Literary Qualities

Vonnegut’s title page statement that Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a “telegraphic schizophrenic manner” is a fairly accurate description of the novel’s stylistic approach. Drawing on the literary devices of “flashback” and “flash-forward,” Vonnegut ignores the restrictions of linear time and fixed space to fashion a novel that, despite its sometimes extraterrestrial setting, displays less affinity with science fiction than it does with psychological drama. Vonnegut, the writer-narrator, moves freely through narrative time, mixing descriptions of historic Dresden and his personal wartime experiences with Tralfamadorian fantasy and characters from his earlier fiction. Playing Tralfamadorian time against sequential Earth time allows Vonnegut to establish the psychic disorder of both Billy and the society that has produced him.

Vonnegut denies being a science fiction writer, and some critics have argued that Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel of “science reality” rather than science fiction. Vonnegut describes a world in which technology has rendered an event such as the annihilation of 135,000 people both possible and almost beneath notice. Although Slaughterhouse-Five does not fit neatly into any one genre, it stakes a place for itself in the literary canon with a combination of startling originality and thought-provoking literary allusion. Billy Pilgrim’s name implies a connection to John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan’s Christian explorer, Billy is exposed to the evils of the world, but unlike Bunyan’s pilgrim, Billy is not supported by the vision of a Celestial City at the end of the journey. Instead, he envisions the moment of his own death. Vonnegut’s adaptation of this famous Christian allegory, combined with his ironic references to the ill-fated Children’s Crusade, clearly indicates his belief that modern religion has failed humankind. As for the novel’s protagonist, it is unclear whether Billy has really become “unstuck in time,” or whether, like so many madmen in literature before him, he has merely denied reality and has thereby released himself from the horrors of his world.

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