Slaughterhouse-Five, a semi-autobiographical account of the firebombing of Dresden, is one of Vonnegut's most influential tales. Since the book is so intertwined with the historic bombing, it is important to teach students about the bombing of Dresden, Germany, by the Allied forces during World War II and how Vonnegut survived these attacks while being kept a prisoner of war in a slaughterhouse. It is also important to note that Vonnegut wrote this novel in 1968 during the Vietnam War, when anti-war sentiment was just starting. This background information will help contextualize Vonnegut's messages about war.

Vonnegut tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, jumping around in time; this structure may confuse students. When teaching the novel, it is imperative to explain that the nonlinear chronology of Slaughterhouse-Five symbolizes many things, including the fragmented and confusing life of a soldier. Similarly, the inclusion of alien Tralfamadorians might disorient students who were not expecting science fiction elements; however, these aliens distance Billy Pilgrim from his trauma and offer an alternate perspective to typical notions on time and free will. Vonnegut also uses various other literary techniques, including irony, satire, repetition, symbolism, and inserting himself into the narrative. This text can therefore be used to study such techniques and discuss how they contribute to the messages and themes of the novel.

Summary

After experiencing the horrors of war, Billy Pilgrim, the novel's main character, lives a life "unstuck in time." This means that he gets sent to different periods within his life without any control over where he will go. His story includes his time spent as a soldier in World War II and in the slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war, as well as his experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder, his family life, and his interactions with an alien species called Tralfamadorians.

Content Warning

Slaughterhouse-Five contains profanity, sexual content, and controversial references to religion.

Objectives for Teaching Slaughterhouse-Five

  • Elucidate how the shifting point of view affects the novel.
  • Identify Vonnegut's use of irony and satire.
  • Discuss how the nonlinear narrative structure contributes to the novel's meaning.
  • Consider how the characters' lives are determined by outside forces.
  • Identify and analyze symbols used throughout the novel.
  • Discuss how technology and emphasis on achievement dehumanizes people.
  • Comment on Vonnegut's repetition and how it contributes to the narrative.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Allusion
  • Circular Story
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metafiction
  • Repetition
  • Satire
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Fate vs. Free Will — Free will is questioned most obviously with the depiction of the Tralfamadorians, who believe that there is no free will when time is in the "fourth dimension." This contrasts with the human outlook that beings do have free will because of time's linear fashion. Free will and fate are questioned in other sections of the novel, such as when Billy is forced out of the pool, into war, or to march the streets to battle.
  • Warfare — War seems to cause all of the existing events within this novel. Even after he serves in the military, Billy is affected by his war experiences. Most characters within the novel are prisoners of war or low ranking soldiers, none voluntarily in battle, and those who endorse combat are portrayed as villainous characters.
  • Time —  Billy moves through time and space throughout the book, never knowing where or when he will be next. The only circumstance in which he feels that he can understand time is when he meets the Tralfamadorians, who see time as nonlinear and simultaneous.

Related Works

Theme of Fate vs. Free Will

 

Theme of Warfare

 

Theme of Survival

Key Facts

  • Length: 250 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 850
  • Publication Date: 1969
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • Nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award
  • Nominated for a best-novel Hugo Award
  • Ranked 18th on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century

Movies

A film adaptation was released in 1972 and was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Your students will love:

  • Kurt Vonnegut as a character in the narrative who speaks directly to them
  • The Tralfamadorians and their concept of life and time
  • Finding symbols and repetition, such as "so it goes…" which appears 106 times within the novel.

Students may have problems with:

  • Following the nonlinear narration
  • Not knowing what is real and what is fake within the story

Available from Prestwick House:

Find more great resources for teaching Slaughterhouse-Five in your classroom here.

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