Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut that follows Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during World War II and afterwards. According to many literary critics, the book is semi-autobiographical since Vonnegut himself lived through the firebombing of Dresden, a major event that occurs in the book.
The novel centers around the horrific events that Pilgrim suffered through during the war, but Vonnegut also uses comic relief to offset this negative tone. Vonnegut famously uses the line “so it goes” everytime someone dies in the book. This line demonstrates the author’s lighthearted approach to the death of a character, regardless of the role that character played. This line also contributes to Vonnegut’s examination of the randomness of death. One of Vonnegut’s earliest uses of the phrase is when he is describing a plane crash, “Early in 1986, a group of optometrists, with Billy among them, chartered an airplane to fly them from Ilium to an international convention of optometrists in Montreal. The plane crashed on top of the Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everybody was killed but Billy. So it goes” (31). This example shows that death is unsystematic and unplanned; people are killed indiscriminately and randomly. Vonnegut finds humor in other ways as well. For example, Billy describes the Tralfamadore, an alien species that supposedly abducts him, as small, “green” aliens with heads that are “shaped like plumber’s friends.” Billy’s description is funny and amusing, but still the Tralfamadorians serve a purpose in the novel, specifically when it comes to Billy’s perception of time.
Time plays a key role in the first half of the book, and I predict it will continue to do so. The Tralfamadorians introduce Billy to a new view on time. The Tralfamadorians can see things in the fourth dimension and believe that when someone dies, they are only dead in that moment. In a different point in time that person is still alive. Billy struggles to understand time, and Vonnegut even writes that “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29). Vonnegut brings this line to life by the way he chooses to structure the flow of the novel. The novel continually jumps around in time, touching on different parts in Billy’s life. The reader becomes “unstuck” with time alongside Billy. Vonnegut could also be using Billy’s struggle with time as proof of the negative effects of PTSD. Vonnegut was part of the army during World War II and his experience during the war could be affecting his choice of how to craft the novel.