Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.: an American Nazi propagandist
Kilgore Trout: a reclusive science fiction author
Maggie White: a beautiful, if simple, woman married to an optometrist
Robert: Billy’s son, the future Green Beret
Howard Campbell comes to the American prisoners. He wants to recruit them to fight against the Russians. He bribes the weary, undernourished men with promises of good food.
Surprisingly, Edgar Derby stands against Campbell’s poisonous promises. He says that the Americans are going to unite with the Russians to crush Nazism. Then the air-raid siren starts to sound. All the men, including Campbell, hide in a meat locker far under the ground. However, no bombs fall, as they aren’t scheduled to fall until the next day.
That night, Billy returns to the argument with his daughter. She expresses anger at Kilgore Trout, whom she blames for her father’s problems. Trout is living in Ilium, where he works as a circulation manager for the local newspaper. Billy meets him in 1964. Billy is as amazed to find Trout as Trout is amazed to find someone who has read his books. Billy invites Trout to his eighteenth wedding anniversary party.
Because he is the only person at the party who is not an optometrist, Trout is a great hit. He tells Maggie White all sorts of lies about his work. The optometrist barbershop quartet begins to sing a song, which upsets Billy so much that people think he is having a heart attack. It reminds Billy that he has been keeping a secret inside himself, although he can no longer remember what it is. Trout accuses Billy of having seen through a time window, which Billy denies. Billy then hands Valencia the ring he bought her for an anniversary gift.
Curious about Billy’s reaction, Trout follows him around the house until the quartet starts to sing again. This bothers Billy so intensely that he has to leave the party. He runs upstairs, where he finds Robert sitting on the toilet with his electric guitar. Billy leaves him and goes into his bedroom.
Billy tries to understand why the quartet bothered him. The effort brings up a crystal clear memory. The American prisoners spent the night in the meat locker while Dresden was destroyed and its population burnt within their shelters. When the guards and the Americans emerged the next day, the burnt out city was like the surface of the moon. The expressions of the four Germans as they silently huddled together, making one face and then another, was identical to that of a barbershop quartet.
On Tralfamadore, Montana Wildhack is very pregnant. She asks Billy to tell her a story, and he relates the tale of the German barbershop quartet. He tells her about the little logs that were actually people scattered about the ruins of Dresden.
The group has to leave the city in search of food. They are shot at by American fighter planes as they walk over the mountains of rubble. They make it to a suburb where an inn is open, expecting refugees from Dresden. The guards tell the innkeeper that, after half a day’s travel, they have not seen one living person.
At long last, Chapter Eight arrives at the bombing of Dresden, the moment which the reader hopes will never come. In a certain sense, there has been little suspense about the event. The text has constantly pointed out people who would die in the firestorm and discussed the temporal nature of the city’s beauty.
Yet each reminder of coming death and destruction has only made the actual event more painful to read about. The reader has formed a relationship with the embarrassed girls in the shower and the worn down prison cook. Sympathy has been developed for the general population of Dresden, who have gone pale from living on potatoes. The reader can feel no sense of righteous victory over the forces of evil. In fact, one cannot help but wish a deus ex machina to provide a happy ending, but Slaughterhouse-Five gives no such relief. The scene is unbearably, heartbreakingly bleak.
Derby’s speech to Campbell provides an interesting commentary on the action of the text at this point, as well as insight into Vonnegut’s political views. Campbell himself is the protagonist of Vonnegut’s Mother Night. As presented in Slaughterhouse-Five he is basically the same character as in Mother Night—an American working as a Nazi propagandist. Mother Night has much more detail, of course: in it, Campbell is also spying for the American forces and suffering a terrible identity crisis.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Campbell attempts to recruit American P.O.W.s into his “Free American Corps.” According to Monica Loeb, although there was no Free American Corps, there was a “Free British Corps,” which was organized along similar lines and was similarly unsuccessful. Contrasted against this vile man, Derby appears to be a hero, to become a real “character,” as the text praises him.
Yet Derby’s speech is the height of irony. He praises America as the land of “freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for all.” He says that any of the American soldiers would be willing to die for their country’s ideals. However, the next day, the American sense of justice turns a blind eye to the city of Dresden, which is destroyed out of pure malice. The bombing of Dresden is a ringing denial of the existence of justice as a keystone of American government.
Perhaps, however, this “slip” can be excused as an excess of war. But the irony of Derby’s speech is extended if one has read Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), which immediately preceded Slaughterhouse-Five. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater describes an American system in which “opportunities and fair play” are a myth that keeps the poor quiet. The Campbell propaganda pamphlet quoted in Chapter Five (on the American soldier as a product of the pathetic condition of American society) is essentially a distillation of the themes of the earlier novel. In various speeches he has made, Vonnegut has said that he himself does not believe that the American system provides what it is supposed to, and that it would be better supplanted by socialism. While the Campbell pamphlet could be taken as a bitter propaganda piece by a Nazi sympathizer, it is full of analyses that disturb because they ring true, and in doing so show the lie of the American Dream. Derby may have become a “character” at this moment in the novel, but he is still only full of “imaginary wisdom.”
In this section of Slaughterhouse-Five, the text makes an oddly self-aware comment about what many have seen as a failure in Vonnegut’s style. The text says, “There are almost no characters in this novel, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”
Earlier, Vonnegut had described himself as a “trafficker in … characterization,” one of the many tasks one must undertake as a writer. Yet most of the characters in this book are both flat and static. As Monica Loeb says, “Vonnegut does not develop in-depth characters, but he prefers sketchy, flat, almost stereotyped characters.” This trait was most fully pronounced in Vonnegut’s first work, Player Piano, but it seems odd that almost twenty years later he would write a book in which even the protagonist is not a fully developed character.
There is little doubt, however, that Vonnegut’s underdeveloped characterization has been a choice of style. On one hand, it is part of Vonnegut’s simple or “naive” style. The characters are defined succinctly through their epithets (“poor, doomed Derby”) and symbolic names (the overweight, tiresome Roland Weary). Stanley Schatt, author of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., finds Vonnegut’s simplification of characters a helpful device to keep readers focused on the novel’s ideas. For example, Weary’s out-of-touch fantasies prove Mary O’Hare’s belief that war books and movies glamorize the depressing truth of the matter. In this way, Vonnegut imitates his character Trout, of whom he says (in the guise of omniscient narrator), “Only his ideas were good.”
Yet Vonnegut’s sketchy characters are but a further proof of his skill as a modern writer. Allen points out that Vonnegut’s output during this time was firmly within the aegis of the “exploded novel,” which rejected all of the elements Vonnegut described in Chapter One as a writer’s stock-in-trade. (Vonnegut will proceed to satirize the death of the novel in Chapter Nine, in which a critic declares the novel of primary use as a device for interior decorating.) Vonnegut writes outside of the novel tradition, which focuses on creating realistic characters with psychological depth. Vonnegut’s comment about the lack of characters in his novel is yet another metafictive stab at the novel tradition: the “enormous forces” playing with his characters is no less than the author himself. Vonnegut is announcing his presence by playfully reminding the reader that his characters have no free will, and that the forces that manipulate characters in books are always beyond their control.
Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s most popular recurring character, also makes his appearance in this chapter. As an unsuccessful author of science-fiction books, Trout is often considered to be Vonnegut’s alter-ego. Trout’s remarks and the summarized plots of his books allow Vonnegut, Schatt explained, to “comment on the major themes of the book, thereby tightening the structure.” While Trout may provide some motion in the plot as a character, he is far more useful (and more frequently used in the body of Vonnegut’s fiction) as a source of pithy plots that critique American society. Trout’s writings should never be considered irrelevant within the context of Vonnegut’s novels.
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