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.
Themes and Characters
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...
(The entire section is 2,544 words.)