Symbols and Themes

The Senseless Tragedy of War

        The primary theme of Vonnegut’s overtly antiwar novel is the senseless—and, really, incomprehensible—tragedy of war. In the opening chapter, Vonnegut tells us that most of the war-related incidents in the novel are true, that these were things he really saw and experienced as a soldier in World War II. He hastens to assure us that he really did know a man who was shot to death for the petty crime of plundering a teapot from the wreckage of Dresden. From the grand scale—the 130,000 civilians who were either asphyxiated or burned to death during the Dresden massacre—to the small-scale, pointless execution of the perfectly harmless high school teacher, Edgar Derby, Slaughterhouse-Five exposes the reader to the irrational and horrifying realities of war. Vonnegut’s tone is one of heavy satire, which elucidates the tragi-comic absurdity of human behavior both in and out of wartime. Many of the dreadful things that happen in the novel—true as they are—are stunning in their absurdity. They simply do not seem to make any sense. Vonnegut uses comedic elements to emphasize this fact, thus illustrating the utter senselessness of war and its tragic consequences.

 “So it goes”

        The phrase “so it goes” is a motif in the novel that is repeated more than a hundred times. Vonnegut places this phrase immediately after every mention of death, whether he is speaking of the deaths of thousands of people, a single person, an animal, a bottle of champagne, or even an idea, as in “the death of the novel.” According to Billy Pilgrim, “So it goes” is what the Tralfamadorians say about death, because for them death is no great tragedy. Since they see past, present, and future simultaneously, death is only a momentary state and therefore there is no reason to be overly emotional about it. Of course, the...

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Essays About Slaughterhouse-Five