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The Role of Color Motifs and Imagery in Slaughterhouse Five

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In a literary text, imagery enables the author to appeal to human senses through the use of vivid and descriptive language. Kurt Vonnegut incorporates this rhetorical device throughout the text of his novel Slaughterhouse Five, through the use of color motifs and olfactory imagery. Vonnegut uses imagery to convey the emotions and personal qualities of the protagonist of the novel, Billy. He is able to achieve this by connecting Billy’s character to several motifs that continuously appear throughout the plot of Slaughterhouse Five. Thus, the presence of color motifs and olfactory imagery in Slaughterhouse Five advances and strengthens the characterization of Billy Pilgrim throughout the course of the novel.

Early on in the novel, Billy writes a letter to the Ilium newspaper regarding his experience on planet Tralfamadore. He works on this letter in the cool environment of his basement, where “the temperature in the house was…fifty degrees” since “The oil burner had quit” (26). The cool environment also affects Billy’s body as “his bare feet were blue and ivory” (26). However, “The cockles of Billy’s heart, at any rate, were glowing coals. What made them so hot was Billy’s belief that he was going to comfort so many people with the truth of time” (26). Vonnegut is able to effectively delineate Billy’s delusional character. First, he describes the colors of Billy’s feet as blue and ivory. In Slaughterhouse Five, blue and ivory represent the thin line that divides worldly experiences from otherworldly experiences. To show, whenever Billy is about to “time travel” in the text, his feet turn blue-and-ivory, and he soon ends up in a completely different location and time. Essentially, the blue-and-ivory motif is an indicator of when Billy switches from reality to fantasy, and vice versa. Additionally, Vonnegut utilizes these colors to show that Billy is on a threshold that separates mutually exclusive states (worldly and otherworldly). Billy’s position reflects his state of disillusionment, as shown by his belief that he lives in two worlds: earth, and the four-dimensional planet of Tralfamadore, where inhabitants exist in all times simultaneously. The extent of Billy’s disillusionment is also shown by Vonnegut’s use of imagery and a metaphor: the comparison of his heart to glowing coals. Billy is so invested with his experiences in Tralfamadore that he has a burning passion to publish his escapades in the Ilium. Also, his heart is warmed as he believes that he can impact many people with the truth of time. In reality, Billy’s mental stability has declined significantly since his time in World War II, to the point where he cannot distinguish reality from fantasy. Lastly, the contrast between the cool environment of Billy’s basement and the fiery passion that exists in his heart suggests his disconnection from reality. The cool environment of his basement represents the mundane reality of Earth, whereas the fiery passion that exists in Billy’s heart signifies his delusional character – as he believes that he can change the world by disclosing the truth about time. Therefore, early on in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut is able to characterize Billy as a delusional man who believes he coexists in two distinct worlds by utilizing color motifs and imagery.

Later on in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy is captured by the Germans and is transported in a train with other American soldiers. The train “[was] marked with a with a striped banner of orange and black, indicating that [it] was not fair game for airplanes – that it was carrying prisoners of war” (66). The orange-and-black motif also appears when Billy has trouble sleeping on his daughter’s wedding night. “The wedding had taken place that afternoon in a gaily striped tent in Billy’s backyard. The stripes were orange and black” (69). The repetition of the orange-and-black motif reflects the effect of the war on Billy. Even in his happiest times, like his daughter’s wedding, he is reminded of the horrors that he went through during the war. In a way, the orange-and-black motif represents Billy’s post-traumatic stress disorder, which starts to show during his time in the war. For example, Billy is ordered by a doctor to take a daily nap, however “Every so often, for no apparent reason, [he] would fine himself weeping…Only the doctor knew. It was an extremely quiet thing Billy did, and not very moist” (59). Billy’s sleeping troubles alienate the other prisoners and “Nearly everybody…had an atrocity story of something [Billy] had done to him in his sleep. Everybody told Billy Pilgrim to keep the hell away” (75). Billy’s PTSD also shows when a siren goes off; “He [expected] World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon” (55). Vonnegut effectively uses the orange-and-black motif to illustrate Billy’s PTSD, as the colors trigger him to think about his time in the war. When Billy’s feet turn blue and ivory, he goes downstairs and sees a distorted movie about World War II, where “American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighters planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen” (71). The orange-and-black motif also represents Billy’s view on his marriage, as he associates the stripes on the tent where the wedding took place with the stripes on the train that carried the prisoners of war. Billy feels trapped in his marriage as he did not marry Valencia out of love, he married her for convenience, since her father owns the Ilium School of Optometry (where Billy later studies). Also, when Billy travels back to his wedding night, Vonnegut reveals that “He had already seen a lot of their marriage, thanks to time-travel, knew that it was going to be at least bearable all the way” (114). It is evident that Billy feels trapped, as he talks about how the marriage would at least be bearable. Also, when Valencia tells Billy “I never thought anybody would marry me” (114), all he can manage to say is “Um” (114), which suggests his realization of the predicament he has gotten himself into. The orange-and-black motif effectively illustrates Billy’s sentiments as he was once trapped in a train as a prisoner of war and now he is trapped in a marriage with Valencia, a person who he doesn’t genuinely love. To summarize, Vonnegut is able to utilize an orange-and-black motif to depict Billy’s mental fragility, and to illustrate Billy feeling trapped in his marriage with Valencia.

Throughout the plot of Slaughterhouse Five, the motif of “mustard gas and roses is continuously mentioned. Also, Vonnegut employs olfactory imagery as he uses the smell of mustard gas and roses to enhance the text in Slaughterhouse Five. At the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut comments “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses” (4). Vonnegut admits to having a problem with drunk calling, and likens the smell of his breath to the odors of mustard gas and roses. Interestingly enough, on Billy’s daughter’s wedding night, Billy gets a call from a drunk dialer and claims how he can almost pick up the mustard gas and roses scent on his breath. The drunk dialer is Vonnegut, and the mustard gas and roses motif allows him to connect his personal experiences and memories with Billy. In addition, the odor of mustard gas signifies the war’s influence on Vonnegut, as Billy’s experiences in the war parallel what Vonnegut went through. Therefore, the mustard gas and roses motif establishes a personal connection between Billy and Vonnegut. Moving on, the mustard and gases motif allows Vonnegut to advance the characterization of Billy. For example, Billy has trouble sleeping on his daughter’s wedding night and aimlessly wanders around his house. He walks into his daughter’s empty bedroom, and the phone on her windowsill rings. “Billy [answers]. There was a drunk on the other end. Billy could almost smell his breath – mustard gas and roses” (70). Towards the end of the novel, Billy is back in Dresden, digging for bodies. “There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas” (204). The oxymoronic combination of mustard gas and roses allows Vonnegut to illustrate how the war has changed Billy’s character. The fact that he uses the odor of mustard gas to describe the breath of the drunk caller reflects the lasting impact the war has had on Billy, as it seems as if he has not forgotten the horrors he experienced in Dresden. Billy also associates mustard gas with the smell of the corpse mines, which suggests that the odor of mustard gas has a morbid connotation to him. Billy seems to be reminded of the smell of mustard gas often, which reflects his negative experiences as a soldier. Therefore, Vonnegut’s usage of the mustard gas motif gives the audience an insight into how the war has taken over Billy’s serenity, and how he will never be able to forget what he experienced in Dresden. In addition, Vonnegut pairs mustard gas with roses, an unlikely combination, as mustard gas represents the war and his mental trauma, whereas roses are usually associated with love and beauty. The oxymoronic combination signifies how damaged he has become as a result of the war, which is reflected in his characterization of Billy. Also, Vonnegut invokes the odor of roses as sort of a coping mechanism, in order to escape the harsh reality of what he experienced in Dresden. This is used to demonstrate Billy’s mental frailty, as Vonnegut portrays him as someone who is trying his best to move on from his horrid experience in the war, but keeps relapsing due to his PTSD and delusional state of mind. In conclusion, the motif of mustard gas and roses highlights the war’s lasting impact on Billy and allows Vonnegut to create a personal connection with Billy.

The presence of color motifs and vivid descriptions in Slaughterhouse Five advances and strengthens the characterization of Billy Pilgrim throughout the course of the plot. Kurt Vonnegut accomplishes this by utilizing color motifs and olfactory imagery throughout the course of the text. He is able to portray Billy as a delusional man who believes that he coexists in two distinct worlds. Furthermore, Vonnegut is able to illustrate the war’s impact on Billy, by delving into his fragile state of mind. The use of imagery in literature has allowed authors to illustrate abstract thoughts and emotions, by appealing to human senses through the utilization of vivid and descriptive language.

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The Role of Color Motifs and Imagery in Slaughterhouse Five. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
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