Slaughterhouse Five: Themes and Symbolism

Topics: Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five’s durability as a satiric masterwork is explained by two factors. First, the 1960s appear increasingly as a definitive era as we move further away from them. This is true for the reason that in that decade, with the help of television, domestic violence and martial violence merged for the first time in the cultural imagination. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, student riots, racial battles, political assassinations, as well as our usual glut of homicides, rapes, and assaults turned out to be the design of the national fabric.

Second, Vonnegut’s satire is the best from the era and the sharpest commentary on the era. By way of layered points of view, we are forced outside Slaughterhouse-Five to get “the frightful picture of the civilians killed at Dresden,” a massacre that Ira C. Eaker and Sir Robert Saundby so staunchly defend (166). “In Vonnegut’s text we hear about the corpse factory to which Dresden is reduced and know that it reeks of mustard gas and roses, but we are not eyewitnesses or participants”.

(Peter J. Reed, pp 88-101)The factual source of great innovation in Slaughterhouse Five is how Vonnegut transforms the war model into an excremental vision that efficiently captures the instinctual and definitive violence of the human animal. Vonnegut’s precise term is “excrement festival.” While he develops the notion all through the narrative, the specific metaphorical identifier takes place in one of the defining episodes of the narrative, when the English prisoners see the diarrheic Americans fouling their “tidy” latrine:“Billy looked inside the latrine.

Get quality help now
Dr. Karlyna PhD

Proficient in: Kurt Vonnegut

4.7 (235)

“ Amazing writer! I am really satisfied with her work. An excellent price as well. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over. . . . Billy reeled away from his vision of Hell. He passed three Englishmen who were watching the excrement festival from a distance. They were catatonic with disgust”. (113-114)Vonnegut makes use of “excrement festival” as rhetorical shorthand for a basic horror that lies beyond the capabilities of conventional language. The deductive plan for which “excrementfestival” is substituted might be stated consequently: War is the most gigantic expression of human violence. Modern warfare has turned out to be so terrible that rhetoric fails to describe it. What, therefore, is the merely further fundamental and universal human action that might replace war and serve as a literary allegory for violence? Vonnegut’s answer, as seen in the “excrement festival” description, is bodily functions. They are, ironically the great democratic constant. “Festival” and the joy the term means show that Vonnegut is not taking himself or the process very seriously. Like Walt Whitman, he celebrates the bodily functions; however he does so with an absurd humor that the nineteenth-century romantic would hardly appreciate, or recognize. (Patrick Hruby, pp 88-101)For Vonnegut “excrement” means all the waste matter discharged from the body, including semen. Perhaps “orificial vision” would be a more appropriate designation for Vonnegut’s satire, since the term covers all the bodily apertures through which Vonnegut sees waste oozing or exploding. However, “excrement festival” is Vonnegut’s own term, used with fall awareness of its Swiftian and Freudian connotations. It is thus the more appropriate phrase to use in discussing Vonnegut’s motif.Vonnegut’s recognizing these fundamental associations among war, excrement, and the ideas by which America identifies itself is at once simple and ingenious. Using various techniques, Vonnegut artfully correlates the associations. The simplest narrative device he uses to correlate the three elements is the conventional rhetorical connectors that unite excrement, war, and American values. For example, Roland Weary, the rabid defender of democracy, threatens to beat the “living shit” out of Pilgrim. Valencia Merble and the callous girl at the Chicago City News Bureau both eat Three Musketeers bars, thereby connecting themselves to Weary’s idiotic identification with Dumas’s fabulous martial quartet. Such connectors effectively anticipate the more subtle digestion motif identified as the “excrement festival.”With the digestion motif, Vonnegut unifies all other significant elements of the text regarding war and waste production. “Lest we forget, digestion is the process of enzymes relentlessly attacking food inside the body. This essential life process in turn produces feces, urine, sweat, phlegm, and other waste materials that make up Vonnegut’s “excrement festival.” Therefore, the human body is both a very efficient waste producer and a macrocosmic battle ground of unrelenting violence”. (Peter J. Reed, 1997)Like the collective human body called society, the individual human body is in a constant duty dance with death. The body will ultimately dance its last and become waste that in turn becomes food for other microbes that carry on the same eternal battle. So it goes. Others have used the war-biology metaphor before, as Hemingway does in A Farewell to Arms, where he develops the “biological trap” concept. Only Vonnegut, however, develops this attack-and destroys cycle of the digestive processes into the linchpin association between war and excrement. Once developed, it works on levels ranging from the absolutely ridiculous and juvenile to the totally tragic and extra-linguistic. (Wayne D. McGinnis, pp 200-233)In Slaughterhouse-Five, the rhetoric of violence is the seemingly endless obscenities used to describe the excrement festival. Vonnegut’s references to “filth” are so abundant that wardens of the national virtue have often tried to ban Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut himself refers in Palm Sunday to his battles with book-burners in North Dakota; and the Christian Science Monitor reports that a circuit court judge in Oakland County, Michigan ordered that Slaughterhouse-Five be removed from the schools. It is, the judge declared, a “‘degradation of the person of Christ’ and full of ‘repetitious obscenity and immorality'” (681). To enumerate all the references to bodily functions that make up this “repetitious obscenity” would require that we separate the implied or metaphorical allusions from the overt. The simple fact is that excremental allusions ranging from basic Anglo-Saxon profanities to sophomoric double entendres to complex metaphors dominate the text of Slaughterhouse Five. From the mass, there are four substantive examples to illustrate the development of Vonnegut’s themes and symbolism: the description of the Tralfamadorian, the prison boxcar scene, the backward move, and the photograph of the girl and pony. (Is this the thesis? YES)Billy Pilgrim’s description of his alien kidnapers is the indispensable summary passage in the narrative design. It pictorializes the creatures who form the core of Vonnegut’s satire and who determine Pilgrim’s peculiar philosophy. (Kathryn Hume, pp 155-178)The initial point to make about the Tralfamadorians is that because they have no concept of death they also have no concept of pain or suffering. Thus they personify pure violence. With a shrug, and dismissing the act with their usual “So it goes,” they blow the universe to bits without qualms or regrets. Also, these are “second generation” or “second stage” Tralfamadorians. In The Sirens of Titan the Tralfamadorians are not peculiarlyshaped and emotionless machines. They are very much like humans. Feeling superior, they invent a machine to do all their low purpose tasks. When the machine reports to them that they have no purpose at all, they therefore start killing each other because they hate things that have no purpose. This irrational, violent demise foreshadows the fate that awaits Earthlings.The two features most striking about the Tralfamadorian are: (1) its likeness to the common household gadget used to unclog toilets, and (2) its exaggerated optic capacity. These are the two characteristics that Vonnegut uses to establish the connection between everyday, ordinary domestic life and imminent violence. Despite this spastic world view, Pilgrim is the typical American. He is a harmless drudge from a dysfunctional family who does his military duty, goes to school, marries the ugly daughter of a wealthy man, fills a respectable job and dreams of escape from the Capitalist rut. When in psychological crisis, therefore, it is fitting that Pilgrim turns not to the crucified Christ whose picture hangs above his bed but to the American values that have caused his crisis. He envisions his savior in the image of an ordinary household device used for loosening excrement and accumulated filth from sewage pipes.Symbolically, this is the same function that the Tralfamadorians perform for Pilgrim: they cleanse the pipes of his perception, unclog his vision by disabusing him of historical, sociological fixations. The parallax view of this function is that Pilgrim himself is also excrement. He cannot willfully inflict pain upon another human being. Consequently, no matter how benevolent his intentions or how financially successful he becomes; he remains a scrap of human waste sticking in the cultural pipes. Pilgrim cannot alter the social predicament, but thanks to a brain trauma and the Tralfamadorians, he transfers his dilemma to a second dimension. He comes “unstuck in time” (26), thereby unclogging his own perceptions so that he realizes “the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time” (169). To realize the true nature of time simply means to quit trying to understand time. That is, by complying in his own status as waste, he frees himself from spatio-temporal reality. He lets go of all intellectual pretense and philosophical biases and drifts into a psychic state where he is untethered to any moral or political codes. He is freed from cultural gravity.In the context of this historical reality, poetic vision is nonsensical. Vonnegut makes no claim to it and has no faith in it. His narrator self observes ironically that “Among the things Billy could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (58). Though Pilgrim is truly a seer, unlike the idealistic poets, he fails to convince the populace that he is anything other than a madman.This “sight” metaphor carries over to the second summary passage: Vonnegut’s description of the American prisoners in the German boxcars:“To the guards who walked up and down outside, each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators, too. In went water and loaves of blackbread and sausage and cheese, and out came shit and piss and language”. (66-678)The boxcar scene shows how our pipes get so clogged. Everything entering the human body or mind–food, language, history–emerges as waste. The “shit and piss and language” are the ultimate product of all human endeavors. In the microcosmic confines of the prison car, the men are reduced to their basic biological form: they are consumers and excreters, a collective singular waste-producing organism. They see the world only through occasional cracks in the boxcar door or through the ventilators, a condition paralleling the human tunnel vision that the Tralfamadorians later ridicule. Moreover, the boxcar further shows how human vision is impaired by human waste. The prisoners view the universe through the same apertures that have just been fouled by their own excrement. (Sanford Pinsker, pp 42-66).The direct connection between the boxcar and the beautiful, doomed city is that the “sausage” eaten by the American prisoners probably comes from the Dresden slaughterhouse. The black bread too later shows up in the kitchen of Schlachthoffünf, cooked for the Americans by an impatient German war widow (142). In this way the Dresden slaughterhouse produces the excrement that comes out through the boxcar apertures. Dresden epitomizes urban civilization. There the genius of man produced a viable monument to architecture, music, and art, as described by Mary Endell in 1908 (21). That same genius produces the prison trains and the bombs that destroy Dresden. That incineration reduces Dresden’s inhabitants to “tons of human bone meal” (7), a metaphor that returns us to the waste producing example from which we began. The narrative cycle encompassing Dresden and the prison boxcar symbolizes the conflict between the human instinct to violence and the conscious awareness that such violence must be controlled lest the species disappear. It is a lesson, obviously, that humans have not learned.The boxcar scene also symbolizes Slaughterhouse-Five per se. The book itself is part of Vonnegut’s excrement festival. Vonnegut has consumed hunks and fragments of history, the most indigestible being his experiences in Dresden. He says that he “thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden” (8), but discovers that he suffers from a creative constipation that remains unrelieved for twenty-three years. In trying to purge Dresden from his memory he recalls a limerick that concludes: “And now you won’t pee you old fool” (8). By tragicomically associating his own inability to write with the inability to urinate, and by expressing his frustration in a bawdy limerick, Vonnegut shows that his novel is the ultimate example of the excremental motif that sustains it. Slaughterhouse Five is, in short, the waste product of Vonnegut’s illustration of the imagination. Language, whether written or oral, is merely part of the excrement that passes through the mental ventilators. (Thomas Reed Whissen, pp 321-329)The third summary passage exemplifies the war technology implied in the boxcar episode. The scene in which Pilgrim imagines viewing a war movie backward, perhaps more overtly than any other in the novel, shows how closely violence is linked with every trait of the human animal. Vonnegut was not the first to exploit the similarity of bomber. Vonnegut, however, greatly extends the suitable Freudian metaphor. To the bomber’s defecation he adds the fighter planes’ spewing bullets in steel ejaculation. Like Freud, whom he satirizes, Vonnegut associates defecation and ejaculation with destructiveness: war, in one way or another, is the collective human response to sexuality and poor toilet training. (William E. K. Meyer Jr, pp 78)In Pilgrim’s idealistic dream world, however, evil and brutality are removed from the excremental-sexual processes. Pilgrim imagines that the indefinite reversal of the biological functions will terminate in the re-perfection of Adam and Eve, the original apple-eaters, sinners, and waste producers. Appropriately, Pilgrim sees Eve’s modern counterparts as the ones who eliminate the “dangerous contents” from the cylinders that suggests both the phallic and the fecal. Pilgrim characteristically misses the point that Eve is the typical mother of evil and that the modern women who now disarm the bombs also produced the soldiers and bombardiers who use the weapons to kill the sons and daughters of other mothers. In Pilgrim’s defense, however, we have to remember that when he envisions the comforting reversal depicted in the backward movie, he has not yet been re-educated by the Tralfamadorians. The spacemen soon come to flush such romantic sentimentalism (shit, Vonnegut would say) from his mind. They eliminate the myths, old wives’ tales, and historical-psychological sewage from his thinking. Conventional wisdom judges him insane, but the psychic flushing is nonetheless what frees Pilgrim from his mother, his wife Valencia, his intrusive daughter Barbara, and other daughters of Eve. Once freed, he replaces them with his ideal Eve: Montana Wildhack, a porn queen whore. (Jerome Klinkowitz, pp 77-102)The fourth summary passage is not so much a scene as a recurring emblem. Vonnegut, like Swift with his maps and charts, has a penchant for graphics. Therefore this fourth instance is another graphic, though one that does not appear literally in the novel but only in the reader’s interesting imagination. It is the “dirty picture of a woman attempting sexual intercourse with a Shetland pony” (40). This is the first pornographic photograph in history, having been made in 1841 by André Le Fève, an assistant to Louis Daguerre. Like a bawdy cue card, the photo pops up throughout history and Vonnegut’s narrative. Le Fève defends it as representing mythological couplings. Despite this artistic effort, he is condemned as a pornographer and dies in prison. Roland Weary, in World War II, carries a copy as part of his survival kit. The Germans who capture him steal it. Pilgrim stumbles across another copy in 1968 while investigating a New York porn shop that is appropriately adorned with “fly shit” on the windows (177).Not only is the photograph a graphic example of absurd and a mocking reminder of what Eve’s sin has led her daughters to, but it is another link in Vonnegut’s thematic satire of artistic creation. John Keats’ urn, for instance, is an “unravished bride of quietness” and a “Sylvan historian” that also depicts a scene of seduction from Greek myth. Like the doomed original photographer of the woman-and-pony tableau, Keats’ ode claims to make a statement about truth and beauty. Vonnegut’s reoccurring photograph of a willing whore about to be ravished by a horse, however, is a reminder that throughout history love has been the accelerating converter in a waste producing machine. One of the cruelest aspects of the joke implied by the photograph is about poets such as Keats who attempt to understand and transcribe the foolishness of humankind. Love, art, and the general human dilemma are not expressed in pretty sonnets, but in profane poetry such as that sung by the barbershop quartet for Pilgrims’ father. (Sanford Pinsker, pp 42-66)The ultimate irony underlying the excremental vision is that humans have developed some truly beautiful, inspiring myths and ideas (the Garden of Eden, Heaven, Nirvana, Love, Art). The powerful instinct to violence, however, with all its resultant horrors, has distorted such visions beyond recognition. Little in Vonnegut argues for optimism, but deep in the black mass of his absurdist talent flickers a minute candle of possibility.

Cite this page

Slaughterhouse Five: Themes and Symbolism. (2018, Jun 06). Retrieved from

Slaughterhouse Five: Themes and Symbolism
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7