Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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What happens in Slaughterhouse-Five?

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim travels through time. He was captured by the Germans in World War II and witnessed the bombing of Dresden. Years later, he survives a plane crash, and he tells the world about his experiences on the planet Tralfamadore.

  • Billy serves as a chaplain's assistant during World War I. After being captured by Nazis, he somehow develops the ability to time travel and jumps in and out of his experiences as a prisoner of war.

  • While in captivity, Billy witnesses the bombing of Dresden. His experiences here closely resemble Vonnegut's own experiences. After the bombing, Billy is forced to dig corpses out of the rubble.

  • Years later, Billy is a successful optometrist with a wife and daughter. He survives a plane crash, but his wife dies en route to see him in the hospital.

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Summary

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...

(The entire section is 3,257 words.)