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A critical analysis of Slaughterhouse-Five
Section One- Introduction
Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut Junior, was
published in 1968 after twenty-three years of internal anguish.
The novel was a "progressive work" after Vonnegut returned from
World War II. Why did it take twenty-three years for Kurt
Vonnegut to write this novel? The answer lies within the book and
within the man himself.
Kurt Vonnegut served in the Armed Forces during World War
II and was captured during The Battle of the Bulge. He and
a group of American Prisoners of War were taken to Dresden to
take part in a prisoner work camp. Vonnegut and his fellow
soldiers were housed in an underground facility when Dresden
became history as the most loss of human life at one time. On the
night of February 13, 1945, when the Americans were underground,
Dresden was firebombed by the Allied Air Force. The entire city
was annihilated while 135,000 people were killed. The number of
casualties is greater than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The bombing of Dresden, Germany is why it took Kurt
Vonnegut so long to write this book. The human pain and suffering
is still fresh in the mind of the author twenty-three years
later. One can only imagine the intense emotional scarring that
one would suffer after exiting an underground shelter with
a dozen other men to find a city destroyed and its people dead,
corpses laying all around.
These feelings are what prompted Kurt Vonnegut to write
Slaughterhouse-Five as he did. The main character of this novel
mirrors the author in many ways, but the striking similarity is
their inability to deal with the events of Dresden on the night
of February 13, 1945.
Section Two- Critical Commentaries
Kurt Vonnegut's work is nothing new to critics, but
Slaughterhouse-Five is considered to be his best work. Many other
authors and critics have critiqued and analyzed his work, some
coming to much different conclusions than others.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a perfect example of differences in
critical commentary and how a writer can relay some thoughts when
meaning to share others.
Tony Tanner wrote an article in American Fiction entitled
"The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut,
Jr.". In Mr. Tanner's analyzation of Slaughterhouse-Five, he
originally sees what most comprehend at the beginning of the
novel; that after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Billy
Pilgrim can not find a way to cope with the death and
destruction, so he creates the "Tralfamadorians". The
Tralfamadorians are an alien species that Billy claims abduct
him. The Tralfamadorians can see time in a completely different
way than humans. They see an entire event instead of individual
moments like humans. Tralfamadorians have seen the beginning and
end of the universe. They describe this ability to Billy as
looking at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains instead of a small
pebble of it. With this new knowledge of time, the
Tralfamadorians gave Billy the ability to become "unstuck" in
time. This means that Billy is free to travel to any point in his
life at any time without control.
Tanner thinks that the most crucial moral issue in the
novel is this: "Billy Pilgrim is a professional optometrist. He
spends his life on earth prescribing corrective lenses for people
suffering form defects of vision. It is entirely in keeping with
his calling, then, when he has learned to see time in an entirely
new Tralfamadorian way, that he should try to correct the whole
erroneous Western view of time, and explain to everyone the
meaninglessness of individual death, because everyone lives
forever in the eyes of a Tralfamadorian.
Tanner goes on to state that Vonnegut's whole work
"suggests that if man doesn't do something about the conditions
and quality of human life on earth, no one and nothing else
will." Tanner also states that Vonnegut makes several references
to death and destruction, such as the concentration camps, the
destruction of European Jewry, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the
Children's Crusade. The author cites Vonnegut as a literal
hypocrite because the story of Billy Pilgrim and Dresden is so
terrible that Pilgrim can not possibly consciously face it, yet
he includes so many other instances of destruction wrought by
Vonnegut also recounts the assassinations of several
famous Americans and includes his father's natural death at the
end. Tanner states that if death itself is the outrage, then
humans can not be held accountable for it, since it is built into
the very structure of things. He goes on to conclude that "This
conflation of natural death with murders of various sorts is
a consistent feature of Slaughterhouse-Five."
Another author who was fortunate enough to give
a critical commentary of Slaughterhouse-Five is Charles B.
Harris, who wrote "Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:
A Reading of 'Slaughterhouse-Five'" for The Centennial Review.
Harris believes that there are three important crucial facts to
a proper understanding of this novel: (1) the novel is less about
Dresden than about the psychological impact of time, death, and
uncertainty on its main character; (2) the novel's main character
is not Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut; (3) the novel is not
a conventional anti-war novel at all, but an experimental novel
of considerable complexity.
Harris focuses more on, and successfully accomplishes,
explaining Tralfamadore as a psychological stumbling block of
Billy and Vonnegut. In every possible way, Harris explains
Billy's happenings on Tralfamadore are related to his
subconscious mind. For instance, Vonnegut shows up three times in
the story of Billy Pilgrim as the story teller. Harris notices
that when the paths of Billy and the narrator meet up at Dresden,
there is a brief period of person shift. The narrator uses 'us'
and 'we', simply because he is there too.
Harris explains Vonneguts sudden change in person as
this: "He, too, had suffered capture and malnutrition and the
devastating firebombing. He, too, worked in the corpse mines and
saw a friend shot for plundering a teapot from the ruins." Harris
was extremely successful in tracing Billy and Vonnegut's trama
back to the bombing in Dresden.
Section Three- A Discussion of Vonnegut's Style
The unusual circumstances of this novel make it
a peculiar instance of almost any literary topic, including
Vonnegut's writing style. Throughout most of Vonnegut's career,
he has put little consideration and description into characters,
perhaps as a way to make the reader more interested as to what
will happen next, or what will be revealed next about the
character. In any case, the character description, or lack
thereof, of Kurt Vonnegut is very simple, so he can convey his
feelings about the character immediately without having to list
every minute detail. For example, Vonnegut describes Billy
Pilgrim, the main character of the book as "a funny-looking child
that became a funny-looking youth-tall, weak, and shaped like
a Coca-Cola bottle." Note the fact that there was no hair or eye
color given; no facial description; no personality description,
either, but Vonnegut still very effectively gets his point across
that Billy is a lanky, akward, and "funny-looking" person. From
this, Vonnegut's short description, we immediately form a mental
picture of the character.
The diction of Vonnegut stays the same throughout the
narrative sections of the book, but the diction of the individual
is prone to the individual character. This is another literary
tool that Vonnegut has mastered. Even though the narration stays
constant, the diction of the characters is vastly different, so
the reader doesn't become bored with the same writing style for
all of the characters of a plot.
For instance, Kilgore Trout, the famous science fiction
writer in many of Kurt Vonnegut's works is seen here running
a newspaper delivery service. He has just announced the boy or
girl who sells the most subscriptions will get a trip to
"Martha's fucking Vinyard" for a week, all expenses paid, if they
would just get up and go sell something for once. A little girl,
ecstatic at the news, askes Trout if she could bring her sister,
too. His reply is, "Hell no, you think money grows on trees?"
Section Four- A Discussion of Vonnegut's Technique
Again, when one choose to discuss Vonnegut's literary
tools and how he uses them in Slaughterhouse-Five, one must
remember the complexities of this particular novel. Because this
story is a blend of fiction and non-fiction, Vonnegut's narration
can be seen as both third person and first person. The majority
of the novel is written in third person, with Vonnegut narrating
Billy's life. When Billy arrives at the Dresden work camp,
though, for a brief moment Vonnegut swings into first person, he
being another soldier in the group. The effect of the slip into
first person is a good step for Vonnegut, because it shows he is
also a member of these men who fight to survive, he is not just
an innocent bystander telling a story.
In the case of this novel, the narrator is not completely
reliable. Vonnegut-as-narrator tells one of Billy's
hallucinations and dreams of the Tralfamadorians, and states them
as fact, when in reality, they are created by Billy to escape the
reality of the war and the bombing.
The literary tool of a flashback technically could not be
used in this novel, although several references to the past are
made. The truth of the matter is that no one knows where the plot
begins, so when a jump to another time made, it is unknown as to
whether it is a flashback of a flashforward. The use of these
flashbacks and flashforwards is to show one Billy's mental
instability; that is he travels to a happier time in life rather
than face reality.
The most notable part of Vonnegut's character
presentation is the lack of it; that is he is not very specific
with character descriptions and presentations to a situation. The
characterization of Vonnegut's characters are neither dramatic or
descriptive: they are merely there. That is a large part of the
story line, though. Vonnegut wants one to think that the
characters have no will of their own and are led by a stronger
Vonnegut is not a very emotional writer, he simply brings
his ideas to the mind of the reader and lets the reader decide
how to feel. The one technique that Vonnegut does use is humor,
in the form of characters such as Kilgore Trout and the
activities that they do and their dialogue. Vonnegut's comic
relief is greatly appreciated after the presentation of
a particularly complex or important story line.
Section Five- An Explanation of Vonnegut's Structure
Once again, the peculiarity of this novel has found need
to be explained by its structure, or complete lack thereof. This
novel could be seen as having a circular pattern, but the plot
line begins at the bottom of the circle, jumps back to the top of
the circle, jumps forward to the right side of the circle, and so
on. Yes, there is an eventual circular pattern when the novel is
finished. One would think that the events to this story would all
lead up to the bombing of Dresden, but it is quite the contrary.
There are several separate plots that survive on their own which
have absolutely nothing to do with Dresden and everything to do
with Billy Pilgrim and his life after the war. Vonnegut has
visited the same scene two or three times before, but only to
show the fact that Billy is "unstuck" in time.
Section Six- An Explanation of Vonnegut's Theme
Vonnegut's entire purpose in writing this novel was to
release the feelings that he had bottled up inside for
twenty-three long years. He wanted others to know what happened
and he wanted to remove himself from the situation like Billy
Pilgrim did, but he didn't have Tralfamadorians to take him away,
so he did the only thing he knew how: he wrote. He wrote every
agonizing word about the experience that he never wants to live
through or see happen again. This was simply the purpose of the
novel. The theme that Kurt Vonnegut wanted everyone who read his
book to know just exactly how bad war is. He wanted people to
know a man was killed for stealing a teapot. He wanted people to
know that a city of 135,000 can be completely obliterated in the
name of war. He wanted people to know the mental scars that war
can carry. All that he was trying to say is that it hurt; it hurt
him inside and out; war hurt Vonnegut enough to write this novel.
He wants people to know the atrocities of war, and that it should
never happen again.
Section Seven- A Conclusion
It took Kurt Vonnegut Jr. twenty-three years to put all
his feelings on paper. This is an important novel because it is
not just a novel, it also dabbles in non-fiction a bit, also.
This would be Dresden and war for the most part. The reader must
also understand Vonnegut's background and the story, because if
the story is simply taken at face value, it was worthless and
a waste of time.
Every time someone or something dies in
Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator says "so it goes". Tony Tanner,
one of the authors who critiqued the novel, saw this phrase as
apathetic and unsympathetic towards death. One could also see
this as a phrased used instead of apparent concern to stimulate
more thought, more sympathy, and more feeling, so Vonnegut could
get his point across even more. In the last chapter of
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut leaves us with these brief
paragraphs that one would think pushes for peace as a last ditch
attempt if nothing else in the book got through:
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles
away from the home I live in all year round, was shot
two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes. Martin
Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it
And everyday my government gives me a count of
corpses created by the military service in Vietnam. So
My father died many years ago now--of natural
causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun
nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
Happiness and ime
At its heart Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy's search for happiness. Ultimately he discovers that this is only possible without the baggage of the past or fear of the future. Although only the war years are presented in chronological order, Billy experiences both war and peace in essentially the same manner - as a series of events that either feel good or bad and which he deals with as best he is able at the time. Arguably, Billy's epiphany in the woods, in which he first travels through time, is the realization that as the Tralfamadorians put it he is caught in time "like a bug in amber." Thus, it is very human and natural that he should be able to experience the happiest moment of his life during a nap he takes in the back of the horse-drawn wagon while surrounded by the ruins of Dresden. As long as one accepts each moment as inevitable it is possible to simply be happy.
Billy tells the Tralfamadorian guide that it sounds like the aliens don't believe in freewill and the alien responds that of all the planets it has visited the notion of freewill exists only on Earth. This exchange highlights one of the novel's central themes, that freewill is a creation of the human mind and is meaningless in the context of the greater workings of the universe and the unalterable flow of time. The aliens advise Billy to not worry about the bad times and focus instead upon the good times which is a theory very much in keeping with the prayer displayed upon Billy's office wall and between Montana Wildhacks' breasts. The alien point of view is that if one cannot change the past, present or future then one is free to simply exist and this, the novel seems to suggest, is perhaps the most beneficial interpretation of freewill.
The opening and closing chapters of the novel detail the author's frustration in composing the work. "There is nothing to say about a massacre" observes Vonnegut and since it is always quiet after a massacre the only thing being said is what the birds say which is "Poo-tee-weet?" By introducing his "novel about Dresden" with this disclaimer Vonnegut sets up his work as not only the story of Billy Pilgrim but as a representation of everything a disaster means, details which rarely have anything to do with the disaster itself. Thus, a person like Rumfoord, who reduces the destruction of Dresden to numbers, cannot understand as well as Billy that on the ground the numbers meant very little to the survivors who simply tried to go on living. Significantly, the moment that Vonnegut intimates will be the climax of the novel, namely the senseless death of Edgar Derby, is glossed over when its time comes even though the event is discussed every time Derby's name is mentioned. In this manner Vonnegut conveys the futility of documenting a disaster by refusing to relate the disaster itself and instead telling the story of everything that happened around it.
In Slaughterhouse Five dying is not a tragic event nor is the death of anyone or anything given more importance than another person or thing. Whether it is the death of Martin Luther King, a character in the novel, the microbes in Billy's jacket or Vonnegut's own father the event is accompanied by the Tralfamadorian mantra "So it goes." The representation of death in the novel, then, is devoid of sadness or blame and embraces the inevitability of the event without regard for its cause. In fact, Billy experiences his own death many times as a time traveler and does not fear it because he knows it is simply a purple light and a soothing hum. In this way Slaughterhouse Five presents death as a detail that pales in significance to the larger experience of life.
Top Ten Quotes
1. Vonnegut apology to his publisher Seymour "Sam" Lawrence:
"And I say to Sam now: 'Sam-here's the book.' It's so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything 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?" (19)
2. Regarding Billy Pilgrim's travels through time:
"Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next." (23)
3. From Billy Pilgrim's letter to the local paper in which he describes the Tralfamadorians:
"When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes'." (27)
4. Regarding the boxcars used to ship the American prisoners into Germany:
"Even though Billy's train wasn't moving, its boxcars were kept locked tight. Nobody was to get off until the final destination. To the guards who walked up and down outside, each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators, too. In went water and loaves of black-bread and sausage and cheese, and out came shit and piss and language." (70)
5. The world according to Eliot Rosewater:
"Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn't science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Fedor Dostoevsky. 'But that isn't enough any more,' said Rosewater." "Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, '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'." (101)
6. The Tralfamadorians assert that there are no less than seven sexes on planet earth, all but two invisible to humans, and they try to explain to Billy why some are necessary for human reproduction:
"The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him imagine sex in the invisible dimension. They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals. There couldn't be babies without women over sixty-five years old. There could be babies without men over sixty-five. There couldn't be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth. And so on. It was gibberish to Billy." (114)
7. The statement that occurs to Billy as a good epitaph for himself:
"Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." (122)
8. The reaction of the thirty teenage refugee girls when Billy, Werner and Edgar accidentally open the door to their shower:
"There those girls were with all their private parts bare, for anybody to see. And there in the doorway were Gluck and Derby and Pilgrim-the childish soldier and the poor old high school teacher and the clown in his toga and silver shoes-staring. The girls screamed. They covered themselves with their hands and turned their backs and so on, and made themselves utterly beautiful." (159)
9. Regarding Rumfoord's belief that Billy has echolalia:
"Echolalia is a mental disease which makes people immediately repeat things that well people around them say. But Billy didn't really have it. Rumfoord simply insisted, for his own comfort, that Billy had it. Rumsfoord was thinking in a military manner: that an inconvenient person, on whose death he wished for very much, for practical reasons, was suffering from a repulsive disease." (192)
10. The scene following the end of the war for Billy and the other prisoners:
"Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin shaped. Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim. 'Poo-tee-weet'?" (215)
Kurt Vonnegut was born November 11th, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the third and last child born to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Edith Lieber Vonnegut. Vonnegut's father was an architect and his mother a member of a socially prominent family in the area. Vonnegut's older siblings attended elite private schools but the stock market crash of 1929 forced the family to economize and they moved to a smaller house and young Kurt attended public school. At Shortridge High School Vonnegut became the editor of the school's unique daily paper and while studying chemistry and biology at Cornell University he served as editor for the Cornell Sun. In 1943 he enlisted in the Army and as part of his military training he studied mechanical engineering. Before he left for service in Europe he returned to Indianapolis to visit his family. During his visit his mother committed suicide on Mother's Day with an overdose of sleeping pills. Vonnegut went to Europe as an advance infantry scout and arrived in time to experience the last major German offensive of the war during the course of which he is taken prisoner and sent to Dresden to work in the factories. He survived the controversial firebombing of the city, which resulted in the largest single loss of life from a military operation in history. The experience informs most of his work and is the foundation for his most successful novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969).
After the war he married his childhood sweetheart Jane Cox and began graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago. While studying anthropology he worked as a part-time reporter for the City News Bureau. Vonnegut finished his course work but after his thesis proposal was rejected he left Chicago to work as a publicist for General Electric's Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York where he mingled with prominent scientists, including his brother Bernard, but became increasingly disillusioned with corporate America. His first short story "The Barnhouse Effect" was published in Collier's magazine on February 11, 1950 and Vonnegut resigned his position at GE to move to Cape Cod in order to write full time. His first novel, Player Piano was published in 1952. Publication of stories did not provide an adequate income, however, and Vonnegut continued to work various odd jobs while writing during the 1950's. In 1958 he and his wife, already parents to three children, adopted the three children of Vonnegut's sister and brother-in-law who had died within days of each other. Vonnegut continued to publish stories and novels and came to rely upon the publication of paperback novels as the magazines that had sustained him during the 1950's began to dry up. During these years he published works such as The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1962) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964) which for the first time since Player Piano garnished critical attention. From 1965-67 Vonnegut taught at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop and during this era his earlier works were rediscovered by the growing population of disaffected American youth. A Guggenheim Fellowship grant in 1968 allowed Vonnegut to revisit Dresden and a year later he published Slaughterhouse Five which became an immediate best-seller and established Vonnegut as one of the spokesmen of his age. Vonnegut began to experiment with dramatic works and non-fiction during the 1970's and during this time he was awarded his M.A. in Anthropology by the University of Chicago after the school determined that Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle qualified as a thesis. In 1973 the City University of New York made him Distinguished Professor of English Prose.
Vonnegut and his wife officially divorced in 1979 and Vonnegut married the photographer Jill Krementz. Vonnegut's 1976 novel Slapstick had received negative reviews but Vonnegut continued to publish novels such as Jailbird (1979), a children's book Sun Moon Star (1980) Galápagos (1985), and Bluebeard (1987). In 1985 Vonnegut attempted suicide and in 2000 he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation from a fire in his New York home. His 1997 novel Timequake was published as his last work.
1. Which characters transcend the emotional stasis that dominates much of the story?
Vonnegut admits that there aren't any real characters in his novel but he makes an exception for Edgar Derby when he responds to Howard Campbell and defends the American way of life. "One of the main effects of war," writes Vonnegut "is that people are discouraged from being characters. But old Derby was a character now." During the course of their imprisonment the Americans are so tired and sick that they are more concerned with their bodies than with ideals but Edgar Derby's speech addresses higher ideals that are otherwise absent from the novel. Similarly, the tears Billy Pilgrim sheds for the suffering horses reveal a degree of empathy and emotion that is otherwise lacking in the story. We are told that after the war Billy suffers from bouts of silent crying but that his emotions are never fully vented. During the war Billy is simply too disoriented and sick to respond emotionally to any of the horrors he witnesses but the realization that the horses are in pain causes his one and only emotional outpouring in the course of the story.
2. In the first chapter Vonnegut makes the observation that anti-war books are doomed to failure since wars will always occur. In what ways does Slaughterhouse Five fail as an anti-war novel and in what ways does it succeed?
The work fails as a traditional anti-war book because even the main character does not condemn the destruction and death he experiences in Dresden. Instead, Billy Pilgrim comes to view the event as something that happened and could not have been changed. He is so far convinced of this fact that he readily agrees when Rumfoord, the military historian, arrogantly insists that the destruction of Dresden, though unfortunate, was necessary. Furthermore, Billy agrees that he should pity the men who dropped the bombs and insists that things were not so bad on the ground. "Everything is all right," insists Billy, "everybody has to do exactly what he does." This sentiment, paradoxically, serves as a subtle critique of war in that it undermines the high-minded ideals and intentions of those who wage war in the name of ideology and culture. The view espoused in the novel is anti-war in the sense that it denies war importance and suggests that the less attention society gives to its bloody past the less likely the past is to assert itself in the future. By admonishing people to focus on the good times the novel rhetorically rejects war as worthy of consideration by those concerned with the act of living.
3. How does the story of Billy Pilgrim serve as a critique of mid-twentieth century America?
Following the war Billy achieves great success by the standards of his culture. His optometry practice flourishes, he drives luxury automobiles, owns a big house and has lucrative investments all over town. However, he suffers from fits of silent crying and fails to achieve any real happiness from his life. When he is kidnapped and taken to the zoo on Tralfamadore the aliens furnish his habitat from the Sears so that he exists in a bubble of catalog furnished safety while surrounded by a poisonous atmosphere. When the Tralfamadorians ask if he is happy Billy responds that he is as happy as he was on Earth. This response indicates that the perceived signs of success and comfort in mid-twentieth century America have failed to inspire true happiness and that the mores and social conformity of the age are merely masking a greater dissatisfaction and sorrow brought about by the war. Until the men and women who lived through the experience of the war let go of their feelings about the war the culture will come to increasingly rely upon artificial means of emotional compensation that will ultimately fail to produce happiness.
4. What other sources does Vonnegut use to explore the themes of his story?
In the first chapter Vonnegut references three sources that affected him during the composition of his novel. The first is a work concerning the first Children's Crusade in which thousands of children died or became slaves under the auspices of a noble plan to send them to the Holy Land. Some of these children, however, mistakenly went to Genoa for embarkation and, since the city knew nothing of the scheme, the children were fed and sent home. This story parallels that of the young American soldiers who went to war believing in a cause and were killed senselessly, as are all deaths in a war. The few who survived the massacres, like Billy and the other POWs in Dresden, are simply fed and sent home. The second source is a work about Céline in which the biographer describes the author's desire to make time stand still so people would stop disappearing. Céline's obsession with time provides the ideological foundation for Billy Pilgrim's time traveling adventures and the Tralfamadorian view that once an individual has existed he or she always exists. The third source is the story of Lot's wife who looked back upon the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a pillar of salt. This story mirrors Vonnegut's task in looking back upon the destruction of Dresden. Vonnegut asserts that it is a very human trait to look back regardless of the consequences and that is what he has attempted to do in his novel.
5. What similar role do Kilgore Trout's stories and the Tralfamadorians play in the novel?
Both Kilgore Tout's stories and the Tralfamadorians provide Billy with a philosophical view that allows him to assimilate his war experiences with his post-war life. Billy first encounters Trout's books while recuperating from a mental breakdown after the war. Like Eliot Rosewater who introduces the author to his fellow patient, Billy quickly perceives an affinity between the philosophy espoused in Trout's works and his own observations of the world inspired by the Tralfamadorian experience. A story like The Gospel from Outer Space in which Jesus was really just a bum who God adopted at the last minute resonates with Billy's own experiences in which the haphazard effects of war randomly spares some and destroys others. In some cases, as with the story The Big Board, in which earthlings are kidnapped and kept in a zoo on an alien planet, Trout's stories lead the reader to suspect that Tralfamadore is a figment of Billy's imagination cobbled together from various Kilgore Trout plots. Whether the reader is to assume that Tralfamadore is an actual place or an invention of the protagonists mind is never directly addressed and bears little importance in terms of the novel's overarching themes. What is important is that the Tralfamadorian view of the universe, in which all time is known and all events structured to occur in a certain manner, augment Billy's own world view in which humans are carried by events and should content themselves by dwelling only on the happy times.
Billy Pilgrim is the unlikeliest of antiwar heroes. An unpopular and complacent weakling even before the war (he prefers sinking to swimming), he becomes a joke as a soldier. He trains as a chaplain’s assistant, a duty that earns him disgust from his peers. With scant preparation for armed conflict, no weapons, and even an improper uniform, he is thrust abruptly into duty at the Battle of the Bulge. The farcical spectacle created by Billy’s inappropriate clothing accentuates the absurdity of such a scrawny, mild-mannered soldier. His azure toga, a leftover scrap of stage curtain, and his fur-lined overcoat, several sizes too small, throw his incongruity into relief. They underscore a central irony: such a creature could walk through war, oblivious yet unscathed, while so many others with more appropriate attire and provisions perish. It is in this shocked and physically exhausted state that Billy first comes “unstuck in time” and begins swinging to and fro through the events of his life, past and future.
Billy lives a life full of indignity and so, perhaps, has no great fear of death. He is oddly suited, therefore, to the Tralfamadorian philosophy of accepting death. This fact may point to an interpretation of the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s disturbed mind, an elaborate coping mechanism to explain the meaningless slaughter Billy has witnessed. By uttering “So it goes” after each death, the narrator, like Billy, does not diminish the gravity of death but rather lends an equalizing dignity to all death, no matter how random or ironic, how immediate or removed. Billy’s father dies in a hunting accident just as Billy is about to go off to war. So it goes. A former hobo dies in Billy’s railway car while declaring the conditions not bad at all. So it goes. One hundred thirty thousand innocent people die in Dresden. So it goes. Valencia Pilgrim accidentally kills herself with carbon monoxide after turning bright blue. So it goes. Billy Pilgrim is killed by an assassin’s bullet at exactly the time he has predicted, in the realization of a thirty-some-year-old death threat. So it goes. Billy awaits death calmly, without fear, knowing the exact hour at which it will come. In so doing, he gains a degree of control over his own dignity that he has lacked throughout most of his life.
The novel centers on Billy Pilgrim to a degree that excludes the development of the supporting characters, who exist in the text only as they relate to Billy’s experience of events.
One of the 20th century's great American pacifists was born on Armistice Day. Born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut entered a well-to-do family that was hit very hard by the Depression. Vonnegut went to public high school, unlike his two older siblings, and there gained early writing experience writing for the high school's daily paper. He enrolled at Cornell University in 1940 and, under pressure from his father and older brother, studied chemistry and biology. He had little real love for the subjects, and his performance was poor. He did, however, enjoy working for the Cornell Daily Sun. In 1942, Vonnegut left Cornell as the university was preparing to ask him to leave due to poor academic performance. He enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) in 1943. He studied there only briefly before enlisting in the U.S. Army. His mother killed herself in May 1944.
On December 14, 1944, Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was held as a POW in Dresden, a beautiful German city with no major industries or military presence. The bombing of Dresden was unexpected. Vonnegut and the other POWs were some of the only survivors. They waited out the bombing in a meat cellar deep under the slaughterhouse.
Vonnegut was repatriated in May 1945. He returned to the United States and married Jane Marie Cox. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, but the department unanimously rejected his M.A. thesis. (According to the university's rules, a high-quality piece of writing could be substituted for a dissertation. Twenty years later, Vonnegut showed the department Cat's Cradle, and he was given his degree in 1971.) Vonnegut worked various jobs during his time at the University of Chicago and throughout the 1950s.
Vonnegut's first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," was published in 1950. Vonnegut has expressed some dissatisfaction with his short stories, saying that he mostly wrote them for money while working on his novels, which are more important to him. But some of his stories are accomplished works in their own right, and many readers gain their first exposure to Vonnegut through these stories, which combine in condensed form Vonnegut's trademark humor, fantasy, and social commentary. Dozens of Vonnegut's short stories and two novels appeared in the 1950s.
Due to his reputation as a science fiction writer, Vonnegut's first novels were published only as paperbacks with gaudy covers that misrepresented the novels and discouraged serious critical attention. The hardcover editions of Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) were a significant improvement, although they sold only a few thousand copies. In 1966-1967, all of Vonnegut's novels were reissued in paperback, and he began to develop a significant underground following.
During the 1960s, Vonnegut published a collection of short stories and four more novels, including his sixth and greatest novel, Slaughterhouse Five. The novel's popularity and broad critical acclaim focused new attention on Vonnegut's earlier work, and soon The Sirens of Titan sold over 200,000 copies.
He has continued to write prolifically. His most recent novel is Timequake (1997). His most recent book of essays is A Man without a Country (2005).
Vonnegut has been an important mentor for young pacifists since he began writing. His novels are known for their dark humor and playful use of science fiction, as well as their serious moral vision and cutting social commentary. Although his novels have been criticized for being too simplistic, he has a cult following of readers who love his imagination and sense of humor. He is at once irreverent and highly moral, and this rare combination has made his voice integral to American literature.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007.
Kurt Vonnegut: The novelist inserts himself in the sections of Chapters One and Ten that frame Billy Pilgrim's story. For many years, Vonnegut tried to write a book about Dresden but found himself unable to handle the project. He appears within the Billy Pilgrim story very briefly, in the literary equivalent of a cameo. The framing sections are vital in clarifying Vonnegut's goals in writing the novel, among them the publication of an anti-war book.
Bernard O'Hare: Vonnegut's old war buddy, captured with him and held as a POW in Dresden. Vonnegut looks him up years later so that they can reminisce about their war experiences. But the two men find they cannot remember anything good.
Mary O'Hare: The novel is dedicated to her. She is Bernard's wife and she initially views Vonnegut's novel-in-progress critically, worrying that he will write a book that glorifies war.
Billy Pilgrim: An unconventional protagonist for a war novel, Billy is weak, passive, and often ridiculous. He is totally unsuited for war, and he nearly dies wandering behind German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he becomes an optometrist, marries a rich girl, and comes to believe that he has been abducted by aliens called Trafalmadorians. He is "unstuck in time," meaning that he experiences the events of his life out of order again and again.
Roland Weary: An anti-tank gunner who gets captured with Billy. Deeply lonely, he imagines war stories full of camaraderie and adventure. Dumb, fat, and cruel, he dies of gangrene and blames Billy.
Edgar Derby: Referred to consistently as "poor Edgar Derby" or "poor old Edgar Derby," Derby is a forty-four-year-old who had to pull strings to be allowed to fight. Back home, he is a high school teacher. He is shot after the Dresden bombing for stealing a teapot.
Paul Lazarro: Tiny, weak, physically repulsive, Lazarro is foul-tempered and cruel. He talks about tracking down people after the war to send hitmen after them. He holds that revenge is life's sweetest pleasure.
Valencia: Billy's wife. She is the overweight daughter of the owner of Billy's optometry school. She is completely devoted to Billy. When Billy is injured in a plane crash, she dies of carbon monoxide poisoning on the way to the hospital.
Barbara: Billy's daughter. She is responsible for him after his injuries and Valencia's death, and the burden makes her resentful and picky.
Robert: Billy's son. Through he was a troublemaker in high school, Robert goes on to be a Green Beret who fights in Vietnam.
Time and memory: The science fiction elements of the novel include time travel. Billy leaps in time, experience his life's events out of order and repeatedly. He learns on the alien world of Trafalmadore that all time happens simultaneously; thus, no one really dies. But this permanence has its dark side: brutal acts also live on forever. Memory is one of the novel's important themes; because of their memories, Vonnegut and Billy cannot move past the Dresden massacre. Billy leaps back in time to Dresden again and again, but at critical points we see Dresden simply because Billy relives it in his memory.
Narrative versus non-narrative and anti-narrative: This is a broad theme that encompasses many important ideas. Vonnegut is interested in protecting his novel from becoming a conventional war narrative, the kind of conventional narrative that makes war look like something exciting or fun. Throughout the book, we see narratives of this kind in history texts and the minds of characters. But this novel is more interested in non-narrative, like the nonsense question asked by birds at the novel's end, or anti-narrative, like the out-of-order leaping through the many parts of Billy's life. Vonnegut does not write about heroes. Billy Pilgrim is more like a victim.
The relationship between people and the forces that act on them: This theme is closely connected to the idea of narrative. Vonnegut's characters have almost no agency. They are driven by forces that are simply too huge for any one man to make much of a difference. Vonnegut drives home this point by introducing us to the Trafalmadorians and their concept of time, in which all events are fated and impossible to change.
Acceptance: One of the book's most famous lines is "So it goes," repeated whenever a character dies. Billy Pilgrim is deeply passive, accepting everything that befalls him. It makes him able to forgive anyone for anything, and he never seems to become angry. But this acceptance has it problems. When Billy drives through a black ghetto and ignores the suffering he sees there, we see the problem with complete acceptance. Vonnegut values the forgiveness and peace that come with acceptance, but his novel could not be an "anti-war book" if it called on readers to completely accept their world.
Human dignity: In Vonnegut's view, war is not heroic or glamorous. It is messy, often disgusting, and it robs men of their dignity. The problem of dignity comes up again and again in the novel, as we see how easily human dignity can be denied by others. But Vonnegut also questions some conceptions of dignity; he sees that they have a place in creating conventional war narratives that make war look heroic.
Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a decidedly non-heroic man who has become "unstuck in time." He travels back and forth in time, visiting his birth, death, all the moments in between repeatedly and out of order. The novel is framed by Chapters One and Ten, in which Vonnegut himself talks about the difficulties of writing the novel and the effects of Dresden on his own life. In between, Billy Pilgrim's life is given to us out of order and in small fragments. For the sake of clarity, this short summary will put Billy's life in chronological order, although in the novel every chapter spans events over the course of many years.
Billy is born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. He grows into a weak and awkward young man, studying briefly at the Ilium School of Optometry briefly before he is drafted. After minimal training, he sent to Europe right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He is captured behind German lines; before his capture is the first time he gets unstuck in time.
Billy and the other American POWs are temporarily shipped to a camp full of dying Russians and a few pampered British officers. The Americans then are moved to Dresden, a beautiful German city that has no major industries and no significant military presence. No one expects Dresden to be bombed. But in the span of one night in February of 1945, Dresden is bombed until almost nothing is left. 130,000 people die. Billy and the other POWs wait out the bombing in a meat cellar. The next day at noon, the come out and find a landscape that looks like the surface of the moon. With no food or water, the POWs and four guards trek out to the suburbs. The American prisoners stay in an innkeepers stable for a while, but soon the authorities round up POWs to excavate the city for bodies. When that work is over, Billy and the other men return to the stable to wait out the rest of the war. In May, Russians take the area and Billy is repatriated.
He goes back to Ilium to finish optometry school. After getting engaged to the daughter of the school's owner, Billy has a mental breakdown and is committed to a veteran's hospital. There, he is introduced to the science fiction of Kilgore Trout by a fellow patient. After he is release, he marries Valencia as planned. Her father is wealthy, and with a little help from him, Billy grows rich. Billy and Valencia have two children.
On the night of his daughter's wedding, Billy (as he claims) is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians exist in the fourth dimension, and consquently they have a completely different view of time. For them, all moments happen simultaneously and always. They take him to their world and put him in a zoo, where he mates with an actress called Montana Wildhack. Using a time warp, they return him to a earth almost immediately after the moment that he left, so no one notices that he has been missing for months. He says nothing about the events until he suffers head injuries in a plane crash. His wife dies almost immediately afterward. After he goes home, he runs off to New York and goes on a radio talk show to talk about his alien abduction experiences and the Tralfamadorian concept of time. His daughter Barbara, just twenty-one years old, suddenly motherless and with a father who appears to be mentally unbalanced, takes care of Billy but feels a great deal of resentment and frustration.
Billy claims to know how he will die. In 1976, after the U.S. is split into petty nations and Chicago is hydrogen-bombed "by angry chinamen," Billy is killed by a high-powered laser gun.
The narrator assures us that the book we are about to read is true, more or less. The parts dealing with World War II are most faithful to actual events. Twenty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and for much of that time the narrator has been trying to write about the bombing of Dresden. He was never able to bring make the project work. When he thinks about Dresden's place in his memory, he always recalls two things: an obscene limerick about a man whose penis has let him down, and "My Name is Yon Yonson," a song which has no ending.
Late some nights, the narrator gets drunk and begins to track down old friends with the telephone. Some years ago he tracked down Bernard O'Hare, an old war buddy of his, using Bell Atlantic phone operators. When he tracked his old friend down, he asked if Bernard would help him remember things about the war. Bernard seemed unenthusiastic. When the narrator suggests the execution of Edgar Derby, an American who stole a teapot from the ruins, as the climax of the novel, Bernard still seems unenthusiastic.
The best outline the narrator ever made for his Dresden book was on a roll of wallpaper, using crayon. Colors represented different people, and the lines crisscrossed when people met, and ended when they died. The outline ended with the exchange of prisoners who had been liberated by Americans and Russians.
After the war, the narrator went home, married, and had kids, all of whom are grown now. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and in anthropology he learned that "there was absolutely no difference between anybody," and that "nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting." He's worked various jobs, and tried to keep up work on his Dresden novel all this time.
He actually did go to see Bernard O'Hare just a few weeks after finding him over the telephone. He brought his young daughters, who were sent upstairs to play with O'Hare's kids. The men could not think of any particularly good memories or stories, and the narrator noticed that Mary, Bernard's wife (to whom Slaughterhouse Five is dedicated), seemed very angry about something. Finally, she confronted him: the narrator and Bernard were just babies when they fought. Mary was angry because if the narrator wrote a book, he would make himself and Bernard tough men, glorifying war and turning scared babies into heroes. The movie adaptation would then star "Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" (14). Wars would look good, and we would be sure to have more of them. The narrator promised that it won't be that kind of book, and that he'd call it The Children's Crusade. He and Mary were friends starting at that moment. That night, he and Bernard looked through Bernard's library for information on the real Children's Crusade, a war slightly more sordid than the other crusades. The scheme was cooked up by two monks who planned to raise an army of European children and then sell them into slavery in North Africa. Sleepless later that night, the narrator looked at a history of Dresden published in 1908. The book described a Prussian siege of the city in the eighteenth century.
In 1967, the narrator and O'Hare returned to Dresden. On the flight over, the narrator got stuck in Boston due to delays. In a hotel in Boston, he felt that someone had played with all the clocks. With every twitch of a clock, it seemed that years passed. That night, he read a book by Roethke and another book by Erika Ostrovsky. The Ostrovsky book, Céline and His Vision, is a story of a French soldier whose skull gets cracked during World War I. He hears noises and suffers from insomnia forever afterward, and at night he writes grotesque, macabre novels. Céline sees death and the passage of time as the same process.
The narrator also read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the hotel room's Gideon Bible. He calls attention to the moment when Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. He loves her for that act, because it was such a human thing to do.
Now, he presents us with his war book. He will strive to look back no more. This book, he says, is a failure. It was bound to be a failure because it was written by a pillar of salt. He gives us the first line and the last, and the central story of the novel is ready to begin.
Chapter One asks us to see the author's hand in the novel. This section is written earnestly and without artifice, more like a disjointed memoir than a work of fiction. Rather than detach the author from the work, Vonnegut asks us to see him in it. Nor is this the fictional framing of narrator-as-character: although Vonnegut is often flippant and amusing in specific moments, overall the tone is too earnest, the subject matter too important, for us to take this is as a mere setup for a novel. Although equating the narrator with the author is always dangerous, in this book it is safe to say that the narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. At the very least, Vonnegut wants us to think of the narrator as Vonnegut.
One of the most important themes of Slaughterhouse Five is the pairing of narrative and non-narrative or anti-narrative. Creating narrative (making stories) is a way of making sense of events, ordering them and arranging them to show cause and effect. Narratives seek to justify themselves and the events they describe. Slaughterhouse Five can be thought of as an anti-narrative. The novel is disjointed, with dozens of chronological leaps in every chapter. The statement is clear: Vonnegut prefers not to make a narrative of the Dresden massacre. His goals are sensitive to the anxieties of Mary O'Hare. This book will not be the kind of story that could be adapted as a John Wayne movie. Narratives are often used to make sense of events, and there is no way to make sense of a massacre. Nor should there be.
The struggle with creating a narrative is part of why it took the narrator so long to write the book. When he talks to Bernard O'Hare about the climax of his planned Dresden book, the idea of a novel with climax, plot, characters, and all of the other tricks of the novelist's trade seems ridiculous next to the reality of the massacre. O'Hare's cold response to Vonnegut drives home the difficulty of putting together a narrative about the event. Everything seems inadequate and incredibly detached from the actual bombing. The linear outline he makes with crayon on a roll of wallpaper drives home the same point. By juxtaposing the crayon-on-wallpaper outline with the events of the end of the war, the idea of linear narrative is made to look like child's play. What real connection can there be between the massacre and crayon marks drawn on paper used to wipe up feces?
Another important theme of the novel is time and memory. The Tralfamadorian concept of time holds that all events happen simultaneously, and thus they always exist. Billy leaps through time, and we are given the story of his life in pieces. However, many of the key events in the past are not related after a leap in time. Some are recalled through good old-fashioned memory. Memory is the human answer to the Tralfamadorian fourth dimension. Memory means that for humans, too, events continue to exist long after they have ended chronologically. After an atrocity like Dresden, the survivors have their scars. Dresden has continued to haunt Vonnegut in the twenty-three years afterward. The story of Lot's wife warns that to look back means being frozen in time, paralyzed forever. But it is also, according to Vonnegut, the human thing to do.
Repetition of phrases and images is an important part of the novel. A few of the phrases and images in Chapter One will resurface later on. These repetitions help to create a sense of connection between events, although the connections are not often logical or linear. The repetitions are too numerous for this study guide to always point them out; a careful reader will be able to notice many of them on a first read. One of the most important repetitions is the famous response to every new death. With the report of each new death, the narrator always says, "So it goes." We first hear it in Chapter One. This repeated sentence is one of great acceptance and resignation, but it does not necessarily soothe the reader. There is resignation, but not resignation without anger: when Dresden is destroyed and over 130,000 people die, and the narrator comments, "So it goes," Vonnegut is not necessarily speaking to us with a voice of bland acceptance. The repetition of the sentence becomes almost maddening. Although there is an element of acceptance in the statement, at times it highlights death rather than dismisses it.
The preoccupation with time is already here in Chapter One. Time and its meaning is a broad theme for the novel. Because of the force of his Dresden memories, in some sense his life has already ceased to be linear. Vonnegut uses the children's song about Yon Yonson as a metaphor for his feelings about Dresden. The last line of the song is the first, and so there is no escape, no clean way to end it. His feeling in the Boston hotel that the clocks have gone crazy also returns us to this theme of time knocked out of whack, foreshadowing the time travel of Billy Pilgrim. The Ostrovsky novel's equation of time's passage with death further develops the theme of time, acting as a counterpoint/complement to the rosy view of time taken by Billy Pilgrim's alien abductors.
"Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." He wanders from moment to moment in his life, experiencing chronologically disparate events right after one another. He sees his birth and death and everything in between, all out of order, with no pattern to predict what will come next. Or so he believes.
Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. Tall, thin, and embarrassingly weak, he made an unlikely soldier. He was going to night school in optometry when he got drafted to fight in World War II. His father died in a hunting accident before Billy left for Europe. The Germans captured Billy during the Battle of the Bulge. In 1945 he returned to the States, finished optometry school, and married the daughter of the school's owner. During the engagement, he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. After his release, he finished school, married the girl, got his own practice with help from his father-in-law, became quite rich, and had two kids. In 1968 he was the sole survivor of a plane crash. While he was in the hospital, his wife died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He returned home for rest, but without warning one day he went to New York and claimed on the radio that he had been kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians. Billy's daughter, Barbara, retrieved him from New York. A month later, Billy wrote a letter to Ilium's newspaper describing the aliens. The Tralfamadorians are shaped like two-foot tall toilet plungers, suction cup down.
We now see Billy working on a second letter describing the Tralfamadorian conception of time. All time happens simultaneously, so a man who dies is actually still alive, since all moments exist at all times. Billy works on his letter, oblivious to the increasingly frantic shouts of his daughter, who has stopped by to check on him. The burden of caring for Billy has made Barbara difficult and unforgiving.
We move to the first time Billy gets unstuck in time. Billy receives minimal training as a chaplain's assistant before being shipped to Europe. He arrives in September of 1944, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He never meets his chaplain or gets a proper helmet or boots. Although he survives the onslaught, he wanders behind German lines, tagging along with two scouts and an anti-tank gunner named Roland Weary. Weary repeatedly saves Billy's life, mostly by not allowing him to lie down in the snow and die. Although the scouts are experienced, Weary is as new to the war as Billy is; he just fancies himself as having more of a taste for it. By firing the anti-tank gun incorrectly, his gun crew put scorch marks into the ground. Because of those marks, the position of the gun crew was revealed to a Tiger tank that fired back. Everyone but Weary was killed. He is stupid, fat, cruel, and violent. Back in Pittsburgh he was friendless, and constantly getting ditched. His father collects torture devices. He carries a cruel trench knife, various pieces of equipment that have been issued to him, and a pornographic photo of a woman with a horse. He plagues Billy with macho, aggressive conversation. In his own mind, Weary narrates the war stories he will one day tell. Although he is almost as clumsy and slow as Billy, he imagines himself and the two scouts as fast friends. In his head he dubs them and himself the Three Musketeers, and tells himself the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the life of a dumb, incompetent college kid.
Straggling behind the others, Billy becomes unstuck in time. He goes back to the red light of pre-birth and then forward again to a day in his childhood with his father at the YMCA. His father tries to teach him how to swim by the sink-or-swim method. Billy sinks, and someone has to rescue him. He jumps forward to 1965, when he is a middle-aged man visiting his mother in a nursing home. Then he jumps to 1958, and Billy is attending his son's Little League banquet. Leap to 1961: Billy is at a party, totally drunk and cheating on his wife for the first and only time. Then, he is back in 1944, being shaken awake by Weary. Weary and Billy catch up to the scouts. Dogs are barking in the distance, and the Germans are searching for them. Billy is in bad shape: he looks like hell, can barely walk, and is having vivid (but pleasant) hallucinations. Weary tries to be chummy with his supposed buddies, the scouts, grouping himself with them as "the Three Musketeers." The scouts coldly tell him that he and Billy are on their own.
Billy goes to 1957, when he gives a speech as the newly elected president of the Lion's Club. Although he has a momentary bout of stage fright, his speech is beautiful. He has taken a public speaking course.
He leaps back to 1944. Ditched again, Weary starts to beat Billy up, furious that this weak college kid has cost him his membership in "the Three Musketeers." He cruelly beats Billy, who is in such a state that he can only laugh. Suddenly, Weary realizes that they are being watched by five German soldiers and a police dog. They have been captured.
Billy's name is a symbol of his innocence. He chooses the child's form, "Billy" rather than "William," and his last name of Pilgrim has symbolic significance. He is on a journey, and "pilgrim" here strongly intimates innocence. He is more like a naïve traveler than a warrior or hardened ascetic. He is not a conventional war hero. Vonnegut chooses to make Billy weak, fearful, incompetent, and mentally unstable. He refuses to glorify war by creating a glamorous hero; instead, he gives us Billy.
Billy's hometown is Ilium, another name for the city of Troy, the doomed city under siege in the Iliad of Homer. The allusion only reinforces the contrast between Billy and a glorious war hero. Ilium is the city that lost; its people were either butchered, scattered, or enslaved. Billy's hometown is named after a city that was destroyed by war.
The theme of narrative versus non-narrative is apparent in Weary's self-aggrandizing war stories, which the stupid man expends energy inventing even before he has survived the war. Billy's chronological jumping and unglamorous military experience provides a cold contrast to the hokey fantasies of the anti-tank gunner. Weary's fantasies come in part from a deep loneliness; a great part of the fantasy is the idea of camaraderie, which Weary has never had before. Weary's real situation is a contrast to his fantasies. He incorrectly fired a shot at a tank and survived by pure luck. Neither the scouts nor Billy can stomach his company. His own narration of the war attempts to turn him into a hero, ignoring pressing dangers and the decidedly unglamorous aspects of his military experience so far. Vonnegut juxtaposes the reality with Weary's narrative to throw all war stories into question. He refuses to give us a hero, and he makes conventional war stories seem preposterous. There is no place here for swelling music or daring deeds. Not enough narrative structure or heroism has showed up to make war look anything other than miserable. The scouts are good soldiers, but they take the non-heroic and necessary path when they abandon their countrymen. In another kind of novel, one closer to the kind of narrative made up by Weary and feared by Mary O'Hare, these scouts might be the central characters. But they are peripheral here, and their deaths will be as quick and inglorious as any in Slaughterhouse Five.
The troops who capture Billy and Weary are irregulars, newly enlisted men using the equipment of newly dead soldiers. Their commander is a tough German corporal, whose beautiful boots are a trophy from a battle long ago. Once, while waxing the boots, he told a soldier that if you stared into their shine you could see Adam and Eve. Though Billy has never heard the corporal's claim, looking into the boots now he sees Adam and Eve and loves them for their innocence, vulnerability, and beauty. A blond fifteen-year-old boy helps Billy to his feet; he looks as beautiful and innocent as Eve. In the distance, shots sound out as the two scouts are killed. Waiting in ambush, they were found and shot in the backs of their heads.
The Germans take Weary's things, including the pornographic picture, which the two old men grin about, and Weary's boots. The fifteen-year old gets Weary's boots, and Weary gets the boy's clogs. Weary and Billy are made to march a long distance to a cottage where American POWs are being detained. The soldiers there say nothing. Billy falls asleep, his head on the shoulder of a Jewish chaplain.
Billy leaps in time to 1967, although it takes him a while to figure out the date. He is giving an eye exam in his office in Ilium. His car, visible outside his window, has conservative stickers on the bumper; the stickers were gifts from his father-in-law.
He leaps back to the war. A German is kicking his feet, telling him to wake up. The Americans are assembled outside for photographs. The photographer takes pictures of Billy's and Weary's feet as evidence of how poorly equipped the American troops are. They stage photos of Billy being captured. Billy then returns to 1967, driving to the Lion's club. He drives through a black ghetto, an area recovering from recent riots and fires. He largely ignores what he sees there. At the Lion's club, a marine major talks about the need to continue the fight in Vietnam. He advocates bombing North Vietnam into the Stone Age, if necessary, and Billy does not think of the horror of bombing, which he has witnessed himself. He is simply having lunch. The narrator mentions that he has a prayer on the wall of his office: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference." The narrator tells us that Billy cannot change past, present, or future.
After lunch, Billy goes home. He is a wealthy man now, with a son in the Green Berets and a daughter about to get married; he also is seized occasionally by sudden and inexplicable bouts of weeping. During one of these spells, he closes his eyes and finds himself back in World War II. He is marching with an ever-growing line of Americans making their way through Luxembourg. They cross into Germany, being filmed by the Germans who want a record of their great victory. Weary's feet are sore and bloody from marching on the German boy's clogs. The Americans are sorted by rank, and a colonel tries to talk with Billy. The colonel is dying; he tries to be chummy with Billy. He has always wanted to be called "Wild Bob" by his men. He dreams of having a reunion of his men in his hometown of Cody, Wyoming. He invites Billy and the other men to come. Vonnegut mentions that he and Bernard O'Hare were there when the colonel gave his invitation. All of the POWs are put into train cars. The train does not leave for two days; during that time Wild Bob dies. The boxcars are so crowded that to sleep the men have to take turns lying down. When the train finally begins its trek deeper into Germany, Billy jumps through time again. It is 1967, and he is about to be kidnapped for the first time by the Tralfamadorians.
The sight of Adam and Eve in the corporal's boots and the beauty of the fifteen-year-old boy are contrasts to the grittiness of war. These images are of vulnerability and innocence. By making Billy's hallucination echo what the corporal himself has said, Vonnegut makes the vision in the boots something slightly more than a hallucination. Billy is gazing on a fantasy of unspoiled human innocence, one longed for by both Germans and Americans, but that innocence appears in the boots that were stripped as a trophy from a dead soldier. The fifteen-year-old is a picture of youth and beauty, but he will not remain innocent for long. Vonnegut focuses on the loss of innocence here: he makes a parallel between Adam and Eve and the young boy. Though Adam and Eve appear in the boots as they did in Eden, vulnerable and naked, we know that after Eden came the fall. Their innocence is also complicated by the fact that their image appears in boots that are spoils of war. Adam and Eve symbolize the innocence and lost innocence that the young boy embodies. Note that the older soldiers grin together about Weary's pornographic photo, with the young boy left out of their crude jokes and leering. But the young boy will inevitably lose his innocence; though for now he is new to war, time and experience will put blood on his hands. Vonnegut chooses to focus on the beauty of this boy, pre-war, rather than the steely manhood of, say, the nearby scouts. The boy is compared to Eve rather than Adam, emphasizing his distance from manhood and his vulnerability. Vonnegut does not depict the heroic beauty of men like the scouts. The scouts, in fact, die a very unglamorous death. Trying to lie in ambush for the enemy, they are shot from behind, denied even the dignity of facing their killer. Again and again, Vonnegut chooses to focus on what is lost in wartime, rather than depict the heroism of soldiers. One of the only moments of heroism in the entire novel occurs much later, and it happens far from the battlefield.
The theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here again. Notice that the Germans, some of the greatest producers of war narrative ever, are constantly constructing narratives. They take misleading pictures of Weary's feet to prove that U.S. soldiers lack proper equipment, even though Weary's boots were taken from him and his current shoes were originally on the feet of a German soldier. They stage photos of Billy's capture, making a story in pictures that fits ideas of what a capture is supposed to look like; note that the phony picture looks much more like our idea of a capture than the carnival-like reality of Billy's actual capture. The pathetic Wild Bob dreams of having his men call him "Wild Bob," although so far the name only sticks with irony. He hopes to have a great, manly reunion in Wyoming, although in truth he will not even survive the war. Nor will his death be a glorious battlefield martyrdom. He will die from illness. The more familiar styles of war narrative are very different from what Vonnegut gives us in the novel. We are given the story of war in jumbled fragments, with the focus on a character who is not in the slightest bit heroic.
These scenes of Billy in 1967 tell us important things about his character. He is deeply passive. The bumper stickers on his Cadillac are not even his own; they are gifts from his father. When Billy drives through the ghetto, he chooses to ignore the suffering there. When a black man taps on his window, wanting to talk about something, Billy does the easy thing: he drives on. When the marine major lectures about the need to bomb Vietnam, Billy is silent. He just keeps having in lunch. These scenes are important social commentary. Keep in mind that Slaughterhouse Five was published in 1969, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. More tonnage of explosives was dropped onto Vietnam than in all of World War II put together, including the two atomic bombs.
Billy has a very peculiar interpretation of the prayer on his wall. If he cannot change past, present, or future, than what is left? Billy's indifference should not be mistaken as Vonnegut's. Although Billy believes in aliens and the fixed nature of fate, Vonnegut does not intend for the reader to take these things as the important lessons of the book. At times, Vonnegut seems to despair of being able to change the world with a book, but Billy's maddening acceptance and silence are not being offered as the admirable way to act. Billy's acceptance is in direct opposition to Vonnegut's own attitude put forward in Chapter One. Vonnegut tells his sons that they are never to participate in massacres; in contrast, Billy's son is a Green Beret in Vietnam. Vonnegut struggled for over two decades to write an "anti-war book" about Dresden, and his concerns are for the "babies," the children who fight in wars. The reader should not take Billy's Tralfamadorian philosophy as Vonnegut's.
In 1967, on his daughter's wedding night, Billy cannot sleep. Because he is unstuck in time, he knows that he will soon be kidnapped by a Tralfamadorian flying saucer. He kills time unproductively in the meantime. He watches a war movie, and because he is unstuck in time the movie goes forward and then backward. He goes out to meet the ship, and he is taken as planned. As the ship shoots out into space, Billy is jarred back to 1944. In the boxcar, none of the men want Billy to sleep next to them because he yells and thrashes in his sleep. He is forced to sleep while standing. In another car, Weary dies of gangrene in his feet. As he slowly dies over the course of days, he tells people again and again about the Three Musketeers. He also asks that someone get revenge for him on the man who caused his death. He blames Billy Pilgrim, of course.
The train finally arrives at a camp, and Billy and the other men are pushed and prodded along. The camp is full of dying Russian POWs. At points, Vonnegut likens the Russians' faces to radium dials. The Americans are all given coats; Billy's is too small. They go into a delousing station, where all of the men strip naked. Billy has one of the worst bodies there; he is skinny and weak, and a German soldier comments on that fact. We are introduced briefly to Edgar Derby and Paul Lazarro. Derby is the oldest POW there, a man who pulled strings to get into the army. He is a high school teacher from Indianapolis, and he is physically sturdy despite his forty-four years of age. He will be shot after the Dresden bombing for trying to steal a teapot. Paul Lazarro is a car thief from Illinois. His body is even weaker and less healthy than Billy's. He was in Roland Weary's boxcar, and he vowed solemnly to Weary that he would find and kill Billy Pilgrim. When the scalding water turns on, Billy leaps back to his infancy. His mother has just finished giving him a bath. He then leaps forward to a Sunday game of golf, played with three other optometrists. Then, he leaps in time to the space ship, on his first trip to Tralfamadore. He talks with one of his captors about time, and he says that the Tralfamadorians sound like they do not believe in free will. The alien replies that in all of the inhabited planets of the galaxy, Earth is the only one whose people believe in the concept of free will.
The movie Billy watches is both a sweet and gentle dream and another comment on the impossibility of replacing the things lost in war. When Billy watches the movies in reverse, he sees bombers sucking up fire into capsules that fly up for storage; German fighters magically pull the bullet holes out of bombers and heal the wounds of aircrews. The planes land backwards. Billy extrapolates: the capsules are returned to America, where women work to disassemble and make sure that the destructive things inside will never be able to harm anyone. Hitler becomes a baby. All people become babies, generation after generation, returning to "two perfect people named Adam and Eve" (75). Vonnegut is invoking Adam and Eve again as symbols of innocence and the loss of innocence. The theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here in a different form, pairing a war story with its mirror image. By putting the movie in reverse, Vonnegut provides a reversed war story. The machinery of war is used to heal, rather than hurt. The expense and effort of war is for the aid of humanity, rather than to kill. The conclusion is a return to the beauty and perfection of Adam and Eve. But this reversed narrative is only a fantasy. Watching films in reverse is always slightly comic, not possible to take as a real story. The return to Adam and Eve's innocence is impossible. In real life, we are not unstuck in time. We cannot reverse the losses of war. Death and destruction cannot really be undone.
Although Billy is not heroic, Vonnegut makes him an extremely sympathetic character. Weary's mean-spirited call for revenge is certainly undeserved by Billy. Vonnegut also constantly points out how weak and unsuitable for war Billy is; it is not his fault that he is no soldier.
We see the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Because the Tralfamadorians experience all time simultaneously, they know everything that will happen. The aliens accept fate completely and without struggle. Billy, unstuck in time, knows everything that will ever happen to him. But are we meant, as readers of this novel, to learn that fate is fixed? Probably not. The Tralfamadorians are, after, all, sentient toilet plungers, and Billy is a mentally unhinged man; there are also suggestions throughout the novel that the aliens are a coping mechanism for Billy, the products of mental damage from the war and exposure to the writing of Kilgore Trout. But whether or not the aliens are real does not affect how fate operates within the confines of Billy's story. By setting up fate as unchangeable within the confines of the Billy Pilgrim story, Vonnegut discounts the possibility of heroism. He is continuing to play with anti-narrative by making his characters subject to much larger forces. The individual has no real place in this view; the events and forces are too great for any man to be a hero. But Vonnegut is not advocating passive acceptance of war and brutality. Remember the publication date of 1969, and the novel's place as pertinent social commentary on the Vietnam War. Remember Vonnegut's own insistence in Chapter One that he has told his sons never to participate in massacres. The acceptance of fixed events occurs within the confines of the Billy Pilgrim story. For the Billy Pilgrim story, fate operates as a way to preclude any possibility of a conventional heroic war narrative.
En route to Tralfamadore, Billy asks for something to read. The only human novel is Valley of the Dolls, and when Billy asks for a Tralfamadorian novel, he learns that the aliens' novels are slim, sleek volumes. Because they have a different concept of time, Tralfamadorians have novels arranged by juxtaposition of marvelous moments. The books have no cause or effect or chronology; their beauty is in the arrangement of events meant to be read simultaneously. Billy jumps in time to a visit to the Grand Canyon taken when he was twelve years old. He is terrified of the canyon. His mother touches him and he wets his pants. He jumps forward in time just ten days, to later in the same vacation. He is visiting Carlsbad Caverns. The ranger turns the lights off, so that the tourists can experience total darkness. But Billy sees a light nearby: the radium dial of his father's watch.
Billy jumps back to the war. The Germans think Billy is one of the funniest creatures they've seen in all of the war. His coat is preposterously small, and on his already awkward body it looks ridiculous. The Americans give their names and serial numbers so that they can be reported to the Red Cross, and then they are marched to sheds occupied by middle-aged British POWs. The British welcome them with singing. These British POWs are officers, some of the first Brits taken prisoner in the war. They have been prisoners for four years. Due to a clerical error early in the war, the Red Cross shipped them an incredible surplus of food, which they have hoarded cleverly. Consequently, they are some of the best-fed people in Europe. Their German captors adore them. To prepare for their American guests, the Brits have cleaned and set out party favors. Candles and soap, supplied by the Germans, are plentiful: the British do not know that these items are made from the bodies of Holocaust victims. They have prepared a huge dinner and a dramatic adaptation of Cinderella. Billy is so unhinged that his laughter at the performance becomes hysterical shrieking, and he is taken to the hospital and doped up on morphine. Edgar Derby watches over him, reading The Red Badge of Courage. He leaps in time to the mental ward where he recovered in 1948.
In the mental ward, Billy's bed is next to the bed of Elliot Rosewater. Like Billy, he has little love for life, in part because of things he saw and did in the war. He is the man who introduces Billy to the science fiction of Kilgore Trout. Billy is enduring one of his mother's dreaded visits. She is a simple, religious woman. She makes Billy feel worse just by being there. Billy leaps back in time to the POW camp. A British colonel talks to Derby; after the newly arrived Americans shaved, the British were shocked by how young they all were. Derby tells of how he was captured: the Americans were pushed back into a forest, and the Germans rained shells on them until they surrendered.
Billy leaps back to the hospital. He is being visited by his ugly, overweight fiancée Valencia. He knew he was going crazy when he proposed to her. He does not want to marry her. She is visiting now, eating a Three Musketeers bar and wearing a diamond engagement ring that Billy found while in Germany. Elliot tells her about The Gospel from Outer Space, a Kilgore Trout book. Valencia tries to talk to Billy about plans for their wedding and marriage, but he is not too involved. He leaps forward in time to the zoo on Tralfamadore, where he was on display when he was forty-four years old. The habitat is furnished with Sears and Roebuck furniture. He is naked. He answers questions posed by the Tralfamadorian tourists. He learns that there are five sexes among the Tralfamadorians, but the sex difference is only visible in the fourth dimension. On earth there are actually seven sexes, all necessary to the production of children; earthlings just do not notice the sex difference between themselves because many of the sex acts occur in the fourth dimension. These ideas baffle Billy, and they in turn are baffled by his linear concept of time. Billy expects the Tralfamadorians to be concerned about or horrified by the wars on earth. He worries that earthlings will eventually threaten all the other races in the galaxy, causing the eventual destruction of the universe. The Tralfamadorians put their hands over their eyes, which lets Billy know that he is being stupid. The Tralfamadorians already know how the universe will end: during experiments with a new fuel, one of their test pilots pushes a button and the entire universe will disappear. They cannot prevent it. It has always happened that way. Billy correctly concludes that trying to prevent wars on Earth is futile. The Tralfamadorians also have wars, but they choose to ignore them. They spend their time looking at the pleasant moments rather than the unpleasant ones; they suggest that humans learn to do the same.
Billy leaps back in time to his wedding night. It is six months after his release from the mental ward. The narrator reminds us that Valencia and her father are very rich, and Billy will benefit greatly from his marriage to her. After they have sex, Valencia tries to ask Billy questions about the war. She wants a heroic war story, but Billy does not really respond to her. He has a crazy thought about the war, which Vonnegut says would make a good epitaph for Billy, and for the author, too: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." He jumps in time to that night in the prison camp. Edgar Derby has fallen asleep. Billy, doped up still from the morphine, wanders out of the hospital shed. He snags himself on a barbed wire fence, and cannot extract himself until a Russian helps him. Billy never really says a word to the Russian. He wanders to the latrine, where the Americans are sick from the feasting. A long period without food followed by a feast almost always results in violent sickness. Among the sick Americans is a soldier complaining that he has shit his brains out. It is Vonnegut. Billy leaves, passing by three Englishmen who watch the Americans' sickness with disgust. Billy jumps in time again, back to his wedding night. He and his wife are cozy in bed. He jumps in time again, to 1944. It is before he left for Europe; he is riding the train from South Carolina, where he was receiving his training, all the way back to Ilium for his father's funeral.
We return to Billy's morphine night in the POW camp. Paul Lazarro is carried into the hospital; while attempting to steal cigarettes from a sleeping British officer, he was beaten up. The officer is the one carrying him. Seeing now how puny Lazarro is, the officer feels guilty for hitting him so hard. But he is disgusted by the American POWs. A German soldier who adores the British officers comes in and apologizes for the inconvenience of hosting the Americans. He assures the Brits in the room that the Americans will soon be shipped off for forced labor in Dresden. The German officer reads propaganda materials written by Howard Campbell, Jr., a captured American who is now a Nazi. Campbell condemns the self-loathing of the American poor, the inequalities of America's economic system, and the miserable behavior of American POWs. Billy falls asleep and wakes up in 1968, where his daughter Barbara is scolding him. Barbara notices the house is icy cold and goes to call the oil-burner man.
Billy leaps in time to the Tralfamadorian zoo, where Montana Wildhack, a motion picture star, has been brought in to mate with him. Initially unconscious, she wakes to find naked Billy and thousands of Tralfamadorians outside their habitat. They're clapping. She screams. Eventually, though, she comes to love and trust Billy. After a week they're sleeping together. He travels in time back to his bed in 1968. The oil-burner man has fixed the problem with the heater. Billy has just had a wet dream about Montana Wildhack. The next day, he returns to work. His assistants are surprised to see him, because they thought that he would never practice again. He has the first patient sent in, a boy whose father died in Vietnam. Billy tries to comfort the boy by telling him about the Tralfamadorian concept of time. The boy's mother informs the receptionist that Billy is going crazy. Barbara comes to take him home, sick with worry about what how to deal with him.
Chapter Five is the novel's longest chapter. One of the important recurring themes is human dignity and the ease with which that dignity can be taken away. The novel deals with a war that saw an appalling devaluation of human life, and incredible affronts to human dignity. The Holocaust is alluded to several times in this chapter, as Allied POWs unwittingly use soap and candles made from human bodies. Edgar Derby's fate is known from when we first meet him; he will be executed by a firing squad for trying to steal a teapot. Prodded by Valencia, Billy reveals in this chapter that Derby was doped up when he was shot, barely aware of what was happening. And then of course there is Billy himself, laughed at by his German captors, insulted with the "gift" of a preposterously small coat, mentally unhinged, berated by his daughter, annoyed by his mother, married to a woman he does not respect, and made to parade himself naked in an alien zoo. Chapter Five shows us a parade of incidents, great and small, in which human dignity is ripped away. Put on display on Tralfamadore, Billy tells his captors honestly that he is as happy in the zoo as he was on earth. On his home world, the treatment he received was no better than the treatment he has received as a zoo specimen; in many ways, the aliens treat him better.
But Vonnegut also questions the concept of "dignity." Certain interpretations of dignity can become part of the narrative of war. Americans are insulted for having no dignity by their allies, the British. The British show disgust for the Americans' illness, even though the feast provided by the Brits is the direct cause of the illness. Vonnegut is not holding the British up as true examples of the meaning of dignity. There is something decidedly precious about the officers. For four years, they have been prisoners, but they also have seen far less action and hardship than their American guests. Significantly, they are adored by their Nazi captors because they make war "look stylish and reasonable, and fun" (94). These men are the type that can come up with war stories when the shooting has stopped, but their stories will be about staying plucky while imprisoned, hoarding food, hosting disgusting Americans. Those same Americans are coming in from one of the most brutal battles fought in Western Europe in all of the Second World War. Real war strips dignity away; Vonnegut refuses to tell a story of soldiers maintaining "dignity" under the pressure of real fighting. To do so would risk romanticizing war.
Vonnegut never comforts us in this novel with a sense of cause and effect. He never tries to explain why war happens or why men act as they do in wartime; explanations are too often molded into harmful narratives, like the propaganda writing of Howard Campbell, Jr. The Tralfamadorian time travel premise helps Vonnegut to escape having to explain things. The description of the Tralfamadorian novel, with its non-linear story and skillful arranging of events, corresponds to what Vonnegut himself has written. Tralfamadorian philosophy does not provide real comfort to the reader either; although there is some wisdom in accepting things, the Tralfamadorian insistence on ignoring everything unpleasant is not a viable solution in real life. The comfort of the novel comes from Vonnegut's sense of humor and sympathy for human beings, even unlikable ones. And as brutal as events of the novel can be, Vonnegut makes the whimsical and the wistful an important part of the pleasure of the book. Billy's wild thought about the war is more a wish than a statement of fact: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." The wish provides some comfort, although it stands in direct opposition to what the reader knows was the hard reality. Billy's thought is like a simple, unimposing fantasy, poignant because it is so modest and childlike.
It might be worthwhile to briefly look at some of Vonnegut's repetitions. They abound throughout the book, but because Chapter Five is so long it is easy to find a long list of repetitions here. Feet are often "ivory and blue": corpses' feet in 1944, as well as Billy's feet in the unheated house in 1967. For some reason, forty-four comes up again and again. Billy is forty-four when he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. Billy is captured in 1944. Edgar Derby is forty-four when he dies. Valencia is eating a Three Musketeers bar when she visits Billy in the hospital, alluding back to the Three Musketeers narrative imagined by Roland Weary. Billy's father has a watch with a radium dial; the dial glows in the darkness of Carlsbad Caverns. The Russians have faces like radium dials that glow from the darkness of night at the POW camp. Vonnegut describes himself as having "breath like mustard gas and roses," and near the end of the novel the smell of corpses in Dresden is like mustard gas and roses. A careful reader can find many, many more. These repetitions create the sense that although the novel is chronologically disjointed, there is a strong connection between events. The connections are not necessarily cause-and-effect, but they do hint at a larger pattern. Everywhere Billy goes, he sees repetitions and patterns that may or may not mean something. The repetitions may also be another allusion to Homer; remember that Billy's hometown is Ilium, another name for Troy, and the Iliad is the West's greatest war story. Repetition of set phrases is one of the most striking elements of Homer's style.
Billy wakes after his morphine night in POW camp irresistibly drawn to two tiny treasures. They draw him like magnets; they are hidden in the lining of his coat. It will be revealed later on exactly what they are. He goes back to sleep, and wakes up to the sounds of the British building a new latrine. They have abandoned their old latrine and their meeting hall to the Americans. The man who beat up Lazarro stops by to make sure he is all right, and Lazarro promises that he is going to have the man killed after the war. After the amused Brit leaves, Lazarro tells Derby and Billy that revenge is life's sweetest pleasure. He once brutally tortured a dog that bit him. He is going to have all of his enemies killed after the war. He tells Billy that Weary was his buddy, and he is going to avenge him by having Billy shot after the war. Because of his time hopping, Billy knows that this is true. He will be shot in 1976. At that time, the United States has split into twenty tiny nations. Billy will be lecturing in Chicago on the Tralfamadorian concept of time and the fourth dimension. He tells the spectators that he is about to die, and urges them to accept it. After the lecture, he is shot in the head by a high-powered laser gun.
Back in the POW camp, Billy, Derby, and Lazarro go the theater to elect a leader. On the way over, they see a Brit drawing a line in the dirt to separate the American and British sections of the compound. In the theater, Americans are sleeping anywhere that they can. A Brit lectures them on hygiene, and Edgar Derby is elected leader. Only two or three men actually have the energy to vote. Billy dresses himself in a piece of azure curtain and Cinderella's boots. The Americans ride the train to Dresden. Dresden is a beautiful city, appearing on the horizon like something out of a fairy tale. They are met by eight German irregulars, boys and old men who will be in charge of them for the rest of the war. They march through town towards their new home. The people of Dresden watch them, and most of them are amused by Billy's outlandish costume. One surgeon is not. He scolds Billy about dignity and representing his country and war not being a joke, but Billy is honestly perplexed by the man's anger. He shows the man his two treasures from the lining of his coat: a two-carat diamond and some false teeth. The Americans are brought to their new home, a converted building originally for the slaughter of pigs. The building has a large 5 on it. The POWs are taught the German name for their new home, in case they get lost in the city. In English, it is called Slaughterhouse Five.
Billy's death in the future is described in comic terms. From the high-powered laser beam to the Chicago "hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen," the future looks like a parody of science fiction. The comic and fantastic elements of Billy's death and his Tralfamadorian experiences suggest that these sections should be understood in playful terms. The comic elements of the story can still instruct, but we should not necessarily take Tralfamadorian wisdom at face value. Vonnegut relieves the pressure of the novel's atrocities by pairing the tragic with the absurd. His sense of humor and imagination are defense against the world. In a similar way, Billy's escape into a science fiction world is a relief from the indignities of his real life.
Billy does not mean to be disrespectful when he dresses himself in the curtain and boots from the Cinderella play. He is cold and needs better shoes. He is also in a real state, mentally. The surgeon who scolds him has a certain conception of war, one that has its merits: war is about the loss of human life, and must be dealt with respectfully. Billy should represent his country. War is not funny. But Vonnegut's depiction of war seems at odds with the surgeon's comments, and points out some of the problems with the surgeon's point of view. In the Poetics of Aristotle, Aristotle defines comedy as art in which people are worse than they are in real life. Worse in this case means sillier, more stupid, base. In these terms, war is a sick comedy on a grand scale. As Vonnegut depicts it, war is darkly humorous. Billy is a buffoon, but his ridiculous costume is no worse than the millions of other undignified things that happen in wartime. It is no more ridiculous than the British offering Americans a huge feast after they have been deprived of food for days, resulting, of course, in everyone getting the shits. It is no more ridiculous than pathetic Paul Lazarro threatening men with death, or poor Edward Derby surviving the Battle of the Bulge only to be shot for trying to steal a tea pot. And we already know that Vonnegut is skeptical of the idea of representing one's country. The British behave in ways that the surgeon might respect, but there is something bombastic and hollow about their high spirits. They have hoarded food while the Russians around them starve. They call the Americans weak and dirty when these same American troops have just come in from some of the worst fighting of the war in Western Europe. In all of this, Vonnegut points out how easily human dignity can be taken away; he also questions the idea of dignity itself, and its place in conventional war narratives. Dignity has many forms, and some of these forms are of questionable value.
Irony saturates the circumstances surrounding the American POW camp in Dresden. They are told before they go that Dresden has no significant industries or military force, and so it will not be bombed. They expect to be safe. They also are staying at a slaughterhouse, but ironically, the POWs and their guards are some of the only people who are going to survive the bombing.
Billy is on a plane next to his father-in-law. Billy and a number of optometrists have chartered a plane to go to a convention in Montreal. There's a barbershop quartet on board. Billy's father-in-law loves it when they sing songs mocking the Polish. Vonnegut mentions that in Germany Billy saw a Pole getting executed for having sex with a German girl. Billy leaps in time to his wandering behind the German lines with the two scouts and Roland Weary. He leaps in time again to the plane crash. Everyone dies but him. The plane has crashed in Vermont, and Billy is found by Austrian ski instructors. When he hears them speaking German, he thinks he's back in the war. He is unconscious for days, and during that time he dreams about the days right before the bombing.
He remembers a boy named Werner Gluck, one of the guards. He was good-natured, as awkward and puny as Billy. One day, Gluck and Billy and Derby were looking for the kitchen. Derby and Billy were pulling a two-wheeled cart; it was their duty to bring dinner back for the boys. Gluck pulled a door open, thinking the kitchen might be there, and instead revealed naked teenage girls showering, refugees from another city that was bombed. The women scream and Gluck shuts the door. When they finally find the kitchen, an old cook talks with the trio critically and proclaims that all the real soldiers are dead. Billy also remembers working in the malt syrup factory in Dresden. The syrup is for pregnant women, and it is fortified with vitamins. The POWs do everything they can to sneak spoonfuls of it. Billy sneaks a spoonful to Edgar Derby, who is outside. He bursts into tears after he tastes it.
Chapter Seven is very short. The plane ride gives Vonnegut an opportunity to criticize the bigotry of Billy's father-in-law. The old optometrist loves the songs mocking the Polish, but Vonnegut follows the event with the execution of a real Pole. Vonnegut drives home the connection between the execution and the songs: the Germans, obsessed with maintaining racial purity, are executing the Polish man for having had sex with a German woman. Although bigoted songs and hate-motivated murder are two different things, Vonnegut puts the two events right after each other, suggesting that there is a significant connection between these different forms of hate.
Billy's memories of Dresden before the bombing are gentler than many of his other memories of the war. The moment when the three men stumble into the room of naked women is humorous and also beautiful. It is completely innocent: Edgar Derby is an old man with a wife, and Billy and Werner are two boys who are too awkward to be threatening. Neither of them has seen a naked woman before. Vonnegut creates sympathy for the people of Dresden. The girls are refugees who have lost their homes to bombing in the nearby city of Breslau; they have survived only to die here in Dresden. Werner is an innocent, as unsuited for war as Billy. Vonnegut emphasizes the connection between all men by mentioning that Billy and Werner look like brothers. He also says that the two boys are actually cousins, something that they never learn. The time in Dresden is peaceful. The war here is not about glorious battlefield exploits. Instead, we watch the POWs survive as best they can, sneaking tastes of vitamin-enriched syrup. The syrup becomes a symbol of longing for simple pleasures, simple happiness. The POWs work in a factory surrounded by the sweet substance, and to get a taste of it they have to steal small spoonfuls of it. Edgar Derby's tears are enigmatic. Is he crying because he has been reduced to stealing from a supply of syrup intended for pregnant women? Is he crying because as a POW so much has been taken from him, and the simple pleasure of the syrup reminds him of pleasures he used to take for granted?
Howard Campbell, Jr., the American-turned-Nazi propagandist, visits the captives of Slaughterhouse Five. He wears an elaborate costume of his own design, a cross between cowboy outfit and a Nazi uniform. The POWs are tired and unhealthy, undernourished and overworked. Campbell offers them good eating if they join his Free American Corps. The Corps is Campbell's idea. Composed of Americans fighting for the Germans, they will be sent to fight on the Russian front. After the war, they will be repatriated through Switzerland. Campbell reasons that the Americans will have to fight the Soviet Union sooner or later, and they might as well get it out of the way. Edgar Derby rises for his finest moment. He denounces Campbell soundly, praises American forms of government, and speaks of the brotherhood between Russians and Americans. Air raid sirens sound, and everyone takes cover in a meat locker. The firebombing will not occur until tomorrow night; these sirens are only a false alarm. Billy dozes, and then leaps in time to an argument with his daughter Barbara. She is worrying about what should be done about Billy. She tells him that she feels like she could kill Kilgore Trout.
We move to Billy's first meeting with Trout, which happened in 1964. He is out driving when he recognizes Trout from the jackets of his books. Trout's books have never made money, so he works as a newspaper circulation man, bullying and terrorizing newspaper delivery boys. One of Trout's boys quits, and Billy offers to help Trout deliver the papers on the boy's route. He gives Trout a ride. Trout is overwhelmed by meeting an avid fan. He has only received one letter in the course of his career, and the letter was crazed. It was written by none other than Billy's friend from the mental ward, Elliot Rosewater. Billy invites Kilgore Trout to his anniversary party.
At the party, Trout is obnoxious, but the optometrists and their spouses are still enchanted by having an actual writer among them. A barbershop quartet sings "That Old Gang of Mine," and Billy is visibly disturbed. After giving Valencia her gift, he flees upstairs. Lying in bed, Billy remembers the bombing of Dresden.
We see the events as Billy remembers them. He and the other POWs, along with four of their guards, spend the night in the meat locker. The girls from the shower were being killed in a shallower shelter nearby. The POWs emerge at noon the next day into what looks like the surface of the moon. The guards gape at the destruction. They look like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.
We move to the Tralfamadorian Zoo. Montana Wildhack asked Billy to tell her a story. He tells her about the burnt logs, actually corpses. He tells her about the great monuments and buildings of the city turned into a flat, lunar surface.
We move to Dresden. Without food or water, the POWs have to march to find some if they are to survive. They make their way across the treacherous landscape, much of it still hot, bits of crumbling. They are attacked by American fighter planes. The end up in the suburbs, at an inn that has prepared to receive any survivors. The innkeeper lets the Americans sleep in the stable. He provides them with food and drink, and goes out to bid them goodnight as they go to bed.
Before Derby's heroic condemnation of Campbell, Vonnegut points out that his book has no characters. Most of the people in the book are too sick and tired to really have confrontations with people; one of war's effects, Vonnegut says, is to discourage people form being characters. His theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here again. The people of this novel are not heroes. They are subject to incredible forces much larger than themselves. This is another key theme, emphasized by Vonnegut's play with narrative.
Finally, we are at the destruction of Dresden. Although Billy often seems to bounce through life, at key points he shows the signs of serious damage. The barbershop quartet, the same one that will die on the plane, makes Billy remember the destruction of Dresden. A sentimental song about a gang of friends (the kind of gang, incidentally, of which Billy has never been a part) makes him think of the four guards looking out on their destroyed city. This is not a jump through time. This part is memory. There is a connection between the Tralfamadorian concept of time and memory; in a real sense, memory means that events in the past do continue to exist. Here, we do not see the firebombing of Dresden after one of Billy's leaps through time. He remembers it, an old man unnerved by a song, and the memory is as real as a time leap. The Tralfamadorian concept of time may teach us more than their pain-avoiding philosophy. According to the alien view, massacres that happen are always happening. Time's passage cannot get rid of them. Although Billy and the aliens choose to try to take comfort from the always-existing quality of events, Billy's near-breakdown and the return of his memories of Dresden suggest that things are not always so easy. Atrocities cannot just be ignored.
When Billy is in the hospital in Vermont, Valencia goes crazy with grief. Driving to the hospital, she gets in a terrible accident. She gears up her car and continues driving to the hospital, determined to get there even though she leaves her exhaust system behind. She pulls into the hospital driveway and falls unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning. An hour later, she is dead.
Billy is oblivious, unconscious in his bed, dreaming and time traveling. In the bed next to him is Bertram Copeland Ruumford, an arrogant retired Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. He is a seventy-year-old Harvard professor and the official historian of the Air Force, and he is in superb physical condition. He has a twenty-three year-old high school dropout with an IQ of 103. He is an arrogant jingoist. Currently he is working on a history of the Air Corp in World War II. He has to write a section on the success of the Dresden bombing. Ruumfoord's wife Lily is scared of Billy, who mumbles deliriously. Ruumfoord is disgusted by him, because all he does in his sleep in quit or surrender.
Barbara comes to visit Billy. She is in a horrible state, drugged up so she can function after the recent tragedies. Billy cannot hear her. He is remembering an eye exam he gave to a retarded boy a decade ago. Then he leaps in time when he was sixteen years old. In the waiting room of a doctor's office, he sees an old man troubled by horrible gas. Billy opens his eyes and he is back in the hospital in Vermont. His son Robert, a decorated Green Beret, is there. Billy closes his eyes again.
He misses Valencia's funeral because he is till too sick. People assume that he is a vegetable, but actually he is thinking actively about Tralfamadorians and the lectures he will deliver about time and the permanence of moments. Overhearing Ruumford talk about Dresden, Billy finally speaks up and tells Ruumford that he was at Dresden. Ruumford ignores him, trying to convince himself and the doctors that Billy has Echonalia, a condition where the sufferer simply repeats what he hears.
Billy leaps in time to May of 1945, two days after the end of the war in Europe. In a coffin-shaped green wagon, Billy and five other Americans ride with loot from the suburbs of Dresden. They found the wagon, attached to two horses, and have been using it to carry things that they have taken. The homes have been abandoned because the Russians are coming, and the Americans have been looting. When they go to the slaughterhouse and the other five Americans loot among the ruins, Billy naps in the wagon. He has a cavalry pistol and a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber. He wakes; two Germans, a husband-and-wife pair of obstetricians, are angry about how the Americans have treated the horses. The horses' hooves are shattered, their mouths are bleeding from the bits, and they are extremely thirsty. Billy goes around to look at the horses, and he bursts into tears. It is the only time he cries in the whole war. Vonnegut reminds the reader of the epigraph at the start of the book, an excerpt from a Christmas carol that describes the baby Jesus as not crying. Billy cries very little.
He leaps in time back to the hospital in Vermont, where Ruumford is finally questioning Billy about Dresden. Barbara takes Billy home later that day. Billy is watched by a nurse; he is supposed to be under observation, but he escapes to New York City and gets a hotel room. He plans to tell the world about the Tralfamadorians and their concept of time. The next day, Billy goes into a bookstore that sells pornography, peep shows, and Kilgore Trout novels. Billy is only interested in Kilgore Trout novels. In one of the pornographic magazines, there is an article about the disappearance of porn star Montana Wildhack. Later, Billy sneaks onto a radio talk show by posing as a literary critic. The critics take turns discussing the novel, but when Billy gets his turn he talks about Tralfamadore. At the next commercial break, he is made to leave. When he goes back to his hotel room and lies down, he travels back in time to Tralfamadore. Montana is nursing their child. She wears a locket with a picture of her mother and the same prayer that Billy had on his office wall in Ilium.
What kind of hero is Billy? What are we to make of his passivity, his total acceptance of events? Is this wisdom? Or is this the shirking of responsibility? He survived the worst massacre of European history, but he has raised a son who is involved in a continuous series of massacres in Vietnam. When Billy comes to in the hospital and sees his son there, he simply closes his eyes again. Is it because of the injuries, or because his son represents something he would prefer not to look at, one of those things that the Tralfamadorians taught him to ignore? Vonnegut gives us very little sense of how Billy worked as a father or a husband; in the interactions we see, he is almost always completely passive. In his final conversation with Ruumford, he agrees with the professor's conclusions. Dresden was necessary. Although their reasoning is different, the conclusion is the same. Is this kind of complete acceptance healthy?
As stated before, Billy's time travel and the fixed nature of fate means that heroism becomes impossible. Vonnegut attacks the concept of heroic manhood in other ways; pay attention to Ruumford, an arrogant and uncompassionate old man married to a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is a trophy; the professor has taken a wife just to reinforce his claim to being a superman. But Ruumford is totally devoid of compassion, and, like the Tralfamadorians, he is strangely selective in the writing of his history. The excerpts in his own books indicate that Dresden was unnecessary, but he seems to have reached the opposite conclusion by the time he is talking to Billy. And for days he ignores Billy, unwilling to change his view of Billy as a repulsive and useless person.
But Vonnegut clearly wants the reader to view Billy with sympathy. The epigraph links Billy to Christ, as does Billy's sense of his mission to spread the truth about time. Earlier in the book, Vonnegut talked about the problems with Christ as seen by Kilgore Trout. The gospels only teach that it is wrong to kill someone if he is well connected. In a Kilgore Trout novel, an alien brings a new gospel. In it, Christ is not God's son; he is just "a bum," and after his execution God adopts him. Billy, too, is a bum. He is unheroic, weak, and passive, but the characters that despise him for these traits often come off far worse than Billy. Vonnegut also makes Billy his own double: in Chapter One, Vonnegut says that in the war he took a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber as a trophy. In this chapter, we see Billy take the exact same item. Billy and Vonnegut are born in the same year, 1922. When talking about Billy's fantastic thought that "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt," he says that it would make a fitting epitaph for Billy and for Vonnegut, too.
And although complete acceptance seems problematic, there is a value to acceptance. Billy's Tralfamadorian adventure at least helps him to come to terms with his own life. He treats everyone with courtesy, even those who despise him. He does not cast blame on anyone for anything. These behaviors provide some lessons, but they are only part of the truth. Chapter Nine leaves us with an illustration of Montana's locket, on which is the prayer asking God for the ability to accept the world when necessary and change it when possible.
Vonnegut tells us that Robert Kennedy died last night. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated a month ago. Body counts are reported every night on the news as signs that the war in Vietnam is being won. Vonnegut's father died years ago of natural causes. He left Billy all of his guns, which rust. Billy claims that on Tralfamadore the aliens are more interested in Darwin than Jesus. Darwin, says Vonnegut, taught that death was the means to progress. Vonnegut recalls the pleasant trip he made to Dresden with his old war buddy, O'Hare. They were looking up facts about Dresden in a little book when O'Hare came across a passage on the exploding world population. By 2000, the book predicts, the world will have a population of 7 billion people. Vonnegut says that he supposes they will all want dignity.
Billy Pilgrim travels back in time to 1945, two days after the bombing of Dresden. German authorities find the POWs in the innkeeper's stable. Along with other POWs, they are brought back to Dresden to dig for bodies. Bodies are trapped in protected pockets under the rubble, and the POWs are put to work bringing them up. But after one of the workers is lowered into a pocket and dies of the dry heaves, the Germans settle on incinerating the bodies instead of retrieving them. During this time, Edgar Derby is caught with a teapot he took from the ruins. He is tried and executed by a firing squad.
Then the POWs were returned to the stable. The German soldiers went off to fight the Soviets. Spring comes, and one day in May the war is over. Billy and the other men go outside into the abandoned suburbs. They find a horse-drawn wagon, the wagon green and shaped like a coffin. The birds sing, "Po-tee-weet?"
The events Vonnegut mentions put the writer in 1968. America is involved in a new war, in which body counts are reported as signs of progress. He is grounding the events of the novel in current history. He is making the link between one unnecessary massacre and another. The conversation with O'Hare brings up the important theme of dignity. The world's population is only getting larger, and seems as troubled as it ever has been. Vonnegut's comment is caustic, cynical. It suggests that dignity is something that has always been hard to come by. More people in the world means that more people will be denied dignity, more people will suffer.
We finish in Dresden. Vonnegut touches on the massacre one more time by describing the process of retrieving the bodies. A few more men are added to the death list: a Maori who dies of dry heaves, and poor Edgar Derby. We are left with that incredible image of waste, and the cruel, small atrocity of the high school teacher executed for taking a teapot. The disparity between Derby's death and his crime suggests a larger problem that Vonnegut has with killing as a form of punishment. Throughout the book, people defend the massacre at Dresden by talking about the Holocaust or the Allied pilots who faced fighters and anti-aircraft fire. But Vonnegut shows us people in Dresden who probably had nothing to do with the Holocaust. There is awkward Werner Gluck, as unfit for war as Billy; the old war widow who complains that all the real soldiers are dead; the teenage girls who survive one bombing only to die in the next.
And Vonnegut leaves us with a dual image. It is May, the time of the war's end, and also the time for the renewal and rebirth of springtime. But Billy and his friends are still finding reminders of death. Their wagon is shaped like a coffin. They are wandering in suburbs that have become ghost towns, abandoned by Germans fleeing from the Russian advance. They are looting in the rubble of a dead city.
The last line of the novel is the bird's nonsense singing, singing that is posed as a question. The theme of narrative versus anti-narrative is behind the last line. Narrative, by its nature, makes sense of events. Everything so far in this novel has warned us that it is impossible to make sense of a massacre. Vonnegut closes appropriately. It is not only impossible to have answers for a massacre; here, it is even impossible to ask questions that make sense. Instead, we have an unintelligible question posed by birds.
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