The slaughter house five Essay
Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe
in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran
well- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in
Vietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was the
single most important event in his life. The sights and scars of war
remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories
of death and killing help to shape whatever future career he may make.
The same is true for Billy Pilgrim. What he saw and did during his
six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have
dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms
with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of
Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He
reorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context of
his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy’s
prewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was
many years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but the
real story of the novel is the story of Billy’s wartime days. All
the other events in Billy’s life are merely incidental to his time
as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events that come
to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in
Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of “time-travel.”
Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t live his life one day
after another. He has become “unstuck in time,” and he jumps around
among the periods of his life like a flea from dog to dog.
When you meet him in Chapter 2, it is December 1944 and Billy and
three other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemy
lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his
past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in
the future: it’s 1965 and he is visiting his mother in a nursing home.
He blinks, the time changes to 1958, then 1961, and then he finds
himself back in the forest in December 1944.
Billy doesn’t have much time to wonder about what has just happened.
He’s captured almost immediately by German soldiers and put onto a
train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great
adventure in the future: on his daughter’s wedding night in 1967, he
is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet
Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him
Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The
train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British
officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.
Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in
1948, where he’s visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he
recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in
business as an optometrist by Valencia’s father. Billy is introduced
to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose
favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout’s writing is terrible, but
Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most
popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billy
because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that
wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.
Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After
making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy can
say much about it, he’s back there himself.
The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an “open
city” (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, while
almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows
that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there’s
nothing worth bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories,
nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housed
in building number five of the Dresden slaughterhouse.
Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968.
A few years before that, he meets Kilgore Trout. And on Tralfamadore
he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden.
Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat
locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day,
Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been
reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is
After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the
others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have
disappeared. The war is over and they are free.
One way to keep straight the many characters in
Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appear
There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul
Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from
his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his
daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Professor
Rumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (the
Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).
A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and
actual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O’Hare. Some of
the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by
Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr.
Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night, and the
Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O’Hares, you
meet all of these characters only when they interact with Billy
Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When
you first see a character’s name, you usually know something about
that character even before you read about what he or she has done.
Billy Pilgrim’s last name tells you that he is someone who travels
in foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious or
Otherwise Billy doesn’t appear very promising as the hero of a
novel. Physically, he’s a classic wimp. He’s tall, weak, and clumsy,
with “a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches” and the
overall appearance of “a filthy flamingo.”
He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child
and his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to the
bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by the
Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and
companionship, yet he keeps saying, “You guys go on without me.” After
the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupid
and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his
In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five Billy is a sheep among wolves.
Some readers regard him as a kind of Christ figure who sojourns in the
wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peace
for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy’s assassination
by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross.
But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his
“meek faith in a loving Jesus” makes everybody else sick. His
pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billy
look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.
Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to
him, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragile
personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is
such a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he
Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to
turn the other cheek rather than put up a fight. This may be his
weakling attempt at “the imitation of Christ,” but to many readers
it looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable
him to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heart
people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness
never lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it’s
Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to
science fiction, Billy’s fantasies are aimless and childish. Then,
in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who
not only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions
of reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasy
In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana
Wildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy must
become “innocent” again, and to do this he has to discharge the
guilt and despair associated with his past. He does this by
reorganizing his life through time-travel, gradually putting
everything- but especially Dresden- in perspective. When this is
accomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free.
A soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly at
risk, the tension sometimes unbearable. You know when you first see
his name that Billy’s fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted after
many months of fighting. What he needs is some rest.
Weary is a hard person to like: he’s stupid, fat, and mean, and he
smells bad. It’s no surprise that his companions want to “ditch” him
most of the time. So Weary has had to learn to deal with rejection,
and one way he does this is by fantasizing a glorious and exciting war
movie in which he is the hero. Because Weary fears that his
real-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war movie
concentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in real
Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid off him sooner or
later. His “Three Musketeers” story is only a fantasy. He will want
revenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his revenge by
ditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even less
popular than himself, suckers him into a friendship, then ditches
him first. This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim.
One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way he
would have wanted- in the arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Weary
has finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last, knowing
that Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary’s life, to
The American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest character
in the book. Not only is he disgusting to look at, he’s nasty to the
core, a real snake. In civilian life his friends are gangsters and
killers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing in
life to him is getting revenge on people who have crossed him.
It’s not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both of
them have regularly been snubbed by the more popular and attractive
people in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness than
Weary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he’s
speaking in the abstract, not talking about torturing anyone in
particular. But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, each
torture is tailor-made for a specific victim.
Vonnegut’s description of Lazzaro is devastating: “If he had been
a dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his head
to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies.”
At the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hats
whenever they went outdoors. But by then the derby, a hat with a
dome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually seen
only on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derby
is an older man than his fellow American POWs, and his values are
Because you know from the first that “poor old Edgar Derby” (as he
is usually called) is doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindness
and generosity with a sinking heart. For Edgar Derby doesn’t deserve
to die. It is Derby who cradles the dying Weary’s head in his lap
(whatever Paul Lazzaro says), and it is Derby who volunteers to sit in
the prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim while the
other Americans party with the Englishmen.
Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulled
strings to get into the fighting after the army told him he was too
old. And in Dresden, when the American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr.,
tries to talk the prisoners into going over to his side, Derby
stands up to him and makes a moving speech about the ideals of
America: “freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for
all.” This takes courage, considering the position he’s in.
Billy first checks into the mental hospital after hearing himself
propose marriage to this overweight, not very bright daughter of
Ilium’s richest optometrist. He sees her as “a symptom of his
disease,” his inability to deal with the alarming reality of the world
and his lack of interest in life. But he marries her anyway,
apparently for lack of a good reason not to. The marriage is hardly
a great romance, but Billy finds it “at least bearable all the way.”
His unhappiness seems to have less to do with her than with life
Considering that Vonnegut frequently prefers female over male
values, it’s difficult to find much to admire in Valencia. Not only is
she unattractive, she’s insensitive to the deep psychological damage
Billy underwent in the war, from which he continues to suffer.
But for all her faults, Valencia adores Billy and is helplessly
devoted to him. She is so terrified of losing him after he barely
survives a plane crash that she wrecks her car on the way to the
hospital, passes out, and dies from carbon monoxide fumes.
Barbara Pilgrim, Billy’s put-upon daughter, has hardly had a
chance to get married and set up her own household when her father
almost dies in a plane crash. While he is in the hospital, her
mother inadvertently kills herself in an auto accident. Then, when
Billy comes home, he turns out to be prematurely senile from brain
damage and begins telling crazy stories about time-travel and aliens
kidnapping him in a flying saucer. Not only is she suddenly the head
of the family, but her father’s making a laughing stock of himself
No wonder Barbara’s a “bitchy flibbertigibbet.”
Billy meets Rumfoord while recuperating from the plane crash in
1968. Relentlessly virile and athletic, this seventy-year-old
Harvard professor and Air Force historian embodies every traditional
“masculine virtue” Billy finds so upsetting: blind patriotism,
sexism (his young fifth wife is just “one more public demonstration”
that he’s a “superman”), and a firm belief in the survival of the
Vonnegut uses Rumfoord as the primary spokesman for what he calls
the “military manner” of thinking, which orders and then cravenly
justifies atrocities such as the bombing of Dresden.
The Tralfamadorians are “two feet high, and green, and shaped like
plumber’s friends” topped by “a little hand with a green eye in its
palm.” They can see in four dimensions, and this enables them to
look at all time all at once, so death and the future hold no fear for
them. The Tralfamadorians, who live on a distant planet, are creatures
Because of their alien perspective, the Tralfamadorians view human
behavior with an objectivity few Earthlings can have. In this way,
Vonnegut may be using the Tralfamadorians to tell you what he thinks
about human conduct. Whenever the Tralfamadorians speak, Vonnegut
may be revealing his own philosophy of life.
Some readers argue that the purpose of the Tralfamadorians is to
resolve the contradictions in life that have made Billy so upset. In
this interpretation, the aliens function in the same way as dreams and
mythology: they “explain” things through images and stories.
Others see the Tralfamadorians as the “gods” in Billy’s fantasy
universe: they guide and protect the creatures in their charge. This
makes them a big improvement over the “gods” Vonnegut sees as the
rulers of the modern world- technology, which dehumanizes people,
and authoritarian cruelty, which destroys people in the name of the
The Tralfamadorians give Billy a philosophy through which he finds
peace of mind. They also give him Montana Wildhack to mate with, and
that brings him true happiness as well.
Billy’s lover in this alien zoo is a curious combination of
ingredients. On the one hand, she is the compliant sex kitten that
bored, middle-aged males dream about in erotic fantasies. She is
beautiful (and naked), and makes the first sexual advances- though
On the other hand, Billy requires more from his dream woman than
mere sexuality. His entire Tralfamadore fantasy is his attempt to
reinvent the human race, with himself as the new Adam and Montana as
the new Eve. And so he makes her loving as well as sexy, understanding
as well as seductive, and a good mother to their child as well as a
good lover to him. In Billy’s ideal Creation, both must be able to
behave as decently as he believes Adam and Eve really wanted to
For all of her prodigious virtues, Montana Wildhack comes off as
rather bloodless compared to the real-life women in the book, such
as the annoying Valencia, the prickly Barbara, or the fiery Mary
O’Hare. But then Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It’s a lot safer.
One of the richest and smartest men in America, Eliot Rosewater is
also one of the most disillusioned. His faith in American
righteousness in World War II was shattered when he found that he
had killed a German fireman who was trying to put out a fire that
He tried drinking, but that just ruined his health without
alleviating what he saw as the alarming unfairness of the modern
world. So he committed himself to a mental hospital. There he meets
a kindred spirit in Billy Pilgrim, who comes to share with him the one
consolation Eliot has found in life: the peculiar wisdom in the
The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has great ideas for novels.
(The Gutless Wonder is about a robot with bad breath; in The Gospel
from Outer Space Jesus is a nobody until God adopts him.) But his
prose style is frightful. After thirty years and more than
seventy-five novels, Trout has only two fans, Eliot Rosewater and
Billy Pilgrim, and even they are appalled by his writing.
Kilgore Trout is a manic version of Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote
science fiction and for years suffered from an indifferent public.
Vonnegut uses Trout’s books to make fun of many of the values
Americans hold dear. At the same time, he gets in a few good swipes at
the pretensions of his own profession.
In Slaughterhouse-Five (as in the two other Vonnegut novels in which
he appears) Kilgore Trout plays a small but important role. His
books offer Billy inspiration for therapeutic fantasies, and he
personally gives Billy the courage to face his Dresden experience.
Campbell is an American Nazi propagandist who writes a scornful
account of the behavior of American POWs in Germany and who shows up
at the slaughterhouse in Dresden to recruit candidates for his Free
American Corps. He tries to bribe the Americans by promising them a
terrific meal, but Edgar Derby puts Campbell in his place by calling
him “lower… than a blood-filled tick.” Campbell only smiles.
In an earlier book, Mother Night, Vonnegut told Campbell’s whole
story- he’s really an American spy who delivers coded messages to
the Allies through his racist radio broadcasts. But in
Slaughterhouse we see him only in his “official” role as the Nazi he
Vonnegut dedicates this book to a real person, Mary O’Hare, the wife
of his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare. He first meets her when he
tries to get Bernard to reminisce with him about their war
experiences, with the idea of generating material for his “famous book
about Dresden.” This makes Mary angry. She cares deeply about life-
she’s a nurse- and to her, all war does is kill people. She is
strong-minded and courageous enough to tell off an almost perfect
stranger when she thinks he’s wrong.
Vonnegut admires Mary O’Hare and wishes more people were like her.
He believes that if enough women like her told off enough “old
farts” like him, enough people might see the absurdity of war and we
When Vonnegut visits Bernard O’Hare after the war, O’Hare appears to
be little more than a henpecked husband, and acts embarrassed when
Vonnegut tries to get him reminiscing about the war.
But O’Hare had refused to pick up souvenirs in Dresden, so even then
he must have hated the war and the “profit” some people made from it
(his buddies with their “trophies,” Vonnegut with his book). He’s a
gentle man who reproaches no one: when Vonnegut asks why Mary is
mad, O’Hare lies to spare Vonnegut’s feelings. And even though he
disapproves of Vonnegut’s project, he is kind enough to leave a book
about Dresden on the nightstand for him.
O’Hare is a great friend, and Vonnegut obviously likes him a lot.
He’s the only war buddy Vonnegut has kept in touch with, and
together they return to Dresden in 1967.
The author himself appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly in the
first chapter, where he struggles vainly to get a handle on writing
his Dresden book. His breakthrough comes when Mary O’Hare reminds
him that it’s really babies who fight wars, not grown men. From that
moment on everything goes right for the author.
Vonnegut also pops up here and there in Billy Pilgrim’s POW story,
but he’s really just reminding you that what those American
prisoners of war saw and did really happened- and that he was there at
the time. In the last chapter he tells about his return to Dresden
as a tourist in 1967 with Bernard O’Hare.
There are three main settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.
1. War-ravaged Europe, through which Billy travels as a POW and ends
2. Peacetime America, where Billy prospers as an optometrist and
pillar of society in Ilium, New York.
3. The planet Tralfamadore, where Billy and his fantasy lover
Montana Wildhack are exhibited in a zoo.
Each setting corresponds to a different period in Billy Pilgrim’s
life, and the story jumps from one setting to another as Billy travels
The physical contrast between the devastation of Europe and the
affluence of postwar America is tremendous. It’s ironic that Billy,
who suffered extreme privations as a prisoner of war, is made to
feel no better by the material wealth he later acquires as a
successful optometrist in Ilium, N.Y.
Ilium is the classical name for Troy, one of the richest cities in
the ancient world. In The Iliad, the Greek poet Homer (ninth century
B.C.) tells the story of the Trojan War, in which Troy was
eventually destroyed by the besieging Greeks. Some readers believe
that Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Iliad, for Troy was
reputedly as beautiful as Dresden was before it was bombed.
Billy begins to be happy about life only in an artificial but cozy
habitat on another planet. Tralfamadore is an invention of Billy’s
imagination, a paradise in which he, as Adam, and a new Eve (the
former pornographic movie star Montana Wildhack) can start the human
race over again. Within the dome that protects them from the poisonous
atmosphere of Tralfamadore, Billy and Montana are tended and watched
over by a new set of gods, the wise and kindly Tralfamadorians.
But notice that in each of the novel’s main settings Billy is
confined: first as a POW, then as a prisoner of the meaningless
contraptions of modern life, finally as an exhibit in an alien zoo.
And throughout the book Vonnegut portrays Billy as a prisoner of time.
Billy cannot change the past, the present, or the future, no matter
how much he moves around from one to the other. The persistent image
of a bug trapped in amber is Vonnegut’s clearest expression of this
Slaughterhouse-Five is first and foremost about war and how human
beings cope with it. In treating this subject, Vonnegut explores
several major themes, but no single one of them explains the whole
novel. You’ll find that some of the following statements ring more
true to you than others, yet you can find evidence in the book to
Vonnegut attacks the reasoning that leads people to commit
atrocities by drawing character portraits (Roland Weary and
Professor Rumfoord) and by quoting from official documents
(President Harry Truman’s explanation of the reasons for dropping
the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). And he gives you a look at the ruins of
Dresden so you can see the “ground zero” consequences of what he calls
the military manner of thinking- which rationalizes a massacre by
saying it will hasten the end of the war.
But more important than this generalized condemnation, Vonnegut
focuses on the enormity of war and its disastrous effect on human
lives, even long after it is over. Billy Pilgrim’s problems all stem
from what he experienced in the war. The hobo freezes to death in
the boxcar; Roland Weary dies from gangrene in his feet; Edgar Derby
is shot for stealing a teapot; the harmless city of Dresden is
bombed into the ground: it shouldn’t be possible for such things to
happen, Billy feels. And yet he was there and saw them happen with his
own eyes. His science fiction fantasies and time-traveling are his
attempt to cope with the psychological damage the war inflicted on
him. The fact that he succeeds (by going senile) is perhaps the most
AUTHORITY IS TO BLAME FOR ATROCITIES
To Vonnegut, both the boss and the underling escape guilt when an
atrocity is committed: the boss’s hands are clean because others did
the dirty work, and the underling was only following orders. He
maintains that this was just as true of the Allies as it was of the
Nazis in World War II. The Nazis built the death camps, and the Allies
Vonnegut believes that a great evil of authoritarianism is the
assumption of righteousness, the claim that “God is on our side.” In
other writings he expresses regret that the Nazis were so plainly evil
because that just made it easier for the Allied authorities to claim
that anything they did to defeat the Nazis was justified.
To Vonnegut this is the same kind of authoritarian arrogance that
led the Nazis into evil acts in the first place. There is no moral
justification for atrocities, Vonnegut says, even though some
defenders of the Dresden bombing maintain that it did accomplish its
goal: to end the war sooner by demoralizing the enemy.
Billy Pilgrim’s indifference to life comes as much from his
peacetime experiences as from anything that happened to him in the
war. During the war he could at least tell whether he was alive or
dead. But his postwar life is empty in spite of his material wealth
Vonnegut highlights this apparent contradiction by having Billy find
peace and happiness only through fantasy (or senility). Vonnegut seems
to say that in real life, life doesn’t work.
Vonnegut spends a good deal of time in Slaughterhouse-Five talking
about fiction. In Chapter 1 he shows how a writer distorts reality
by forcing it to fit into the mold of a “good story.” In Chapter 5
he discusses the good and bad effects fiction has on our understanding
of life. In Chapter 9 he pokes fun at the pretensions of writers and
critics who take fiction too seriously. And the “fragmented style”
in which Slaughterhouse-Five is written may be an attempt to
reinvent the novel. As Eliot Rosewater says, fiction just “isn’t
Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of art itself. Art selects
and orders its material, and the final product is a coherent whole.
But life is messy and redundant: it can’t be contained in the neat
formula of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the case
of such a horrifying event as the Dresden massacre, art has nothing
Some readers believe that Vonnegut overstates the problem in
Slaughterhouse-Five, that the book itself is the solution. just as
Billy Pilgrim reinvents his life so he can cope with it, Vonnegut
reinvents the novel so that it can cope with the absurd and often
monstrous events of the modern world.
Machine imagery abounds in Slaughterhouse-Five, and wherever it
turns up, it means bad news for human beings. Obviously, without
sophisticated technology, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima
would not have been possible. But Vonnegut portrays even peacetime
technology as making people into robots whose lives revolve around
tending and improving machines. Billy’s father-in-law, Lionel
Merble, for example, is turned into a machine by the optometry
There are several additional themes that Vonnegut only touches on in
Slaughterhouse-Five, but which are given fuller treatment in his other
At first the heroes of almost all Vonnegut’s novels believe in
free will. (Free will is the idea that human beings make choices and
decide their own destinies, that their actions make a difference in
shaping their futures.) But inevitably Vonnegut’s heroes discover that
their choices were manipulated by outside forces, that their fates
were predetermined all along. Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s most passive
hero. He finds happiness and peace of mind only after adopting the
deterministic philosophy of his imaginary masters, the
Vonnegut feels that Charles Darwin legitimized cruelty with his
theory of natural selection. Although Darwin limited his theorizing to
biology, other thinkers like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer
(1820-1903) applied this theory to social matters, and took Darwin’s
idea that the strong are favored in natural survival one step further,
implying that only the strong should survive. It is this version of
“social” Darwinism that Vonnegut disapproves of. In contrast, although
he has been an atheist all his life, Vonnegut has always admired the
Christian virtues of pacifism, tolerance, and love.
Vonnegut doesn’t have much good will toward organized religion.
For him it is no different from any other form of authority, and
therefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How many
atrocities have been justified by the claim that “God is on our side”?
People are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course
the destruction of Dresden brought death on a massive scale.
Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, “So
it goes.” In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude toward
death by emphasizing that death is a common aspect of human existence.
Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion that
people who are dead in the present remain alive in the times of
their past. Perhaps the author is saying that we too should be
consoled: the dead still live in our memories.
On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains the
“Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing a
situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not
one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between
all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so
that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is
beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle,
no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love
in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at
When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shock
of recognition. It sounds a lot like the very book you’re reading, and
you realize that the author is describing the effect he wants his
The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five is
the fact that the text is made up of clumps of paragraphs, each
clump set off by extra space before and after it. A few of the
clumps are only one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and a
half. Each of them makes a simple statement or relates an incident
or situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotal
style: the book is a collection of brief incidents, and the effect
of each one depends on how the author tells it.
Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say a
great deal in a few words. “Three inoffensive bangs came from far
away.” The report seems an innocent one until you find out that the
scouts have just been shot. The contrast between the “inoffensive”
sound and its deadly meaning provides a startling effect.
There is irony too in that “inoffensive,” for what is inoffensive to
one person’s ears is fatally offensive to another person’s life. Irony
is a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly straightforward
statement or situation actually means its opposite. Irony occurs again
and again in the incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that,
for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, a
soldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is irony
in a former hobo’s telling Billy- inside a boxcar prison that could be
taking them to their death- “I been in worse places than this. This
ain’t so bad.” And because Dresden was an “open city” during most of
the war, it was full of refugees who had fled there for safety. Almost
all of them died in the bombing. That is ironic.
Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, a
form of ridicule that uses mockery and exaggeration to expose the
foolishness or evil of its subject. Professor Rumfoord is a
satirical portrait of the all-American male ideal. And, almost every
description of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern life in some
way. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath is
cleared up (advertising values), or a money tree is fertilized by
the dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its “fruit”
Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billy
as a filthy flamingo and a broken kite, the Russian prisoner as “a
ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.”
Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gun
makes “a ripping sound like the zipper on the fly of God Almighty.”
But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breaking
tenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tears
when Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt syrup.
Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) to
historical events. He evokes the Children’s Crusade in order to draw a
parallel between the “babies” he and O’Hare were in World War II and
the thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European children
were sent off to conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works of
literature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer Celine, the
medieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. He
paraphrases the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentions
Jesus occasionally. These allusions deepen our understanding and
appreciation of Billy’s story by suggesting historical and literary
parallels to the personal events in his life.
In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks to
you directly in the first person about the difficult time he had
writing his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim’s story told
Because an outside narrator is telling Billy’s story, you learn
not only what Billy is doing and thinking at any time but what the
other characters are up to and what’s on their minds. Because Vonnegut
explains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, that
his own experiences in Dresden were the inspiration for
Slaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-person
narrator and Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, the
author is looking at the events of his own life- past, present, and
future- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way that
Billy is trying to order the events of his own life.
On several occasions the author actually reminds you directly
that, while he’s telling Billy’s story, he- Kurt Vonnegut- was
there, too. You’re reading about events that are based on the author’s
experience as a POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you that
you’re being told a story by a much older man, someone with a quite
different outlook on life from that of the “baby” who went to Dresden.
The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to comment
frequently on the action, on life, and on writing itself.
As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians
read the clumps of symbols, or messages, that make up their books
all at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphs
that make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you provides the structure of the
Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue in
which he tells his own story of writing his “famous book about
The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim’s
story. Vonnegut begins this narrative with a short, factual history of
Billy’s life to the present in 1968. You soon discover why he does
this: in the pages that follow, Billy’s adventures are not related
entirely in chronological order, and that little outline history in
the early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzle
The portion of Billy Pilgrim’s history that is presented
chronologically is the six months from December 1944 to May 1945, when Billy was a soldier and then a POW in Europe. This period is by far
the most important in Billy’s life, and the novel is about how Billy
comes to terms with what he saw and heard and did in those six months.
When Billy finally works it all out in his mind, he is free, the
author has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended.
Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determined
by the sequence of events Billy experienced in the final months of
World War II. Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happenings
of his life. He even believes that he first “came unstuck in time”
in the Luxembourg forest in 1944, though the narrator seems to suggest
that this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the brain damage
Billy sustained in the plane crash in 1968.
Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memories
and adding his fantasies, it’s important that you keep your bearings
as you follow Billy’s own rearrangement of his history. For this you
may find helpful the following chronological sequence of the important
1922Billy born in Ilium, New York.
1941America enters World War II.
1944Billy, now a soldier, captured by Germans in the Battle
of the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headed
1945Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, is
Januaryhoused in Slaughterhouse-Five.
1945Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies. POWs and guards survive
Februaryin an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out of
1945War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes home
1948Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries Valencia
Merble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometry
1967Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and taken
to Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo and
1968Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies while
Billy is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tell
1976Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flying
Vonnegut’s method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to
follow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelated
anecdotes. To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in this
section begins with a brief overview of the chapter’s structure.
STRUCTURE: The string of anecdotes that lead up to Vonnegut’s
visit with the O’Hares all describe problems related to writing his
“famous book about Dresden.” After his visit to the O’Hares, things
start going well for him, and he is able to write the book. In the
last part of the chapter Vonnegut finds solutions to (or at least ways
Let’s look at some of those problems the author complains about.
THE WORDS JUST WON’T COME. Although he thought it would be easy to
write about Dresden- “all I would have to do would be to report what I
had seen”- he just can’t seem to get started. Vonnegut may be afraid
that he has used up his talent, or somehow ruined it (the off-color
limerick suggests this idea), perhaps by writing so much science
fiction instead of “saving himself” for his “great book about
EVERY TIME HE STARTS THE BOOK, HE ENDS UP GOING IN CIRCLES. The
Yon Yonson poem illustrates this dilemma. Once you start it, you go
ANOTHER ANTIWAR BOOK WOULD BE POINTLESS. This problem is clearly
stated in the conversation Vonnegut has with the movie director. Books
don’t stop wars because wars are as unstoppable as glaciers are.
WRITING ISN’T THE NOBLE PROFESSION EVERYONE THINKS IT IS. Vonnegut
calls himself a “trafficker in climaxes and thrills and
characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and
confrontations.” He goes on to describe a diagram he made that reduces
every human being to a line of color and makes the destruction of
Dresden nothing but a brilliant stripe of orange. What was once an
atrocity has now become something abstract and “pretty.”
NOTE: PARALLEL IMAGES This chapter is full of images that resurface
in altered form later in the book. In Chapter 4, for example, the
Tralfamadorians use the metaphor of bugs trapped in amber to
describe human beings caught in time. This image parallels the idea of
characters “trapped” in a diagram for a story. The “idiotic
Englishman” with his absurd souvenir turns up again in the guise of
Roland Weary displaying his weapons to Billy (Chapter 2) and later
(Chapter 6) as Billy himself, showing his “treasures” to the Dresden
surgeon. In a way the Englishman is also like Vonnegut trying to
interest O’Hare in his Dresden story. Vonnegut is not only
struggling with writing problems here, he is generating material
that he will rework into Billy’s story.
WRITING WON’T HELP VONNEGUT FIND MEANING IN HIS LIFE. Vonnegut isn’t
very happy with himself. He’s getting old, he’s killing himself with
alcohol and cigarettes, he and his wife don’t communicate any more.
Maybe life itself is a rut he fell into: before he knew it he’s “an
old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls.”
WRITING DEHUMANIZES THE WRITER. The gruesome story of the
veteran’s being killed by an elevator points up this problem. Nancy
does to the veteran the same thing that Vonnegut wants to do with
Edgar Derby- she dehumanizes him by making him a character in a story.
This in turn dehumanizes her, making her unable to feel anything for
the suffering of others. Vonnegut fears that even if he does finish
his Dresden book, the very act of constructing a good story will
NOTE: MACHINE IMAGERY One of Vonnegut’s favorite themes is the
uneasy relationship between man and machines, and this anecdote is
shot through with machine imagery. it’s even possible to see the
News Bureau as being run by its machines. And it’s ironic that the
veteran is killed by getting his hand caught in an iron gate that is
imitating life forms- iron ivy, iron twigs, iron lovebirds. Keep an
eye out for other instances of such imagery.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MASSACRE? The cocktail party anecdote,
where Vonnegut hears about the death camps, illustrates another
problem. How do you respond when someone tells you these ghastly
stories? “Oh, my God” doesn’t say very much, does it? That’s
These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until
he visited the O’Hares. You should look at this anecdote in some
detail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen through
the eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend. To them the
world is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls to
stop and wonder at. The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with the
purpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if that
time of destruction and death were “the good old days.”
O’Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seems
intent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, moves
furniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut off
he too is embarrassed because he realizes he’s been thinking and
acting like a fool about his “famous book on Dresden.”
NOTE: EMBARRASSMENT Doesn’t every anecdote in this chapter deal
with embarrassment? Vonnegut has consistently portrayed himself as a
fool: a grown man playing with crayons, an “idiotic Englishman” with
his stupid souvenir, an “old fart” who talks to his dog, a green
reporter trying to act tough. The point is that he doesn’t realize how
embarrassing his actions have been until he encounters Mary O’Hare.
Perhaps Vonnegut is saying that embarrassment, not horror, is the
proper way to feel about atrocities committed in war. It is those
people who are not embarrassed who are dangerous. They are the ones
who come up with the kind of thinking that says, “We have to bomb
Dresden so we can end the war sooner.”
Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting the
O’Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book “The Children’s
Crusade.” Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallize
his thinking on a subject or get him going in the right direction.
NOTE: THE CRUSADES There were approximately seven Crusades
between the years 1095 and 1271. The Christian powers of Europe sent
these military expeditions to Palestine in a mostly unsuccessful
attempt to regain possession of the Holy Land from the Moslems. The
name crusade comes from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. Vonnegut’s description of the Children’s Crusade is pretty accurate.
Note how Vonnegut puts together two ideas that ought to be totally
contradictory: holy and war. The book is full of such ironic
juxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them.
The senselessness of the historical Children’s Crusade provides
Vonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And he
learns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. The
quote from the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749-1832) conveys Vonnegut’s view. The caretaker of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is showing the undamaged dome to his young visitor. This is what our great architect did, he tells Goethe. Then
he gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, that
Vonnegut’s visit to the O’Hares has been fruitful, and on the way
home he finds additional material. At the New York World’s Fair he and
the girls see “official versions” of the past and future that make him
wonder about the present: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how
much was mine to keep.” This suggests one of the major subjects of the
book, the nature of time and how it works.
Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigious
writing programs in the country. And he gets a three-book contract.
Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. He
NOTE: VONNEGUT’S SELF-DEPRECATION Vonnegut often mocks himself
and his writing. Some readers see this as false modesty, others
believe he’s sincere. Slaughterhouse-Five has a loot of intelligent
things to say about the destruction of Dresden- about the thinking
that caused it, about the effect it had on the people who survived it,
about what he sees as the right way and the wrong way to remember
it. The book is not a failure, for it made Vonnegut’s reputation and
is generally considered his masterpiece. And Slaughterhouse-Five
informed the public that Dresden- at least in terms of number of
people killed- was the worst single bombing attack of the war.
Before concluding his account of the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five,
Vonnegut takes us back to Dresden in 1967. (You remember he
mentioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter.) Underneath the
rebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O’Hare are having so much fun,
“there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.” Bone meal is
a fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouse
animals. The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from the
sterile ground of “the moon” (what Dresden looked like after it was
bombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones.
NOTE: RESONANCE This image, like so many others in
Slaughterhouse-Five, has an extraordinary resonance. In music,
resonance is the enrichment of sound by means of echoes. If you’ve
ever been in a large church when the choir is singing, you know how
rich that sound can be: the voices bounce off the walls and increase
the vibration in the air. In literature, an image is resonant when
it reminds us of other images and enriches our understanding by
connecting things that didn’t seem related before.
The final anecdote in Chapter 1, Vonnegut’s “non-night” in Boston,
shows him “locking in” on the main ideas that Slaughterhouse-Five will
embody. The first idea he presents has to do with the difference
between time as we think of it and time as we experience it.
Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking at
the Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at a
steady rate in one direction, from the past through the present toward
the future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to the
future (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the “time”
in between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time. And
not only can it feel as though it takes a year for a second to pass,
but a lifetime can seem as though it’s over in a second. Vonnegut
may be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us than
the external time of clocks and calendars.
Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writer
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leads
inevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die.
We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internal
time is a different matter. Don’t we do exactly what Celine wants to
do- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn’t that
what Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?
NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had a
reputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America. But
in the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and a
Nazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as a
war criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine had
a great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explains
what Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much. He is willing
to forgive what he calls Celine’s “racism and cracked politics”
because he was a great and inspiring writer: “…in my opinion, Celine
gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse
of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously
Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the American
poet Theodore Roethke’s poem, which implies that we are not masters of
our destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of life
by doing what circumstances force us to do.
NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi
whom we will meet later, is a perfect example of this theme. In Mother
Night he’s an American spy whose radio broadcasts contain coded
messages about Nazi troop movements and battle plans. After the war he
is tried as a war criminal because of the obvious damage he did as a
Nazi propagandist. Whether he was a real Nazi or just pretending to be
Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblical
Sodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of “good story”
Vonnegut doesn’t want his Dresden book to be. Sodom and Gomorrah are
destroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared because
they are good. But there’s a wrinkle in this otherwise typical “tale
of great destruction”: Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a
This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she might
never have thought of looking back until she was told not to. (You
know the feeling of wanting something only after you’ve been told
you can’t have it.) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she might
have had: “Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where
all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back,
and I love her for that, because she was so human.”
Does this remind you of Mary O’Hare? Vonnegut often gives the values
he admires most to the women characters in his books, implying that
women are more humane than men. Some see Vonnegut’s preference for
women’s values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According to
this interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity by
taking a man’s job, while Mary O’Hare retained hers by staying home
with the babies. Vonnegut seems to support this argument when he says,
“The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who’d gone to war.” On the other hand, the war made it necessary for women to leave home and go to work- and men started
NOTE: LYSISTRATA In the literature of ancient Greece a very funny
play by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, offers an ingenious solution to
the problem of war. In the play, Athens and Sparta have been at war
for twenty years, and the women are fed up. So they go on a “sex
strike,” demanding that the men sign a peace treaty. After a while the
men become so desperate they have to agree. (In real life the war
dragged on for seven more years and ended only when Athens was
Even if you think that Vonnegut is a “closet male chauvinist,”
others say that his main point is not that a woman’s place is in the
home but that a human being’s place is not in a war.
STRUCTURE: In this chapter you meet Billy Pilgrim and get a taste of
his peculiar experience of time. Vonnegut summarizes Billy’s life from
his birth (1922) to the present (1968). Then he opens up two important
plot lines. The first involves Billy’s attempt to tell his story to
the world in 1968. The second is the beginning of Billy’s adventures
Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in
time,” that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits to
all the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often more
than once. But notice the two words “he says.” Vonnegut uses them
three times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy says
Billy’s “official biography” condenses Billy’s life into the space
of a couple of pages. It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for his
Dresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on the
back of a length of wallpaper. And the biography serves the same
purpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at a
NOTE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY There are parallels here to Vonnegut’s own
life. He too was born in 1922, married and went to college after the
war, and worked in Schenectady, an upstate New York city much like
Ilium. We already know that he was captured by the Germans in World
War II and lived through the bombing of Dresden. He is also over six
The thumbnail sketch of Billy’s life provides a framework into which
you can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel. Clearly
Slaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another “good story.”
For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there is
the event itself, how it is experienced, how it is remembered
afterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told.
NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE It can be maddening to have to be
aware of all these levels at once. But Vonnegut’s point is that you
can’t fully understand the story until you realize that all these
levels exist simultaneously in any story. In effect you are being
encouraged to look at Slaughterhouse-Five in the way a
Tralfamadorian would- from every point of view, all at the same time.
Billy’s biography ends in 1968, the “present,” and Billy is
writing to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped him
Are the Tralfamadorians “real”? Vonnegut speaks of them as though
Billy’s account is to be taken seriously. But he’s already cast
doubt on Billy’s credibility with those repeated “he says.” Notice,
too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after the
plane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imagined
them in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, has
released vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could mean
that Billy’s “coming unstuck in time” didn’t happen in 1944, as it
seems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked. Certainly
this is his daughter’s interpretation of her father’s stories. And not
only has he gone soft in the head, he’s determined to disgrace both
himself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world!
In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provide
exposition- background information to help you understand what’s going
on- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life.
Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegut
holds up the development of the story to indicate what he’s doing as a
NOTE: EXPOSITION In a conventional story the author tries to
weave the exposition into the action. Usually this is done by making
what happens in the scene so engrossing that you’re not aware you’re
being given bits of necessary information. But Vonnegut believes
that a writer can’t separate his telling of the story from the story
itself. In Chapter 1 he went to a lot of trouble to demonstrate this
problem. And one way to deal with the problem is to acknowledge it.
Vonnegut is saying, We need exposition here, so here’s the exposition.
The second plot line opens in the Luxembourg forest, where Billy and
his companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner Roland
Weary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will first
It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim than
Roland Weary. In different circumstances these two might remind you of
an incongruous comedy team. To the scouts, who are “clever,
graceful, quiet” (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren’t
funny, they’re dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise,
Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. If
this were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expert
soldiers- would probably be the main characters, Billy and Weary the
comic relief. But Vonnegut is more interested in the clowns than in
the good soldiers, perhaps because to him the clowns behave more
like real people would. He is also preparing us for the irony in the
next chapter, when the good soldiers will be killed and the clowns
NOTE: ALLUSIONS AND PARODIES In this scene Vonnegut makes some
complex literary allusions or indirect references to other works.
The name “Billy” recalls the innocent victim/hero of Herman Melville’s
Billy Budd. “Pilgrim” suggests John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century
moralistic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the hero, called
Christian, encounters many adventures and setbacks on his journey from
the world of sin to the foot of the cross, where he finds salvation.
All of Billy’s story might be seen as a parody (take-off) of Pilgrim’s
Progress: Billy passes through absurd scenes of modern life to find
happiness among aliens from outer space.
The scene in the Luxembourg forest also parodies the conclusion of
the medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland. (Vonnegut even
tips you off to the allusion in Roland Weary’s name.) In that war tale
the protagonist and his best friend die heroically defending Western
(i.e. Christian) civilization against attack by Muslim Saracens. The
parody is quite detailed. The medieval Roland has a horn that he
refuses to blow until he’s really in trouble, while Weary has a
whistle he won’t blow until he is promoted to corporal. Roland is a
true Christian fighting the infidel (non-believing) Saracen. Weary,
a smelly footsoldier who doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, is up
against the Nazis, the modern-day infidels.
Vonnegut makes it clear that Roland Weary can’t help being an
obnoxious jerk any more than Billy Pilgrim can help looking like a
filthy flamingo. Weary’s life has been a disaster because people are
always “ditching” him, so he compensates by fantasizing an adventure
in which he is a hero. Some readers see in this a parallel to
Billy’s fantasy of the Tralfamadorians, who choose him to represent
the human race in their zoo. But it’s also just common psychology. How
many times have you felt “left out” and dreamed of doing something
extraordinary that would “show” the people who snubbed you?
Notice the difference between Weary’s “Three Musketeers movie” which
is full of violence, triumph, and manly camaraderie, and Billy’s
gentle, noncompetitive fantasies. Billy wins friends by sock skating
and influences people by taking a public-speaking course.
Left to himself, Billy would have frozen to death days ago. So it
may be stress that brings on his first slip in time. Many people who
have come back from the brink of death have described the experience
of having their whole life flash before their eyes. This comes
pretty close to Vonnegut’s description of Billy’s “coming unstuck.”
Billy passes into death, moves backward to pre-birth, reverses
direction again, and stops at the memory of a traumatic experience
in his childhood. Then too he almost died because he wouldn’t do
Billy’s next three stops in time are definitely in the future-
Vonnegut even gives the dates. You’re now inside Billy’s experience of
time, and it’s perfectly real to him. You’ll need to treat it as
real from now on, or you’ll miss a lot.
Billy is snapped back to the “present” by Roland Weary, for whom the
dreaded moment has come. The scouts have abandoned him. Billy
Pilgrim must now fulfill the destiny Weary has been keeping him
alive for, that of sacrificial victim to Weary’s “tragic wrath.” The
speech Weary makes while he’s beating Billy up echoes speeches in
The Song of Roland and other heroic epics. (Notice also the machine
imagery Vonnegut uses to describe Billy’s body: his spine is a tube
containing all of Billy’s important wires.)
Before Weary can kill Billy for ruining his “movie,” the Germans
STRUCTURE: Billy Pilgrim’s time-travel now begins in earnest. In
this chapter Billy jumps back and forth between 1944 and 1967. Each
time he travels from one time period to the other, he picks up the new
scene where he left off. While we alternate between two stories, then,
the story in each period is continuous. Later on Billy’s trips to
the future will be much less orderly, but the continuity of the
Dresden story will remain unbroken, for it is the dominant event of
his life. In terms of the structure of the book, everything is
anchored (as Billy is) to the Dresden story. You will always return to
it, no matter how far away events may take you.
NOTE: To keep track of Billy’s travels, you may want to do what
Vonnegut did with his crayons and wallpaper: draw a diagram. To do
this for each chapter, just skim through it to find out where Billy
goes, then plot his time jumps on a graph.
At each location, put in a key word or two to remind you of what
happens in that scene. This will not only give you the big picture
of each chapter, it may help you to find connections between images or
You may have noticed in Chapter 2 that each scene Billy visits is
related in some way to the one he has just left. He’s near death in
the forest, then he jumps to another scene in which he nearly dies.
His father is in one scene, his mother is in the following one. This
process resembles stream-of-consciousness thinking: one idea somehow
leads to another. Everyone has experienced this process, if only while
When you’re worried or upset, certain images or scenes keep
returning to your mind, either to replay themselves over and over or
to pick up where you left off. When you’re only daydreaming, two
thoughts or scenes may be related by analogy (something in one scene
is the same as or like something in the next) or by contradiction
(something in one scene is the opposite of something in the next).
In the worried variety of stream-of-consciousness thinking, some
images exert more pressure than others. They keep recurring even
when you’ve drifted far away. Some of Billy’s time jumps have a
whimsical quality that indicates that they are of the carefree
variety. But many times Billy returns to a moment in his life as if to
finish out the scene. In such cases you can be pretty sure that it’s
psychological pressure that sends Billy there.
The Germans who capture Billy and Roland Weary in the creek bed
aren’t at all what you’d expect. They’re a ragtag handful of
ill-clad teenagers and old men with no teeth. Even their dog seems
incompetent. But they have the guns, and they strip Weary down until
he looks as embarrassing as they do. In the distance other German
soldiers take care of the American scouts with “three inoffensive
Billy seems to find the whole scene comforting, even beautiful,
but then he’s almost freezing to death and hallucinating wildly. After
being marched to a stone cottage where he immediately falls asleep,
Billy pays a brief call on the future. It’s almost as though he’s on
reconnaissance, looking for a nice time in his life to visit. The year
1967 is peaceful enough in Ilium: it’s business as usual in his office
in the shopping center. The only excitement comes when the siren
goes off. Billy thinks it’s World War III, but it’s only noon.
NOTE: The imagery in almost every scene in this chapter is ironic.
Every time he wakes up in peaceful Ilium in 1967, he’s reminded of war
(the siren, the devastated ghetto, the speech about Vietnam by the
Marine major, the crippled veterans), yet each time he returns to
World War II in 1944, everything looks beautiful, and the togetherness
of the POWs is genuinely comforting to him. Vonnegut may be hinting
that war has its good aspects, just as peace has its disadvantages.
He returns to 1944 and lets some German soldiers take pictures of
him. This is kind of fun, but something about 1967 has snagged him,
and he drifts back. Perhaps it’s a premonition of the destruction he’s
about to see in the war, for Billy wakes up in his car in the middle
of the Ilium ghetto, surrounded by burned-out buildings and crushed
sidewalks. The area looks “like Dresden after it was firebombed-
Billy is on his way to a luncheon at a popular American men’s club
that has for its symbol the most ferocious beast of the jungle, the
lion. There he hears a Marine major talk of “bombiing North Vietnam
back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason.” Billy isn’t
bothered because he has a prayer that keeps him from getting too upset
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
This “Prayer for Discernment” was composed by Reinhold Niebuhr
(1892-1971), a German-American theologian. It is also the motto of
Alcoholics Anonymous, whose members say they find it as comforting and useful as Billy’s patients do.
NOTE: Vonnegut may be using the prayer here because it reinforces
our impression of Billy Pilgrim as a passive character. He may also
be making a veiled reference to his own alcoholism, which he hints at
in Chapter 1. (Vonnegut no longer drinks, by the way.) The prayer will
turn up again near the end of the book.
We learn now that Billy has a troubling problem that belies his
outward serenity: he has fits of weeping that he can’t explain.
Something is bothering Billy Pilgrim that all the riches and respect
in his life cannot cure. If you suspect that it has something to do
with his war experience, you’re probably right.
As if to confirm this suspicion, Billy returns to the war. And now
you understand another aspect of Billy’s time-travel: when he can’t
bear to look at something that is happening at one time in his life,
he dodges into another. In 1967 Billy is confronted by the
disturbing spectacle of two crippled veterans selling phony magazine
subscriptions. But back in 1944 he sees the world in a beautiful new
way: everything is haloed by Saint Elmo’s fire.
NOTE: Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, who sometimes see a
flamelike radiance surrounding the prominent points of a ship in
stormy weather. Another name for this phenomenon is corposant, which
comes from the Latin corpus sancti, meaning “body of a saint.” Billy
is having a kind of religious experience in which everything appears
The sights fill him with joy and excitement even though nobody
else seems to be taking it this way- not Roland Weary, whose feet
are literally killing him. The Americans’ humiliation at being
captured is made worse by the discomfort and boredom of being packed
into boxcars with nothing to do for days. When you see prisoners in
war movies, they are usually either being tortured or planning escape.
(That is Roland Weary’s kind of thinking.) Yet the reality of being
a prisoner of war is far less glamorous, and the details in this scene
There are, however, the comforts of human contact. The men sleep
together “nestled like spoons.” They keep their courage up by
yelling at the guards (which is perfectly safe because the guards
don’t understand English) and by telling each other it’s not so bad.
One former hobo says he’s seen lots worse than this.
But it’s dehumanizing to be a prisoner, however peaceful and even
domestic this scene may seem. Vonnegut emphasizes this by injecting
images that depersonalize the prisoners. Trains talk to each other
across the rail yard, and “each car became a single organism which ate
and drank and excreted through its ventilators.”
After a while Vonnegut doesn’t even refer to the characters as
prisoners or Americans; he simply calls them human beings. Then he
depersonalizes them further: they are no longer individuals but “a
warm, squirming, farting, sighing earth” on the floor of the boxcar.
Christmas passes unnoticed as the train moves slowly east across
Germany. And Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck again.
STRUCTURE: In this chapter we visit two time locations: 1967, when
Billy is kidnapped by aliens, and 1945, where we find out more of what
it’s like to be a prisoner. Two important characters, Edgar Derby
and Paul Lazzaro, make their appearance.
NOTE: SCIENCE FICTION Early in the eighteenth century the French
philosopher Montesquieu wanted to criticize his society and
government. He thought that people would pay more attention to what he
wrote if he invented visitors from a distant country who wrote
“letters” home describing what they found in France. The Persian
Letters was a best seller, and everyone talked about what the
“Persians” had said about the French.
By the end of the nineteenth century, writers had found that other
human beings, no matter what country they came from, did not provide
enough contrast for the studies of human society they had in mind.
So they invented creatures from other worlds, who would see the
common, everyday behavior of human beings in an entirely different
way. Thus, one purpose of science fiction is to encourage you to
examine aspects of human activity that you normally take for granted
The scene that opens Billy’s first Tralfamadore story is littered
with images that echo earlier scenes. The orange and black stripes
on the wedding tent repeat the markings on the POW train. Billy and
Valencia are “nestled like spoons in their big double bed,” just as
the prisoners were in the boxcar. Billy’s blue and ivory feet recall
the feet of corpses he saw on his way to the train. And the atmosphere
of the sleeping house is reminiscent of Vonnegut’s late-night vigil in
There are more parallels, and all of them enhance the spookiness
of the scene. Billy knows that in an hour something incredible is
going to happen. To pass the time, and perhaps calm his nerves a
little, he drinks flat champagne and watches a movie.
The World War II movie seen backward is one of the most famous
passages in Slaughterhouse-Five. The idea is so simple- like a child’s
asking, “Daddy, why do people hurt each other?”- that it’s amazing
no one thought of it before. Have you ever done something in anger and
later wished you could take it back? If life were a movie, Vonnegut is
saying, that would be easy. You’d just run the film backward.
Billy doesn’t stop going backward when he reaches the beginning of
the movie and the soldiers have become high school kids. He wants to
go all the way back to the beginning of human life and start over
because he feels that human beings have messed things up the first
Billy continues to be haunted by images from earlier experiences.
A dog barks, just as one did in the Luxembourg forest before he was
captured by the Germans. The ladder let down from the flying saucer
looks like the rim of a Ferris wheel from his childhood. And the
purple light he is trapped in is like the violet light of death.
Billy gets his first lesson in Tralfamadorian philosophy. When he
“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why
us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.
Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?…
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this
The bugs-in-amber comparison reminds us of characters trapped in
diagrams in Chapter 1, and we can see that Vonnegut is drawing a
parallel between human beings in time and characters in a story. To
the Tralfamadorians, all time is fixed like a solid block of amber.
Likewise a story is fixed once it is in print.
The saucer’s takeoff dislodges Billy in time, and he goes back to
the boxcar, which is slowly crossing Germany. As with Vonnegut
during the non-night he spent in Boston, time won’t pass for Billy
Pilgrim. One of the hardest things prisoners have to bear are the long
stretches of empty time. Billy can measure time only by the click
the wheels make as they go over a seam in the track. And a year passes
between clicks, a direct echo of Chapter 1.
NOTE: IMPRISONMENT AND DEPRIVATION A person placed in an
environment of sensory deprivation quickly loses all sense of time,
and this loss may be followed by more serious psychological
disturbances such as hallucination, distortion of body image (parts of
your body seem to blow up to giant size or shrink away to nothing, you
can’t find your arm, etc.), and vertigo (the ground seems to pitch and
roll beneath you). This is why solitary confinement in a dark cell
is considered such cruel punishment.
If Billy could sleep, he could do something interesting, like
dream or travel in time. No one wants to sleep near him because he
kicks and makes noise. Meanwhile, things are getting worse: there’s no
more food and the temperature is dropping. The optimistic former
hobo dies, insisting “this ain’t so bad.” Roland Weary also dies,
still blaming Billy for their capture and now for his death as well.
Vonnegut continues to employ dehumanizing images. The mass of
prisoners are a liquid that the guards must coax into flowing out of
the boxcars when they reach the prison camp.
Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro now appear, and Vonnegut introduces
them impersonally as the best and worst bodies. Yet he gives each
one a history so that you’ll have to pay attention to these individual
molecules of liquid flowing through the delousing station.
Derby not only has the best body, he seems to have the best reason
for being here: he wanted to fight in this war. He is an educated,
intelligent, and compassionate person (he cradled the dying Roland
Weary). And we know already that Derby will die in Dresden.
NOTE: Edgar Derby is important to Slaughterhouse-Five in several
ways. Vonnegut gives his age as forty-four (or forty-five) at the time
of his capture in 1944, which means that he was born at the close of
the nineteenth century. And Derby has the ideals and gentlemanly
behavior that we usually associate with an older, more graceful era.
We imagine that this elegant and honorable way of life died a horrible
death as a result of two monstrous wars. Could it be a coincidence
that Billy Pilgrim is himself forty-four in 1967, when he imagines
he is kidnapped by aliens? At that age, many men go through an
emotional trauma known as “the mid-life crisis,” when they have to
come to terms with the fact that they’re no longer young. Edgar
Derby may be fighting to prove that he is still young by keeping in
shape and finagling his way into combat. Billy Pilgrim resolves his
mid-life crisis by inventing aliens and time-travel.
And then perhaps the author just thinks that forty-four is an
important age to be. Kurt Vonnegut was forty-four when he revisited
Paul Lazzaro will turn out to have a personality as disgusting as
his body. For the moment all we know is that he promised Weary he
Billy comes unstuck in time again in the stinging, impersonal
shower. He wakes up in the flying saucer, having returned to where the
first part of the chapter left off. Here he has his second lesson in
the Tralfamadorian view of time and the universe: the question of free
will does not exist beyond the civilization of Earth.
NOTE: FREE WILL The doctrine of free will holds that the choices
a human being makes are his own and they have a part in shaping his
future. (The opposite of free will is determinism, which says that
an individual’s choices have already been made for him and he is
powerless to change his future.) Philosophers (both theologians and
lay people) have debated the existence of free will ever since the
beginning of philosophy. But what was a burning question throughout
most of human history seems to have little relevance for most people
in the second half of the twentieth century. Do you know anyone who is
concerned about whether or not free will exists?
The Tralfamadorian view does not accept or deny free will. It simply
isn’t an issue for them. Their concept of time and the universe is
altogether different. Vonnegut may be saying here that the question of
STRUCTURE: Chapter 5 is the longest in the book. It contains no less
than thirteen time jumps. Billy’s story develops significantly on
three fronts: he arrives at the zoo on Tralfamadore, where he learns
about the aliens’ philosophy; as a POW in 1945 he reaches the prison
camp and spends a crazy night on morphine, which gives him strange
visions; and in a new time period, 1948, he appears in a mental
hospital in Lake Placid, New York, where’s he’s recovering from a
nervous breakdown, and later in a honeymoon resort with his new bride.
As you read through the chapter, notice how Vonnegut enriches these
plot developments by using echoes and analogies. He also introduces
new material: an elaborate discussion of the effect fiction has on our
understanding of life, a couple of drawings, and Billy’s fantasy lover
First, look at a couple of images that echo material from previous
chapters. Under morphine in the prison camp, Billy has another of
his peaceful hallucinations. It is similar to those he had in the
Luxembourg forest just before his capture. This time he’s a giraffe in
a beautiful garden, and the only violence in the scene is Billy’s
chewing on a tough pear. Some readers see the giraffe as the perfect
image for Billy Pilgrim: tall, gangling, absurdly gentle. For
others, the giraffes represent a metaphor for human beings,
creatures who are as “preposterously specialized” as giraffes.
Remember how bizarre the Tralfamadorians find Earthlings, with their
weird view of time and their curious ideas like free will? For Billy
the heart of this vision seems to be his finding others like himself
and being loved and accepted just as he is.
Another scene full of echoes is Billy’s wedding night. After
making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. “It was a
simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate sex and
glamor with war.” Vonnegut’s comment reminds us of Roland Weary’s
“sexy, murderous relationship” with his victims and of the German
soldiers’ mopping up “after the orgasm of victory.”
Vonnegut spends most of this chapter examining fiction from many
angles. The description he gives of Tralfamadorian literature (see the
discussion of Style) sounds pretty familiar to someone who is
reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut had already announced on the
title page that “this is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic
schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the
flying saucers come from,” and now he explains what he meant. He
also seems to be telling you what you should get from the book and how
you can best appreciate and understand it.
On the other hand, you’re not a Tralfamadorian. You can’t read the
brief clumps of symbols “all at once, not one after the other,” so you
can’t appreciate “the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one
time.” What kind of game is Vonnegut playing? It could be that he’s
harping on the difficulty of his Dresden story again: even if he could
write it right, you couldn’t read it right.
But there’s another way of interpreting this. You can’t read
Slaughterhouse-Five the way a Tralfamadorian would, but when you think about the novel after you’ve read it, you can come close to seeing the book from a Tralfamadorian perspective. The entire story is then in
your memory. You can focus on a favorite scene or image and move on to
another part of the book without having to flip pages or read
through the passages in between. You can go backward as well as
forward in your memory of the story. And this applies not only to
Slaughterhouse-Five but to any other work of fiction- and ultimately
to all your past experiences as well.
Back in the prison camp the English officers give a performance of
Cinderella, which Vonnegut calls “the most popular story ever told.”
NOTE: CINDERELLA In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut says he believes that one
of the reasons the Cinderella story is so popular has to do with its
design. The structure of its plot is the same as that of the basic
story of Christianity. The Old Testament creation myth parallels the
gifts from Cinderella’s fairy godmother, the expulsion from the Garden
of Eden is the clock striking twelve, and the prince finding
Cinderella is the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ. Both
stories are so comforting and hopeful that they’re hard to resist.
Vonnegut maintains that any story with this structure is bound to be
popular because people want so much to believe that life works this
Many readers find Vonnegut’s clearest statements on fiction in the
scenes in the mental ward in 1948. Here Billy discovers a kindred
spirit in Eliot Rosewater. Billy and Eliot are “alarmed by the outside
world.” They have found life meaningless, in part because of their
experiences in the war. Both are “trying to re-invent themselves and
their universe” by reading science fiction.
NOTE: In his book The Birth of Tragedy the German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) puts forth the idea that “only through
art is life justified.” To him, life in itself is amoral and
senseless. But art, he says, gives life meaning and purpose by
structuring it- for example, by putting it in the form of a story
(myth, legend, fiction) that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Vonnegut seems to like this idea, although he’s not sure whether it
According to Rosewater, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
contains everything there is to know about life. One of the themes
of that Russian masterwork is that the world is indeed terrifying
because it has rejected God and tried to set up man in God’s place.
But the implied solution of that book- a return to faith- is what
Rosewater thinks “isn’t enough any more.”
He finds some consolation in science fiction, particularly in the
stories of Kilgore Trout, and he shares this discovery with Billy.
Vonnegut summarizes two Kilgore Trout novels. In Maniacs in the Fourth
Dimension, Trout proposes that certain mental illnesses have their
causes in the “fourth dimension.” Doctors can’t really help because
being Earthlings, they can see only in three dimensions.
NOTE: THE FOURTH DIMENSION Both Trout and Vonnegut use the term
“fourth dimension” to indicate a vague aspect of the universe that
is beyond human perception (which is limited to three dimensions,
length, width, and depth). But modern physics, in particular Albert
Einstein’s theory of relativity, routinely uses a fourth dimension
in its equations and calculations. This fourth dimension is called
time. Trout’s diagnosis seems to be correct in the case of Billy
Pilgrim, who has so much trouble with time.
In The Gospel from Outer Space an alien visitor to Earth believes
that Christians sometimes behave cruelly (as in the Crusades)
because of “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.” So he
writes a new Gospel in which Jesus isn’t the Son of God until just
before his death, when God adopts him. By changing this simple story
element, the visitor from outer space “re-invents” Christianity.
These two fictitious novels of Kilgore Trout are clearly intended as
satire: Maniacs sends up the “science” of psychology, The Gospel
parodies the Scriptures. At the same time, both “fictions” explain
mysteries that official theory or storytelling cannot account for.
Vonnegut’s point seems to be that fiction can be powerful in shaping
the way you look at life and in helping you to understand things
that otherwise would not make sense. Try to think of other books
you’ve read that have changed the way you look at the world.
Vonnegut also examines two devices that fiction writers use:
euphemism and metaphor. Notice Vonnegut’s language in the story of
Edgar Derby’s capture. Shrapnel is turned into ordinary domestic
objects, “knives and needles and razorblades,” that rain down from
“the incredible artificial weather Earthlings sometimes create for
other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earthlings to
inhabit Earth any more.” There are no bullets per se, just “little
lumps of lead in copper jackets… zipping along much faster than
sound.” These images are examples of euphemism, the “nice” way of
describing something unpleasant. You may recall the “three inoffensive
bangs” when the scouts were killed. The discrepanccy between the
terrifying reality and the innocent description of it relays the
message more effectively than a straightforward description.
Each of these images is also a metaphor, a figure of speech in which
a writer uses a word or a phrase to suggest a likeness or an
analogy. A hilarious example of the necessity and absurdity of
metaphors can be found in the scene in the alien zoo. The
Tralfamadorians wonder what it must look like to be able to see in
only three dimensions. The zoo guide explains Billy’s plight by
inventing the metaphor of a horribly complicated contraption that
There are other new elements in this chapter besides the
discussion of fiction. On Billy’s wedding night, while Valencia is
trying to get him to talk about the war, he suddenly has an idea for
his epitaph: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” What’s
odd about this is that Vonnegut provides a drawing to go with the
words. Then, in the very next scene, there’s another drawing, this
time of the latrine sign that Billy- in his morphine haze- sees
floating in midair: “Please leave this latrine as tidy as you found
it!” Vonnegut’s drawings of the two messages make them seem pretty
important, for these are the first drawings to appear in the book.
Perhaps the second drawing is meant as a contrast to the first,
which expresses Billy’s hopelessly naive idea of what life should be
like- the latrine sign is meant to bring you down to earth, as it
were. It’s also possible that the second drawing is philosophical
advice from the author: “Life is enough of a mess, don’t make it
Chapter 5 also introduces Montana Wildhack, Billy’s mate in the
zoo on Tralfamadore. As fantasy, Billy’s love story with Montana is
hard to beat from a male point of view. She is vulnerable, trusting,
and above all beautiful. Billy can be her gallant protector. She takes
the sexual initiative shyly, of course- with the result that Billy
doesn’t need to feel any guilt about having “taken advantage of
her.” But even in this paradise Billy can’t entirely forget the war.
The shadow of her naked body on the wall reminds him of the skyline of
A curious thing occurs near the end of the chapter. The scene in
which Billy takes the train to Ilium for his father’s funeral ends
on the platform, with Billy talking to the porter. In the next
paragraph Vonnegut returns to Billy’s morphine night in the prison
camp. The narrator says nothing about Billy’s traveling in time.
Before this the jumps Billy made in time were told in the order in
which they occurred, but now Vonnegut interrupts the sequence of
It’s unlikely that Vonnegut forgot what he was doing. More
probably the war story, as the novel approaches Dresden, is exerting
STRUCTURE: With one important exception- Billy’s vision of his own
assassination in 1976- the war months are the scene of the entire
chapter. And at last the American POWs arrive in Dresden, where the
most significant event in Billy’s life will take place.
The chapter begins with another break in the sequence of Billy’s
time-travels. Chapter 5 ended in 1968, Chapter 6 begins on the morning
after Billy’s morphine night in the prison camp. The short opening
scene is a little hard to believe, even by Billy Pilgrim’s
standards. It could be that the lingering effects of the morphine make
Billy think that the two lumps in the lining of his new coat are
secret treasures that are radiating a message for him. It could also
be Vonnegut’s whimsical comment on the strange power that hidden
Billy sleeps for a while, then is awakened by the racket the English
officers are making in building a new latrine, the Americans having
NOTE: The “Golgotha sounds” Billy hears are a reference to the
hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. The name means “place
of the skull.” The six men carrying the pool table like pallbearers
Paul Lazzaro delivers a sermonette on “the sweetest thing there is”:
revenge. He tells Billy and Derby a gruesome story about how he got
back at a dog that bit him (maybe that’s where he got the rabies!),
and he advises Billy to enjoy life while he can. You learn now of
the spiritual kinship between Lazzaro and his one war buddy, the
late Roland Weary. Lazzaro has promised the dying Weary to get the man
who killed him, and everyone who was in Weary’s boxcar knows that it
The next section, describing Billy’s death, is peppered with the
phrase “he says,” an indication that this is one of Billy’s fantasies.
Notice that Billy doesn’t travel there. Vonnegut simply holds up the
war story to tell us what Billy Pilgrim says his death will be like.
NOTE: VONNEGUT’S ANTI-AMERICANISM Vonnegut’s mockery of American
values and behavior is pretty blatant throughout the whole prison camp
sequence. First there was Billy’s “vision of hell”- the Americans
being “sick as volcanoes” after the feast and destroying the
latrine. Then there was Campbell’s so-called study of American POWs,
which describes them as “the most self-pitying, least fraternal, and
dirtiest of all prisoners of war.” And in Billy’s fantasy of the
future, “The United States of America has been Balkanized, has been
divided into twenty petty nations so that it will never again be a
threat to world peace.” This has led many of Vonnegut’s critics to
label him anti-American. His supporters argue that Vonnegut mocks
America not because he hates it, but because he loves it so much,
and wants his countrymen to be better than they are. What do you
Returning to the war, Billy is leaving the prison hospital with
Lazzaro and Derby. Just as the three prisoners in their outlandish
garb form “an unconscious travesty of that famous patriotic oil
painting ‘The Spirit of ’76,'” what follows is a travesty of a free
election. Edgar Derby becomes “head American.” He gives an absurd
acceptance speech, promising “to make damn well sure” everyone gets
home safely. You can’t miss the irony here or in the pathetic
letters to his wife he’s been composing in his head. Like Billy
Pilgrim, you know already that Edgar Derby won’t have anything to do
with the safe return of his fellow prisoners. He’ll be dead.
The scene has its bright moments. The prisoners learn they’re
being sent to Dresden, an “open city” that no one expects to be
bombed. (In World War II, cities were declared “open” if they were
considered to have no military value.) And Billy adds some touches
of color to his frumpy outfit: an azure (light blue) toga and silver
boots. He may once have looked like a filthy flamingo, but now he’s
Once they get to Dresden, Billy becomes the real leader of the
Americans for all of Edgar Derby’s “patriotism and middle age and
imaginary wisdom.” When the nervous guards finally see what the
“murderous American infantrymen” are really like (“Here were more
crippled human beings, more fools like themselves. Here was light
opera”), they naturally put Billy at the head of the parade. He’s
Not everybody thinks the Americans are funny. An exhausted surgeon
demands to know how Billy has the nerve to look as clownish as he
does. Billy makes the only friendly gesture he can think of in his
dazed state of mind: he offers to the stranger his “treasures,” the
diamond and part of a denture that are hidden in his coat lining.
NOTE: APPEARANCE From a “civilized” standpoint, the surgeon is
right to be offended. His outrage at how the Americans are dressed
is the same as the outrage of the English officers. To these
cultured Europeans, appearance is of the utmost importance: it is
the flower of civilization. If the flower looks healthy, the whole
plant must be sound. The English colonel at the prison camp was
correct when he said “If you stop taking pride in your appearance, you
At last the narrative comes to the place that gives the book its
name, and Billy arrives at the anchor point of his story. Here,
beneath Slaughterhouse-Five (Schlachthof-Funf), Billy will spend the
night in which Dresden is destroyed.
It is almost with a sigh of relief that you reach Dresden after
hearing about it for so long. Vonnegut has heightened the suspense
by announcing the destination far in advance and then delaying
(while he told the story) Billy’s arrival in Dresden. The real
“climax” of the story has yet to come, and you can be sure that
Vonnegut will put that off for as long as he can.
STRUCTURE: The story swings gently between two locations in time:
the doomed airplane in 1968 and Dresden just before the bombing in
1945. When Chapter 7 opens, it’s twenty-five years later than the
close of Chapter 6. The narrator seems to have taken over the
storytelling controls from Billy Pilgrim and is deciding on his own
the order in which scenes will be presented. This short chapter also
offers contrasting views of relations between people of different
The plane’s takeoff is unremarkable, except for the irony of
Valencia’s eating a candy bar as she waves goodbye to Billy for the
last time. You know they will never see each other again- at least not
Once in the air, the optometrists begin to party. Billy’s
father-in-law, Lionel Merble, gets things going by asking the
barbershop quartet, The Febs (an anagram of Four-eyed Bastards), to
sing his favorite naughty songs. The racist ditties that Lionel Merble
finds so hilarious are followed by a scene in which a Polish man is
hanged for having sex with a German woman during the war.
NOTE: NAZI RACISM The law the Pole had broken was one of many “race
laws” instituted by Adolf Hitler and his minister for propaganda,
Joseph Goebbels. Hitler believed that Germans were the “master”
race, the “Aryans,” and he made any mixing with inferior races a
capital crime. The most famous victims of the race laws were the Jews,
but anyone not of pure “Aryan” ancestry was in danger of being
persecuted by the Nazis. One of Vonnegut’s aunts, in order to marry
a German German in the 1930s, had to prove that she had no “mixed
Billy’s brief time-travel to the Luxembourg forest just before the
plane crashes indicates a parallel between the two incidents: in
both cases Billy is the only survivor. The “guys” do indeed “go on”
without him! In 1968 Billy is rescued by Austrian ski instructors
who look like “golliwogs” in their ski masks.
NOTE: A golliwog was a doll whose face caricatured the features of a
black person. Golliwogs first appeared in Florence K. Upton’s
illustrations for a series of children’s books in the late
nineteenth century. Here the racist image ties in with Lionel Merble’s
vulgar songs and the execution of the Pole for interracial sex.
Billy thinks he’s back in the war, which seems to have entered a new
technological phase: there are colorful uniforms and huge machines
When he returns to the real war, Billy, Edgar Derby, and the
sixteen-year-old “baby” who is guarding them, Werner Gluck, are on
their way to supper in the slaughterhouse. (Werner’s last name,
ironically, means “good luck, happiness, prosperity” in German.)
Because of blackout regulations, the city is not as beautiful as it
would be in peacetime, and the stockyard and animal pens have long
been empty. Otherwise, everything is serene.
They make a wrong turn and stumble upon a group of women taking
showers. The sight of naked women is “nothing new to Derby,” but Billy
and Werner Gluck can only gape while the women become even more
enchanting by screaming and trying to cover themselves. This recalls
Billy’s first sight of Montana Wildhack in the zoo on Tralfamadore.
But there are dark undertones here as well: the women are refugees
from a bombed-out city who have come to Dresden because it is
“safe.” You’ll discover later that they perish in a shallow shelter
and that others like them are boiled alive in a watertower.
The “three fools” finally find the kitchen, where an impatient war
widow has been keeping their meal hot for them. Her anxiety to get
home, even though there’s nothing there but memories, doesn’t stop her
from caring about the people in her charge.
The last scene in this brief chapter is one of the most touching
in the book. Despite what the English colonel had predicted, food in
Dresden is scarce and not very nourishing. So the prisoners working in
the factory that makes enriched malt syrup for pregnant women have
been secretly spooning the syrup to sustain their own lives as well.
The image of every cell in Billy’s body shaking him “with ravenous
gratitude and applause” for the spoonful of syrup is then repeated
with Edgar Derby, who bursts into tears. That such a tiny thing
could do so much is an indication of just how impoverished Dresden was
The chapter is filled with examples of people’s feeding one another,
saving and sustaining each other’s lives. You see not only racism
but instances of “international cooperation.”
STRUCTURE: Chapter 8 begins just days before the bombs fall on
Dresden, and it ends on the day after the bombing, when the
prisoners emerge from their shelter beneath the slaughterhouse.
Billy meets Kilgore Trout in 1964 and undergoes a devastating
experience that causes him to remember the awful event that has
dominated his life. Thus he begins to come to terms with it.
In the slaughterhouse two days before the bombing, Howard W.
Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi propagandist, is recruiting members
for his Free American Corps. It’s doubtful that the American POWs look
As Vonnegut describes the Americans’ attempt to stay awake for
Campbell’s presentation, he reverts again to impersonal imagery,
calling Campbell’s audience “it” and describing “its” symptoms of
malnutrition. But Edgar Derby won’t stand for either Campbell’s
nonsense or Vonnegut’s dehumanization, and he distinguishes himself by
During the bombing alert that follows Edgar Derby’s shining
moment, Billy nods off and returns to the present, 1968, where his
daughter is scolding him. Now she’s blaming Kilgore Trout for
Four years earlier Billy discovers Trout by accident in a back alley
of Ilium, where Trout subsidizes his novel writing by working in the
circulation department of a newspaper. Trout is flabbergasted at
meeting someone who’s actually read his books- and liked them! Billy
is equally delighted, for Trout’s books have helped him so much
through the years. They become friends, and Billy invites Trout to
attend his and Valencia’s eighteenth anniversary party.
NOTE: The chronology here is confused. If this is 1964, then Billy
and Valencia were married in 1946. But in Chapter 5 they’re only
engaged, and that’s in 1948. So one of the dates is incorrect, or else
it’s not their eighteenth anniversary. The discrepancy probably
isn’t important. Calendars only measure external time, and you know
Trout is the hit of the evening, the only author in a roomful of
optometrists. And he’s having the time of his life, bragging and
posing and showing off shamelessly. He spends most of the party trying
to impress Maggie White, a naive “airhead” who believes anything
anybody tells her. She resembles the hyped-up ads she believes in so
wholeheartedly- “a sensational invitation to make babies” who in
The barbershop quartet launches the presentation ceremony for
Billy’s anniversary gift to Valencia. But The Febs’ singing upsets
Billy so much that he has to leave the room. No one understands what
has happened to Billy, though Trout believes it’s something strange,
like seeing through a time window. In a way this is exactly what has
The real explanation is even more chilling than the spookiest
science fiction. The singing quartet looks just like the four German
guards when they and the American POWs first saw Dresden after it
It’s significant that Billy figures this out without resorting to
time-travel. Most of Billy’s trips in time have allowed him to
escape from unpleasantness, but by consciously remembering Dresden,
Billy begins to be able to deal with his experience.
NOTE: Music often has a mnemonic effect, that is, it triggers
vivid memories. In Billy’s case this is enhanced by the shapes
(shapes, like sounds, can be mnemonic) of the singers’ mouths
because they remind him so much of the expressions the guards “try on”
one after another. The absurdity of the link in Billy’s mind between
the four guards and the barbershop quartet is what makes it so moving.
And with that the time has come to relive, with Billy and
If you were writing Slaughterhouse-Five, how would you handle this
scene? It’s the climax of the story, the scene that must be
effective or the rest of the book is pointless. The natural choice
would be to try to make this moment as exciting and frightening as
possible. But what does Vonnegut do? After all that buildup and
suspense, you see nothing. You hear only “sounds like giant
footsteps above” and the guards whispering about “one big flame.”
The only shock you feel is “an occasional shower of calcimine.”
Some readers are disappointed by Vonnegut’s failure to describe
the bombing of Dresden more graphically. They feel that this scene
is a horrible anticlimax and that they have been cheated.
For other readers, Vonnegut’s account is perfect because he tells
only what he himself experienced firsthand, and he was in the meat
locker the entire time. Other firsthand reports come from similarly
remote vantage points, such as the movies taken from the bombers.
Vonnegut saw one of these films later. All he could say was, “The city
appeared to boil” Anything “closer” would have to be as imaginary as a
description of what it’s like on the surface of the sun.
Those who are disappointed in this “anticlimax” also accuse Vonnegut
of copping out, of failing to face up to the true horror of the
Dresden bombing. They attribute this failure either to a lack of nerve
Others argue that Vonnegut has the imagination and skill to have
painted a vivid picture of the annihilation of Dresden if he’d
wanted to. They believe that Vonnegut’s indirect account is all the
more effective because the horror remains- as it was for the
However you feel about Vonnegut’s account of the bombing of Dresden,
the central event of the story is now past. But as anyone who has been
seriously injured can tell you, the aftermath is often the worst part.
Vonnegut allows Billy to back away from reliving Dresden and to
become a storyteller himself. Earlier, in the honeymoon scene, Billy
was embarrassed by Valencia’s questions about the war and ducked
into the bathroom the first chance he got. Now, with Montana
Wildhack in the zoo on Tralfamadore, he seems to have no such
problems. Montana doesn’t specify what story she wants to hear, and
Billy’s choice seems rather grim: the appearance of Dresden on the day
after the bombing. Billy isn’t running away from his Dresden
experience any more. It’s the most important story in his life, and
Vonnegut closes the chapter with an account of the prisoners’
first day in the “new” Dresden. After the initial shock and grief, the
guards’ survival instinct takes over and they start moving everyone
toward the outskirts. American planes appear for the “mopping up,”
machine-gunning anything that moves. They miss Billy and Vonnegut’s
group but kill some people in another cluster of survivors by the
river. Vonnegut’s deadpan remark that “the idea was to hasten the
end of the war” prepares us for dealing with this subject in the
STRUCTURE: In Chapter 9 Vonnegut wraps up all of Billy Pilgrim’s
stories except that of the immediate aftermath of the Dresden bombing.
And he starts and finishes two new stories that take place in 1968.
The first is Billy’s encounter with Professor Rumfoord in the
Vermont hospital. The second is his attempt to tell his story to the
world by going on a radio talk show in New York City. Vonnegut also
addresses the most important question about the bombing of Dresden:
He begins by removing Valencia. Because Billy is still delirious
from the plane crash he is busy dreaming and traveling in time, and
doesn’t learn about his wife’s death until later. Billy’s hospital
roommate, Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, is busy with a
project of his own: an official history of the army air force in World
Rumfoord embodies in every way the old-fashioned ideal of the
American male. Athletic, potent, and fiercely energetic even in his
seventies, Rumfoord has worn out four wives and is working on a fifth,
his new bride Lily, who was born in the year Dresden was bombed.
Poor Lily is just a symbol to Rumfoord, “one more public demonstration
that he was a superman.” She has been running errands, collecting
material for Rumfoord’s book, even though she’s supposed to be on
her honeymoon. The document she brings in now is President Harry S.
Truman’s announcement that the first atomic bomb has just been dropped on Hiroshima.
NOTE: THE ATOMIC BOMB Vonnegut breaks off the quote just when
Truman is about to give what many thought was the best reason for
using the bomb- to hasten the end of the war. The rest of the
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that
the ultimatum of July 26 1945, calling for unconditional surrender
was issued by the U.S., Britain and Russia at Potsdam. Their leaders
promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our
terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which
has never been seen on earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea
and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen
and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.
Truman’s statement sounds rather boastful today, but it must be
remembered that America had been at war for almost four years, and
everyone thought and spoke accordingly. In addition, although Japan
was clearly losing the war, it still remained capable of fierce
resistance, as the fighting in the Pacific had demonstrated. The
only alternative to dropping the bomb was a massive invasion, and that
could have prolonged the fighting for years, with tremendous loss of
Vonnegut presents contrasting official views of the Dresden bombing.
The first, written by a retired Air Force general, sounds a lot like
Truman’s in its reasoning, but the tone is definitely more
belligerent. The second, written by an Englishman of equal rank, is
calmer in its language. It designates Dresden as the worst massacre in
For readers who share his antiwar sympathies, this section of
Chapter 9 provides Vonnegut’s most devastating indictment of the
military manner of thinking. By having the “warmongers” speak, he
cleverly lets them damn themselves. Other readers find Vonnegut’s
wholesale condemnation of violence under any circumstances
simplistic and immature and accuse him of stacking the deck against
people who sincerely wanted to end the war. These readers argue that
once the fighting was under way, there were only two choices:
Billy Pilgrim is little concerned with these arguments. Neither
his children nor Valencia’s death seem to have much effect on him.
Everyone thinks the brain damage has made him a vegetable, but the
truth is quite the opposite. Billy is working on a project that has
given purpose to his life: he is “preparing letters and lectures about
the flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of
time.” He believes he can save the world.
What brings Billy out of his creative trance is his roommate,
Professor Rumfoord, who talks of putting Billy out of his misery.
Billy tries to speak to him, but it’s not easy to penetrate what
Vonnegut calls Rumfoord’s “military manner” of perceiving Billy.
Between bouts of “trying to prove to a willfully deaf and blind
enemy that he was interesting to hear and see,” Billy travels in
time to his last adventure in Dresden. It’s a warm spring day two days
after the end of the war in Europe. Billy is snoozing in the back of a
wagon. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, and he is at peace with
the world for the first and almost the last time in his life.
His peace is shattered when two German obstetricians wake him and
scold him because he and his thoughtless buddies have badly abused the
horses pulling the wagon. Billy bursts into tears. Do you see the
connection with the previous scene? Rumfoord is no worse for
refusing to listen to Billy than Billy is for being oblivious to the
horses’ suffering. Thoughtlessness is not restricted to the
“military manner” of thinking; human beings seem to be thoughtless
Billy returns in time to the Vermont hospital to finish dealing with
Rumfoord, who offers a new bit of conventional wisdom about the
massacre at Dresden: “Pity the men who had to do it”- as if the agents
were more to be pitied than the victims.
NOTE: Rumfoord is obviously a caricature (an exaggerated,
one-sided portrait) of the all-American male, so this statement sounds
absurd coming from him. Vonnegut’s own feelings on the subject are
more complex. In an interview he relates the following story: “When
I went to the University of Chicago after the war the guy who
interviewed me for admission had bombed Dresden. He got to that part
of my life story and he said, ‘Well, we hated to do it.’ The comment
sticks in my mind… It was more humane than saying ‘We were
ordered to do it’. I think he felt the bombing was necessary, and
Billy is beyond such considerations. He has transcended even the
humaneness of the horse pitiers. He has The Answer: “Everything is all
right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on
This sounds a lot like determinism, which was discussed in Chapter
4. If you recall the autobiographical elements in Billy Pilgrim’s
character and the way Vonnegut has previously used the Tralfamadorians
to make direct thematic statements, it’s tempting to see Vonnegut’s
answer to Dresden as: it had to be. But remember that the author has a
larger perspective than Billy, larger even than the Tralfamadorians.
And don’t forget how Vonnegut brought Billy to this comforting
philosophy: a plane crash scrambled Billy’s brains, disturbing his
sense of time and making him unable to tell the difference between
real life and fantasy. This hardly qualifies Billy as a wise man whose
By thus undermining Billy’s credibility, Vonnegut may be
attempting to answer those who defend the Dresden bombing: it may have been necessary, as he admits, but there is no way to be sure, unless
you’re an alien who can see in four dimensions, or a prematurely
senile optometrist who thinks he’s “come unstuck in time.”
In order to deal with his Dresden experience, Billy has literally
gone out of his mind. What of the author himself? How is Vonnegut
coming to terms with his memories of the war? The answer must wait
until both Billy’s story and the story of Vonnegut’s writing
Slaughterhouse-Five are complete, which will happen in the next
chapter. For the moment, Billy Pilgrim has a final adventure to go
After coming home from the hospital, he sneaks off to New York to
proclaim his solution to all of life’s problems. He’s tremendously
excited, not only by his mission but because it’s almost the first
time in his life that he has been entirely on his own. He goes to
Times Square, and in a pornography shop he finds books by Kilgore
Trout. The one he remembers having read is The Big Board, whose
story is very similar to Billy’s interlude with Montana Wildhack on
Tralfamadore. Billy had read this book in the mental hospital after
Another Trout novel is new to him: a time-traveler goes back to
Biblical days to meet the real Jesus and find out whether or not Jesus
died on the cross. Clearly Trout is very much interested in the
Jesus story (remember The Gospel from Outer Space?). But then so is
Vonnegut. There are allusions to Jesus throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.
The horse pitiers were “crooning” to the horses, and their “tones
might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took
His ruined body down from His cross.” And Vonnegut thinks the
Christmas carol “Away in the Manger” describes Billy Pilgrim as well
Some readers think Vonnegut is mocking Christianity by parodying the
myths on which it is based. Although he once attended services in a
Unitarian Church more or less regularly, Vonnegut has been an
atheist all his life and in general believes that organized religion
is as dangerous as any other form of organized authority. Other
readers maintain that Vonnegut makes a distinction between the stories
and ideals that form the basis of religious faith and the religious
institutions whose actions he finds are often atrocious.
Whatever you see as the cause of Vonnegut’s ambivalence toward
religion, his attitude toward pornography is pretty clear: “It was a
ridiculous store, all about love and babies.” Of course the
so-called sex peddled here has nothing to do with love or babies.
Before you leave this charming establishment, notice the
references to Montana Wildhack. The blue movie in the peepshow machine was made when she was a teenager. The article about her
disappearance is in an old magazine. Here’s more evidence that Billy’s
time-travel and the Tralfamadore fantasy began after the plane
crash. He had known about Montana Wildhack’s disappearance from
reading this magazine when it first appeared, and in his delirium in
the Vermont hospital he put it together with the premise of The Big
Board. And remember, that the alien visitor in The Gospel from Outer
Space was “shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian.” The evidence is
Billy finally gets on a radio talk show. In this scene, Vonnegut
concludes his discussion of fiction. He began it in Chapter 1 by
considering the difficulty of writing fiction in the first place. In
Chapter 5 he examined the not always positive effect fiction has on
one’s ability to understand and cope with life. Here he mocks the
pronouncements of the “experts” on literature.
NOTE: The Virginian Vonnegut refers to is William Styron, whose
novel The Confessions of Nat Turner had recently been published.
That book portrayed sympathetically the trials and tribulations of a
black slave in the Old South, as had Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet
Beecher Stowe, a Northerner, over a hundred years before.
“The death of the novel” was a fashionable topic at the time
Slaughterhouse-Five was written, and Vonnegut spares little of his wit
in deflating the pretentious attitudes of much literary criticism of
For all his mocking tone in this section, Vonnegut has elsewhere
voiced considerable doubt about the worth of fiction and its ability
to say anything intelligent about the modern world. Billy’s personal
answer to the absurdity of contemporary life- he reinvents his life
through fantasy- so embarrasses the panel of experts that they throw
him out of the studio. Are they themselves any less embarrassing in
their pompous seriousness, in Vonnegut’s view? No, he seems to say,
but they have a point, however absurdly they express it. Even if the
novel isn’t dead, it’s not very healthy.
Little disturbed having his message rejected, Billy returns to his
room and goes to bed so that he can visit Montana Wildhack one last
time. By now they have a baby and Billy’s wonderful fantasy is
complete. He tells her about seeing her pictures in the Times Square
porn shop, but she dismisses her past life as being as meaningless
as his Dresden story. They have started the human race over again; the
NOTE: THE DRAWINGS Vonnegut’s drawing of the prayer inscribed on
a locket hanging between Montana’s breasts completes the trio of
drawings in Slaughterhouse-Five. They are not just pictures, for
each contains a message. The pattern of these messages is similar to a
common formula in philosophical argument. First a thesis or idea is
put forth: Life is nice (“Everything was beautiful, and nothing
hurt”). Then the antithesis or opposing idea is laid out against it:
Life is a mess (“Please leave this latrine as tidy as you found it!”).
Finally a synthesis is achieved by combining the two into a meaningful
whole: Life is both good and bad (the prayer). The prayer itself
demonstrates this kind of structure: God grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change (thesis), courage to change the
things I can (antithesis), and wisdom always to know the difference
Just as the tombstone in the first drawing is a symbol of death, the
breasts in this last drawing are a symbol of life. They may also imply
that the serenity, courage and wisdom asked for in the prayer can only
be found in a nurturing, loving relationship with another person.
The symbolism in this drawing is particularly rich, and you can
probably find other meanings in it as well.
STRUCTURE: This brief closing chapter falls roughly into two equal
parts, the first part describing Vonnegut’s return to Dresden with
O’Hare in 1967, the second part closing out Billy Pilgrim’s story with
his last days as a POW in 1945, which he spends digging for bodies
Vonnegut begins by musing about recent violent deaths. As a
conclusion to his musings, he remarks casually that the
Tralfamadorians are more interested in Darwin than in Jesus. This is
because the version of Darwin’s theory of natural selection,
commonly known as “survival of the fittest,” accords with their
determinism. Jesus was a crusader who tried to change things, which to
Vonnegut turns from talk of death to the subject of pleasant
memories. One of his favorites is going to Dresden with O’Hare, this
time for fun. And, in Vonnegut’s case, for profit- but the irony is
chilling. In a new introduction for Slaughterhouse-Five, written in
The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously
planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the
entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote
this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my
One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person
Flying over the rebuilt cities of Germany, Vonnegut can’t help
imagining what it would look like if he dropped bombs on them.
The final sequence of scenes in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing
is grim. The imagery is overwhelmingly dehumanized: the moonscape, the
membrane of timbers, the corpse mines. Civilization has been so
thoroughly wiped out that not even domestic animals can be used to
help clean up the mess. Only human beings are adaptable and clever
Eventually the corpse mines are closed down. The job is simply too
huge, and the soldiers have other things to do. Dresden is abandoned
As spring stubbornly appears, the Americans walk out into sudden
freedom. The birds say the only intelligent thing there is to say
about a massacre, “Poo-tee-weet”- that is, nothing!
One question that is left unanswered at the end of the book is
what happens to Billy Pilgrim? Will he really be assassinated by
Paul Lazzaro in 1976? Or does he escape permanently to Tralfamadore,
to spend the rest of his days with his new family in a new Garden of
Eden? (Notice that Vonnegut doesn’t bring Billy back to Earth after
his last scene with Montana.) Or are these just the fantasies of a
deranged mind, and what really happens is that Barbara has her
father locked up in an asylum? This seems the most likely answer to
her question, “Father, Father, Father- What are we going to do with
you?” You can find support for every one of these answers in different
places in the novel, and Vonnegut never says which one he prefers.
This ambiguity is probably intentional. If Vonnegut could decide
what to do with Billy Pilgrim, maybe he could tie up his own war
experience into a neat little story as well, and he obviously can’t-
or won’t- do that. Remember what he said in Chapter 1:
This book) is 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
Some readers believe that writing Slaughterhouse-Five was a form
of therapy for Vonnegut. By the very act of putting his war experience
into the structure of a story (no matter how unorthodox that structure
may be), Vonnegut gives meaning to that otherwise absurd experience.
This is similar to the idea that only through art is life justified.
According to this view, Vonnegut is doing the same sort of thing in
writing Slaughterhouse-Five that he has Billy Pilgrim do to cope
with his war experience: Billy re-invents his life through fantasy and
time-travel, Vonnegut by writing a novel.
Other readers find this interpretation too simplistic. True, they
say, Vonnegut does re-invent his life in a way, by assuming the
character of Billy Pilgrim, and then having Billy find a solution to
all of his problems. But what kind of a solution is this- a retreat
from reality into premature senility, and that is only possible
after he’s cracked his skull in a plane crash? Is Vonnegut really
recommending such a course of action? To these readers, Vonnegut’s
“answer” to the meaningless horror of his war experience is just as
meaningless as the experience itself.
Vonnegut may be saying that there is no way to completely lay an
experience like Dresden to rest. And maybe he feels that it would be
wrong to forget that horror, or to “re-invent” the memory of it so
that it becomes just another “tale of great destruction.” By combining
the innocence of the “baby” who experienced it and the embarrassed
perspective of the “old fart” who is trying to make sense of it,
Vonnegut is keeping the memory of the Dresden massacre alive,
perhaps in the hope that this may help to keep it from happening
_____ 1. Vonnegut had trouble writing Slaughterhouse-Five because
A. couldn’t remember any good stories about the war
C. couldn’t make sense of his Dresden experience
_____ 2. Billy’s daughter Barbara is upset with him because
B. she doesn’t want to take care of him
C. his stories about aliens and time-travel embarrass her
_____ 3. The “river of humiliation” refers to
A. the place where American planes machine-gunned
_____ 5. Edgar Derby is much older than his fellow soldiers
C. pulled strings to get into the fighting
_____ 6. Eliot Rosewater is in the mental hospital because
_____ 7. Billy can’t talk to his wife about the war because
_____ 8. Paul Lazzaro is going to have Billy killed after the war
A. it was Billy’s fault that Lazzaro was captured
C. Roland Weary made Lazzaro promise it
_____ 9. The Dresden surgeon who scolds Billy is angry because
B. he thinks Billy is treating the war as a joke
11. What is the significance of Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five?
13. How does Vonnegut portray the “military manner” of thinking?
14. Is Billy Pilgrim a Christ figure? Explain.
_____ 1. Bernard V. O’Hare is embarrassed when Vonnegut tries to
II. his wife will be mad if he talks to Vonnegut
III. he doesn’t think the war should be exploited for money
_____ 2. Roland Weary keeps Billy with him because he
B. will look like a hero for saving Billy’s life
_____ 3. When Billy sees the crippled men selling phony magazine
_____ 4. The Tralfamadorians take no notice of free will because
_____ 5. The English POWs have an easy time of it because
III. there has been a clerical error
_____ 6. Billy’s “vision of hell” refers to
_____ 7. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., describes American POWs as being
B. “the most self-pitying, least fraternal, and dirtiest
_____ 8. Dresden was an “open city” because
_____ 9. The barbershop quartet upsets Billy because
A. they remind him of the guards in Dresden
11. What are the problems Vonnegut had in writing his book about
12. What effect does the war have on Billy Pilgrim?
13. How is time presented in Slaughterhouse-Five
14. Discuss Vonnegut’s attitude towards machines, giving examples.
1. C2. C3. B4. A5. C6. B7. B
11. For Billy the Tralfamadorians function as superior beings
whose philosophy enables him to come to terms with his life. They give
him Montana to enable him to “start the world over again” as a new
Adam with his Eve. For Vonnegut the Tralfamadorians provide an
opportunity to comment from an “alien” perspective, on the absurdity
of modern life and the illusions that human beings hold dear. The
Tralfamadorians see all time all at once, and so to them free will-the
idea that we make our own choices in life-does not exist. To them we
are like bugs trapped in amber because past, present, and future are
12. Vonnegut himself wrote science fiction stories for magazines,
and for many years he failed to win much of an audience for his
writings. Perhaps Kilgore Trout is Vonnegut’s caricature of himself.
Or perhaps Vonnegut feared that he would turn into a bitter and crazed
man like Kilgore Trout if he didn’t get some recognition as a writer.
Vonnegut uses paraphrases of Trout’s novels to satirize American
values. The Gutless Wonder, which is about a robot who becomes popular
when his bad breath is cleared up, parodies the inane mentality of
advertising. In The Big Board an Earthling couple’s greed provides
Finally, Trout’s novels furnish Billy Pilgrim with the material
and the inspiration for his therapeutic fantasies, and they help him
to remember consciously his Dresden experience.
13. The most primitive example of this is Roland Weary with his
pathetic fantasies of heroism and deep friendships forged in battle.
More sophisticated are the English officers in the German prison camp,
who make war look “stylish and fun.” But Vonnegut’s exemplar of the
“military manner” of thinking is Professor Rumfoord. Rumfoord’s
wives are mere trophies of his virility, he is a staunch social
Darwinist who believes that only the strong should survive, and he
thinks that the men who bombed Dresden, not the victims, are the
Vonnegut also quotes extensively from military writings and
speeches, usually selecting passages that seem to him to be the most
14. There are numerous references to Jesus in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Two novels by Kilgore Trout reexamine the New Testament story, and the horse pitiers croon like Jesus’s friends taking his body down from the cross. Billy is twice directly associated with Jesus: he is
“crucified” on a cross-brace in the boxcar, and the Christmas carol
“Away in the Manger” is said to describe Billy’s inability to weep.
In some ways Billy’s story parallels the life of Jesus. He tries
to preach a message of hope and peace, but few people are ready for
it. And in a vision he sees himself being assassinated for trying to
1. C2. B3. C4. A5. A6. B7. B
11. Some of Vonnegut’s problems had to do with the nature of writing
itself. Writing distorts events by making them plot elements in a
story, and it turns actual people into characters. This process in
turn dehumanizes the writer himself. Beyond this, writing cannot
Vonnegut saw ethical problems too. Another antiwar book would be
worse than pointless because all war stories encourage war. Vonnegut’s
Dresden experience was absurd, so to make sense of it by writing a
Vonnegut found that he could most truthfully present his story if he
adopted a point of view that combined the innocent perspective of
the “baby” he was during the war with the embarrassed hindsight of the
adult writing the story years later.
12. All of Billy Pilgrim’s problems with life stem from his
experiences in World War II. Exhaustion, exposure and hunger take
their toll on his body, but far worse is the psychological damage he
suffers as a result of witnessing the destruction of Dresden. Three
years after coming home from the war he has a nervous breakdown, and
commits himself to a mental hospital, where he meets others like
himself who have “found life meaningless, partly because of what
they had seen in the war,” and who are “alarmed by the outside world.”
He seems to recover, and goes on to marry and raise a family, as
well as becoming a prosperous optometrist and prominent citizen in his
hometown of Ilium, New York. But every once in a while he falls asleep
on the job, and has fits of weeping that he cannot explain. These
symptoms indicate that something is still bothering him, no matter how
Finally, while in the hospital recuperating from a near-fatal
plane crash, Billy starts putting together a complicated fantasy to
help him cope with the horror of his war experience. This fantasy-
which involves reorganizing his life through time-travel and imagining
wise and kindly aliens who set him up in a new Garden of Eden with his
dream-lover Montana Wildhack- lets Billy escape the meaninglessness of modern existence into a re-invented life that makes sense.
13. Billy Pilgrim believes that he is “unstuck in time,” living
his life out of sequence, jumping around from one period of his life
to another in no apparent order. Actually there is one period- the six
months from December 1944 to May 1945, when he was a soldier and
then a POW in Europe during World War II- which he does experience
more or less from beginning to end. Although there are frequent
interruptions for visits to the past, the future, and his fantasy
about the Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack, Billy always returns
to the war pretty much where he left off.
Billy is trying to reinvent his life by reorganizing his memories
and adding fantasy. He does this by fitting all the other events in
his life into the sequence of his war experiences, and thus is finally
able to come to terms with what he saw and heard and did in those
Vonnegut suggests that Billy’s time-travel is analogous to the way
memory and fantasy work in our lives. Memory is a kind of
time-travel into the past; fantasy takes us into the future. By
structuring the novel the way he does, he is thus able to describe
directly our subjective (internal) experience of the passage of
time, which is so different from the objective (external) time of
14. There are few machines in Slaughterhouse-Five that aren’t
harmful to people. The most obvious examples are weapons: the
bombers that devastate Dresden and Roland Weary’s antitank gun,
which ironically murders its operators by drawing enemy fire. Other
machines destroy people accidentally. An elevator squashes a man who
gets his ring caught in the door, and Valencia dies when her
Cadillac poisons her with carbon monoxide fumes.
To make a point Vonnegut often describes living things
mechanistically, as when the group of POWs is said to be
“essentially a liquid which could be induced to flow slowly toward
cooing and light,” or when Billy’s spine is called a “tube” with all
of his important “wires” in it. In reverse, machines are often given
human attributes: trains full of POWs say hello to each other across
the rail yard, and the boxcar becomes “a single organism which ate and
drank and excreted through its ventilators.”
TERM PAPER IDEAS AND OTHER TOPICS FOR WRITING
1. Show how Slaughterhouse-Five functions as an antiwar book. Is the
2. Compare Slaughterhouse-Five with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of
Courage and/or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. How is
Vonnegut’s message different from or similar to these works?
3. Most people agree that Nazism was truly evil. Was the bombing
4. How is authority presented in Slaughterhouse-Five?
5. As expressed in Slaughterhouse-Five, what does Vonnegut see as
the possibility for a meaningful life in the modern world?
6. Does Slaughterhouse-Five state that art is necessary to make
7. In Slaughterhouse-Five, how and why do the demands of
8. From Slaughterhouse-Five would you conclude that Vonnegut is a
feminist, or is his admiration for women a form of “male chauvinism”?
9. It has been said that machines make great servants but terrible
masters. How is this idea expressed in Slaughterhouse-Five?
10. How does Vonnegut present the contrast between the “realism”
of social Darwinism and the “idealism” of Jesus’s Sermon on the
1. Compare Billy’s wife Valencia, Montana Wildhack, and Mary
2. In what sense is Slaughterhouse-Five an autobiographical novel?
1. Discuss Vonnegut’s use imagery in Slaughterhouse-Five.
2. Does Vonnegut’s slangy, conversational tone trivialize or
strengthen the book’s serious points?
3. Is the “telegraphic schizophrenic” style of Slaughterhouse-Five
essential to the book’s message, or is it merely a clever device?
1. Vonnegut says that Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions
were originally one book. Why might he have separated them?
2. Discuss Vonnegut’s treatment of the free will vs. determinism
theme in Slaughterhouse-Five and at least two of his other novels.
Is he consistent in his view or does he change his mind on the
The number in parentheses that follows each entry is the number of
the chapter in which the term first occurs in the novel.
AMBER A clear resin, yellowish brown in color, in which
accidentally trapped insects are sometimes found. (4)
AMORETTI Cherubs or cupids; symbols of love. (6)
BARBERSHOP QUARTET An ensemble of four male voices, singing popular
songs in close harmony. Apparently an American invention of the 1890s.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE Following the Allied invasion of Europe in June
of 1944, the Germans launched a huge counteroffensive in December,
CELINE Pen name of Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches
(1894-1961), a French novelist who became a Nazi sympathizer and was
DELOUSING STATION Where parasites such as fleas, lice, and ticks
were removed from POWs and their clothing. (4)
DOGTAG A metal chip imprinted with a soldier’s name, rank, and
serial number and worn around his neck for identification. (5)
DUM-DUMS Bullets that explode on impact, causing much greater
“EHEU, FUGACES LABUNTUR ANNI” Latin for “Alas, the fleeing years
slip away,” from an ode by the Roman poet Ovid. (1)