden again and again, but at critical points we see Dresden simply because Billy relives it in his memory.
This is a broad theme that encompasses many important ideas. Vonnegut is interested in protecting his novel from becoming a conventional war narrative, the kind of conventional narrative that makes war look like something exciting or fun. Throughout the book, we see narratives of this kind in history texts and the minds of characters. But this novel is more interested in non-narrative, like the nonsense question asked by birds at the novel's end, or anti-narrative, like the out-of-order leaping through the many parts of Billy's life. Vonnegut does not write about heroes. Billy Pilgrim is more like a victim.
This theme is closely connected to the idea of narrative. Vonnegut's characters have almost no agency. They are driven by forces that are simply too huge for any one man to make much of a difference. Vonnegut drives home this point by introducing us to the Trafalmadorians and their concept of time, in which all events are fated and impossible to change.
One of the book's most famous lines is "So it goes," repeated whenever a character dies. Billy Pilgrim is deeply passive, accepting everything that befalls him. It makes him able to forgive anyone for anything, and he never seems to become angry. But this acceptance has it problems. When Billy drives through a black ghetto and ignores the suffering he sees there, we see the problem with complete acceptance. Vonnegut values the forgiveness and peace that come with acceptance, but his novel could not be an "anti-war book" if it called on readers to completely accept their world.
In Vonnegut's view, war is not heroic or glamorous. It is messy, often disgusting, and it robs men of their dignity. The problem of dignity comes up again and again in the novel, as we see how easily human dignity can be denied by others. But Vonnegut also questions some conceptions of dignity; he sees that they have a place in creating conventional war narratives that make war look heroic.
Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is a novel written in troubled times about troubled times. As the novel was being finished in 1968, America saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In the South, Blacks and their supporters were struggling to overturn centuries of racial inequality under the law. At times, the struggle became violent. American values were being convulsed by the coming-of-age of the baby boomers. Never before had young people felt so certain in their rebellion against their parents and their parents' values.
The United States was involved in a costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. 1968 saw the psychologically devastating Tet Offensive, in which the Viet Cong launched a massive offensive against American and South Vietnamese positions all throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong took heavy casualties, the offensive was the true turning point of the war. To the South Vietnamese people, the offensive proved that the Americans could not protect them. To the American people, the offensive showed that the war in Vietnam would be far more costly than the politicians in Washington had promised. The country that had defeated the Axis powers just over two decades ago was now involved in a morally dubious and costly war in a Third World country.
In the U.S. opposition to the war grew, but in Vietnam the killing continued. The Americans would eventually suffer fifty thousand dead, but the Vietnamese would pay a much heavier price. Millions of Vietnamese died, many of them from heavy bombing. The U.S. dropped more explosive power onto Vietnam than all of the world's powers had dropped in all of World War II put together, including the two atomic bombs and the bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. Vonnegut's novel about the bombing of Dresden was written while American policy makers and pilots were implementing one of the most brutal bombing campaigns in history.
Although Vonnegut despairs of being able to stop war (he likens being anti-war to being anti-glacier, meaning that wars, like glaciers, will always be a fact of life), Slaughterhouse Five is an earnest anti-war novel. Vonnegut's own war experiences turned him into a pacifist. Like his protagonist, Vonnegut was present at Dresden as a POW when American bombers wiped the city off the face of the earth. The bombing, which took place on February 13, 1945, was the most terrible massacre in European history. Over 130,000 people died, putting the death toll above the 84,000 people who died in the Tokyo bombing and the 71,000 people who died in Hiroshima. In Europe's long and often bloody history, never have so many people been killed so quickly. The novel is disjointed and unconventional. Its structure reflects this important idea: there is nothing you can say to adequately explain a massacre. Part of Vonnegut's project was to write an antidote to the war narratives that made war look like an adventure worth having.
This study guide's citations match the 1991 printing of the novel by Dell Books.