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Free Study Guide Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Major Theme

The major theme of the book is the significance of fate in life. Throughout the novel, Billy is controlled by chance, never trying to change the course of his life until the very end. He allows himself to be mistreated by Roland Weary, to become engaged to a fat, unattractive woman, to travel through time to the past and the future without any control, to be kidnapped by aliens and imprisoned on Trafalmadore, to be in a plane crash even though he knows it is going to happen. The amazing thing is that Billy accepts what fate has to offer him without complaint or criticism. He submits to chance and then tries to make the best of it. Vonnegut seems to be saying that all of mankind has an element of fate in life; it is up to the individual about how to handle what life has to offer.

Minor Theme

A subtitle of the novel describes it as “A Duty Dance with Death,” which seems most appropriate since there is a kind of sweeping circularity in its references to war and dying. The entire novel centers on the horror of the Dresden bombing, the needless death of thousands of innocent civilians, and the senseless futility of violence. Throughout the book, Billy and Vonnegut try to grapple with the images of death and violence they have taken away from Dresden. Ironically, it is while he is imprisoned on Trafalmadore that Billy begins to put death into perspective. His captors teach him that the past, present, and future occur simultaneously in one continuous moment, and the challenge is to focus on the pleasant rather than the inevitable unpleasant in life. As a result, Billy begins to cope with his experience in Dresden, even going back to see the city long after the war is over. He learns to accept war, and all of its cruelties, as an inevitable part of life; although it does not make it any more pleasant or sensible, his new perspective helps Billy to cope. He also seems to come to grips with death, for when he time travels into the future and sees his own assassination, he accepts it with calm resignation. The reader is left to ponder whether Billy would have been more miserable in life if he had tried to fight his fate.


1. Vonnegut appears in the novel as a character. How does this affect the novel and what the author is trying to say?

2. Billy’s life is depicted through flashbacks and time travels into the past and future. From what you have learned about him through these methods, write a chronological history of Billy’s life.

3. Explain at least five ways that Billy displays his passivity in the novel.

4. Explain Billy’s relationship with Valencia (his wife), Barbara (his daughter), Roland Weary, Montana Wildhack, Kilgore Trout, and O’Hare.

5. Describe the three major settings in the novel and how Billy relates to each of them.

6. The destruction of Dresden is a symbol of all that is horrible and senseless in war and in life. How is Billy affected throughout his adult life by his Dresden experience?

7. What do the Trafalmadorians teach Billy about time and life? What does he decide to do with the information?

8. What are the themes of the book and how are they developed?

9. Why is the novel a tragedy?

10. Although the novel is somewhat disjointed, how does Vonnegut unify it into a whole?

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