Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519
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Billy Pilgrim, a conservative, middle-aged optometrist living in upstate Ilium, New York. Born in 1922, Pilgrim leads a very bland life, except for the facts that at the end of World War II he came “unstuck in time” and began to jump back and forth among past, present, and future, and that in 1967 he was captured by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore. The novel’s jerky structure mirrors his interplanetary and time travel. Pilgrim is thus a schizophrenic character: An apathetic, almost autistic widower in the present, he is also a crackpot visionary who claims to have visited another planet and to speak as a prophet. The cause of Pilgrim’s schizoid behavior, as the author makes clear, is the horror he witnessed in Dresden as a prisoner of war when that beautiful old German city was systematically incinerated by American bombers.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of the novel and a character in it, living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The first and last chapters of the novel form a frame around the narrative proper. In them, Vonnegut describes his trip with his wartime buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, back to Dresden, Germany, where they were imprisoned during World War II, as well as current events (for example, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy). The persona of this narrator is naïve, idealistic, and fixated on World War II, especially on the fire-bombing of Dresden, a city of no apparent military significance. As he tells readers, Vonnegut himself was one of the few survivors of the destruction of Dresden, when he and other prisoners of war—including Pilgrim in the novel itself—were entombed in a slaughterhouse below the city and thus survived the holocaust above. Vonnegut surfaces several other times in the narrative, so history, fiction, author, and fictional characters intermingle freely.
Montana Wildhack, a voluptuous film star who is captured and put in a zoo on Tralfamadore along with Billy Pilgrim, and who becomes his lover and bears his child while they are living in captivity there.
Valencia Merble Pilgrim
Valencia Merble Pilgrim, Pilgrim’s wife, a rich, overweight woman who is later killed rushing to his aid after a plane crash in which he is the only survivor.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American collaborator working for the Nazis who tries to convince Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners to defect to the German side.
Edgar Derby, an older, idealistic American soldier and former high-school teacher who stands up to Campbell but then is executed at the end of the war for the trivial act of stealing a teapot.
Roland Weary, a pathetic and tiresome comrade of Pilgrim who dies in the boxcar taking the prisoners to Dresden.
Paul Lazzaro, a mean and ugly member of the band of prisoners being shipped to Dresden who vows to kill Pilgrim after the war in revenge for the death of Weary. He eventually fulfills his threat, in 1976.
Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer living in Ilium.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545
A novel about man's folly, Slaughterhouse- Five traces the wanderings through time and space of Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the fire bombing of Dresden. Billy marries an optometrist's daughter, fathers two children, and finds himself a kidnap victim on the night of his daughter's wedding. His kidnappers are green creatures from outer space who place him in a zoo and provide him with a mate, a luscious pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack. According to the Tralfamadorians, earthlings are the only creatures in the universe to believe in the concept of free will. Thus, although Billy adopts the Tralfamadorian notions about time and shuttles among past, present, and future events, he must come to terms with the knowledge that he has no control whatsoever over his immediate actions or his ultimate fate. His motto—"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference"—points up the value of maintaining composure in the face of stark destiny.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next and the trips aren't necessarily fun.
The mass destruction of Dresden by Allied forces serves as Vonnegut's metaphor for the absurdity of life. An underlying theme is the extent to which technology has magnified humankind's capacity for cruelty; Vonnegut is appalled by the idea that a bombing raid could destroy a civilization hundreds of years old and kill 135,000 people in less than two hours. At a deeper level the novel explores the moral vacuum in which contemporary human life exists. Vonnegut's outrage is compounded by the lack of public attention given the Dresden bombing. He subtitles his book "The Children's Crusade," implicitly comparing Billy and his fellow soldiers to the twenty thousand children who set out from France during the summer of 1212 with the expectation of walking to the Holy Land and peacefully reclaiming it for Christianity. Most of the children died en route or were captured and sold into slavery; none reached their destination.
At the heart of the novel's theme is the question of free will versus determinism. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy that events, such as death, represent only one moment in time's continuum, and that to dwell on any particular moment is to miss the point. The novel suggests that moments of serenity exist regardless of an individual's ability to conjure them up or to direct the flow of time. Life for Billy is not futile—it may be senseless, but it is not without its pleasures. If the novel contains any message other than a condemnation of war, it is that people must come to peace with themselves by knowing how to respond to the moment.
The narrator of the novel, presumably Vonnegut himself, states that there are no characters and no dramatic confrontations because "most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces." That is to say that the narrator believes personality is crushed by larger forces, such as war. But the writer-narrator himself develops into a character, with each of the novel's players representing a fascinating side of his personality; his individualism is not obliterated as long as his imagination remains active.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1480
Billy Pilgrim’s father
Billy Pilgrim’s father, whose full name is not given, is a barber in Ilium, New York. He dies in a hunting accident while Billy is in military training in South Carolina. Billy attends his funeral shortly before being shipped overseas.
Billy Pilgrim’s mother
Billy’s mother, whose name is not given, survives into old age. Billy visits her in a rest home in 1965.
Wild Bob is an American prisoner of war who dies en route to Dresden. Shortly before he dies, he gives a speech to imaginary troops encouraging them to continue fighting the Germans and inviting them to visit him in the United States after the war. His delusions as to his troops and the glories of combat represent the overall absurdity of both war and the attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
An American who has gone over to the Nazis and works in the German Ministry of Propaganda, Campbell visits the American prisoners in Dresden and tries to convince them to leave the Allies. Campbell is also the main character in Vonnegut’s earlier novel Mother Night.
See Wild Bob
Derby is a high school teacher from Indianapolis who becomes the unofficial leader of the American prisoners in Dresden. He is a fundamentally decent man and a natural leader. He is also very kind to Billy Pilgrim. After the firebombing of Dresden, he is caught stealing a teapot and is shot by the Germans for plundering—a pointless death that underscores the absurdity and tragedy of war.
See Head Englishman
The head of the English prisoners of war is a colonel. He is friendly but slightly condescending to the Americans, who do not share the English prisoners’ determination to remain disciplined, organized, and cheerful during their captivity.
Lazzaro is an American prisoner of war in Dresden who befriends Roland Weary and promises to avenge Weary’s death, which Weary blames on Billy. Lazzaro survives the war and hires the assassin who kills Billy in 1976.
Lionel Merble is Billy Pilgrim’s father-in-law. He sets Billy up in a successful optometry practice. He is killed in a plane crash when he and Billy are travelling to an optometrist’s convention; Billy and the copilot are the only survivors. Although not a bad man, Lionel Merble may be seen as representing the callousness and shallow materialism of postwar America.
Bernard V. O’Hare
Bernard is Vonnegut’s ‘‘old war buddy’’ with whom Vonnegut witnessed the Dresden firebombing. A real-life person with whom Vonnegut travelled back to Dresden in the 1960s, Bernard makes an appearance at the novel’s beginning.
Mary O’Hare is Bernard’s wife and another real-life person to appear in the novel. Mary objects to Vonnegut’s writing about Dresden, worrying that he might make war seem romantic and glamorous. Vonnegut promises that he will subtitle his book ‘‘The Children’s Crusade.’’
Barbara is Billy Pilgrim’s daughter. It is on the night of her wedding that Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. After her mother’s death, Barbara assumes a parental role with the increasingly detached Billy and is both impatient with and embarrassed by Billy’s stories about the Tralfamadorians.
At one point in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes, ‘‘There are almost no characters in this story … because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.’’ This description certainly applies to Billy. From his earliest childhood memories of being tossed in the deep end of a pool to learn how to swim, or being dragged against his will on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, Billy has been at the mercy of ‘‘enormous forces.’’ As a soldier captured after the Battle of the Bulge by German soldiers, Billy is pathetically unprepared for the pressures of combat and reacts to the horrific events he witnesses, including the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, with varying degrees of disassociation and withdrawal. It is while he is a prisoner that he first becomes ‘‘unstuck in time,’’ finding himself travelling into the past and future with no warning. This time travel is both a literal science-fiction event and a metaphor for the alienation and dislocation Billy, and contemporary humanity, feel in the face of overwhelming and inexplicable cruelty and violence.
Billy is later kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The aliens’ philosophy explicitly rejects the concept of free will. They believe that events cannot be changed by a person’s actions. This idea reinforces the theme that Billy, and everyone else, is at the mercy of forces largely beyond our control. In fact, the only active response Billy has during the entire novel is his attempt to publicize his abduction by aliens. It is appropriate that the closest relationship Billy has is not with his wife or family but with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose novels see through the illusion of logic and control.
After the war, Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, and has two children. His life is mundane, but he continues his time-traveling experiences, which are, like everything else, beyond his power to control. His time spent with the Tralfamadorians helps him to gain a peaceful perspective on life. In the end, Billy comes to accept the fact that he cannot change events, and he devotes life to teaching the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians to the people of Earth.
Robert is Billy Pilgrim’s son. After having ‘‘a lot of trouble’’ in high school, Robert joined the military, became a Green Beret, fought in Vietnam, and ‘‘became a fine young man.’’
Valencia Merble Pilgrim
Valencia is Billy Pilgrim’s wife. A wealthy but unattractive woman, she is hopelessly in love with Billy, but Billy never really loves her and sees her as ‘‘one of the symptoms of his disease.’’ While Billy is hospitalized after surviving his plane crash, Valencia is killed in a traffic accident while rushing to be with Billy in the hospital—another innocent victim of an absurd and indifferent universe.
Eliot Rosewater is a friendly eccentric with whom Billy Pilgrim shares a hospital room after Billy’s breakdown. Rosewater and Billy ‘‘both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war.’’ It is Rosewater who introduces Billy to science fiction, especially the novels of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater is also the title character of Vonnegut’s earlier novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord
A Harvard professor and official Historian of the U.S. Air Force, Rumfoord shares a hospital room with Billy Pilgrim after Pilgrim’s plane crash. Rumfoord is a fervent patriot and an outspoken supporter of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. He is, like Roland Weary, yet another example of the delusional belief in the romance of war and humanity’s ability to control the uncontrollable.
The alien race that kidnaps Billy Pilgrim are from the planet Tralfamadore. Although never represented as individuals, the Tralfamadorians provide the philosophy of time and free will that underlies the novel.
Kilgore Trout is a science fiction novelist and Billy Pilgrim’s favorite writer. He lives in Ulium and supports himself by delivering newspapers. Billy meets Trout for the first time in 1964 and befriends him. Trout represents yet another way of trying to cope with the absurd tragedy of human existence. Some critics have also seen him as a projection of Vonnegut’s own anxieties about being typecast as a science fiction writer. Both Trout and his novels are mentioned in other Vonnegut novels.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
One of the unusual aspects of Slaughterhouse-Five is that its author appears as a character in his own novel. Vonnegut appears throughout the first and last chapters, where he discusses his difficulty in writing the novel and his visit back to Dresden some twenty years after his imprisonment there.
Weary is one of the three other soldiers captured with Billy Pilgrim after the Battle of the Bulge. He is a sadistic bully who despises Billy and whose hobbies include collecting instruments of torture. He imagines that there is great camaraderie between him and the two scouts with whom he and Billy are lost, but the scouts eventually abandon both Weary and Billy. Weary dies of gangrene on the train to Dresden, blames Billy for his death, and asks other soldiers to avenge him. Weary’s aggressively violent nature and delusional belief in the romance of war represent the militarism and hatred that Vonnegut is condemning in the novel.
Montana is a twenty-year-old American movie star who is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians to be a mate for Billy Pilgrim during his captivity. She and Billy have a child while they are being kept by the Tralfamadorians.