Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Billy Pilgrim, a conservative, middle-aged optometrist living in upstate Ilium, New York. Born in 1922, Pilgrim leads a very bland life, except for the facts that at the end of World War II he came “unstuck in time” and began to jump back and forth among past, present, and future, and that in 1967 he was captured by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore. The novel’s jerky structure mirrors his interplanetary and time travel. Pilgrim is thus a schizophrenic character: An apathetic, almost autistic widower in the present, he is also a crackpot visionary who claims to have visited another planet and to speak as a prophet. The cause of Pilgrim’s schizoid behavior, as the author makes clear, is the horror he witnessed in Dresden as a prisoner of war when that beautiful old German city was systematically incinerated by American bombers.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of the novel and a character in it, living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The first and last chapters of the novel form a frame around the narrative proper. In them, Vonnegut describes his trip with his wartime buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, back to Dresden, Germany, where they were imprisoned during World War II, as well as current events (for example, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy). The persona of this narrator is naïve, idealistic, and fixated on World War II, especially on the...
(The entire section is 519 words.)
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Themes and Characters
A novel about man's folly, Slaughterhouse- Five traces the wanderings through time and space of Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the fire bombing of Dresden. Billy marries an optometrist's daughter, fathers two children, and finds himself a kidnap victim on the night of his daughter's wedding. His kidnappers are green creatures from outer space who place him in a zoo and provide him with a mate, a luscious pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack. According to the Tralfamadorians, earthlings are the only creatures in the universe to believe in the concept of free will. Thus, although Billy adopts the Tralfamadorian notions about time and shuttles among past, present, and future events, he must come to terms with the knowledge that he has no control whatsoever over his immediate actions or his ultimate fate. His motto—"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference"—points up the value of maintaining composure in the face of stark destiny.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next and the trips aren't necessarily fun.
The mass destruction of Dresden by Allied forces serves as Vonnegut's metaphor for the absurdity of life. An underlying theme is the extent to which technology has magnified humankind's capacity for cruelty; Vonnegut is appalled by the idea that a bombing raid could destroy a civilization hundreds of years...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
Billy Pilgrim’s father
Billy Pilgrim’s father, whose full name is not given, is a barber in Ilium, New York. He dies in a hunting accident while Billy is in military training in South Carolina. Billy attends his funeral shortly before being shipped overseas.
Billy Pilgrim’s mother
Billy’s mother, whose name is not given, survives into old age. Billy visits her in a rest home in 1965.
Wild Bob is an American prisoner of war who dies en route to Dresden. Shortly before he dies, he gives a speech to imaginary troops encouraging them to continue fighting the Germans and inviting them to visit him in the United States after the war. His delusions as to his troops and the glories of combat represent the overall absurdity of both war and the attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
An American who has gone over to the Nazis and works in the German Ministry of Propaganda, Campbell visits the American prisoners in Dresden and tries to convince them to leave the Allies. Campbell is also the main character in Vonnegut’s earlier novel Mother Night.
See Wild Bob
Derby is a high school teacher from Indianapolis who becomes the unofficial leader of the American prisoners in Dresden. He is a fundamentally decent...
(The entire section is 1480 words.)