Slaughterhouse Five Summary

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


     Slaughterhouse Five is a 1969 anti-war novel by satirical author Kurt Vonnegut. His best known work, the novel represents Vonnegut's personal experiences as a prisoner of war during the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II. The novel features the author's perspective in the first and last chapters, and briefly throughout the novel, but for the most part is told from the perspective of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who has "come unstuck in time". This time travelling element allows for the novel to jump from various points in Billy's life, but the main action takes place in Europe during the war.

     In the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut writes from his own perspective, detailing the difficulties he has had in writing about his experiences in Dresden. Vonnegut briefly describes a trip to Dresden after the war with his friend, O'Hare, and goes into more detail about his previous visit to O'Hare's home to discuss their experiences there, which led to Vonnegut promising O'Hare's wife that he will call the novel, The Children's Crusade.

     Following this opening, Billy Pilgrim's story begins. The element of time travel is introduced immediately, and the the story weaves between different points in Billy's life, propelled by the idea that he is able to travel through time in his own life. Born in a fictional town called Ilium, New York, in 1922, Billy Pilgrim is a funny-looking only child, and after high school he begins to attend night classes at optometry school. As a chaplain's assistant in the army, Billy is given an emergency leave of absence when his father is killed in a hunting accident, and is sent overseas immediately afterwards to replace a chaplain's assistant who has been killed in action. Arriving in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, Billy is never issued proper gear, and is left as one of the few, wandering survivors. Billy travels for a brief time with two experienced scouts, and a mean young man named Roland Weary, who is obsessed with torture devices. Deeming both Roland and Billy to be useless, the two scouts decide to leave them, which enrages Roland to the point of beating Billy, during which time they are captured by Germans.

     Billy and Roland are marched with other American prisoners of war across the border into Germany, where they are loaded onto train boxcars. Billy's train doesn't move for two days, and takes a total of ten days to reach its destination, during which time food and human waste are passed in and out of the boxcars through ventilation holes. In a separate car on the train, Roland Weary dies of gangrene and blames Billy, asking several men to avenge his death. Upon reaching the prisoner of war camp, the American prisoners meet a group of Englishmen who have been prisoners for several years, and are in wonderful spirits and with an abundance of food.

     The next day, the Americans are sent to Dresden, where they are housed in slaughterhouse number five. In the month they spend in Dresden before its destruction, Billy and the other Americans work in a factory that makes malt syrup for pregnant women, where they often steal the syrup for sustenance. When an air raid siren sounds one day, the prisoners and some of their guards take refuge in an underground meat locker, and remain here for two days while the city above them is completely destroyed by Allied bombs.

     Upon surfacing, they are forced to cross the rubble searching for food, water, and shelter, which they eventually find at an inn in a suburb. After being discovered here by the authorities, the American prisoners are forced to dig for bodies in the rubble, but eventually German soldiers take to cremating the rotting bodies with flamethrowers. Edgar Derby, an American prisoner and school teacher, is caught stealing a teapot from the wreckage, and is tried and executed for his crime. Shortly after, the war ends and Billy is sent home on a freighter.

     Following the war, Billy returns to optometry school, where he becomes engaged to Valencia, the overweight daughter of a rich optometrist who owns the school Billy attends. Far from wanting to marry Valencia, Billy realizes she is a symptom of his mental illness, and he checks himself into a veterans hospital in 1948. While being treated in the hospital, Billy's roommate Eliot Rosewater introduces him to the obscure science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout.

     Following treatment at the veteran's hospital, Billy marries Valencia and is set up by her father with an optometry practice that leads him to become rich. During this time Billy and Valencia have two children, Barbara and Robert, and Billy accomplishes superficial things.

     In 1964, Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to his anniversary party. During the party Billy is overcome with emotion when a barbershop quartet reminds him of Dresden after the bombing, but Trout is convinced that Billy has seen through a time window.

     A few years later, after his daughter Barbara's wedding in 1967, Billy is kidnapped by aliens from a planet called Tralfamadore, and put on display in a zoo on their planet. The Tralfamadorians do not perceive time as linear, but rather as something that exists continuously and simultaneously in a fourth dimension. They use the analogy that if time was an expanse of the Rocky Mountains, you could look out at the whole thing, or at specific, individual parts. Meanwhile, Earthlings experience time as if they are travelling through the mountains on a track, and have something attached to their head that allows them to only view one tiny portion as they move along in a single direction. While on display at the zoo on Tralfamadore, a movie star named Montana Wildhack is brought to be his mate. Billy and Montana do sleep together, and a baby is born as a result.

     After returning from Tralfamadore, Billy survives a plane crash that kills his father-in-law, among others, and requires brain surgery to treat his injuries. While frantically driving to the hospital, Valencia has a car accident that results in her dying from carbon monoxide poisoning When Billy regains consciousness, he is presumed to be a vegetable due to his unresponsive nature, and he only begins to speak when his roommate, a professor writing a history of the US Air Corps in WWII, mentions the Dresden bombings.

     Upon release from the hospital, Billy is sent home with a private nurse, but he quickly escapes to New York City, where he sneaks onto a radio show to talk about what he learned from the Tralfamadorians, and writes letters to the newspaper to this same effect. Billy's daughter finds this deeply concerning, believing he is suddenly convinced he was abducted by aliens due to injuries suffered in the plane crash. According to Billy, his theories will eventually become very popular, and in 1976 he will be assassinated while giving a speech to a large crowd, a theory which he has recorded and stored in a safe-deposit box with his will.

     The time travel and alien aspects of Slaughterhouse Five can be interpreted literally - Billy really had come unstuck in time, and his encounter with an advanced alien race helps him come to grips with this - or as delusions brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder. Evidence to support the theory of delusions can be seen in aspects of Billy's life on earth being echoed on Tralfamadore. One of the Kilgore Trout novels that Billy reads during his hospital stay in 1948 is about a man and woman who are kidnapped and put on display in a zoo on an alien planet, and Montana Wildhack wears a locket engraved with the serenity prayer, which Billy also has displayed at his optometry office. The fact that his mate on Tralfamadore is a famous actress rather than a random woman from Earth is another hint that this is a delusion caused by Billy's inability to cope with the tragedy he witnesses not only during the war but in his personal life both before and after.

     The most prevalent theme of Slaughterhouse Five is the senselessness and destruction of war. I Vonnegut's opening and closing detail how difficult it has been for him to write about Dresden, and he describes the novel as "short and jumbled and jangled" and "a failure", because there is no way to make sense of the events. Billy's experience of the war is peppered with ironic and nonsensical interactions. The jolly Englishmen who put on a Cinderella play, Edgar Derby being tried and executed for stealing a teapot in a destroyed city, and Billy discovering a diamond and a denture hidden in a dead civilian's fur coat, are all examples of the bizarre happenings of war.

     Another theme is that of sight; Billy is an optometrist who helps people to see, and eventually spreads the teachings of the Tralfamadorians in an effort to help other people see time in the fourth dimension, as Billy has. Interpreting the novel literally, Billy originally helps people to see physically, and then strives to help alter their perception of time. If we decide that Billy is suffering from delusions brought on by his traumatic experiences, this is evidence that the war has clouded his sight, causing him to turn a blind eye to the pain and horror of what he saw during the war and in Dresden, and ultimately to ignore other traumas in his life, such as his plane crash and the death of his wife.

     Several key phrases are repeated throughout the novel. "So it goes", which follows every mention of death, serves to echo the Tralfamadorian view that death is an inevitability, and not something to be sad about, because the person continues to live in different moments in time. "So it goes" is also an indicator of Vonnegut's personal message regarding the senselessness and seeming inevitability of war. The sound of birds chirping, "Poo-tee-weet" is another repeated phrase with a similar meaning. As Billy and the author lack the words to describe or process the horrors they have witnessed, birdsong is just as meaningful.



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