Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" as an Anti-War Novel

A Depiction of the Protagonists

Term Paper, 2014

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Protagonist and Author
2.1 “A Filthy Flamingo”: Billy Pilgrim
2.2 Kurt Vonnegut’s Life
2.3 Bombs and Battles: The Historical Background
2.4 Science-Fiction: Kidnapped by Tralfamadorians
2.5 Billy Pilgrim: “Unstuck in Time”

3. Literary Analysis
3.1 Point of View: “That was I. That was me”
3.2 Symbolism: Tweeting Birds and Ivory Feet
3.3 Humor: Funny and Sad at the Same Time

4. Characters in “Slaughterhouse-Five” - 17 “There won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne”
4.1 Roland Weary: A clumsy Tweedledee
4.2 Edgar Derby: A Tragic Hero
4.3 Paul Lazzaro
4.4 Valencia Merble
4.5 Howard W. Campell Jr

5. “A Duty-Dance with Death”
5.1 The Absurdity of War
5.2 “Slaughterhouse-Five“ as an Anti-War Novel

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The novel “Slaughterhouse-Five“, written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969, is about Billy Pilgrim, a man, who has “become unstuck in time”, which means that he travels through different periods of his life. The novel starts with an autobiographical part, which is about Kurt Vonnegut’s life after the Second World War.

In the following parts Vonnegut writes about Billy Pilgrim. The reader learns that as a young adult Billy Pilgrim is a soldier in the Second World War just like Kurt Vonnegut was. He survives this war with the help of other soldiers and later on he settles as a bourgeois civilian with his wife Valencia Merble and his two children.

Kurt Vonnegut tells the reader that in the time of the Second World War Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time, and has been kidnapped by aliens from a planet called Tralfamadore. The reader gets to know Billy Pilgrim's life story as well as his personality. As a round character Billy is shown in different situations with all his emotions and thoughts. Vonnegut describes traumatic events in Billy’s childhood and also emotionally important events in his grown-up life, like his 18th wedding anniversary.

After the awful situations Billy witnessed in the Second World War, for instance the Dresden bombing, and an airplane crash he survives, Billy says he was kidnapped by a flying saucer. This could be a sign of Billy Pilgrim suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which will be examined in the following text.

Although the novel contains sad and cruel topics, the tone of the novel is generally sarcastic and unemotional. Billy Pilgrim's life and the literary style of “Slaughterhouse-Five“ inevitably lead to the question: In How Far Does Kurt Vonnegut's Depiction of the Protagonists in “Slaughterhouse-Five” Contribute to the Novel Being an Anti-War Novel?

Since Vonnegut's publishers call Slaughterhouse-Five “one of the world's great anti-war books” and Vonnegut himself promised his friend Mary O'Hare to write an anti-war novel, these statements will be examined in this essay.

2. Protagonist and Author

2.1 “A Filthy Flamingo”: Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim, the main character of the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”, was born in1922 in Ilium, New York. According to the novel “[h]e was a funny looking child…” (Vonnegut p.27) who had no siblings. As a young boy his father has thrown him into a swimming pool in order to teach him how to swim by the method of swim or sink. This was a first very traumatic event for Billy. Later on as he is treated in the veteran’s hospital, the doctors consider this swimming pool-event to be the main reason for him going crazy. (cf. Vonnegut p.47)

As he is 12 years old, Billy visits the Grand Canyon with his parents. He feels uncomfortable because “[he] hated the canyon. He was sure he was going to fall in.” (Vonnegut p.93). Only ten days later they visit the Carlsbad Caverns, Caves which are places of total darkness. Again Billy feels frightened and “pray[s] to God to get him out of here.”(Vonnegut p.93). These examples from his childhood show that Kurt Vonnegut displays Billy Pilgrim's character as weak and fearful rather then brave and adventurous.

Later on, as Billy is almost a grown-up, he attends night sessions at the Ilium School of Optometry after he graduated from Ilium High School in the upper third of the class. (cf. Vonnegut p.27) He was a student at the Ilium School of Optometry for one semester before he was drafted for military service in the Second World War. (cf. Vonnegut p.27) In 1944 Billy joins the Army and takes part in maneuvers in South Carolina as a chaplain’s assistant, “a figure of fun in the American Army” (Vonnegut p.34). Right towards the end of this maneuver his father, a barber in Ilium, dies in a hunting accident and Billy is given an emergency furlough home. (cf. Vonnegut p.35) Again, Kurt Vonnegut shows Billy Pilgrim in detail. He doesn't present him as incompetent, but as a round character with a successful degree, but also difficult strokes of fate to deal with like the death of a parent. Therefore, Billy Pilgrim is an excellent character for many readers to identify with.

After his furlough Billy is ordered to go to Luxembourg and join the headquarters company of an infantry regiment. As he arrives there, the Battle of the Bulge, which he survived, is already in progress. On Billy’s escape over the German border he meets Roland Weary, an antitank gunner, and two scouts, who “allowed Billy to tag along” (Vonnegut p.36). From that moment the three wanderers Billy has met help him to stay alive while they flee from German soldiers. In their relationship is not the protector, but the protected one, which is typical for an anti-hero.

On one day as they hid in a German forest Billy comes unstuck in time for the first time. He first travels to his death, then to a pre-birth stadium and then he travels to the traumatic swimming pool event. (cf. Vonnegut p.47) On the same day Billy, Roland Weary and the two scouts become prisoners of war. They and many other American soldiers are taken to a prison in Chemnitz by boxcars, where mostly English soldiers are imprisoned. The English soldiers warmly welcome the Americans with food, coffee and a play of the Cinderella- story. (cf. Vonnegut p.99) Later Billy is taken to the prison hospital because he “found the couplet so comical that he not only laughed - he shrieked.” (Vonnegut p.102) and he cannot stop shrieking while he is watching the play. These events show how Billy Pilgrim very often is rather passive then active and sometimes not even in control of his own body.

Only one day later, after Billy was treated with Morphine in the prison hospital, the American soldiers are taken to Dresden by boxcars, where they live in Slaughterhouse Five. (cf. Vonnegut p.155) The month before Dresden has been destroyed the Americans have to work. “They washed windows and swept floors and cleaned lavatories and put jars into boxes and sealed cardboard boxes in a factory that made malt syrup.” (Vonnegut p.161). After this month of working, on 14th February, 1945 Dresden is attacked by bombers. During this event the soldiers take shelter in the meat locker in the slaughterhouse. They all survive, while most people who are elsewhere in Dresden at this moment die. (cf. Vonnegut p. 177) This only one of the events in which Billy Pilgrim's survival depends on coincidence rather than strength or power.

Later in the same year Billy is turned over to other Americans, who ship him home within a prisoner exchange. Back in the United States he is honorably discharged from the American Army. (cf. Vonnegut p.198) After his war experience Billy completes his studies at the Ilium school of Optometry and settles in business as an Optometrist with the help of Valencia Merble’s father. (cf. Vonnegut p.121f, 111)

A few months later, Billy “suffered a mild nervous collapse” (Vonnegut p.28) and is treated in a veteran’s hospital at Lake Placid in New York. There Billy is given shock treatments and the doctors consider him to be crazy.

Because of another patient he is introduced to science-fiction and the novels of Kilgore Trout. (cf. Vonnegut p.104)

Also, as a consequence of Billy and Valencia having their honeymoon night, Valencia gives birth to two children, Robert and Barbara. In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout, his favorite science-fiction author, and invites him to his 18th wedding anniversary only a few days later. (cf. Vonnegut p.167, 170) Another three years later Billy and a group of optometrists, including his father- in-law, chartered an airplane to travel to an international convention of optometrists in Montreal. “The airplane crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont.” (Vonnegut p.29). All the occupants are killed except for Billy. So, again his life is rescued by coincidence.

As his wife Valencia hears of his crash, she drives directly to the hospital in by car. On her way to Vermont she has a car accident, which she survives uninjured, but ironically she accidentally dies right in front of the hospital of carbon-monoxide poisoning. (cf. Vonnegut p.29) After the great loss of his father, mother and his wife Billy decides to go to New York City to talk about the Tralfamadorians and the meaning of time on a late night radio show. (cf. Vonnegut p.29) As a consequence of this interview and a few letters Billy writes to an Ilium radio station, his daughter Barbara thinks Billy has gone senile. She wants to put him into the old people’s home his mother once lived in. (cf. Vonnegut p.32) Finally, Billy goes to Chicago to “to address a large crowd on the subject of flying saucers and the true nature of time.” (Vonnegut p.144). After this speech Billy is shot with a laser gun by Paul Lazzaro or someone hired by him, as he predicted in the Second World War. (cf. Vonnegut p.145)

Taking all these facts of Billy’s life into account, it can be said that it contains heroic as well as anti-heroic parts, for example does Billy survive many dangerous situations other soldiers die in, but he is usually not responsible for his own actions. Also, his outer appearance makes him appear like a prototypical anti-hero. In the following text Billy's role as an anti-hero is going to be examined.

Beginning with his outer appearance, it becomes obvious that Billy Pilgrim is depicted as a classic anti-hero in the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”. Billy “was a funny-looking child […] tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola” (Vonnegut p.27) and has grown to a “funny-looking youth” (Vonnegut p.27).

Also, later on as Billy is a chaplain’s assistant in the Second World War he is not described as a typical soldier. In addition to his military rank, which is called “a figure of fun in the American Army” Billy is described as a person, who “looked like a filthy flamingo” (Vonnegut p.37). So, using mocking language Kurt Vonnegut creates a ridiculous and pitiful impression of his protagonist. Also, the other American soldiers make fun of Billy because he has to wear a coat, which is way too small for him, and for that reason they call him “transvestite in the funny coat” (Vonnegut p.87). Furthermore, besides his outer appearance and the other soldiers making fun of him, Billy’s actions in the Second World War clearly depict him as a classic anti-hero. He is the only one within the infantry, who is not armed, and got lost behind enemy lines without any weapons or useful equipment.

Additionally, he acts very passively. Billy Pilgrim has to enlist the assistance of Roland Weary and the two scouts to stay alive and to be able to escape over the German border. (cf. Vonnegut p.46) He subordinates himself to the other soldiers and civilians and lets them injure him. (cf. Vonnegut p.54) So, to sum up, Kurt Vonnegut depicts Billy Pilgrim as a typical anti-hero by describing him as having a weak personality and an even more fragile body. Vonnegut uses Billy’s life and his actions in war to emphasize that Billy is always reliant on other people helping him.

2.2 Kurt Vonnegut’s Life

The author of the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Kurt Vonnegut, was born on 11th November 1922, the same year as his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, in Indianapolis into a wealthy and cultured family of architects stemming from the third generation of German immigrants. (cf. Wikipedia/Kurt Vonnegut) From 1936 to 1940 he visited Shortridge High School in Indianapolis and after graduating from high school, he went to university to study chemistry and biology. (cf. Wikipedia/Kurt Vonnegut) One year later, after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he enlisted himself in the US army as a volunteer and his life changed dramatically. (cf. Vonnegut.com)

The army sent him back to university after a brief training as a mechanical engineer. They would contact him when men were needed. In 1943, Kurt Vonnegut was sent to an infantry, to do service as a Battalion Intelligence Scout at the German-Luxembourgian border, the same area Billy Pilgrim was sent to.

(cf. Vonnegut p.35) Another parallel between Kurt Vonnegut’s and Billy Pilgrim’s life is that one month later, Vonnegut was taken as a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Bulge and was kept imprisoned with a group of other American prisoners of war in Chemnitz and later on in Dresden. (cf. Hage)

One year later in 1945 Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the bombardment of Dresden, where he had been kept imprisoned. As well as Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut survived this attack in a former meat locker. (cf. Klinkowitz) As well as Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five” Kurt Vonnegut himself had to dispose of corpses in Dresden after the bombardment. (cf. Hage)

After his return to the US, in 1945, Kurt Vonnegut married his first wife and tried to re-establish as a student of anthropology at a university in Chicago. Unfortunately he did not pass his degree, and he left Chicago to move to New York, where he worked at General Electric from 1946 to 1950. (cf. Wikipedia/Kurt Vonnegut) Additionally, one year later Kurt Vonnegut moved with his family to Cape Cod and quit his job to become a full-time writer. In 1952 his first novel “Player Piano” was published. (cf. vonnegut.com)

In 1957 Vonnegut lost three beloved members of his family. First his father died in a sanatorium, then his brother-in-law was killed in a train accident only two days before Kurt Vonnegut’s sister died because of cancer after which he and his wife adopted her children. The train accident of Vonnegut’s brother in law can also be compared to Billy Pilgrim’s airplane crash in “SlaughterhouseFive”. Only two years after these losses Vonnegut published his book “Sirens of Titan” which caused his popularity to grow. (cf. Klinkowitz)

Vonnegut signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest Pledge” in 1968 and in 1969 he published the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”. After publishing this book his life changed again. He divorced his first wife and married his second wife three months later. With his new wife he adopted another girl. (cf. Wikipedia/Kurt Vonnegut)


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" as an Anti-War Novel
A Depiction of the Protagonists
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Slaughterhouse Five
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, Anti-War Novel, Billy Pilgrim, Anti-Hero
Quote paper
Jasmin Wolfram (Author)Mareike Hachemer (Author), 2014, Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" as an Anti-War Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267472


  • guest on 1/31/2014

    Super präzise und differenzierte Darstellung. Gut zu lesen und hilfreich für Abi-Prüfungen und Studienarbeiten.

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