Hope in a Slaughterhouse

An analysis of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five

By presenting stories in an atypical manner, authors are often able to emphasize a myriad of thematic aspects which might otherwise pass with little notice over the course of the novel. Such is the case in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the book is structured in a cyclical manner, allowing motifs to resurface themselves and thereby bolster the greater themes of renewal and the ability to maintain hope, even in the face of the dark horrors of war.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences deeply scarring and traumatic events over the course of his life, yet he is able to survive and maintain hope thanks to a belief in a circular construction of life, with life and death being intertwined in a self-renewing cycle; a structure which is mirrored by the format of the story itself. The narration frequently jumps anachronistically between events, often forming connections between mundane occurrences and traumatizing experiences in the life of Billy. This underscores the central theme of the novel – the ability to overcome terrifying adversity by taking comfort deep within ones own memories. It is this ability which allows Billy to thrive, despite the fact that he has witnessed true horror as a prisoner of war and a survivor of the firebombing of Dresden; he selectively filters his temporal perception, focusing on events which are comforting to him. For example, in his youth, Billy recalls a time when he is terrified upon being exposed to total darkness, but is comforted by the appearance of his father’s glowing watch. The story then leaps to World War II, and Billy, who has recently become a prisoner of war, stares at the face of a Russian prisoner and sees that they have “faces like radium dials” (p. 115). Thus Billy, despite being a prisoner of war, is able to maintain hope by linking terrifying events in his mind with comforting events of his past, creating an altered chronological perception wherein the past and the present are more directly connected, allowing Billy to cope with all he sees. By creating this altered time frame in Billy’s mind – a time frame mirrored in the book’s structuring – the book is able to more strongly convey themes of hope even in the direst of circumstances, directly condensing a variety of diverse events into a familiar, comforting pattern.

This pattern illustrates creates an overarching theme of hope and renewal, even in the face of death – it creates a mindset in which death is merely a temporary aberration, and happiness can always be attained by denying or ignoring the immediate reality in favor of another. The Tralfamadorians; an alien race which, in Billy’s mind, abduct him and teach him their way of life; are able to pass freely through time, and thus live by a philosophy of ignoring the bad and focusing on the good. As one Tralfamadorian puts it “There isn’t anything we can do about [negative events], so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments…” (p. 150). This philosophy encourages Billy to overlook the horrors of war which he has witnessed, and allows him to face even the bleakest of circumstances with the seemingly apathetic, noncommittal phrase “so it goes”. It also underlines the key theme of the book; life in the face of death; renewal in the face of destruction, a cycle wherein nothing is an end in-and-of itself. To illustrate this fact, the story closes in the darkest of settings – the bombed out shell of Dresden, where life was brutally cut short. Even in this dark setting, there is evidence of the return of life – springtime comes, and a lone bird appears before Billy, symbolizing hope of continued life even with death all around. This concept of a life-death cycle is at the core of the story, both structurally and thematically, with the cyclical nature of the story reinforcing the cyclical themes and strengthening the overall message of hope in the face of adversity.

By presenting Slaughterhouse-Five in a cyclically structured manner, Kurt Vonnegut is able to present themes of hope and renewal in a unique and particularly effective manner. This structure, coupled with its inherent anachronism, allows a direct relationship to be fused between strange and disturbing events and more comforting commonplace events, encouraging faith despite less-than-favorable circumstances. This structuring amplifies these themes of renewal, with recurring imagery, from a radium dial to signs of nature, arising countless times and reinforcing these thematic ideas, illustrating a cycle of renewal and hope, with even death merely being a temporary state from which recovery is inevitable. This cycle is at the core of the story, illustrating the great power of the human mind to protect itself from pain and to maintain an optimistic outlook in any situation.


  • McGinnis, Wayne Contemporary Literary Criticisms Vol.60 p415-417.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. The Dial Press, New York. 1969.

Literature | Essay | Book Review

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