Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary

Overview

Summary of the Novel
Chapter One is a preface-like chapter in the novel. Vonnegut describes the difficulty of writing Slaughterhouse-Five. Although he felt his war experiences needed to be written, he feels the finished product is a failure.

Billy Pilgrim travels in time. Most of his travels revolve around his experiences as a prisoner of war in World War II. Because he is a time traveller, he always knows what the outcome of each experience will be.

Billy, who was recently in a plane crash, is eager to tell the world about the wisdom of the planet Tralfamadore, whose residents kidnapped him. While his daughter berates him, he travels to his war experiences. After a major battle, Billy is hiding behind enemy lines with three other soldiers. One of them is Roland Weary, who is about to beat Billy, when they are captured by the Germans.

On his march to the railyards, Billy time travels to his optometry office in Ilium. He listens to a speech at the Lion’s club in favor of blanket bombing in Vietnam, then goes home for a nap. He returns to World War II. At the railyards, the prisoners are loaded onto boxcars for transportation to the prison camps.

Next Billy time travels to the moment when the Tralfamadorian spaceship kidnapped him, then returns to the boxcar. Roland Weary is dead when the prisoners arrive at the German prison camp. After a few days there, during which time Billy time travels to the mental ward where he stayed after the war, his death, the Tralfamadorian zoo, and his wedding night, the Americans are sent to Dresden.

The Americans are housed in an abandoned slaughteryard in Dresden. Billy relives the plane crash and his rescue. Back in Dresden, he and his friend, Edgar Derby, work at a malt syrup factory.

During an air raid, Billy travels to his seventeenth wedding anniversary party, where a barbershop quartet dredges up a suppressed memory of the bombing of Dresden. He then goes to the zoo on Tralfamadore, where he tells his beautiful mate, Montana, about his memory. After the flames of Dresden have died down, the prisoners and their guards leave the gutted city in search of food and shelter, finally staying at an inn outside of the city.

Billy’s wife, Valencia, dies on her way to see him in the hospital after the plane accident. Because of his silence after the crash, he is considered a vegetable. He finally speaks to Bertram Rumfoord, telling him that he was in Dresden when it was bombed and that the Tralfamadorians had taught him that the destruction of Dresden had to be. After being discharged, Billy sneaks off to New York and gets on a radio show, where he talks about the Tralfamadorians. Vonnegut says that he hopes Billy’s philosophy is wrong.

Billy is put to work digging the corpses out of the rubble. Edgar Derby is shot for looting a teapot. One day, the war is finally over. Billy walks free into the springtime world.

The Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father was a prominent architect and his mother the daughter of a wealthy brewer. They were liberal, atheistic, and well-to-do third-generation Germans who were prominent in the social scene of their city.

Although Vonnegut’s older brother and sister were both educated in private schools, the Depression caused such a dramatic drop in the family income that the Vonneguts could no longer afford such luxuries as continuing to pay for Vonnegut’s education. The change was traumatic for Vonnegut’s parents and eventually led to his mother Edith’s suicide in 1944. Vonnegut adjusted well to public school, where he started writing as a reporter for the newspaper at Shortridge High School.

Vonnegut enrolled in Cornell in 1941. At his father’s recommendation that he study something practical, Vonnegut majored in chemistry. He continued to write, eventually becoming editor of the student paper at Cornell University.

In 1942, Vonnegut enlisted in the army. He was captured by Germans on December 22, 1944, after the Battle of the Bulge. From the front he was eventually sent to the open city of Dresden. While he was there, the Allies firebombed the city, killing 135,000 people. (By comparison, about half that number died in the bombing of Hiroshima.) Vonnegut survived only because his prison was a meat locker 60 feet underground.

After the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, with whom he would have three children. He briefly attended the University of Chicago, then moved to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as a publicist for General Electric. During this time Vonnegut began to sell stories to such publications as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post. Encouraged by his successes, he left his position at G.E. to pursue writing full-time in 1950.

Vonnegut’s first full-length novel was Player Piano, published in 1951. His next novel, Sirens of Titan, was not published until 1959. Although this may have been the least successful part of his career, he did manage to support his family, including three nephews adopted when his sister died, from the earnings brought in by the short stories he wrote during this period.

Vonnegut’s next book was Mother Night (1961), which was followed rapidly by Cat’s Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). Vonnegut turned to teaching in 1965, eventually coming to the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. While there, he was offered a three-book contract, which was followed in short order by a Guggenheim fellowship. These fortuitous events led to the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969.

Slaughterhouse-Five was a success both critically and financially. Since its publication, Vonnegut has pursued writing full-time, producing eight more novels and many other works. His most recently published work is 1995’s Timequake.

Estimated Reading Time

Slaughterhouse-Five is a simply written and short book. It should take about seven hours to read the entire work. After doing so, it would be good for the student to reread the book to facilitate comprehension of Vonnegut’s style.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, undergoes experiences close to those of Kurt Vonnegut as an infantryman taken prisoner in World War II. As Billy is, Vonnegut was sent to Dresden and sheltered underground while the city was firebombed in February, 1945. After the bombing Vonnegut was put to work extracting corpses from the rubble and incinerating them. The experience left a deep impression, and he struggled to write about it, finally doing so in this his sixth and most famous novel. A film adaptation appeared in 1972.

Billy Pilgrim is a chaplain’s assistant who becomes separated from his unit and who, defenseless and half-starved, is captured by the Germans. He is eventually sent to a camp in Dresden, and put to work in a factory until the firestorm created by allied bombing destroys the city. It is during all this that Billy “comes unstuck in time,” his consciousness randomly visiting the future or the past. In those travels he visits the various identities he assumes in his lifetime.

After the war, Billy becomes a prosperous optometrist with a family, but his time travels persist. He also believes aliens from Tralfamadore kidnap him and that he leads another existence there in a Talfamadorian zoo. The Tralfamadorians believe that “whatever is always has been and always will be,” so that an event does not just happen but is always “as it was meant to happen.” Under the influence of this Tralfamadorian philosophy, and of his time-traveling ability to see the future, Billy learns to accept life and becomes a preacher, telling others of his time travels and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.

The novel’s subtitle refers to the exploited children of the Children’s Crusade. There are also allusions to Jesus Christ, especially as an infant destined for a dramatic future, and to Adam and Eve. All, like Billy, are innocents swept up in events beyond their comprehension. These, like the soldiers who were “only babies at the time,” epitomize the plight of humans caught up in events so large that they deny the individual identity.

“There are almost no characters in this story,” Vonnegut writes. “One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.” In other words, they become helpless pawns in the current of events, robbed of identity. One prisoner struck by a guard asks, “Why me?” “Vy you? Vy anybody,” the guard responds.

Slaughterhouse-Five asks how the individual retains an identity in a seemingly meaningless world swept by huge, controlling events. It asks how people retain a collective human identity so as not to be brutalized by events into overlooking the individual identities of others. Lot’s wife cared enough to look back to the destroyed city of Sodom, and the author loves her for that.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard V. O’Hare go back to Dresden, Germany, on Guggenheim money in 1967. Before they leave, Vonnegut goes to O’Hare’s house and meets his wife, Mary O’Hare. Mary is mad at Vonnegut; she knows he is going to write a book about World War II, and she is sure he is going to make war look glamorous and fun. Vonnegut insists that he is not going to write a book that makes war look good; he will even subtitle the book “The Children’s Crusade.” This makes her like him, and they start being friends.

While in Dresden, Vonnegut and O’Hare meet a taxi driver. He shows them around the city and shows them the slaughterhouse where they were prisoners during World War II.

When Vonnegut returns from the war, he thinks writing a book about Dresden will be easy. He expects a masterpiece that will make him a lot of money. The words, however, come very slowly and he becomes “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls,” before he actually writes the book. He likes to call long-lost friends late at night when his wife is asleep and he is drunk, and he likes to listen to talk-radio programs from Boston or New York. He and O’Hare try to remember things about the war, and they have trouble. Vonnegut suggests the climax of his book will come when Edgar Derby is shot by a firing squad for taking a teapot out of the ruins in Dresden. O’Hare does not know where the climax is supposed to be.

Billy Pilgrim is born in Ilium, New York, in 1922. He is tall and weak as a child and becomes tall and weak as an adult. He dies in Chicago in 1976 and traveled back and forth through time frequently between his birth and his death. Pilgrim is in the infantry in Europe in World War II as a chaplain’s assistant. He does not carry a weapon and does not have proper clothing for the climate, which is very cold. He is taken prisoner by the Germans. Before he goes to the war, he is on maneuvers in South Carolina, and he is given an emergency furlough home because his father died. While in the war, Pilgrim got lost behind German lines with three other soldiers; one is Roland Weary. Someone shoots at them and Pilgrim hears the bullet go by. Pilgrim lets the shooter try to hit him again. Weary hates everyone, including Pilgrim; Weary dies in a box car on the way to the concentration camp. He was about to kill or seriously maim Pilgrim when the Germans captured them.

Pilgrim’s father throws Pilgrim into the deep end of a swimming pool when he is very young. Supposedly he will learn to swim, or he will drown. He would have drowned but someone saves him instead. In the concentration camp, Pilgrim time-travels often. He goes to the planet Tralfamadore, where the beings there teach him many things about the irrelevance of time and death. On Tralfamadore he is kept in a zoo. He mates with the beautiful Montana Wildhack, a pornography star who soon comes to love Pilgrim. They have a child together on Tralfamadore.

From the concentration camp, Pilgrim and his company are sent to Dresden, Germany, where they work in a factory that makes a vitamin-enriched malt syrup that is for pregnant women. Pilgrim and the other prisoners eat it as much as they can because they are malnourished. While Pilgrim is in Dresden, it is firebombed. One hundred and thirty-five thousand people die in the conflagration. No one suspected it would be bombed, because it has no armament factories, and almost no soldiers whatsoever. Pilgrim and the Americans with him are some of the only people in the entire city who survive. Vonnegut and O’Hare are with Pilgrim. They help to clean the wreckage of the city that was one of the most beautiful in the world and is now like the moon. American fighter planes fly over the city to see if anything is still moving and they see Pilgrim. They spray machine-gun fire at him but miss.

After the war, Pilgrim is back in Ilium. He finishes the optometry school that he began before the war, and he marries Valencia Merble, the daughter of an optometrist and a very rich woman. She is also overweight and does not possess an astounding wit or intellect. They have two children, Robert and Barbara. Robert joins the Green Berets to fight in Vietnam. Barbara marries an optometrist and comes to see Pilgrim frequently after Pilgrim has brain surgery. Valencia dies trying to get to the hospital after Pilgrim is in a plane crash.

Pilgrim has the brain surgery shortly following the wreck of an airplane meant to carry a group of optometrists to a convention. The plane crashes into a mountain in Vermont, killing everyone except Pilgrim and the copilot. Barbara is very concerned about Pilgrim after the crash and the subsequent brain surgery because Pilgrim is writing letters to a newspaper, telling about Tralfamadore and his time-traveling experiences. He goes to New York, to be on a talk-radio program, on which he also tells about Tralfamadore.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In full, the title, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, says much about Vonnegut’s sixth novel. This is the novel in which Vonnegut confronts his traumatic experience of having been in Dresden when, on February 13, 1945, it was bombed by the Allies, producing a firestorm that virtually destroyed the city and killed perhaps 130,000 people. He survived the raid in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse, to spend the following days exhuming corpses from the ruins and cremating them. For him, Dresden becomes the symbol of the senseless horror of war, of humankind’s self-destructive propensities, and of how events arbitrarily overrule the lives of individuals.

“The Children’s Crusade” comes from the wife of a wartime buddy’s having said, “You were just babies then!” Vonnegut reflects that they were indeed very young, and the soldiers in his novel are swept along as helplessly as the hapless children of the original medieval Children’s Crusade, many of whom were, in fact, sold into slavery. “A Duty-Dance with Death” expresses Vonnegut’s need to encounter in words his experience with death, to wrestle with its meaning, or rather, lack of meaning.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the wartime experience is undergone by his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. As his name implies, Billy is a kind of universal man-child going through the pilgrimage of life. In this way, Vonnegut is able to embody directly his personal experience in an autobiographical character, while universalizing its meaning through the use of an Everyman figure.

Similarly, Vonnegut speaks directly as himself in the first and last chapters and interjects periodically throughout, “That was I. That was me,” permitting him both to express intensely personal emotions and to make detached editorial comment. He avails himself of the chance to be in the story and outside it, so that he can tell his personal experience and perhaps come to a catharsis. Yet Vonnegut does not entirely want to make sense of Dresden or to make his book an explanation. Dresden is, for him, an event without sense, and it becomes an emblem of the senseless and arbitrary in life. Those qualities are emphasized when the Germans shoot one of the American prisoners as a looter when he picks up a teapot from among the ruins. Such strict and arbitrary justice in the midst of the carnage is the crowning irony of the novel.

Part of Vonnegut’s resistance to ordering and rationalizing the events of his story is to chop them up, fragment them, and displace them chronologically. Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time,” which means that his mind constantly shifts between times and places, as, then, does the novel. Because the story recounts Billy’s postwar life up to his death, and his adventures, real or imagined, on the planet Tralfamadore, there is considerable disjunction. The reader is jerked from a childhood memory to the war years to a middle-aged Billy (an optometrist) to the preacher Pilgrim’s death, and from Ilium, New York, to Dresden to Tralfamadore.

The style of the novel emphasizes its disjunction. Each of the ten short chapters is divided into short segments, each of three or four paragraphs, which may themselves be no more than a sentence long. A fragment of one scene succeeds a fragment of another, not ordered by time, place, or theme, but hurled together almost as a collage. Looked at all together, however, the parts add up to a moving depiction replete with ethical implications and emotional impact, if shorn of the kind of direct moral summations Vonnegut supplies in Mother Night.

Slaughterhouse-Five sees the return of Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional science-fiction writer, and also of Eliot Rosewater and Howard Campbell, so that, in part, the novel builds upon preceding ones. This is not the novel’s only metafictional characteristic; it mixes fact and fiction, history and fantasy. It includes quotations from actual documents by President Harry Truman and Air Marshal Sir Robert Saundby and from the fictional Trout and Campbell as if equally authentic. There are quotations of all kinds, from mildly off-color jokes to the Serenity Prayer, scattered throughout the book. There is the world of Tralfamadore, presented right alongside the historical events of World War II.

An often-noticed trait of this novel is its repetition of the phrase, “So it goes.” This occurs every time anything or anyone dies. The repeated phrase has annoyed some readers, who see it as inappropriately flippant. Its repetition drums home the amount of death there is in this story and in the world, constantly calling attention to that, while at the same time reflecting a weary recognition that the author can do little to change things. Although Slaughterhouse-Five has earned an enduring reputation, much of its initial popularity was related to the climate of the times. In the late 1960’s, protest of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was at its height. There was a large, receptive audience for an antiwar novel. The young, among whom Vonnegut was already popular, were intensely active politically. The legions of students who campaigned for antiwar presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1967 and 1968 were frequently called “the Children’s Crusade” in the press, and that allusion in Vonnegut’s subtitle was not missed by readers of the time. Slaughterhouse-Five, then, is remarkable in its ability to evoke pathos and laughter together, to simultaneously voice antiwar outrage and philosophical acceptance, and to combine the story of personal experience with a broader social commentary. The novel’s unique form, which enables it to accomplish so much, is the culmination of Vonnegut’s experiments with narrative technique in the five preceding novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five Overview

Vonnegut's dramatic, tragic younger life greatly influences his fiction and establishes a framework for most of his themes. His immigrant...

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Slaughterhouse-Five Summary

Part I—Introduction
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come ‘‘unstuck in time.’’...

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Slaughterhouse-Five Chapter Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Kurt Vonnegut: the author and occasional narrator

Bernard V. O’Hare: Vonnegut’s fellow American prisoner of war

Mary O’ Hare: Bernard’s pacifist wife

Summary
Vonnegut begins what is otherwise a work of fiction with some straightforward commentary from the author. Before the fiction begins in Chapter Two, Vonnegut announces that most of Slaughterhouse-Five is based in truth. He was a prisoner of war in Dresden near the end of World War II, and while he was there he witnessed its firebombing by the Allied Forces. He returned to Dresden in 1967, with his friend, Bernard O’Hare, in preparation for writing this book.

Vonnegut says...

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Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Billy Pilgrim: the time-travelling protagonist; he primarily varies between being a chaplain’s assistant taken prisoner of war by the Germans and between his later life as a successful optometrist

Barbara Pilgrim: Billy’s worried daughter

Tralfamadorians: according to Billy, creatures from outer space who can see in the fourth dimension (time)

Roland Weary: a cruel American soldier who travels with Billy after the Battle of the Bulge

Billy’s mom (no name given): in this chapter, a weak, old lady

Summary
Billy Pilgrim is introduced as an involuntary time traveller. After a youth spent in Ilium, New York, Billy is sent to the...

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Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Wild Bob: a colonel whose regiment has been destroyed

Summary
After Weary and Billy are captured, they hear the shots of the guns that kill the scouts with whom they had been travelling. Weary is relieved of his weapons, as well as his boots, and is given a pair of wooden clogs.

After taking a brief side trip to his optometry practice in 1967, Billy rejoins the prisoners being marched away from the front. Billy returns to 1967, where he drives through the remains of Ilium’s burnt-out ghetto neighborhood. He listens to a Marine major give a speech in favor of increased bombings of North Vietnam at a Lions Club meeting. He drives home for his afternoon nap, which he...

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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Paul Lazzaro: a rabid American with a thirst for revenge

Edgar Derby: a kind, middle-aged American doomed to be shot for stealing a teapot

Summary
Billy is unable to sleep the night after his daughter’s wedding. He wanders around the house, knowing he is about to be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. He watches a movie in reverse time, then imagines it continuing from World War II all the way to Adam and Eve. After watching the movie in regular time, he goes outside and enters the space ship.

Billy asks why he has been taken. A Tralfamadorian tells him that the moment just is, and that there is no “why” to be asked. Billy is stuck like a bug in...

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Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Eliot Rosewater: a patient next to Billy at the insane asylum

Valencia Merble: Billy’s fiancée, and later wife

Montana Wildhack: Billy’s mate in the Tralfamadorian zoo

Summary
Billy reads Valley of the Dolls while he is aboard the spaceship. His captor explains to him the curious Tralfamadorian style of writing, which is like reading several telegrams at the same time.

Passing through a time warp sends Billy to two events on a family vacation in the West when he was twelve. Then he goes back to the prison camp. The Americans are led to a bright shed, from which a troop of Englishmen marches out to meet them. The Englishmen are in...

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Chapters 6-7 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Billy returns, confused, to his German prison. He finds himself strangely drawn to his coat, which appears to contain two small lumps within the lining.

The Englishman who broke Paul Lazarro’s arm returns to check on him. Lazarro says he is going to have him killed someday. After the other man leaves, Lazarro tells Billy that he is going to have him killed after the war, too.

Billy knows that his death is going to occur in 1976, after he gives a speech about Tralfamadore in Chicago. At this time, Billy has become very popular. He is shot by a laser gun wielded by Paul Lazarro, who has been hiding in the press box.

Billy comes back to life in 1945. He and his two companions...

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Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.: an American Nazi propagandist

Kilgore Trout: a reclusive science fiction author

Maggie White: a beautiful, if simple, woman married to an optometrist

Robert: Billy’s son, the future Green Beret

Summary
Howard Campbell comes to the American prisoners. He wants to recruit them to fight against the Russians. He bribes the weary, undernourished men with promises of good food.

Surprisingly, Edgar Derby stands against Campbell’s poisonous promises. He says that the Americans are going to unite with the Russians to crush Nazism. Then the air-raid siren starts to sound. All the men, including Campbell, hide in a...

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Chapters 9-10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: a history professor writing on Dresden

Lily Rumfoord: Rumfoord’s trophy wife

Summary
After she hears Billy’s airplane has crashed, the hysterical Valencia rushes to the hospital, ripping the exhaust system off her car in an accident en route. Immediately after arriving, she is overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning. Shortly thereafter, she dies.

Billy is still unconscious. He is sharing a room with Bertram Rumfoord. Rumfoord’s wife, Lily, brings Bertram books for the history of the United States Army Air Corps in World War II that he is writing. Rumfoord makes Lily read Truman’s statement on the necessity of bombing...

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