Slaughterhouse-Five narrates the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, who drifts through life as a prisoner of war and later, an alien abductee.
- Billy serves as a chaplain's assistant during World War II. After being captured by Nazis, he develops the ability to time travel.
- Billy witnesses the bombing of Dresden and develops PTSD.
- Years later, Billy is a successful optometrist with a wife and daughter. He is abducted by the Tralfamadorians, an alien race who experience time non-linearly.
- Back on Earth, Billy attempts to share his knowledge of the Tralfamadorians, but he is assassinated by an old enemy from the war.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
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.