Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe
in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran
well- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in
Vietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was the
single most important event in his life. The sights and scars of war
remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories
of death and killing help to shape whatever future career he may make.
The same is true for Billy Pilgrim. What he saw and did during his
six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have
dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms
with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of
his war experiences.
Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He
reorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context of
his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy’s
prewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was
many years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but the
real story of the novel is the story of Billy’s wartime days. All
the other events in Billy’s life are merely incidental to his time
as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events that come
to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in
Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of time-travel.
Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t live his life one day
after another. He has become unstuck in time, and he jumps around
among the periods of his life like a flea from dog to dog.
When you meet him in Chapter 2, it is December 1944 and Billy and
three other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemy
lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his
past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in
the future: it’s 1965 and he is visiting his mother in a nursing home.
He blinks, the time changes to 1958, then 1961, and then he finds
himself back in the forest in December 1944.
Billy doesn’t have much time to wonder about what has just happened.
He’s captured almost immediately by German soldiers and put onto a
train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great
adventure in the future: on his daughter’s wedding night in 1967, he
is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet
Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him
in a zoo.
Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The
train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British
officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.
Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in
1948, where he’s visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he
recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in
business as an optometrist by Valencia’s father. Billy is introduced
to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose
favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout’s writing is terrible, but
Billy comes to admire his ideas.
Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most
popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billy
because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that
wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.
Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After
making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy can
say much about it, he’s back there himself.
The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an open
city (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, while
almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows
that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there’s
nothing worth bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories,
nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housed
in building number five of the Dresden slaughterhouse.
Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968.
A few years before that, he meets Kilgore Trout. And on Tralfamadore
he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden.
Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat
locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day,
Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been
reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is
After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the
others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have
disappeared. The war is over and they are free.
One way to keep straight the many characters in
Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appear
in Billy Pilgrim’s life.
There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul
Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from
his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his
daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Professor
Rumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (the
Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).
A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and
actual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O’Hare. Some of
the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by
Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr.
Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night, and the
Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O’Hares, you
meet all of these characters only when they interact with Billy
Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When
you first see a character’s name, you usually know something about
that character even before you read about what he or she has done.
Billy Pilgrim’s last name tells you that he is someone who travels
in foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious or
Otherwise Billy doesn’t appear very promising as the hero of a
novel. Physically, he’s a classic wimp. He’s tall, weak, and clumsy,
with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches and the
overall appearance of a filthy flamingo.
He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child
and his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to the
bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by the
Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and
companionship, yet he keeps saying, You guys go on without me. After
the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupid
and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his
daughter bully him constantly.
In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five Billy is a sheep among wolves.
Some readers regard him as a kind of Christ figure who sojourns in the
wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peace
for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy’s assassination
by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross.
But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his
meek faith in a loving Jesus makes everybody else sick. His
pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billy
look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.
Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to
him, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragile
personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is
such a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he
has no answer.
Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to
turn the other cheek rather than put up a fight. This may be his
weakling attempt at the imitation of Christ, but to many readers
it looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable
him to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heart
people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness
never lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it’s
his imagination that saves him.
Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to
science fiction, Billy’s fantasies are aimless and childish. Then,
in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who
not only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions
of reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasy
In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana
Wildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy must
become innocent again, and to do this he has to discharge the
guilt and despair associated with his past. He does this by
reorganizing his life through time-travel, gradually putting
everything- but especially Dresden- in perspective. When this is
accomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free.
A soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly at
risk, the tension sometimes unbearable. You know when you first see
his name that Billy’s fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted after
many months of fighting. What he needs is some rest.
Weary is a hard person to like: he’s stupid, fat, and mean, and he
smells bad. It’s no surprise that his companions want to ditch him
most of the time. So Weary has had to learn to deal with rejection,
and one way he does this is by fantasizing a glorious and exciting war
movie in which he is the hero. Because Weary fears that his
real-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war movie
concentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in real
Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid off him sooner or
later. His Three Musketeers story is only a fantasy. He will want
revenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his revenge by
ditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even less
popular than himself, suckers him into a friendship, then ditches
him first. This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim.
One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way he
would have wanted- in the arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Weary
has finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last, knowing
that Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary’s life, to
kill Billy Pilgrim.
The American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest character
in the book. Not only is he disgusting to look at, he’s nasty to the
core, a real snake. In civilian life his friends are gangsters and
killers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing in
life to him is getting revenge on people who have crossed him.
It’s not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both of
them have regularly been snubbed by the more popular and attractive
people in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness than
Weary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he’s
speaking in the abstract, not talking about torturing anyone in
particular. But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, each
torture is tailor-made for a specific victim.
Vonnegut’s description of Lazzaro is devastating: If he had been
a dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his head
to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies.
At the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hats
whenever they went outdoors. But by then the derby, a hat with a
dome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually seen
only on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derby
is an older man than his fellow American POWs, and his values are
those he learned in an earlier era.
Because you know from the first that poor old Edgar Derby (as he
is usually called) is doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindness
and generosity with a sinking heart. For Edgar Derby doesn’t deserve
to die. It is Derby who cradles the dying Weary’s head in his lap
(whatever Paul Lazzaro says), and it is Derby who volunteers to sit in
the prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim while the
other Americans party with the Englishmen.
Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulled
strings to get into the fighting after the army told him he was too
old. And in Dresden, when the American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr.,
tries to talk the prisoners into going over to his side, Derby
stands up to him and makes a moving speech about the ideals of
America: freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for
all. This takes courage, considering the position he’s in.
VALENCIA MERBLE PILGRIM
Billy first checks into the mental hospital after hearing himself
propose marriage to this overweight, not very bright daughter of
Ilium’s richest optometrist. He sees her as a symptom of his
disease, his inability to deal with the alarming reality of the world
and his lack of interest in life. But he marries her anyway,
apparently for lack of a good reason not to. The marriage is hardly
a great romance, but Billy finds it at least bearable all the way.
His unhappiness seems to have less to do with her than with life
Considering that Vonnegut frequently prefers female over male
values, it’s difficult to find much to admire in Valencia. Not only is
she unattractive, she’s insensitive to the deep psychological damage
Billy underwent in the war, from which he continues to suffer.
But for all her faults, Valencia adores Billy and is helplessly
devoted to him. She is so terrified of losing him after he barely
survives a plane crash that she wrecks her car on the way to the
hospital, passes out, and dies from carbon monoxide fumes.
Barbara Pilgrim, Billy’s put-upon daughter, has hardly had a
chance to get married and set up her own household when her father
almost dies in a plane crash. While he is in the hospital, her
mother inadvertently kills herself in an auto accident. Then, when
Billy comes home, he turns out to be prematurely senile from brain
damage and begins telling crazy stories about time-travel and aliens
kidnapping him in a flying saucer. Not only is she suddenly the head
of the family, but her father’s making a laughing stock of himself
(and her) in public.
No wonder Barbara’s a bitchy flibbertigibbet.
BERTRAM COPELAND RUMFOORD
Billy meets Rumfoord while recuperating from the plane crash in
1968. Relentlessly virile and athletic, this seventy-year-old
Harvard professor and Air Force historian embodies every traditional
masculine virtue Billy finds so upsetting: blind patriotism,
sexism (his young fifth wife is just one more public demonstration
that he’s a superman), and a firm belief in the survival of the
Vonnegut uses Rumfoord as the primary spokesman for what he calls
the military manner of thinking, which orders and then cravenly
justifies atrocities such as the bombing of Dresden.
The Tralfamadorians are two feet high, and green, and shaped like
plumber’s friends topped by a little hand with a green eye in its
palm. They can see in four dimensions, and this enables them to
look at all time all at once, so death and the future hold no fear for
them. The Tralfamadorians, who live on a distant planet, are creatures
of science fiction.
Because of their alien perspective, the Tralfamadorians view human
behavior with an objectivity few Earthlings can have. In this way,
Vonnegut may be using the Tralfamadorians to tell you what he thinks
about human conduct. Whenever the Tralfamadorians speak, Vonnegut
may be revealing his own philosophy of life.
Some readers argue that the purpose of the Tralfamadorians is to
resolve the contradictions in life that have made Billy so upset. In
this interpretation, the aliens function in the same way as dreams and
mythology: they explain things through images and stories.
Others see the Tralfamadorians as the gods in Billy’s fantasy
universe: they guide and protect the creatures in their charge. This
makes them a big improvement over the gods Vonnegut sees as the
rulers of the modern world- technology, which dehumanizes people,
and authoritarian cruelty, which destroys people in the name of the
survival of the fittest.
The Tralfamadorians give Billy a philosophy through which he finds
peace of mind. They also give him Montana Wildhack to mate with, and
that brings him true happiness as well.
Billy’s lover in this alien zoo is a curious combination of
ingredients. On the one hand, she is the compliant sex kitten that
bored, middle-aged males dream about in erotic fantasies. She is
beautiful (and naked), and makes the first sexual advances- though
shyly, of course.
On the other hand, Billy requires more from his dream woman than
mere sexuality. His entire Tralfamadore fantasy is his attempt to
reinvent the human race, with himself as the new Adam and Montana as
the new Eve. And so he makes her loving as well as sexy, understanding
as well as seductive, and a good mother to their child as well as a
good lover to him. In Billy’s ideal Creation, both must be able to
behave as decently as he believes Adam and Eve really wanted to
For all of her prodigious virtues, Montana Wildhack comes off as
rather bloodless compared to the real-life women in the book, such
as the annoying Valencia, the prickly Barbara, or the fiery Mary
O’Hare. But then Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It’s a lot safer.
One of the richest and smartest men in America, Eliot Rosewater is
also one of the most disillusioned. His faith in American
righteousness in World War II was shattered when he found that he
had killed a German fireman who was trying to put out a fire that
American bombers had started.
He tried drinking, but that just ruined his health without
alleviating what he saw as the alarming unfairness of the modern
world. So he committed himself to a mental hospital. There he meets
a kindred spirit in Billy Pilgrim, who comes to share with him the one
consolation Eliot has found in life: the peculiar wisdom in the
science fiction of Kilgore Trout.
The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has great ideas for novels.
(The Gutless Wonder is about a robot with bad breath; in The Gospel
from Outer Space Jesus is a nobody until God adopts him.) But his
prose style is frightful. After thirty years and more than
seventy-five novels, Trout has only two fans, Eliot Rosewater and
Billy Pilgrim, and even they are appalled by his writing.
Kilgore Trout is a manic version of Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote
science fiction and for years suffered from an indifferent public.
Vonnegut uses Trout’s books to make fun of many of the values
Americans hold dear. At the same time, he gets in a few good swipes at
the pretensions of his own profession.
In Slaughterhouse-Five (as in the two other Vonnegut novels in which
he appears) Kilgore Trout plays a small but important role. His
books offer Billy inspiration for therapeutic fantasies, and he
personally gives Billy the courage to face his Dresden experience.
HOWARD W. CAMPBELL, JR.
Campbell is an American Nazi propagandist who writes a scornful
account of the behavior of American POWs in Germany and who shows up
at the slaughterhouse in Dresden to recruit candidates for his Free
American Corps. He tries to bribe the Americans by promising them a
terrific meal, but Edgar Derby puts Campbell in his place by calling
him lower… than a blood-filled tick. Campbell only smiles.
In an earlier book, Mother Night, Vonnegut told Campbell’s whole
story- he’s really an American spy who delivers coded messages to
the Allies through his racist radio broadcasts. But in
Slaughterhouse we see him only in his official role as the Nazi he
pretends to be.
Vonnegut dedicates this book to a real person, Mary O’Hare, the wife
of his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare. He first meets her when he
tries to get Bernard to reminisce with him about their war
experiences, with the idea of generating material for his famous book
about Dresden. This makes Mary angry. She cares deeply about life-
she’s a nurse- and to her, all war does is kill people. She is
strong-minded and courageous enough to tell off an almost perfect
stranger when she thinks he’s wrong.
Vonnegut admires Mary O’Hare and wishes more people were like her.
He believes that if enough women like her told off enough old
farts like him, enough people might see the absurdity of war and we
wouldn’t have wars any more.
BERNARD V. O’HARE
When Vonnegut visits Bernard O’Hare after the war, O’Hare appears to
be little more than a henpecked husband, and acts embarrassed when
Vonnegut tries to get him reminiscing about the war.
But O’Hare had refused to pick up souvenirs in Dresden, so even then
he must have hated the war and the profit some people made from it
(his buddies with their trophies, Vonnegut with his book). He’s a
gentle man who reproaches no one: when Vonnegut asks why Mary is
mad, O’Hare lies to spare Vonnegut’s feelings. And even though he
disapproves of Vonnegut’s project, he is kind enough to leave a book
about Dresden on the nightstand for him.
O’Hare is a great friend, and Vonnegut obviously likes him a lot.
He’s the only war buddy Vonnegut has kept in touch with, and
together they return to Dresden in 1967.
The author himself appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly in the
first chapter, where he struggles vainly to get a handle on writing
his Dresden book. His breakthrough comes when Mary O’Hare reminds
him that it’s really babies who fight wars, not grown men. From that
moment on everything goes right for the author.
Vonnegut also pops up here and there in Billy Pilgrim’s POW story,
but he’s really just reminding you that what those American
prisoners of war saw and did really happened- and that he was there at
the time. In the last chapter he tells about his return to Dresden
as a tourist in 1967 with Bernard O’Hare.
There are three main settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.
1. War-ravaged Europe, through which Billy travels as a POW and ends
up in Dresden.
2. Peacetime America, where Billy prospers as an optometrist and
pillar of society in Ilium, New York.
3. The planet Tralfamadore, where Billy and his fantasy lover
Montana Wildhack are exhibited in a zoo.
Each setting corresponds to a different period in Billy Pilgrim’s
life, and the story jumps from one setting to another as Billy travels
back and forth in time.
The physical contrast between the devastation of Europe and the
affluence of postwar America is tremendous. It’s ironic that Billy,
who suffered extreme privations as a prisoner of war, is made to
feel no better by the material wealth he later acquires as a
successful optometrist in Ilium, N.Y.
Ilium is the classical name for Troy, one of the richest cities in
the ancient world. In The Iliad, the Greek poet Homer (ninth century
B.C.) tells the story of the Trojan War, in which Troy was
eventually destroyed by the besieging Greeks. Some readers believe
that Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Iliad, for Troy was
reputedly as beautiful as Dresden was before it was bombed.
Billy begins to be happy about life only in an artificial but cozy
habitat on another planet. Tralfamadore is an invention of Billy’s
imagination, a paradise in which he, as Adam, and a new Eve (the
former pornographic movie star Montana Wildhack) can start the human
race over again. Within the dome that protects them from the poisonous
atmosphere of Tralfamadore, Billy and Montana are tended and watched
over by a new set of gods, the wise and kindly Tralfamadorians.
But notice that in each of the novel’s main settings Billy is
confined: first as a POW, then as a prisoner of the meaningless
contraptions of modern life, finally as an exhibit in an alien zoo.
And throughout the book Vonnegut portrays Billy as a prisoner of time.
Billy cannot change the past, the present, or the future, no matter
how much he moves around from one to the other. The persistent image
of a bug trapped in amber is Vonnegut’s clearest expression of this
Slaughterhouse-Five is first and foremost about war and how human
beings cope with it. In treating this subject, Vonnegut explores
several major themes, but no single one of them explains the whole
novel. You’ll find that some of the following statements ring more
true to you than others, yet you can find evidence in the book to
support all of them.
WAR IS ABSURD
Vonnegut attacks the reasoning that leads people to commit
atrocities by drawing character portraits (Roland Weary and
Professor Rumfoord) and by quoting from official documents
(President Harry Truman’s explanation of the reasons for dropping
the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). And he gives you a look at the ruins of
Dresden so you can see the ground zero consequences of what he calls
the military manner of thinking- which rationalizes a massacre by
saying it will hasten the end of the war.
But more important than this generalized condemnation, Vonnegut
focuses on the enormity of war and its disastrous effect on human
lives, even long after it is over. Billy Pilgrim’s problems all stem
from what he experienced in the war. The hobo freezes to death in
the boxcar; Roland Weary dies from gangrene in his feet; Edgar Derby
is shot for stealing a teapot; the harmless city of Dresden is
bombed into the ground: it shouldn’t be possible for such things to
happen, Billy feels. And yet he was there and saw them happen with his
own eyes. His science fiction fantasies and time-traveling are his
attempt to cope with the psychological damage the war inflicted on
him. The fact that he succeeds (by going senile) is perhaps the most
absurd thing of all.
AUTHORITY IS TO BLAME FOR ATROCITIES
To Vonnegut, both the boss and the underling escape guilt when an
atrocity is committed: the boss’s hands are clean because others did
the dirty work, and the underling was only following orders. He
maintains that this was just as true of the Allies as it was of the
Nazis in World War II. The Nazis built the death camps, and the Allies
bombed Hiroshima and Dresden.
Vonnegut believes that a great evil of authoritarianism is the
assumption of righteousness, the claim that God is on our side. In
other writings he expresses regret that the Nazis were so plainly evil
because that just made it easier for the Allied authorities to claim
that anything they did to defeat the Nazis was justified.
To Vonnegut this is the same kind of authoritarian arrogance that
led the Nazis into evil acts in the first place. There is no moral
justification for atrocities, Vonnegut says, even though some
defenders of the Dresden bombing maintain that it did accomplish its
goal: to end the war sooner by demoralizing the enemy.
MODERN LIFE IS MEANINGLESS
Billy Pilgrim’s indifference to life comes as much from his
peacetime experiences as from anything that happened to him in the
war. During the war he could at least tell whether he was alive or
dead. But his postwar life is empty in spite of his material wealth
and the respect of his peers.
Vonnegut highlights this apparent contradiction by having Billy find
peace and happiness only through fantasy (or senility). Vonnegut seems
to say that in real life, life doesn’t work.
ART VS. REALITY
Vonnegut spends a good deal of time in Slaughterhouse-Five talking
about fiction. In Chapter 1 he shows how a writer distorts reality
by forcing it to fit into the mold of a good story. In Chapter 5
he discusses the good and bad effects fiction has on our understanding
of life. In Chapter 9 he pokes fun at the pretensions of writers and
critics who take fiction too seriously. And the fragmented style
in which Slaughterhouse-Five is written may be an attempt to
reinvent the novel. As Eliot Rosewater says, fiction just isn’t
enough any more.
Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of art itself. Art selects
and orders its material, and the final product is a coherent whole.
But life is messy and redundant: it can’t be contained in the neat
formula of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the case
of such a horrifying event as the Dresden massacre, art has nothing
intelligent to say.
Some readers believe that Vonnegut overstates the problem in
Slaughterhouse-Five, that the book itself is the solution. just as
Billy Pilgrim reinvents his life so he can cope with it, Vonnegut
reinvents the novel so that it can cope with the absurd and often
monstrous events of the modern world.
TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZES PEOPLE
Machine imagery abounds in Slaughterhouse-Five, and wherever it
turns up, it means bad news for human beings. Obviously, without
sophisticated technology, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima
would not have been possible. But Vonnegut portrays even peacetime
technology as making people into robots whose lives revolve around
tending and improving machines. Billy’s father-in-law, Lionel
Merble, for example, is turned into a machine by the optometry
There are several additional themes that Vonnegut only touches on in
Slaughterhouse-Five, but which are given fuller treatment in his other
FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM
At first the heroes of almost all Vonnegut’s novels believe in
free will. (Free will is the idea that human beings make choices and
decide their own destinies, that their actions make a difference in
shaping their futures.) But inevitably Vonnegut’s heroes discover that
their choices were manipulated by outside forces, that their fates
were predetermined all along. Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s most passive
hero. He finds happiness and peace of mind only after adopting the
deterministic philosophy of his imaginary masters, the
DARWIN VS. JESUS
Vonnegut feels that Charles Darwin legitimized cruelty with his
theory of natural selection. Although Darwin limited his theorizing to
biology, other thinkers like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer
(1820-1903) applied this theory to social matters, and took Darwin’s
idea that the strong are favored in natural survival one step further,
implying that only the strong should survive. It is this version of
social Darwinism that Vonnegut disapproves of. In contrast, although
he has been an atheist all his life, Vonnegut has always admired the
Christian virtues of pacifism, tolerance, and love.
Vonnegut doesn’t have much good will toward organized religion.
For him it is no different from any other form of authority, and
therefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How many
atrocities have been justified by the claim that God is on our side?
People are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course
the destruction of Dresden brought death on a massive scale.
Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, So
it goes. In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude toward
death by emphasizing that death is a common aspect of human existence.
Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion that
people who are dead in the present remain alive in the times of
their past. Perhaps the author is saying that we too should be
consoled: the dead still live in our memories.
On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains the
nature of novels on that planet:
Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing a
situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not
one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between
all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so
that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is
beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle,
no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love
in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at
When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shock
of recognition. It sounds a lot like the very book you’re reading, and
you realize that the author is describing the effect he wants his
novel to have.
The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five is
the fact that the text is made up of clumps of paragraphs, each
clump set off by extra space before and after it. A few of the
clumps are only one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and a
half. Each of them makes a simple statement or relates an incident
or situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotal
style: the book is a collection of brief incidents, and the effect
of each one depends on how the author tells it.
Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say a
great deal in a few words. Three inoffensive bangs came from far
away. The report seems an innocent one until you find out that the
scouts have just been shot. The contrast between the inoffensive
sound and its deadly meaning provides a startling effect.
There is irony too in that inoffensive, for what is inoffensive to
one person’s ears is fatally offensive to another person’s life. Irony
is a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly straightforward
statement or situation actually means its opposite. Irony occurs again
and again in the incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that,
for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, a
soldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is irony
in a former hobo’s telling Billy- inside a boxcar prison that could be
taking them to their death- I been in worse places than this. This
ain’t so bad. And because Dresden was an open city during most of
the war, it was full of refugees who had fled there for safety. Almost
all of them died in the bombing. That is ironic.
Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, a
form of ridicule that uses mockery and exaggeration to expose the
foolishness or evil of its subject. Professor Rumfoord is a
satirical portrait of the all-American male ideal. And, almost every
description of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern life in some
way. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath is
cleared up (advertising values), or a money tree is fertilized by
the dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its fruit
Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billy
as a filthy flamingo and a broken kite, the Russian prisoner as a
ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.
Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gun
makes a ripping sound like the zipper on the fly of God Almighty.
But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breaking
tenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tears
when Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt syrup.
Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) to
historical events. He evokes the Children’s Crusade in order to draw a
parallel between the babies he and O’Hare were in World War II and
the thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European children
were sent off to conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works of
literature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer Celine, the
medieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. He
paraphrases the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentions
Jesus occasionally. These allusions deepen our understanding and
appreciation of Billy’s story by suggesting historical and literary
parallels to the personal events in his life.
POINT OF VIEW
In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks to
you directly in the first person about the difficult time he had
writing his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim’s story told
by a third-person narrator.
Because an outside narrator is telling Billy’s story, you learn
not only what Billy is doing and thinking at any time but what the
other characters are up to and what’s on their minds. Because Vonnegut
explains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, that
his own experiences in Dresden were the inspiration for
Slaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-person
narrator and Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, the
author is looking at the events of his own life- past, present, and
future- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way that
Billy is trying to order the events of his own life.
On several occasions the author actually reminds you directly
that, while he’s telling Billy’s story, he- Kurt Vonnegut- was
there, too. You’re reading about events that are based on the author’s
experience as a POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you that
you’re being told a story by a much older man, someone with a quite
different outlook on life from that of the baby who went to Dresden.
The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to comment
frequently on the action, on life, and on writing itself.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians
read the clumps of symbols, or messages, that make up their books
all at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphs
that make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you provides the structure of the
Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue in
which he tells his own story of writing his famous book about
The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim’s
story. Vonnegut begins this narrative with a short, factual history of
Billy’s life to the present in 1968. You soon discover why he does
this: in the pages that follow, Billy’s adventures are not related
entirely in chronological order, and that little outline history in
the early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzle
over the proper sequence of events.
The portion of Billy Pilgrim’s history that is presented
chronologically is the six months from December 1944 to May 1945, when Billy was a soldier and then a POW in Europe. This period is by far
the most important in Billy’s life, and the novel is about how Billy
comes to terms with what he saw and heard and did in those six months.
When Billy finally works it all out in his mind, he is free, the
author has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended.
Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determined
by the sequence of events Billy experienced in the final months of
World War II. Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happenings
of his life. He even believes that he first came unstuck in time
in the Luxembourg forest in 1944, though the narrator seems to suggest
that this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the brain damage
Billy sustained in the plane crash in 1968.
Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memories
and adding his fantasies, it’s important that you keep your bearings
as you follow Billy’s own rearrangement of his history. For this you
may find helpful the following chronological sequence of the important
events in Billy’s life.
1922 Billy born in Ilium, New York.
1941 America enters World War II.
1944 Billy, now a soldier, captured by Germans in the Battle
of the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headed
1945 Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, is
January housed in Slaughterhouse-Five.
1945 Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies. POWs and guards survive
February in an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out of
the rubble the next day.
1945 War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes home
May to Ilium.
1948 Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries Valencia
Merble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometry
business in Ilium prospers.
1967 Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and taken
to Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo and
mated with Montana Wildhack.
1968 Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies while
Billy is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tell
about the Tralfamadorians.
1976 Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flying
saucers and time.
Vonnegut’s method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to
follow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelated
anecdotes. To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in this
section begins with a brief overview of the chapter’s structure.
STRUCTURE: The string of anecdotes that lead up to Vonnegut’s
visit with the O’Hares all describe problems related to writing his
famous book about Dresden. After his visit to the O’Hares, things
start going well for him, and he is able to write the book. In the
last part of the chapter Vonnegut finds solutions to (or at least ways
around) his writing problems.
Let’s look at some of those problems the author complains about.
THE WORDS JUST WON’T COME. Although he thought it would be easy to
write about Dresden- all I would have to do would be to report what I
had seen- he just can’t seem to get started. Vonnegut may be afraid
that he has used up his talent, or somehow ruined it (the off-color
limerick suggests this idea), perhaps by writing so much science
fiction instead of saving himself for his great book about
EVERY TIME HE STARTS THE BOOK, HE ENDS UP GOING IN CIRCLES. The
Yon Yonson poem illustrates this dilemma. Once you start it, you go
around and around forever.
ANOTHER ANTIWAR BOOK WOULD BE POINTLESS. This problem is clearly
stated in the conversation Vonnegut has with the movie director. Books
don’t stop wars because wars are as unstoppable as glaciers are.
WRITING ISN’T THE NOBLE PROFESSION EVERYONE THINKS IT IS. Vonnegut
calls himself a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and
characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and
confrontations. He goes on to describe a diagram he made that reduces
every human being to a line of color and makes the destruction of
Dresden nothing but a brilliant stripe of orange. What was once an
atrocity has now become something abstract and pretty.
NOTE: PARALLEL IMAGES This chapter is full of images that resurface
in altered form later in the book. In Chapter 4, for example, the
Tralfamadorians use the metaphor of bugs trapped in amber to
describe human beings caught in time. This image parallels the idea of
characters trapped in a diagram for a story. The idiotic
Englishman with his absurd souvenir turns up again in the guise of
Roland Weary displaying his weapons to Billy (Chapter 2) and later
(Chapter 6) as Billy himself, showing his treasures to the Dresden
surgeon. In a way the Englishman is also like Vonnegut trying to
interest O’Hare in his Dresden story. Vonnegut is not only
struggling with writing problems here, he is generating material
that he will rework into Billy’s story.
WRITING WON’T HELP VONNEGUT FIND MEANING IN HIS LIFE. Vonnegut isn’t
very happy with himself. He’s getting old, he’s killing himself with
alcohol and cigarettes, he and his wife don’t communicate any more.
Maybe life itself is a rut he fell into: before he knew it he’s an
old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls.
WRITING DEHUMANIZES THE WRITER. The gruesome story of the
veteran’s being killed by an elevator points up this problem. Nancy
does to the veteran the same thing that Vonnegut wants to do with
Edgar Derby- she dehumanizes him by making him a character in a story.
This in turn dehumanizes her, making her unable to feel anything for
the suffering of others. Vonnegut fears that even if he does finish
his Dresden book, the very act of constructing a good story will
turn him into a callous creep.
NOTE: MACHINE IMAGERY One of Vonnegut’s favorite themes is the
uneasy relationship between man and machines, and this anecdote is
shot through with machine imagery. it’s even possible to see the
News Bureau as being run by its machines. And it’s ironic that the
veteran is killed by getting his hand caught in an iron gate that is
imitating life forms- iron ivy, iron twigs, iron lovebirds. Keep an
eye out for other instances of such imagery.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MASSACRE? The cocktail party anecdote,
where Vonnegut hears about the death camps, illustrates another
problem. How do you respond when someone tells you these ghastly
stories? Oh, my God doesn’t say very much, does it? That’s
These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until
he visited the O’Hares. You should look at this anecdote in some
detail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen through
the eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend. To them the
world is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls to
stop and wonder at. The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with the
purpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if that
time of destruction and death were the good old days.
O’Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seems
intent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, moves
furniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut off
he too is embarrassed because he realizes he’s been thinking and
acting like a fool about his famous book on Dresden.
NOTE: EMBARRASSMENT Doesn’t every anecdote in this chapter deal
with embarrassment? Vonnegut has consistently portrayed himself as a
fool: a grown man playing with crayons, an idiotic Englishman with
his stupid souvenir, an old fart who talks to his dog, a green
reporter trying to act tough. The point is that he doesn’t realize how
embarrassing his actions have been until he encounters Mary O’Hare.
Perhaps Vonnegut is saying that embarrassment, not horror, is the
proper way to feel about atrocities committed in war. It is those
people who are not embarrassed who are dangerous. They are the ones
who come up with the kind of thinking that says, We have to bomb
Dresden so we can end the war sooner.
Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting the
O’Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book The Children’s
Crusade. Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallize
his thinking on a subject or get him going in the right direction.
This seems to happen to Vonnegut.
NOTE: THE CRUSADES There were approximately seven Crusades
between the years 1095 and 1271. The Christian powers of Europe sent
these military expeditions to Palestine in a mostly unsuccessful
attempt to regain possession of the Holy Land from the Moslems. The
name crusade comes from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. Vonnegut’s description of the Children’s Crusade is pretty accurate.
Note how Vonnegut puts together two ideas that ought to be totally
contradictory: holy and war. The book is full of such ironic
juxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them.
The senselessness of the historical Children’s Crusade provides
Vonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And he
learns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. The
quote from the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749-1832) conveys Vonnegut’s view. The caretaker of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is showing the undamaged dome to his young visitor. This is what our great architect did, he tells Goethe. Then
he gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, that
is what the enemy did!
Vonnegut’s visit to the O’Hares has been fruitful, and on the way
home he finds additional material. At the New York World’s Fair he and
the girls see official versions of the past and future that make him
wonder about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how
much was mine to keep. This suggests one of the major subjects of the
book, the nature of time and how it works.
Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigious
writing programs in the country. And he gets a three-book contract.
Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. He
finishes the book.
NOTE: VONNEGUT’S SELF-DEPRECATION Vonnegut often mocks himself
and his writing. Some readers see this as false modesty, others
believe he’s sincere. Slaughterhouse-Five has a loot of intelligent
things to say about the destruction of Dresden- about the thinking
that caused it, about the effect it had on the people who survived it,
about what he sees as the right way and the wrong way to remember
it. The book is not a failure, for it made Vonnegut’s reputation and
is generally considered his masterpiece. And Slaughterhouse-Five
informed the public that Dresden- at least in terms of number of
people killed- was the worst single bombing attack of the war.
Before concluding his account of the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five,
Vonnegut takes us back to Dresden in 1967. (You remember he
mentioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter.) Underneath the
rebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O’Hare are having so much fun,
there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground. Bone meal is
a fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouse
animals. The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from the
sterile ground of the moon (what Dresden looked like after it was
bombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones.
NOTE: RESONANCE This image, like so many others in
Slaughterhouse-Five, has an extraordinary resonance. In music,
resonance is the enrichment of sound by means of echoes. If you’ve
ever been in a large church when the choir is singing, you know how
rich that sound can be: the voices bounce off the walls and increase
the vibration in the air. In literature, an image is resonant when
it reminds us of other images and enriches our understanding by
connecting things that didn’t seem related before.
The final anecdote in Chapter 1, Vonnegut’s non-night in Boston,
shows him locking in on the main ideas that Slaughterhouse-Five will
embody. The first idea he presents has to do with the difference
between time as we think of it and time as we experience it.
Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking at
the Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at a
steady rate in one direction, from the past through the present toward
the future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to the
future (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the time
in between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time. And
not only can it feel as though it takes a year for a second to pass,
but a lifetime can seem as though it’s over in a second. Vonnegut
may be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us than
the external time of clocks and calendars.
Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writer
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leads
inevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die.
We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internal
time is a different matter. Don’t we do exactly what Celine wants to
do- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn’t that
what Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?
NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had a
reputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America. But
in the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and a
Nazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as a
war criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine had
a great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explains
what Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much. He is willing
to forgive what he calls Celine’s racism and cracked politics
because he was a great and inspiring writer: …in my opinion, Celine
gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse
of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously
vulnerable common women and men.
Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the American
poet Theodore Roethke’s poem, which implies that we are not masters of
our destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of life
by doing what circumstances force us to do.
NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi
whom we will meet later, is a perfect example of this theme. In Mother
Night he’s an American spy whose radio broadcasts contain coded
messages about Nazi troop movements and battle plans. After the war he
is tried as a war criminal because of the obvious damage he did as a
Nazi propagandist. Whether he was a real Nazi or just pretending to be
one makes no difference.
Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblical
Sodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of good story
Vonnegut doesn’t want his Dresden book to be. Sodom and Gomorrah are
destroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared because
they are good. But there’s a wrinkle in this otherwise typical tale
of great destruction: Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a
pillar of salt.
This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she might
never have thought of looking back until she was told not to. (You
know the feeling of wanting something only after you’ve been told
you can’t have it.) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she might
have had: Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where
all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back,
and I love her for that, because she was so human.
Does this remind you of Mary O’Hare? Vonnegut often gives the values
he admires most to the women characters in his books, implying that
women are more humane than men. Some see Vonnegut’s preference for
women’s values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According to
this interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity by
taking a man’s job, while Mary O’Hare retained hers by staying home
with the babies. Vonnegut seems to support this argument when he says,
The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who’d gone to war. On the other hand, the war made it necessary for women to leave home and go to work- and men started
NOTE: LYSISTRATA In the literature of ancient Greece a very funny
play by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, offers an ingenious solution to
the problem of war. In the play, Athens and Sparta have been at war
for twenty years, and the women are fed up. So they go on a sex
strike, demanding that the men sign a peace treaty. After a while the
men become so desperate they have to agree. (In real life the war
dragged on for seven more years and ended only when Athens was
Even if you think that Vonnegut is a closet male chauvinist,
others say that his main point is not that a woman’s place is in the
home but that a human being’s place is not in a war.
STRUCTURE: In this chapter you meet Billy Pilgrim and get a taste of
his peculiar experience of time. Vonnegut summarizes Billy’s life from
his birth (1922) to the present (1968). Then he opens up two important
plot lines. The first involves Billy’s attempt to tell his story to
the world in 1968. The second is the beginning of Billy’s adventures
in the war.
Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in
time, that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits to
all the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often more
than once. But notice the two words he says. Vonnegut uses them
three times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy says
may not always be fact.
Billy’s official biography condenses Billy’s life into the space
of a couple of pages. It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for his
Dresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on the
back of a length of wallpaper. And the biography serves the same
purpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at a
NOTE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY There are parallels here to Vonnegut’s own
life. He too was born in 1922, married and went to college after the
war, and worked in Schenectady, an upstate New York city much like
Ilium. We already know that he was captured by the Germans in World
War II and lived through the bombing of Dresden. He is also over six
The thumbnail sketch of Billy’s life provides a framework into which
you can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel. Clearly
Slaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another good story.
For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there is
the event itself, how it is experienced, how it is remembered
afterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told.
NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE It can be maddening to have to be
aware of all these levels at once. But Vonnegut’s point is that you
can’t fully understand the story until you realize that all these
levels exist simultaneously in any story. In effect you are being
encouraged to look at Slaughterhouse-Five in the way a
Tralfamadorian would- from every point of view, all at the same time.
Billy’s biography ends in 1968, the present, and Billy is
writing to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped him
the year before.
Are the Tralfamadorians real? Vonnegut speaks of them as though
Billy’s account is to be taken seriously. But he’s already cast
doubt on Billy’s credibility with those repeated he says. Notice,
too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after the
plane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imagined
them in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, has
released vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could mean
that Billy’s coming unstuck in time didn’t happen in 1944, as it
seems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked. Certainly
this is his daughter’s interpretation of her father’s stories. And not
only has he gone soft in the head, he’s determined to disgrace both
himself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world!
In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provide
exposition- background information to help you understand what’s going
on- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life.
Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegut
holds up the development of the story to indicate what he’s doing as a
NOTE: EXPOSITION In a conventional story the author tries to
weave the exposition into the action. Usually this is done by making
what happens in the scene so engrossing that you’re not aware you’re
being given bits of necessary information. But Vonnegut believes
that a writer can’t separate his telling of the story from the story
itself. In Chapter 1 he went to a lot of trouble to demonstrate this
problem. And one way to deal with the problem is to acknowledge it.
Vonnegut is saying, We need exposition here, so here’s the exposition.
The second plot line opens in the Luxembourg forest, where Billy and
his companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner Roland
Weary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will first
come unstuck in time.
It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim than
Roland Weary. In different circumstances these two might remind you of
an incongruous comedy team. To the scouts, who are clever,
graceful, quiet (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren’t
funny, they’re dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise,
Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. If
this were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expert
soldiers- would probably be the main characters, Billy and Weary the
comic relief. But Vonnegut is more interested in the clowns than in
the good soldiers, perhaps because to him the clowns behave more
like real people would. He is also preparing us for the irony in the
next chapter, when the good soldiers will be killed and the clowns
NOTE: ALLUSIONS AND PARODIES In this scene Vonnegut makes some
complex literary allusions or indirect references to other works.
The name Billy recalls the innocent victim/hero of Herman Melville’s
Billy Budd. Pilgrim suggests John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century
moralistic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the hero, called
Christian, encounters many adventures and setbacks on his journey from
the world of sin to the foot of the cross, where he finds salvation.
All of Billy’s story might be seen as a parody (take-off) of Pilgrim’s
Progress: Billy passes through absurd scenes of modern life to find
happiness among aliens from outer space.
The scene in the Luxembourg forest also parodies the conclusion of
the medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland. (Vonnegut even
tips you off to the allusion in Roland Weary’s name.) In that war tale
the protagonist and his best friend die heroically defending Western
(i.e. Christian) civilization against attack by Muslim Saracens. The
parody is quite detailed. The medieval Roland has a horn that he
refuses to blow until he’s really in trouble, while Weary has a
whistle he won’t blow until he is promoted to corporal. Roland is a
true Christian fighting the infidel (non-believing) Saracen. Weary,
a smelly footsoldier who doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, is up
against the Nazis, the modern-day infidels.
Vonnegut makes it clear that Roland Weary can’t help being an
obnoxious jerk any more than Billy Pilgrim can help looking like a
filthy flamingo. Weary’s life has been a disaster because people are
always ditching him, so he compensates by fantasizing an adventure
in which he is a hero. Some readers see in this a parallel to
Billy’s fantasy of the Tralfamadorians, who choose him to represent
the human race in their zoo. But it’s also just common psychology. How
many times have you felt left out and dreamed of doing something
extraordinary that would show the people who snubbed you?
Notice the difference between Weary’s Three Musketeers movie which
is full of violence, triumph, and manly camaraderie, and Billy’s
gentle, noncompetitive fantasies. Billy wins friends by sock skating
and influences people by taking a public-speaking course.
Left to himself, Billy would have frozen to death days ago. So it
may be stress that brings on his first slip in time. Many people who
have come back from the brink of death have described the experience
of having their whole life flash before their eyes. This comes
pretty close to Vonnegut’s description of Billy’s coming unstuck.
Billy passes into death, moves backward to pre-birth, reverses
direction again, and stops at the memory of a traumatic experience
in his childhood. Then too he almost died because he wouldn’t do
anything to save himself.
Billy’s next three stops in time are definitely in the future-
Vonnegut even gives the dates. You’re now inside Billy’s experience of
time, and it’s perfectly real to him. You’ll need to treat it as
real from now on, or you’ll miss a lot.
Billy is snapped back to the present by Roland Weary, for whom the
dreaded moment has come. The scouts have abandoned him. Billy
Pilgrim must now fulfill the destiny Weary has been keeping him
alive for, that of sacrificial victim to Weary’s tragic wrath. The
speech Weary makes while he’s beating Billy up echoes speeches in
The Song of Roland and other heroic epics. (Notice also the machine
imagery Vonnegut uses to describe Billy’s body: his spine is a tube
containing all of Billy’s important wires.)
Before Weary can kill Billy for ruining his movie, the Germans
STRUCTURE: Billy Pilgrim’s time-travel now begins in earnest. In
this chapter Billy jumps back and forth between 1944 and 1967. Each
time he travels from one time period to the other, he picks up the new
scene where he left off. While we alternate between two stories, then,
the story in each period is continuous. Later on Billy’s