Chapter 1 Essay
||It is so short and jumbled and jangled …||
||because there is nothing intelligent to say ||
||about a massacre.||
picVonnegut writes in his own voice, introducing his experience of the
firebombing of Dresden, in eastern Germany, during World War II while he
was a prisoner of war and his attempt for many years to complete a book on
the subject. He begins with the claim that most of what follows is true,
particularly the parts about war.
picWith funding from the Guggenheim Foundation, Vonnegut and his wartime
friend Bernhard V. O’Hare return to Dresden in 1967. In a taxi on the way
to the Dresden slaughterhouse that served as their prison, Vonnegut and
O’Hare strike up a conversation with the cab driver about life under
communism. It is to this man, Gerhard Mller, as well as to O’Hare’s wife,
Mary, that Vonnegut dedicates Slaughterhouse-Five. Mller later sends
O’Hare a Christmas card with wishes for world peace.
picVonnegut relates his unsuccessful attempts to write about Dresden in
the twenty- three years since he was there during the war. He is very proud
of the outline of the story that he draws in crayon on the back of a roll
of wallpaper. The wallpaper outline represents each character in a
different color of crayon, with a line for each progressing through the
story’s chronology. Eventually the lines enter a zone of orange cross-
hatching, which represents the firebombing, and those that survive the
attack emerge and finally stop at the point when the POWs are returned.
However, the outline does not help Vonnegut’s writing. He initially
expected to craft a masterpiece about this grave and immense subject, but,
while the horrific destruction he witnessed occupies his mind over the
years, it defies his attempts to capture it in writing. Vonnegut’s antiwar
stance only adds to the difficulty, since, as a filmmaker acquaintance
remarks to him, writing a book against war would prevent war as effectively
as writing a book against glaciers would prevent their motion.
picVonnegut recounts the events of his postwar life, including a stints
as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago, a police
reporter, and a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady,
New York. In the years following the war, Vonnegut encounters ignorance
about the magnitude of Dresden’s destruction, and when he contacts the U.S.
Air Force for information, he discovers that the event is still classified
as top secret.
picAround 1964, Vonnegut takes his young daughter and her friend with him
to visit Bernhard V. O’Hare in Pennsylvania. He meets Mary O’Hare, who is
disgusted by the likelihood that Vonnegut will portray himself and his
fellow soldiers as manly heroes rather than the “babies” they were. With
his right hand raised, Vonnegut vows not to glorify war and promises to
call his book The Children’s Crusade. Later that night he reads about the
Children’s Crusade and the earlier bombing of Dresden in 1760.
picWhile teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Vonnegut lands a
contract to write three books, of which Slaughterhouse-Five is to be the
first. It is so short and jumbled, he explains, because there is nothing
intelligent to say about a massacre.
picOn the way to Dresden, Vonnegut spends a night in a Boston hotel,
where his perception of passing time becomes distorted, as if someone were
playing with the clocks. He reads about the destruction of Sodom and
Gomorrah in the bedside Gideon Bible and likens himself to Lot’s wife, who
against God’s will looked back at the burning cities and was turned into a
pillar of salt. Vonnegut muses on the book he has just written as an
inevitable failure, and he resolves not to look back anymore.
picThe narrator bids us listen and declares that “Billy Pilgrim has come
unstuck in time.” He travels randomly throughout the moments of his life
with no control over his chronological destination. Born in 1922 in Ilium,
New York, Billy grows up a funny-looking weakling. He graduates high school
and begins training as an optometrist before being drafted. After his
military service in Germany, he suffers from a nervous collapse and is
treated with shock therapy. He recovers, marries, has two children, and
becomes a wealthy optometrist.
picIn 1968, Billy survives a plane crash in Vermont; as he is
recuperating, his wife dies in an accident. After returning home, Billy
goes on a radio show in New York City to talk about his abduction by aliens
in 1967. His twenty-one-year-old daughter, Barbara, discovers his
proselytizing and brings him home, concerned for his sanity. The following
month, Billy writes a letter to his local paper about the aliens.
picThe day the letter is published, Billy is hard at work on his second
letter to the Ilium newspaper about the lessons he learned when he was
taken to the planet Tralfamadore. He is glowing with the expectation that
his letter will console many people by explaining the true nature of time.
Barbara is distraught by his behavior. She arrives at his house with the
newspaper in hand, unable to get Billy to talk sense.
picBilly describes his entry into the army, his training as a chaplain’s
assistant in South Carolina, and his dazed trek behind enemy lines after
the disastrous Battle of the Bulge in World War II. After the battle, Billy
falls in with three other American soldiers, two of whom are scouts and
capable soldiers. The one who is not, the antitank gunner Roland Weary, is
a cruel, insecure man who saves Billy’s life repeatedly in acts that he
thinks will make him a hero.
picBilly first time-shifts as he leans against a tree in a Luxembourg
forest. He has fallen behind the others and has little will to continue. He
swings through the extremes of his life: the violet light of death, the red
light of pre-birth. He is then a small boy being thrown into the deep end
of the YMCA swimming pool by his father, a proponent of the “sink-or-swim”
picBilly time-travels to 1965. He is now forty-one years old and visiting
his mother in a nursing home. He blinks and finds himself at a Little
League banquet for his son, Robert, in 1958. He blinks again and opens his
eyes at a party in 1961, cheating on his wife. Messily drunk, he passes out
and wakes up again behind enemy lines. Roland Weary is shaking him awake.
picThe two scouts decide to ditch Weary and Billy, much to Weary’s
chagrin. All his life people have ditched him. He has imagined himself and
the scouts as the Three Musketeers, and he blames Billy for breaking them
up. Billy is suddenly giving a speech in 1957 as the newly elected
president of the Ilium Lions Club. He is then back in the war, being
captured by Germans along with Weary.
||Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not||
||change were the past, the present, and the||
picWeary and Billy’s captors, a small group of German irregulars, take
their valuables and discover an obscene photograph in Weary’s pocket. As
Billy lies in the snow, he sees an image of Adam and Eve in the polished
boots of the commander. Weary must surrender his boots to a young German
soldier, whose wooden clogs he receives in exchange. The two Americans are
brought to a house full of other captives. Billy falls asleep and wakes up
in 1967 in the middle of administering an eye examination. We learn that he
has been falling asleep at work lately. He finishes with the patient and
tries unsuccessfully to interest himself in an optometry article.
picBilly closes his eyes and is once more a prisoner. He is roused and
ordered to move. He joins a steady stream of POWs marching in the road
outside. A German war photographer stages a capture scene of Billy emerging
from a bush, surrendering to armed Germans. Billy slips back into 1967. He
is driving on his way to a Lions Club luncheon through Ilium’s black
ghetto, still smoldering from recent riots, and then through a section
gutted for urban renewal. The urban destruction he sees outside the car
reminds him of the scene after the firebombing of Dresden. He drives a
Cadillac with John Birch Society bumper stickers. His son, Robert, is a
Green Beret in Vietnam. His daughter, Barbara, is about to get married. He
is quite wealthy.
picAt the Lions Club meeting, a marine major speaks about bombing in
North Vietnam. Billy has no opinion on this subject. He has a plaque on his
office wall that helps guide him through such listlessness. It reads: “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.”
picAfter the luncheon, Billy returns to his stately home. He lies down
for a nap and finds himself weeping. A bed vibrator called “Magic Fingers”
purchased to help Billy fall asleep jiggles him while he weeps. He closes
his eyes and he is back in Luxembourg, marching. The wind makes his eyes
water. Weary marches ahead of him, his feet raw and bloody from his ill-
fitting clogs. The prisoners march into Germany and are taken to a railroad
yard. A mentally unstable colonel who has lost his whole regiment asks if
Billy is one of his men. The colonel, who likes to be called “Wild Bob,”
tells Billy, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The
soldiers are sorted by rank and placed in crowded boxcars. They must take
turns sleeping and standing, and they pass a helmet as a chamber pot. Billy
is separated from Weary. His train does not move for two days. When the
train begins to roll toward the interior, Billy travels to the night on
which he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians.
||There was a drunk on the other end. Billy||
||could almost smell his breath-mustard gas and||
picOn the night of his daughter’s wedding day, Billy cannot sleep.
Because he has traveled in time already, he knows he will be kidnapped by
the Tralfamadorians’ flying saucer in an hour. Billy gets out of bed by the
light of a full moon and wanders down the hallway and into his daughter’s
empty bedroom. The phone rings, and Billy hears the voice of a drunk who
has dialed the wrong number. He can almost catch the scent of mustard gas
and roses on the man’s breath.
picDownstairs, Billy picks up a half-empty bottle of champagne from a
table. He watches a late-night documentary on American bombers in World War
II and their gallant pilots. Slightly unstuck in time, Billy watches the
movie forward and backward. Planes fly backward, magically quelling flames,
drawing their fragmented bombs into steel containers, and sucking them back
up into their bellies. Guns on the ground suck metal fragments from the
pilots, crew, and planes. Weapons are shipped backed to factories, where
they are carefully disassembled and broken down into their constituent
minerals. The minerals are shipped to specialists all over the world who
“hide them cleverly” in the ground, “so they never hurt anybody ever.” In
Billy’s mind, Hitler becomes a baby and all of humanity works toward
creating two perfect people named Adam and Eve.
picBilly heads out to the backyard to meet the saucer that will arrive
soon. A sound like a melodious owl heralds the arrival of the spacecraft,
which is 100 feet in diameter. Once on board, Billy is asked if he has any
questions. He asks, “Why me?”-a question that his captors think very
typical of earthlings to ask. They tell him that there is no why, since the
moment simply is and that all of them are trapped in the moment like bugs
picBilly is then anesthetized. The crush of the spaceship’s acceleration
sends him hurtling through time. He is back on a boxcar traveling across
Germany. The men take turns sleeping and standing. No one wants to let
Billy sleep beside him because Billy yells and kicks in his sleep. Billy
thus sleeps standing up.
picBy the ninth day of the boxcar journey, people are dying. Roland
Weary, who is in another car, dies after making sure that everyone in the
car knows who is responsible for his death: Billy Pilgrim. A car thief from
Cicero, Illinois, named Paul Lazzaro swears he will make Billy pay for
causing Weary’s death.
picOn the tenth night, the train reaches its destination: a prison camp.
The prisoners are issued coats, their clothes are deloused, and they are
led to a mass shower. Among the prisoners is Edgar Derby, a forty-four-year-
old teacher from Indianapolis. When the water begins to flow in the shower,
Billy time-travels to his infancy. His mother has just given him a bath. He
is then a middle-aged optometrist playing golf with three other
optometrists. He sinks a putt, bends down to pick it up, and he is back on
the flying saucer. He asks where he is and how he got there. A voice
reiterates that he is trapped in a blob of amber. He is where he is because
the moment is structured that way, because time in general is structured
that way-because it could not be otherwise. The voice, which is
Tralfamadorian, comments that only on Earth is there talk of free will.
||Only on Earth is there any||
||talk of free will.||
||There isn’t any particular relationship||
||between the messages…. There is no||
||beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no||
picIn his zoo enclosure, Billy reads the novel Valley of the Dolls, the
only earthling book available. He learns that Tralfamadorian books are
composed of short telegram-like clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy
skips back to two childhood scenes during a family tour of the American
West, then to the prison camp in Germany. After the prisoners are showered
and their clothes are deloused, their names are entered in a ledger, and
they are officially alive again.
picThe Americans are housed with a group of British officers who have
accidentally received extra provisions. The Brits welcome the Americans
with a cheerful banquet but quickly become disgusted with the sorry state
of the enlisted men. During a performance of Cinderella, Billy laughs
uncontrollably and is taken to the camp’s “hospital.” He is drugged and
wakes up in 1948 in the mental ward of a veterans’ hospital in New York.
picBilly has committed himself to the mental ward in his last year of
optometry school. In the aftermath of war, he finds life meaningless. In
the bed next to him lies an ex-captain named Eliot Rosewater. Eliot
introduces Billy to the clever but poorly written science-fiction novels of
a writer named Kilgore Trout. Billy’s mother visits him, and he covers his
head with a blanket.
picBack in Germany, Edgar Derby keeps watch over Billy’s sickbed. Billy
remembers Derby’s death by firing squad, which happens in the near future.
Billy travels back to the veterans’ hospital. His fiance, Valencia Merble,
is visiting. They discuss Kilgore Trout with Rosewater.
picBilly time-travels to his geodesic dome in the zoo on Tralfamadore,
outfitted with Sears Roebuck furniture and appliances. The Tralfamadorians
tell Billy that there are actually seven sexes among humans, all of which
are necessary for reproduction. Since five of these sexes are active only
in the fourth dimension, Billy cannot perceive them. When Billy praises the
peacefulness of Tralfamadore, the aliens inform him that Tralfamadorians
are at war sometimes and at peace at others. They add that they know how
the universe will end: one of their pilots will accidentally blow it up. It
always happens the same way and that is how the moment is structured. They
state that war cannot be prevented on Tralfamadore any more than it can on
picBilly skips back to his wedding night with Valencia in Cape Ann,
Massachusetts. After they make love, Valencia asks Billy about the war. He
gets up and goes to the bathroom and finds himself back in his hospital bed
in the prison camp. Billy wanders to the latrine, where the American
soldiers are violently sick. One of them is Kurt Vonnegut.
picThe next morning, Paul Lazzaro appears at the hospital, knocked
unconscious after trying to steal from an Englishman. A German major reads
aloud a monograph on the pathetic state of American soldiers by Howard W.
Campbell, Jr., an American playwright turned Nazi propagandist.
picBilly falls asleep and wakes up in 1968, back at work on his letter to
the paper. His daughter, Barbara, scolds him, notices that it is cold in
the house, and leaves to call the oil-burner man after putting Billy to
bed. Lying under his electric blanket, Billy travels to Tralfamadore, just
as an actress named Montana Wildhack arrives and goes into hysterics. She
has been brought to Tralfamadore to be Billy’s mate. Eventually she grows
to trust him, and soon they are sleeping together.
picBilly wakes up in 1968, having just had a wet dream about Montana
Wildhack. The next day, Billy examines a boy whose father has been killed
in Vietnam. He shares Tralfamadorian insights with the boy, whose mother
realizes that Billy is insane. Billy’s daughter is called to take him home.
picAfter spending the night on morphine, Billy wakes at dawn in his
prison bed on the day he and the other Americans are to be transported to
Dresden. He senses something radiating energy near his bed and discovers
the source of this “animal magnetism”: two small lumps inside the lining of
his overcoat. A telepathic communication informs him that the lumps can
work miracles for him if he does not try to find out any more about them.
picBilly dozes off and wakes again later the same morning. With him are
Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro. The English officers are building themselves
a new latrine, having abandoned the old one to the sick Americans. The
Englishman who beat up Lazzaro stops by, and Lazzaro tells him that he is
going to have the officer killed after the war. The sweetest thing in life,
he claims, is revenge. He says that one time he fed a dog that had bitten
him a steak filled with sharp pieces of metal and watched it die in
torment. Lazzaro reminds Billy of Roland Weary’s final wish and advises him
not to answer the doorbell after the war.
picBilly says he already knows that he will die because an old, crazed
Lazzaro will keep his promise. He has time-traveled to this moment many
times, and he knows that he will be a messianic figure by that time,
delivering a speech about the nature of time to a stadium crowd of admirers
and granting them solace by sharing the understanding that moments last
forever and that death is a negligible reality. He speaks at a baseball
park covered by a geodesic dome. It is 1976, and China has dropped a
hydrogen bomb on Chicago. The United States has been divided into twenty
nations to prevent it from threatening the world. Moments after he predicts
his own death and closes his speech with the words “Farewell, hello,
farewell, hello,” Billy is killed by an assassin’s high-powered laser gun.
He experiences the violet nothingness of death, and then he swings back
into life and to early 1945. The record of these events, Billy says, he has
recorded on a cassette that he has left in a safe-deposit box in a bank.
picAfter a lecture on personal hygiene by an Englishman and an election
in which Edgar Derby is named their leader, the Americans are shipped to
Dresden. Arrayed in his fur-satin coat and swathed in cloth scraps and
silver boots left over from the production of Cinderella, Billy looks like
the unwitting clown of the war. When the boxcars open, the Americans gaze
upon the most beautiful city they have ever seen. “Oz,” says Kurt Vonnegut,
who is in the boxcar too. Eight sorry, broken-down German soldiers guard
the one hundred American prisoners. They are marched through the city to a
former slaughterhouse that will serve as their quarters. Billy is amazed by
Dresden’s architecture. The city is relatively untouched by war, with its
industries and recreational facilities still operating. All the citizens
are amused by the ragtag parade, except one, who finds Billy’s ridiculous
appearance offensive. The man is insulted by Billy’s lack of dignity and
his apparent reduction of the whole war to a joke or pageant.
picNearly twenty-five years after his experience in Dresden, Billy boards
a chartered plane with twenty-eight other optometrists, including his
father-in-law, headed for a trade conference in Montreal. Valencia waves
goodbye from the tarmac while eating a candy bar. The narrator informs us
that, according to the Tralfamadorians, Valencia and her father, like every
other animal and plant, are both machines. Billy knows that the plane will
crash. A barbershop quartet of optometrists called the Four-eyed Bastards
serenades the passengers with bawdy tunes. One of them is a Polish song
about coal miners, which makes Billy remember a public hanging he witnessed
in Dresden in which a Polish man was lynched for having sex with a German
picBilly dozes off and drifts back to a moment in 1944. Roland Weary is
shaking him; Billy tells the Three Musketeers to go on without him.
picThe plane crashes into Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont, and Billy
survives with a fractured skull. Austrian ski instructors wearing black ski
masks arrive on the scene. As they check for signs of life, Billy whispers
“Schlachthof-fnf” (“Slaughterhouse-Five” in German), a phrase he learned
in Dresden in order to communicate the address of his prison if he got
lost. The ski instructors transport Billy down the mountain on a toboggan.
A famous neurosurgeon operates on him, and Billy remains unconscious for
two days. The narrator tells us that Billy’s convalescence is filled with
dreams, some of them involving time travel. He goes back to Dresden and his
first evening at the slaughterhouse, when he, Edgar Derby, and their young
German guard Werner Gluck accidentally open a door onto a shower room full
of beautiful naked girls. This incident marks the first glimpse of female
nudity that Billy and Gluck have ever had. The three men finally make it to
their intended destination, the prison kitchen. The cook regards their
sorry condition and declares, “All the real soldiers are dead.”
picAnother Dresden time trip after his plane accident takes Billy to a
factory that manufactures malt syrup. The POWs work there making the
molasses-like concoction intended to serve as a nutritional supplement for
pregnant women. All of the malnourished prisoners who work at the factory
secretly eat the syrup themselves, scooping it out of the vats with spoons
hidden in every corner of the building. Billy takes his first spoonful on
his second day at work, and his scrawny body shivers with “ravenous
gratitude.” Billy hands a syrupy spoon through a window to Edgar Derby, who
is working outside. Upon tasting the syrup, Derby bursts into tears of joy.
picHoward W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi propagandist, speaks to the
weary, malnourished prisoners at the slaughterhouse. He solicits them to
join his Free American Corps to fight on the Russian front, promising food
and repatriation after the war. Edgar Derby stands up and, in his finest
moment, denounces Campbell. He defends the American fight for freedom and
praises the brotherhood between Russians and Americans. An air-raid siren
concludes the confrontation, and everyone takes shelter in a meat locker
carved into the bedrock beneath the slaughterhouse. The alarm is false. The
narrator states that Dresden will not be destroyed until the next night.
picBilly dozes off in the meat locker and travels back to a conversation
with his exasperated daughter, Barbara. She blames Kilgore Trout for
Billy’s Tralfamadorian pronouncements. Billy recalls the first time he mets
Trout in his own hometown of Ilium. Trout manages newspaper delivery boys
for the Ilium Gazette. He is shocked that Billy has read his books. Billy
invites Trout to his eighteenth wedding anniversary celebration, where
Trout is a hit with the optometrists and their wives. One of them, the
credulous and attractive Maggie White, listens with concern as Trout leads
her to believe that publishing made-up stories qualifies as a fraud
punishable by God and worthy of jail time. In his enthusiasm, Trout
accidentally spits a piece of salmon roe into Maggie’s cleavage.
picThe Four-eyed Bastards (or Febs), the barbershop quartet made up of
optometrists, sing a sentimental song about old friendship. The experience
of watching and listening to them visibly shakes Billy. Trout guesses that
Billy has looked through a “time window.” When the barbershop quartet sings
again, Billy has to leave the room. He goes upstairs, where he accidentally
walks in on his son in the bathroom holding a guitar as he sits on the
toilet. Billy lies down on his bed, trying to figure out why the Febs have
such an effect on him. He remembers the night Dresden was destroyed. The
American prisoners and four guards waited out the bombing in the meat
locker. They emerged to find Dresden replaced by one big, smoking mineral
deposit. The four guards huddled together, and the changing expressions on
their faces-silent mouths open in awe and terror-seem to Billy like a
silent film of a barbershop quartet.
picBilly time-travels to Tralfamadore, where Montana Wildhack, who is six
months pregnant, asks him to tell her a story. He tells her of the
destruction of Dresden and of the little burned logs lying all around that
were actually people. In bombed-out Dresden, the guards and the prisoners
venture out onto the moonscape to forage for food and water. In the city
itself they do not encounter another living soul. At nightfall, they reach
an inn in a portion of a suburb untouched by bombs or flames. The blind
innkeeper and his family know that Dresden has been destroyed. They give
the prisoners soup and beer and a stable to sleep in for the night. As the
prisoners prepare for bed, the innkeeper says in German, “Good night,
Americans. Sleep well.”
Top of Form
picA hysterical Valencia drives to the hospital where Billy is recovering
from the plane crash. She hits another car along the way and drives away
from the scene of the accident without a functioning exhaust system. She
pulls up in front of the hospital and passes out from carbon monoxide
poisoning. Her face is bright blue. She dies one hour later.
picBilly is unconscious, time-traveling and oblivious to his wife’s
passing. In the next bed, an arrogant Harvard history professor named
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord is recovering from a skiing accident. Rumfoord is
the official Air Force historian, and he is working on a condensed history
of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He has to write a section on
the smashing success of Dresden’s bombing, despite the fact that some of
his sources characterize it as an unnecessary carnage.
picWhen Billy first regains consciousness, everyone thinks the accident
has left him a vegetable. But behind his catatonic facade he is preparing
to tell the world about Tralfamadore and to explain the true nature of
time. Billy tells Rumfoord that he was in Dresden for the firebombing, but
the professor doesn’t want to listen. Billy then travels back to a May
afternoon in Dresden, two days before the end of the war.
picMany Germans have fled because they heard that the Russians were
coming. Billy and a few other prisoners find a green, coffin-shaped wagon
hitched to two horses, and they fill it with food and souvenirs. Outside
the slaughterhouse, Billy remains in the wagon and dozes in the sun. It is
a happy moment in his life. The sound of a middle-aged German couple
talking about the horses awakens him. The animals’ mouths are bleeding,
their hooves are broken, and they are dying of thirst. Billy has been
oblivious to their poor condition until now. The couple makes Billy get out
and look at the animals, and he begins to cry his first tears of the war.
picBack in the hospital the next day, Rumfoord quizzes Billy about
Dresden. Billy’s daughter, Barbara, arrives and takes him home. She places
him under the care of a live-in nurse. Billy’s message cannot wait any
longer. He sneaks out and drives to New York City to tell the world about
picOnce in the city, Billy goes to Times Square. He sees four Kilgore
Trout books in the window of an adult bookstore and goes in to read them.
One of the books is about an earthling man and woman who are kidnapped by
aliens and taken to a zoo on a faraway planet. While inside the shop, Billy
glimpses the headline of a pornographic magazine: “What really became of
Montana Wildhack?” He also sees a few seconds of a pornographic movie
starring a teenaged Montana.
picThere happens to be a radio station near Billy’s hotel. Claiming to be
a writer from the Ilium Gazette, Billy gets on a talk-show panel of
literary critics discussing the state of the novel. Billy waits his turn,
then speaks about Tralfamadore and Montana Wildhack and the nature of time.
He is escorted to the street and makes his way back to his hotel. There he
falls asleep and time-travels back to Tralfamadore, where Montana is breast-
feeding their child. She says that she can tell that Billy has been time-
traveling. A silver locket hanging between her bare breasts bears the same
inscription-the Serenity Prayer-as the plaque in Billy’s optometry office.
picIt is 1968. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are both dead,
assassinated within a month of one another. Body counts from the jungle war
in Vietnam fill the evening news.
picAccording to Billy, Tralfamadorians are more interested in Darwin than
in Jesus Christ. They admire the Darwinian view that death serves a
function and that “corpses are improvements.” A Kilgore Trout book, The Big
Board, features aliens who capture an earthling and ask him about Darwin
picVonnegut tells us that he is not overjoyed if what Billy learned from
the Tralfamadorians about eternal existence is true. Still, he is grateful
for all the pleasant times experienced in his life. Vonnegut recalls one of
those moments-his return to Dresden with his war buddy O’Hare. On the
plane, the men eat salami sandwiches and drink white wine, and the author’s
friend shows him a book that claims the world population will reach seven
billion by the year 2000. “I suppose they will all want dignity,” Vonnegut
picBilly is also back in Dresden, two days after the war, digging for
bodies. Vonnegut and O’Hare are there too. After spending two nights in the
stable, the prisoners are put to work excavating the ruins of Dresden,
where they discover innumerable “corpse mines.” The bodies rot faster than
they can be removed, making for a grisly cleanup job. One prisoner, a
Maori, dies of the dry heaves. Eventually, as the pace of putrefaction
outstrips the recovery efforts, the authorities adopt a new policy. The
bodies are cremated where they lie in subterranean caverns. The soldiers
use flamethrowers to carry out this grim task.
picDuring the course of the excavations, while the men are still under
German command, Edgar Derby is discovered with a teapot found in the ruins.
He is arrested and convicted of plundering, then executed by firing squad.
picSoon it is spring, and the Germans disappear to fight or flee from the
Russians. The war ends. Trees sprout leaves. Billy finds the horses and the
green, coffin-shaped wagon. A bird says to him, “Poo-tee-weet?”
Full title – Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance
Author – Kurt Vonnegut
Type of work – Novel
Genre – Antiwar novel; historical fiction; science fiction; semi-
Language – English
Time and place written – Approximately 1945-1968, United States
Date of first publication – 1969
Publisher – Dell Publishing
Narrator – The author; or arguably, sometimes an anonymous narrator with a
similar point of view
Point of view – The author narrates in both first and third person. The
first-person sections are confined mainly to the first and last chapters.
The narration is omniscient: it reveals the thoughts and motives of several
characters, and provides details about their lives and some analysis of
their motivations. The narrator primarily follows Billy Pilgrim but also
presents the point of view of other characters whom Billy encounters.
Tone – The narrator’s tone is familiar and ironic, and he uncovers touches
of dark humor and absurdity that do not diminish the lyrical and emotional
power of the material. His portrayal of Billy is intimate but ambivalent,
and he occasionally emphasizes the diction of reported speech (prefacing a
passage with “He says that” or “Billy says”) to draw a distinction between
reality and Billy’s interpretation of events.
Tense – The majority of the book is written in the past tense, but the
narrator occasionally uses the present tense, especially in the first and
last chapters when speaking from a personal point of view as Kurt Vonnegut.
The reporting of Billy’s speech is in the present tense (for example:
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Or so he says.”) Occasionally the
tense switches to future, as when Billy describes his future death.
Setting (time) – The narrative provides a detailed account of Billy’s war
experiences in 1944-1945, but it skips around his entire life, from his
early childhood in the 1920s to his death in 1976. The author’s narration
is set in 1968.
Setting (place) – The narrative thread of 1944-1945 concerns Billy’s army
service in Germany and briefly in Luxembourg, where he is captured after
the Battle of the Bulge. Most of the rest of Billy’s life takes place in
Ilium, New York. He also travels to the planet Tralfamadore and lives there
in a zoo.
Protagonist – Billy Pilgrim
Major conflict – Billy struggles to make sense out of a life forever marked
by the firsthand experience of war’s tragedy.
Rising action – Billy and his fellow prisoners are transported across
Germany and begin living in a slaughterhouse prison and working in the city
Climax – Dresden is incinerated in a deadly firebomb attack. But Billy
misses the moment of destruction, waiting out the attack in a well-
protected meat locker. Psychologically, Billy does not come to terms with
this event until nearly twenty years later, when the sight of a barbershop
quartet on his wedding anniversary triggers his suppressed sense of grief.
Falling action – The falling action occurs in the realm of Billy’s later
life as he progresses toward a newfound consciousness and an increasingly
tenuous mental state. Billy experiences alien abduction and prepares to
share his new insights with the world.
Themes – The destructiveness of war; the illusion of free will; the
importance of sight
Motifs – “So it goes”; the presence of the narrator as a character
Symbols – The bird who says “Poo-tee-weet?”; the colors blue and ivory
Foreshadowing – The narrative convention that Vonnegut dispenses with most
thoroughly in this book is foreshadowing. He outlines all the events of
Billy’s life before proceeding with the story.
Bottom of Form