Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, to postwar and early years. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work. A central event is Pilgrim’s surviving the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war. This was an event in Vonnegut’s own life, and the novel is considered semi-autobiographical.
Plot summary Slaughterhouse-Five
The story is told in a nonlinear order, and events become clear through flashbacks (or time travel experiences) from the unreliable narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes he was held in an alien zoo and has experienced time travel.
Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army during World War II, is an ill-trained, disoriented, and fatalistic American soldier who refuses to fight (“Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself”). He does not like war and is captured in 1944 by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy approaches death due to a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a patriot, warmonger, and bully just out of childhood like Billy, who derides the soldier’s cowardice. When Weary is captured, the Germans confiscate everything he has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies in Luxembourg of gangrene caused by wounds from the stiff clogs. While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary convinces fellow soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame for his death. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary’s death by killing Billy, because revenge is “the sweetest thing in life.”
At this moment, Billy becomes “unstuck in time,” and has flashbacks from his former life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported by the Germans to Luxembourg. By 1945, the Germans transport the prisoners to Dresden to work in “contract labor” (forced labor). The Germans hold Billy and his fellow prisoners in an empty Dresden slaughterhouse, “Schlachthof-fünf,” “slaughterhouse five.” During the extensive bombing by the Allies, German guards hide with the prisoners of war in a deep cellar. This results in their being among the few survivors of the firestorm that raged in the city between 13 and 15 February 1945. After V-E Day in May 1945, Billy is transferred to the United States, and receives his honorable discharge in July 1945.
Soon, Billy is hospitalized with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and placed under psychiatric care. A man named Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. After his release, Billy marries Valencia Merble. Valencia’s father owns the Ilium School of Optometry that Billy later attends. In 1947, Billy and Valencia’s first child, Robert, is born. Two years later their daughter Barbara is born. On Barbara’s wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet light-years away from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are described as seeing in four dimensions, simultaneously observing all points in the space-time continuum. They universally adopt a fatalistic worldview: Death means nothing but “so it goes”.
On Tralfamadore, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome exhibit in a zoo; the dome represents a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians later abduct a movie star named Montana Wildhack, who had disappeared and was believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean. They intend to have her mate with Billy. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to relive past or future moments of his life.
In 1968, Billy and a copilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving to visit Billy in the hospital. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard history professor. They discuss the bombing of Dresden, which the professor claims was justified, despite the great loss of civilian lives and destruction of the city.
Billy’s daughter takes him home to Ilium. He escapes and flees to New York City. In Times Square he visits an adult book store. Billy discovers books written by Kilgore Trout and reads them. Later in the evening, when he discusses his time-travels to Tralfamadore on a radio talk show, he is evicted from the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep, and time-travels back to 1945 in Dresden, where the book ends.