The phrase “so it goes” appears after every mention of death and mortality in Slaughterhouse-Five. This seemingly flippant phrase reflects a Tralfamadorian philosophy that comforts Billy Pilgrim: while a person is dead in one particular moment, they are still alive and well in all of the other moments of their life, because all of time exists at once. Billy appreciates the simplicity of the Tralfamadorian response to death, and every time he encounters a dead person, he “simply shrug[s]” and says “so it goes.” The repetition of this phrase also illustrates how war desensitizes people to death, since with each passive mention of “so it goes,” the narrator is subtly tallying the death toll.
Slaughterhouse-Five’s subtitle “The Children’s Crusade” refers to the youthfulness of the soldiers who fought in World War II. Writing in his own voice at the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut describes how he visited Bernard V. O’Hare, an old war buddy, and was reprimanded by O’Hare’s wife, who hated the idea of Vonnegut glorifying masculine war heroes in his novel instead of describing the soldiers as innocent “babies.” She believed that “war would look just wonderful” if Vonnegut chose not to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers fighting in the wars. To honor Mrs. O’Hare’s request that he not inappropriately glorify war, Vonnegut promises to include the subtitle “The Children’s Crusade.”
Vonnegut is the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five. From the very first chapter, Vonnegut establishes himself as a character in his own novel, and he explicitly details his plans for the story to come, even going so far as to list the first and last lines of Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut explains that he was actually a prisoner of war during the Dresden bombing, adding a layer of truth to his later descriptions of Billy Pilgrim in Dresden. Besides the first and last chapters in which he speaks autobiographically, Vonnegut only periodically inserts himself into Billy’s story. He chooses to reveal his presence most often through the repetitive phrase “so it goes” after every mention of death. This commentary blurs the distinction between Vonnegut as the narrator, a character, and the author.
Before the novel begins, Vonnegut quotes four lines from the Christmas carol “Away In A Manger” to draw a comparison between Billy Pilgrim and Jesus Christ. Just as the quoted carol describes “the little Lord Jesus” not crying at all, Vonnegut describes Billy as crying very little, “though he often saw things worth crying about.” The only time Billy cries in the war is when he sees the miserable condition of the horses, but he somehow refrains from crying about every other tragedy he encounters, including the bombing of Dresden. In Chapter Nine, Vonnegut breaks the fourth wall and explicitly explains that he chose this epigraph to reveal how little emotion Billy showed in the war.
A barbershop quartet performs a song at Billy and Valencia’s anniversary party, and Billy feels upset because the singers remind him of the German guards in Dresden. At first, Billy can “find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely,” and he flees upstairs to escape the party and control his unexpected emotions. Upon reflection, he realizes that the open-mouthed quartet resembled the expression he saw on the faces of the German guards when they first came out from underground to witness the destruction of Dresden. Apparently, Billy never processed this encounter, and his reaction to the quartet “was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside.”