Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death is a framed narrative in which Kurt Vonnegut himself appears in the first and last chapters, explaining how and why he wrote the novel. He also pops up occasionally in the action itself, because he was—like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, as he tells readers in the frame chapters—a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when Allied bombers incinerated the city on February 13, 1945.
The novel proper opens in 1944, when Billy, a chaplain’s assistant and inept foot soldier, is captured by the Germans. He and his fellow prisoners of war are taken by railroad boxcar to Dresden as forced laborers. Housed in a slaughterhouse bunker below the city streets, Billy is one of the only survivors when the city of Dresden is destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped in a ring around the ancient city, causing fires to burn toward its center. Billy emerges from the slaughterhouse to witness a moonscape.
The novel hardly moves in such a straight line; its structure rather mirrors Billy’s time travel. Chapter 2 opens with Billy coming “unstuck in time,” and thereafter the novel moves jerkily among its three plots: the story of Billy’s life, before and after the war; the bombing of Dresden; and life on Tralfamadore, a planet to which Billy was carried in 1967.
With the exception of World War II, Billy’s life is quite bland. Born in 1922 and drafted in 1940, after the war Billy marries the daughter of the founder of the Ilium School of Optometry he attends. He becomes a wealthy and conservative optometrist living in upstate New York. His imaginary life is much richer: Not only is he able to travel back and forth in time, but he claims he was kidnapped on the night of his daughter’s wedding and taken to a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, where he and the voluptuous film star Montana Wildhack are representatives of the earthling species on view.
In 1968, Billy is the only survivor of the crash of a chartered flight of optometrists headed for a convention. His wife, Valencia, is killed in her car rushing to visit Billy in the hospital. Soon after these tragedies, Billy starts to write letters to the newspaper and appears on an all-night radio show in New York City detailing his interplanetary and time-travel experiences. His life will end, he claims, when one of his fellow prisoners of war, Paul Lazzaro, assassinates him, in the future of 1976. His life story ends in the novel, however, on the planet Tralfamadore with his beautiful lover Montana Wildhack nursing their new baby.