Slaughterhouse-Five Additional Summary

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard V. O’Hare go back to Dresden, Germany, on Guggenheim money in 1967. Before they leave, Vonnegut goes to O’Hare’s house and meets his wife, Mary O’Hare. Mary is mad at Vonnegut; she knows he is going to write a book about World War II, and she is sure he is going to make war look glamorous and fun. Vonnegut insists that he is not going to write a book that makes war look good; he will even subtitle the book “The Children’s Crusade.” This makes her like him, and they start being friends.

While in Dresden, Vonnegut and O’Hare meet a taxi driver. He shows them around the city and shows them the slaughterhouse where they were prisoners during World War II.

When Vonnegut returns from the war, he thinks writing a book about Dresden will be easy. He expects a masterpiece that will make him a lot of money. The words, however, come very slowly and he becomes “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls,” before he actually writes the book. He likes to call long-lost friends late at night when his wife is asleep and he is drunk, and he likes to listen to talk-radio programs from Boston or New York. He and O’Hare try to remember things about the war, and they have trouble. Vonnegut suggests the climax of his book will come when Edgar Derby is shot by a firing squad for taking a teapot out of the ruins in Dresden. O’Hare does not know where the climax is supposed to be.

Billy Pilgrim is born in Ilium, New York, in 1922. He is tall and weak as a child and becomes tall and weak as an adult. He dies in Chicago in 1976 and traveled back and forth through time frequently between his birth and his death. Pilgrim is in the infantry in Europe in World War II as a chaplain’s assistant. He does not carry a weapon and does not have proper clothing for the climate, which is very cold. He is taken prisoner by the Germans. Before he goes to the war, he is on maneuvers in South Carolina, and he is given an emergency furlough home because his father died. While in the war, Pilgrim got lost behind German lines with three other soldiers; one is Roland Weary. Someone shoots at them and Pilgrim...

(The entire section is 882 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In full, the title, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, says much about Vonnegut’s sixth novel. This is the novel in which Vonnegut confronts his traumatic experience of having been in Dresden when, on February 13, 1945, it was bombed by the Allies, producing a firestorm that virtually destroyed the city and killed perhaps 130,000 people. He survived the raid in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse, to spend the following days exhuming corpses from the ruins and cremating them. For him, Dresden becomes the symbol of the senseless horror of war, of humankind’s self-destructive propensities, and of how events arbitrarily overrule the lives of individuals.

“The Children’s Crusade” comes from the wife of a wartime buddy’s having said, “You were just babies then!” Vonnegut reflects that they were indeed very young, and the soldiers in his novel are swept along as helplessly as the hapless children of the original medieval Children’s Crusade, many of whom were, in fact, sold into slavery. “A Duty-Dance with Death” expresses Vonnegut’s need to encounter in words his experience with death, to wrestle with its meaning, or rather, lack of meaning.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the wartime experience is undergone by his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. As his name implies, Billy is a kind of universal man-child going through the pilgrimage of life. In this way, Vonnegut is able to embody directly his personal experience in an autobiographical character, while universalizing its meaning through the use of an Everyman figure.

Similarly, Vonnegut speaks directly as himself in the first and last chapters and interjects periodically throughout, “That was I. That was me,” permitting him both to express intensely personal emotions and to make detached editorial comment. He avails himself of the chance to be in the story and outside it, so that he can tell his personal experience and perhaps come to a catharsis. Yet Vonnegut does not entirely want to make sense of Dresden or to make his book an explanation. Dresden is, for him, an event without sense, and it becomes an emblem of the senseless and arbitrary in life. Those qualities are emphasized when the Germans shoot one of the American...

(The entire section is 940 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Vonnegut's dramatic, tragic younger life greatly influences his fiction and establishes a framework for most of his themes. His immigrant...

(The entire section is 194 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Part I—Introduction
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come ‘‘unstuck in time.’’...

(The entire section is 1576 words.)