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.
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.