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Key Motifs of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

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In Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, we see how the use of motifs is used to demonstrate the devastating effect that the war has. It is revealed throughout the novel using the motifs ‘so it goes’, ‘poo-tee-weet’, and ‘mustard gas and roses’.

From early on in the novel all the way to the end, ‘so it goes’ is brought up whenever there is a mention of death. ‘So it goes’ simply means life goes on but in the story, it has been used to take death as being meaningless. Although this idea of living has been Billy’s coping mechanism for all the death and misery he has witnessed throughout the war, it has made Billy apathetic towards life. It also ties in with the PTSD that Billy gained in the war. He needed to find a way to cope with the trauma so in which he created Traflamadore. Their way of living could be said revolves around ‘so it goes’ and Billy has gone onto adapting an living by this phrase.

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Through the motif ‘mustard gas and roses’, we see how Vonnegut used two opposing words to demonstrate the devastating affect of war. We first hear this near the beginning of the novel when Vonnegut is describing his breathe as smelling of ‘mustard gas and roses’ and a little later says that he makes a phone call to an old friend while drunk. Billy later receives a call from a drunk man who is also said to have breath of ‘mustard gas and roses’. Vonnegut is connecting himself to Billy here showing how the war has affected him. We later on see a variation of this, “[t]here were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were max museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas”. It could be said that the rose represents the beautiful city of Dresden and the mustard gas is the chemical weapon that destroyed it all. The greatly opposing words here make this scene more clear. This is showing that the once beautiful city of Dresden which represents the rose would soon be ruined by mustard gas from the bomb. The opposing words clash here to represent this.

When everyone is dead from a massacre, you are left with dead silence and nothing to say, other than the birds that continue to sing ‘poo-tee-weet’. There are not any words that could truly be said to describe the outcome or justify the war. Vonnegut goes to say “[e]verything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say?’ .All there is to say about a massacre things like, ‘poo-tee-weet’ demonstrating that nothing truly intelligent could be said about the war. In the last line of the book, ‘poo-tee-weet’ is brought up once again showing th dead silence of Dresden after the war. Billy and the other prisoners leave the stable to find everything abandoned and in dead silence other then the birds that continue to say ‘poo-tee-weet’.

Through the motifs used in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, Vonnegut portrays the theme of destruction of war.

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Key Motifs of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from
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