Slaughterhouse-Five, a semi-autobiographical account of the firebombing of Dresden, is one of Kurt 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 as 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.

Find out more about teaching Slaughterhouse-Five below.

Summary of Slaughterhouse-Five

Key Facts

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

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.

What Your Students Will Love About Slaughterhouse-Five

  • 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

Potential Student Struggles With Slaughterhouse-Five

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

Learning Objectives for 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.

Literary Elements in Slaughterhouse-Five

  • Allegory
  • Allusion
  • Circular Story
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metafiction
  • Repetition
  • Satire
  • Symbol
  • And more!

Major Themes in Slaughterhouse-Five

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.

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Warfare — 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.

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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.

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Other Resources for Slaughterhouse-Five

Order Slaughterhouse-Five Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Slaughterhouse-Five Paperback Student Edition
Slaughterhouse-Five Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Slaughterhouse-Five AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Slaughterhouse-Five Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set