15 powerful insights from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

There aren’t many writers who witnessed a 20th century apocalypse at first hand. But of those who have Kurt Vonnegut’s response, Slaughterhouse-Five, is arguably the most memorable. It was published in 1969, twenty-four years after Vonnegut, a 23 year-old American prisoner of war, survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden. This massive air attack, which killed 130,000 people and destroyed a city of no military significance was probably the most important thing, besides getting married and having children, which ever happened to him.

Maybe then it’s no surprise that this highly imaginative, nearly psychedelic novel, sandwiched between an autobiographical introduction and epilogue, is full of such poignant words of wisdom. After all as Vonnegut writes on the first page, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” While the other parts are products of his amazing imagination, as these observations below show, they are no less powerful for it.

1. “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

2. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference.”

3. “Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue… Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”

4. “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.”

5. “They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

6. “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

7. “Everything is nothing, with a twist.”

8. “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves…. It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.”

9. “All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

10. “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.”

11. “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.”

12. “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”

13. “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

14. “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

15. “So it goes.”

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8 replies

  1. Re: No. 2 – This quote is now referred to as the “Serenity Prayer” and is a paraphrase of part of a longer prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943.

  2. Read all of Vonnegut’s books as a young person in the 60s and onward. At the time I knew I resonated with them, but didn’t quite know what to do with the information. Now as a 65 yo man it’s all coming into focus. The things he says about the poor could also be said about the elderly I would think, not respected. Of course, not all of us deserve respect other than being a human being. Met Kurt one night at an NAACP meeting in Terre Haute, IN. He was the speaker. It was a brief moment and probably an even briefer moment for him. He, with all of his foibles, is my hero, with the exception of having Geraldo Rivera as a passing son-in-law (humor). Carpe Manana.

  3. These are great quotations from a great novel. Number 2, though, is the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. Vonnegut may be quoting it, but he didn’t write it.

  4. ahh, humanism. Shall there ever be such impeccable greats as Kurt, Hunter, Gore, Tom Robbins, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Steven King, and Molly Ivans?? I am concerned that in our ever more fragmented and marginalized existence and insistent stimuli, that we are losing our ability to produce likewise or even focus long enough to recognize/appreciate.

    I shall try tho!

  5. It’s funny, a couple of the Insights on this list are quotes from the character Howard Campbell, an allied spy working as a Nazi radio host and propagandist, more predominantly featured in Vonnegut’s ‘Mother Night.’ So essentially some of this “powerful insight” was fabricated by Kurt as Nazi propaganda. I’m not sure if it makes the sentiments any less true.

  6. I have taught this book to high school students probably fifty times (meaning I’ve read it that many times). I still laugh and cry every time. And, my kids never forget it. Example: a former student just sent me this site via FB and another former student already commented. =]

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