Coming Through Slaughter

By Michael Ondaatje


📚 Coming Through Slaughter, penned by the illustrious Michael Ondaatje, dives into the heart of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, bringing to life the story of the legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden, often considered the father of jazz. Ondaatje, a poet and novelist with a knack for blurring the lines between history and fiction, crafts a narrative that’s as improvisational and haunting as the jazz music its protagonist helped pioneer.

Published in 1976, this novel stands out for its lyrical prose, fragmented structure, and deep dive into the psyche of a man caught between genius and madness. Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka in 1943 and later becoming a Canadian citizen, is no stranger to exploring themes of identity, displacement, and the complexities of the creative process. Coming Through Slaughter is a brilliant testament to his unique talent, situating itself in a genre that melds historical fiction with a poetic exploration of its characters’ inner worlds. 🎷🎶

This work not only invites readers to experience the vibrant, tumultuous world of early jazz but also to consider the thin line between innovation and self-destruction. As we explore the life of Buddy Bolden through Ondaatje’s lens, we’re invited into a narrative that is as fragmented and explosive as the music that inspired it, making Coming Through Slaughter a compelling read for anyone fascinated by the intersections of history, music, and literature.

Plot Summary

Coming Through Slaughter tells a gripping tale through the life of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, intertwining fact with fiction to explore the depths of creativity and madness. Here’s how the story unfolds:

Exposition — We’re introduced to New Orleans in the early 1900s, a city buzzing with the nascent sounds of jazz. Buddy Bolden, a barber by profession, emerges as a pioneering cornet player, capturing the spirit of the city with his music. Despite his growing fame, Buddy struggles with personal demons and the pressures of his life.

Rising Action — Buddy’s life becomes more complicated as he navigates relationships, including with his wife Nora and a photographer named Webb, who seeks to document his life. His fame continues to grow, but so do his struggles with mental health and the challenges of balancing his personal life with his music career.

Climax — The climax occurs during a legendary performance at a parade, where Buddy, driven by passion and turmoil, plays his cornet with such intensity that it becomes a defining moment of his career. This performance, however, also marks the beginning of his rapid decline.

Falling Action — After the peak of his performance, Buddy’s mental health deteriorates further. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and his relationships suffer. The pressures of his life and career begin to take an insurmountable toll.

Resolution — The story concludes with Buddy’s tragic descent into madness. He is eventually institutionalized, leaving behind his music, his loved ones, and the city that once danced to his rhythms. The novel closes with a reflection on Buddy’s legacy and the impact he had on jazz, seen through the eyes of those who knew him and the culture that outlived him.

Through this narrative, Ondaatje captures the essence of a man who could never quite come through the slaughter of his own inner turmoil, despite the indelible mark he left on the world of music. The story of Buddy Bolden, as told by Ondaatje, is a haunting exploration of genius and madness, set against the backdrop of a city where music was life itself.

Character Analysis

In Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje crafts characters as complex and compelling as the jazz music that forms the novel’s backdrop. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • Buddy Bolden — A talented cornet player credited with being one of the originators of jazz. Bolden is depicted as a man of great passion and creativity, but also one plagued by personal demons and mental illness. His struggle to balance his musical genius with the pressures of life and his deteriorating mental health forms the crux of the novel. His character development is a poignant exploration of the fine line between brilliance and madness.
  • Nora — Buddy’s loyal but long-suffering wife. Nora represents stability and the pull of domestic life against the chaotic backdrop of Buddy’s music career and his internal turmoil. Her character evolves from a supportive partner to a woman grappling with the painful realities of loving someone who is slowly succumbing to mental illness.
  • Webb — A photographer who becomes fascinated with Buddy and his music. Webb’s character serves as a lens through which the reader can view Buddy from an external perspective. He symbolizes the attempt to capture and understand genius, as well as the desire to preserve it for posterity. His interactions with Buddy offer insights into the complexities of artistic expression and the burdens of creativity.
  • Robin Brewitt — A fictional character representing the various influences on Buddy’s life and music. Brewitt, a clarinet player, embodies the competitive and collaborative nature of the jazz scene in New Orleans. His relationship with Buddy highlights themes of rivalry, friendship, and the exchange of creative ideas.
  • Jaelin — A friend and fellow musician, Jaelin’s character showcases the camaraderie and sense of community among the early jazz musicians. His interactions with Buddy provide a glimpse into the supportive but challenging world they navigated together.

Here’s a summary table of their character development:

Buddy BoldenPassionate, troubled, geniusTo express himself through music; to find peaceFrom celebrated musician to a tragic figure of madness
NoraLoyal, patient, sufferingTo support Buddy; to maintain a semblance of normalcyFrom supportive spouse to a woman facing harsh realities
WebbObservant, contemplativeTo document and understand Buddy’s geniusBecomes more intertwined with Buddy’s life and legacy
Robin BrewittCompetitive, creativeTo assert his place in the music scene; to engage with Buddy’s talentReflects the dynamic and competitive spirit of jazz
JaelinSupportive, community-mindedTo be part of the burgeoning jazz movement; to support his friendsEmphasizes the importance of community and collaboration

Through these characters, Ondaatje delves into the complexities of creativity, identity, and the human condition, set against the vibrant and tumultuous backdrop of early 20th-century New Orleans.

Themes and Symbols

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje is rich with themes and symbols that weave through the narrative, providing depth and insight into the characters and their world. Here’s an exploration of the major themes and symbols in the novel:


  • The Blur Between Genius and Madness — The novel deeply explores the thin line between brilliance and insanity, particularly through the character of Buddy Bolden. His extraordinary musical talent is inseparable from his eventual descent into madness, suggesting that genius and madness might be two sides of the same coin.
  • The Impact of Creativity on Identity — Buddy’s identity is strongly tied to his music, showing how creativity can define and consume an individual. The novel questions whether it’s possible to separate an artist from their art and at what cost.
  • Isolation and Connection — Despite Buddy’s connections with others, he often feels isolated, trapped within his own mind and creativity. Yet, the novel also showcases the power of music to connect people, cultures, and emotions, highlighting the duality of artistic expression as both isolating and unifying.
  • The Ephemeral Nature of Existence — Through Buddy’s story, the novel meditates on the fleeting nature of life, fame, and even sanity. The transitory moments of beauty and brilliance in jazz reflect the impermanence of existence itself.


  • The Cornet — Buddy’s cornet symbolizes his voice, his identity, and his genius. It’s a source of joy and pain, capable of both connecting him to others and isolating him in his pursuit of perfection.
  • Photographs — Photographs in the novel symbolize the attempt to capture and preserve moments of fleeting genius. Webb’s efforts to photograph Buddy reflect the broader human desire to hold onto what is ephemeral and transient.
  • New Orleans — The city itself is a symbol of creativity, diversity, and complexity. It’s the backdrop against which the story of Buddy Bolden unfolds, representing both the richness of cultural fusion and the darker aspects of society.
  • Water and Floods — Water, often mentioned in the context of floods, symbolizes the uncontrollable forces that can shape and destroy lives. Like the unpredictable floods of New Orleans, Buddy’s creativity and madness are forces beyond anyone’s control, shaping his destiny in unforeseeable ways.

Through these themes and symbols, Coming Through Slaughter offers a rich tapestry of insights into the human condition, creativity, and the fragile beauty of existence. The novel invites readers to reflect on the complexities of genius, the nature of art, and the deep connections that bind us to each other and to the places we inhabit.

Style and Tone

The writing style and tone of Michael Ondaatje in Coming Through Slaughter are as integral to the novel’s impact as its plot and characters. Ondaatje’s approach combines lyrical prose, historical narrative, and avant-garde structure to create a unique reading experience that mirrors the jazz music at the heart of the story. Here are some key elements of his style and tone:

  • Lyrical Prose: Ondaatje’s prose often reads like poetry, with a rhythm and flow that evoke the improvisational nature of jazz music. This lyrical quality draws readers into the atmospheric setting of New Orleans and the complex inner world of Buddy Bolden.
  • Fragmented Narrative: The novel’s structure is non-linear and fragmented, mirroring the unpredictable and chaotic nature of Bolden’s life and the jazz music he plays. This stylistic choice challenges readers to piece together the story from various perspectives and time periods, enhancing the thematic exploration of memory, identity, and creativity.
  • Intimate Tone: Ondaatje employs an intimate and contemplative tone, inviting readers into the private struggles and triumphs of his characters. This closeness creates a powerful connection between the reader and the characters, particularly Buddy, whose internal battles are rendered with profound empathy.
  • Historical and Fictional Blending: The author seamlessly blends historical facts with fictional elements, creating a narrative that feels authentic yet imaginative. This blending blurs the lines between reality and fiction, encouraging readers to question the nature of truth and the ways in which stories are told and remembered.
  • Imagery and Symbolism: Rich imagery and symbolism permeate the novel, with Ondaatje using vivid descriptions to convey themes of creativity, destruction, and transcendence. The use of symbols, like the cornet and photographs, adds layers of meaning, inviting deeper reflection on the part of the reader.
  • Conversational Elements: At times, the narrative adopts a conversational tone, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. This approach adds a layer of immediacy and engagement, making the reader an active participant in the unfolding story.

In summary, the style and tone of Coming Through Slaughter are essential to its storytelling, reflecting the complexity of its characters and themes. Ondaatje’s use of lyrical prose, fragmented narrative, and a blend of historical and fictional elements creates a rich, immersive experience that captures the essence of jazz itself—improvisational, emotive, and endlessly complex.

Literary Devices used in Coming Through Slaughter

In Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje utilizes a range of literary devices to enrich the narrative and deepen the reader’s engagement with the story. Here are the top 10 devices highlighted in the novel:

  1. Stream of Consciousness — This technique is used to represent the continuous flow of thoughts and feelings running through a character’s mind. Ondaatje employs this device to delve into Buddy Bolden’s psyche, offering an intimate glimpse into his genius and madness.
  2. Imagery — Vivid descriptions that appeal to the senses are used throughout the novel to bring the world of early 20th-century New Orleans to life. Imagery of music, the city’s landscapes, and the intense emotions of characters enhances the atmospheric quality of the narrative.
  3. Symbolism — Objects, characters, and settings are imbued with symbolic meanings that reflect broader themes of the novel. For instance, Buddy’s cornet symbolizes his artistic voice and the transformative power of creativity.
  4. Metaphor and Simile — Ondaatje frequently uses metaphors and similes to draw comparisons that illuminate characters’ experiences and emotions. These devices enrich the narrative with layers of meaning and help readers connect with the abstract concepts presented in the story.
  5. Allusion — References to historical figures, events, and cultural elements are woven into the text, anchoring the novel in its specific time and place while also connecting it to broader historical and cultural narratives.
  6. Non-linear Narrative — The story is not told in a straightforward chronological order but rather jumps between different time periods and perspectives. This fragmentation mirrors the jazz music central to the novel and reflects the complexities of memory and identity.
  7. Dialogue — Conversations between characters provide insights into their relationships, personalities, and the social dynamics of the era. Ondaatje uses dialogue to reveal character motivations and to advance the plot in a manner that feels organic and true to life.
  8. Foreshadowing — Subtle hints about future events in the story create an atmosphere of suspense and anticipation. Foreshadowing in the novel often hints at the tragic turn Buddy Bolden’s life will take, adding depth to the narrative’s exploration of fate and free will.
  9. Irony — Situational and dramatic irony are used to highlight the contrasts between appearance and reality, especially in relation to the characters’ understanding of their own situations. Irony in the novel underscores the tragic elements of Buddy’s story and the limitations of human perception.
  10. Juxtaposition — Ondaatje places contrasting elements side by side to highlight their differences and to create striking thematic or narrative effects. For example, the vibrancy of New Orleans’ music scene is juxtaposed with the dark undercurrents of Buddy’s personal struggles, emphasizing the complexity of creativity and fame.

These literary devices work together to create a rich, multi-layered narrative in Coming Through Slaughter, allowing Michael Ondaatje to explore profound themes of art, identity, and the human condition with nuance and depth.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s explore examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, presented in a table format for clarity.

Stream of Consciousness

Buddy’s internal monologues throughout the novel.These passages delve into Buddy’s thoughts and feelings in a flow that mimics natural thought processes, providing insight into his mental state and artistic vision.
The fragmented narrative that jumps between perspectives and times.Reflects the chaotic, improvisational nature of jazz and Buddy’s own turbulent life, allowing readers to piece together the story in a non-linear way.
Descriptions of music and performance that seem to flow directly from Buddy’s mind.Captures the immediacy and emotional intensity of jazz, offering a sensory experience that parallels listening to music.


Vivid descriptions of New Orleans, from its steamy streets to the raucous bars.Evokes a strong sense of place, immersing readers in the setting and atmosphere of the early jazz scene.
The sensory details of music playing, like the sound of the cornet and the rhythm of the drums.Makes the music almost tangible, allowing readers to “hear” and “feel” the essence of jazz.
The contrast between the brightness of the music scenes and the darkness of Buddy’s declining mental health.Highlights the dichotomy of Buddy’s life and the beauty and tragedy of his existence.


Buddy’s cornet as a symbol of his voice and identity.Represents Buddy’s artistic talent and the transformative power of his music, as well as the burden of genius.
Photographs and the act of photography in the novel.Symbolize the desire to capture and preserve fleeting moments of beauty and brilliance, mirroring the ephemeral nature of life and art.
The city of New Orleans itself.Acts as a symbol for the birth of jazz, the complexity of American culture, and the mix of creativity and destructiveness that characterizes human nature.

Metaphor and Simile

Comparing Buddy’s music to a river — “His music flowed like a river, wild and untamed.”Illustrates the natural, powerful, and unpredictable nature of Buddy’s creativity.
Describing the atmosphere in the bars where Buddy plays as “electric, charged with a storm about to break.”Conveys the intense energy and anticipation surrounding Buddy’s performances.


References to historical figures and events in the jazz world.Anchors the narrative in its historical context, enriching the story with a sense of authenticity and depth.
Allusions to literary and cultural figures of the time.Connects Buddy’s story to wider cultural and artistic movements, highlighting the novel’s themes of creativity and madness.

Non-linear Narrative

The story’s structure, which leaps back and forth in time and perspective.Mirrors the improvisational nature of jazz and reflects the fragmented way in which we experience and remember life.


Conversations between Buddy and other characters, especially musicians.Reveals character traits, historical context, and the dynamics of the jazz community, making the story more vibrant and real.


Early mentions of Buddy’s erratic behavior and mood swings.Hints at his eventual mental breakdown, creating a sense of inevitability and tragedy.


Buddy’s pioneering of jazz, a music that celebrates life, contrasted with his personal descent into madness.Highlights the irony of a man who brought so much joy to others but could not find peace himself.


The vibrancy of the music scene against the backdrop of Buddy’s internal struggles.Emphasizes the contrast between public success and private turmoil, enriching the novel’s exploration of fame, creativity, and the human psyche.

These examples showcase how Ondaatje’s masterful use of literary devices in Coming Through Slaughter creates a rich, textured narrative that engages readers on multiple levels, making the novel a profound exploration of art, identity, and the human condition.

Coming Through Slaughter – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of Coming Through Slaughter?
A: The main theme of Coming Through Slaughter is the intricate relationship between genius and madness, explored through the life of Buddy Bolden, a pioneering jazz musician. The novel delves into how creativity can both elevate and consume an individual, highlighting the fine line between brilliance and mental collapse.

Q: Who is Buddy Bolden, and why is he significant?
A: Charles “Buddy” Bolden was a real-life musician in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, often credited as one of the key figures in the development of jazz music. In Coming Through Slaughter, he is depicted as a brilliant cornet player whose innovations in music were overshadowed by his struggle with mental illness, making him a tragic figure of artistic genius.

Q: How does Michael Ondaatje blend fact and fiction in the novel?
A: Michael Ondaatje blends historical facts with fictional elements to create a rich, atmospheric narrative that captures the essence of Buddy Bolden’s life and era. While the novel is based on the real life of Bolden, Ondaatje takes creative liberties in exploring his inner world, relationships, and the impact of his music, filling in gaps in the historical record with imaginative detail.

Q: What literary devices are prominent in Coming Through Slaughter?
A: The novel makes extensive use of literary devices such as stream of consciousness, imagery, symbolism, non-linear narrative, and dialogue. These techniques help to create a vivid portrayal of Buddy Bolden’s life and the early jazz scene, enhancing the novel’s thematic depth and emotional resonance.

Q: Is Coming Through Slaughter suitable for all readers?
A: Coming Through Slaughter is best suited for readers who enjoy literary fiction, historical novels, and those interested in jazz music and its origins. Its complex narrative structure, mature themes, and emotional depth might be challenging for some readers, but it offers rich rewards for those interested in exploring the intersections of creativity, identity, and madness.

Q: How does the novel address the theme of isolation?
A: The novel addresses the theme of isolation by showcasing Buddy Bolden’s internal struggles and his sense of detachment from those around him, even as he is celebrated by society. His isolation is both a product of his genius, which sets him apart from others, and his mental illness, which alienates him further, highlighting the paradox of connection and solitude in the life of an artist.

Q: What role does New Orleans play in the story?
A: New Orleans serves as more than just the setting of the novel; it is a vibrant, living character that embodies the birth of jazz and reflects the cultural, social, and historical complexities of the era. The city’s unique atmosphere, traditions, and musical heritage are integral to the story, influencing the characters and the trajectory of jazz music itself.


What is the primary theme of Coming Through Slaughter?The evolution of jazz in New OrleansThe relationship between genius and madnessThe impact of fame on personal relationshipsThe exploration of early 20th-century societal norms
Who is the main character of the novel?NoraBuddy BoldenWebbRobin Brewitt
Which literary device is prominently used to reflect the protagonist’s mental state?MetaphorIronyStream of ConsciousnessSimile
What symbolizes Buddy’s artistic voice and identity?The city of New OrleansPhotographsHis cornetThe parade
How does Michael Ondaatje blend historical facts and fiction in the novel?By using a non-linear narrativeThrough the depiction of real historical eventsBy creating fictional characters that interact with real figuresAll of the above
What does New Orleans represent in the story?Just the setting of the novelA character in its own right, embodying the birth of jazzThe cultural clash of the eraThe isolation felt by the protagonist


  1. B – The relationship between genius and madness
  2. B – Buddy Bolden
  3. C – Stream of Consciousness
  4. C – His cornet
  5. D – All of the above
  6. B – A character in its own right, embodying the birth of jazz

This quiz is designed to test your understanding of the novel’s themes, characters, literary devices, and the role of its setting. Each question focuses on key elements of Coming Through Slaughter, challenging you to recall and reflect on the intricacies of Michael Ondaatje’s work.


Spot the Literary Device

Read the following paragraph from Coming Through Slaughter and identify the literary devices used. List them below the paragraph.

“In the evening, when the lights are bruised with blue and gold, the city seems to hum with jazz. It’s in the air, in the blood, an echo of the day’s last light dancing on the edge of the night. Buddy Bolden plays, and the notes cut through the dusk, sharp and sweet, a cry that says all the things words never can.”

Literary Devices:

  1. Imagery – Descriptive language that appeals to the senses, particularly visual (“lights are bruised with blue and gold”) and auditory (“the city seems to hum with jazz”).
  2. Personification – Giving human qualities to non-human elements, such as the evening being described as “bruised” and the city appearing to “hum” with jazz.
  3. Metaphor – A figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. In this case, jazz is metaphorically described as an “echo of the day’s last light dancing on the edge of the night.”
  4. Alliteration – The repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words in close succession (“sharp and sweet”).
  5. Symbolism – Jazz music symbolizes the soul of the city and the unspoken emotions of its inhabitants, as it “says all the things words never can.”


  1. Imagery is used to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind, enhancing the atmospheric setting of the novel.
  2. Personification brings the setting to life, suggesting that the city itself is a living entity with the capacity to experience and express emotions through jazz.
  3. Metaphor emphasizes the transformative power of music and its ability to embody the transition from day to night in a poetic manner.
  4. Alliteration draws attention to the text, making the description of the music more memorable and impactful.
  5. Symbolism reflects the deeper themes of the novel, such as the expressive power of art and the ineffable aspects of human experience.