Slaughterhouse Five Summary and Analysis
En route to Tralfamadore, Billy asks for something to read. The only human novel is Valley of the Dolls, and when Billy asks for a Tralfamadorian novel, he learns that the aliens' novels are slim, sleek volumes. Because they have a different concept of time, Tralfamadorians have novels arranged by juxtaposition of marvelous moments. The books have no cause or effect or chronology; their beauty is in the arrangement of events meant to be read simultaneously. Billy jumps in time to a visit to the Grand Canyon taken when he was twelve years old. He is terrified of the canyon. His mother touches him and he wets his pants. He jumps forward in time just ten days, to later in the same vacation. He is visiting Carlsbad Caverns. The ranger turns the lights off, so that the tourists can experience total darkness. But Billy sees a light nearby: the radium dial of his father's watch.
Billy jumps back to the war. The Germans think Billy is one of the funniest creatures they've seen in all of the war. His coat is preposterously small, and on his already awkward body it looks ridiculous. The Americans give their names and serial numbers so that they can be reported to the Red Cross, and then they are marched to sheds occupied by middle-aged British POWs. The British welcome them with singing. These British POWs are officers, some of the first Brits taken prisoner in the war. They have been prisoners for four years. Due to a clerical error early in the war, the Red Cross shipped them an incredible surplus of food, which they have hoarded cleverly. Consequently, they are some of the best-fed people in Europe. Their German captors adore them. To prepare for their American guests, the Brits have cleaned and set out party favors. Candles and soap, supplied by the Germans, are plentiful: the British do not know that these items are made from the bodies of Holocaust victims. They have prepared a huge dinner and a dramatic adaptation of Cinderella. Billy is so unhinged that his laughter at the performance becomes hysterical shrieking, and he is taken to the hospital and doped up on morphine. Edgar Derby watches over him, reading The Red Badge of Courage. He leaps in time to the mental ward where he recovered in 1948.
In the mental ward, Billy's bed is next to the bed of Elliot Rosewater. Like Billy, he has little love for life, in part because of things he saw and did in the war. He is the man who introduces Billy to the science fiction of Kilgore Trout. Billy is enduring one of his mother's dreaded visits. She is a simple, religious woman. She makes Billy feel worse just by being there. Billy leaps back in time to the POW camp. A British colonel talks to Derby; after the newly arrived Americans shaved, the British were shocked by how young they all were. Derby tells of how he was captured: the Americans were pushed back into a forest, and the Germans rained shells on them until they surrendered.
Billy leaps back to the hospital. He is being visited by his ugly, overweight fiancée Valencia. He knew he was going crazy when he proposed to her. He does not want to marry her. She is visiting now, eating a Three Musketeers bar and wearing a diamond engagement ring that Billy found while in Germany. Elliot tells her about The Gospel from Outer Space, a Kilgore Trout book. Valencia tries to talk to Billy about plans for their wedding and marriage, but he is not too involved. He leaps forward in time to the zoo on Tralfamadore, where he was on display when he was forty-four years old. The habitat is furnished with Sears and Roebuck furniture. He is naked. He answers questions posed by the Tralfamadorian tourists. He learns that there are five sexes among the Tralfamadorians, but the sex difference is only visible in the fourth dimension. On earth there are actually seven sexes, all necessary to the production of children; earthlings just do not notice the sex difference between themselves because many of the sex acts occur in the fourth dimension. These ideas baffle Billy, and they in turn are baffled by his linear concept of time. Billy expects the Tralfamadorians to be concerned about or horrified by the wars on earth. He worries that earthlings will eventually threaten all the other races in the galaxy, causing the eventual destruction of the universe. The Tralfamadorians put their hands over their eyes, which lets Billy know that he is being stupid. The Tralfamadorians already know how the universe will end: during experiments with a new fuel, one of their test pilots pushes a button and the entire universe will disappear. They cannot prevent it. It has always happened that way. Billy correctly concludes that trying to prevent wars on Earth is futile. The Tralfamadorians also have wars, but they choose to ignore them. They spend their time looking at the pleasant moments rather than the unpleasant ones; they suggest that humans learn to do the same.
Billy leaps back in time to his wedding night. It is six months after his release from the mental ward. The narrator reminds us that Valencia and her father are very rich, and Billy will benefit greatly from his marriage to her. After they have sex, Valencia tries to ask Billy questions about the war. She wants a heroic war story, but Billy does not really respond to her. He has a crazy thought about the war, which Vonnegut says would make a good epitaph for Billy, and for the author, too: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." He jumps in time to that night in the prison camp. Edgar Derby has fallen asleep. Billy, doped up still from the morphine, wanders out of the hospital shed. He snags himself on a barbed wire fence, and cannot extract himself until a Russian helps him. Billy never really says a word to the Russian. He wanders to the latrine, where the Americans are sick from the feasting. A long period without food followed by a feast almost always results in violent sickness. Among the sick Americans is a soldier complaining that he has shit his brains out. It is Vonnegut. Billy leaves, passing by three Englishmen who watch the Americans' sickness with disgust. Billy jumps in time again, back to his wedding night. He and his wife are cozy in bed. He jumps in time again, to 1944. It is before he left for Europe; he is riding the train from South Carolina, where he was receiving his training, all the way back to Ilium for his father's funeral.
We return to Billy's morphine night in the POW camp. Paul Lazarro is carried into the hospital; while attempting to steal cigarettes from a sleeping British officer, he was beaten up. The officer is the one carrying him. Seeing now how puny Lazarro is, the officer feels guilty for hitting him so hard. But he is disgusted by the American POWs. A German soldier who adores the British officers comes in and apologizes for the inconvenience of hosting the Americans. He assures the Brits in the room that the Americans will soon be shipped off for forced labor in Dresden. The German officer reads propaganda materials written by Howard Campbell, Jr., a captured American who is now a Nazi. Campbell condemns the self-loathing of the American poor, the inequalities of America's economic system, and the miserable behavior of American POWs. Billy falls asleep and wakes up in 1968, where his daughter Barbara is scolding him. Barbara notices the house is icy cold and goes to call the oil-burner man.
Billy leaps in time to the Tralfamadorian zoo, where Montana Wildhack, a motion picture star, has been brought in to mate with him. Initially unconscious, she wakes to find naked Billy and thousands of Tralfamadorians outside their habitat. They're clapping. She screams. Eventually, though, she comes to love and trust Billy. After a week they're sleeping together. He travels in time back to his bed in 1968. The oil-burner man has fixed the problem with the heater. Billy has just had a wet dream about Montana Wildhack. The next day, he returns to work. His assistants are surprised to see him, because they thought that he would never practice again. He has the first patient sent in, a boy whose father died in Vietnam. Billy tries to comfort the boy by telling him about the Tralfamadorian concept of time. The boy's mother informs the receptionist that Billy is going crazy. Barbara comes to take him home, sick with worry about what how to deal with him.
Chapter Five is the novel's longest chapter. One of the important recurring themes is human dignity and the ease with which that dignity can be taken away. The novel deals with a war that saw an appalling devaluation of human life, and incredible affronts to human dignity. The Holocaust is alluded to several times in this chapter, as Allied POWs unwittingly use soap and candles made from human bodies. Edgar Derby's fate is known from when we first meet him; he will be executed by a firing squad for trying to steal a teapot. Prodded by Valencia, Billy reveals in this chapter that Derby was doped up when he was shot, barely aware of what was happening. And then of course there is Billy himself, laughed at by his German captors, insulted with the "gift" of a preposterously small coat, mentally unhinged, berated by his daughter, annoyed by his mother, married to a woman he does not respect, and made to parade himself naked in an alien zoo. Chapter Five shows us a parade of incidents, great and small, in which human dignity is ripped away. Put on display on Tralfamadore, Billy tells his captors honestly that he is as happy in the zoo as he was on earth. On his home world, the treatment he received was no better than the treatment he has received as a zoo specimen; in many ways, the aliens treat him better.
But Vonnegut also questions the concept of "dignity." Certain interpretations of dignity can become part of the narrative of war. Americans are insulted for having no dignity by their allies, the British. The British show disgust for the Americans' illness, even though the feast provided by the Brits is the direct cause of the illness. Vonnegut is not holding the British up as true examples of the meaning of dignity. There is something decidedly precious about the officers. For four years, they have been prisoners, but they also have seen far less action and hardship than their American guests. Significantly, they are adored by their Nazi captors because they make war "look stylish and reasonable, and fun" (94). These men are the type that can come up with war stories when the shooting has stopped, but their stories will be about staying plucky while imprisoned, hoarding food, hosting disgusting Americans. Those same Americans are coming in from one of the most brutal battles fought in Western Europe in all of the Second World War. Real war strips dignity away; Vonnegut refuses to tell a story of soldiers maintaining "dignity" under the pressure of real fighting. To do so would risk romanticizing war.
Vonnegut never comforts us in this novel with a sense of cause and effect. He never tries to explain why war happens or why men act as they do in wartime; explanations are too often molded into harmful narratives, like the propaganda writing of Howard Campbell, Jr. The Tralfamadorian time travel premise helps Vonnegut to escape having to explain things. The description of the Tralfamadorian novel, with its non-linear story and skillful arranging of events, corresponds to what Vonnegut himself has written. Tralfamadorian philosophy does not provide real comfort to the reader either; although there is some wisdom in accepting things, the Tralfamadorian insistence on ignoring everything unpleasant is not a viable solution in real life. The comfort of the novel comes from Vonnegut's sense of humor and sympathy for human beings, even unlikable ones. And as brutal as events of the novel can be, Vonnegut makes the whimsical and the wistful an important part of the pleasure of the book. Billy's wild thought about the war is more a wish than a statement of fact: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." The wish provides some comfort, although it stands in direct opposition to what the reader knows was the hard reality. Billy's thought is like a simple, unimposing fantasy, poignant because it is so modest and childlike.
It might be worthwhile to briefly look at some of Vonnegut's repetitions. They abound throughout the book, but because Chapter Five is so long it is easy to find a long list of repetitions here. Feet are often "ivory and blue": corpses' feet in 1944, as well as Billy's feet in the unheated house in 1967. For some reason, forty-four comes up again and again. Billy is forty-four when he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. Billy is captured in 1944. Edgar Derby is forty-four when he dies. Valencia is eating a Three Musketeers bar when she visits Billy in the hospital, alluding back to the Three Musketeers narrative imagined by Roland Weary. Billy's father has a watch with a radium dial; the dial glows in the darkness of Carlsbad Caverns. The Russians have faces like radium dials that glow from the darkness of night at the POW camp. Vonnegut describes himself as having "breath like mustard gas and roses," and near the end of the novel the smell of corpses in Dresden is like mustard gas and roses. A careful reader can find many, many more. These repetitions create the sense that although the novel is chronologically disjointed, there is a strong connection between events. The connections are not necessarily cause-and-effect, but they do hint at a larger pattern. Everywhere Billy goes, he sees repetitions and patterns that may or may not mean something. The repetitions may also be another allusion to Homer; remember that Billy's hometown is Ilium, another name for Troy, and the Iliad is the West's greatest war story. Repetition of set phrases is one of the most striking elements of Homer's style.
Billy wakes after his morphine night in POW camp irresistibly drawn to two tiny treasures. They draw him like magnets; they are hidden in the lining of his coat. It will be revealed later on exactly what they are. He goes back to sleep, and wakes up to the sounds of the British building a new latrine. They have abandoned their old latrine and their meeting hall to the Americans. The man who beat up Lazarro stops by to make sure he is all right, and Lazarro promises that he is going to have the man killed after the war. After the amused Brit leaves, Lazarro tells Derby and Billy that revenge is life's sweetest pleasure. He once brutally tortured a dog that bit him. He is going to have all of his enemies killed after the war. He tells Billy that Weary was his buddy, and he is going to avenge him by having Billy shot after the war. Because of his time hopping, Billy knows that this is true. He will be shot in 1976. At that time, the United States has split into twenty tiny nations. Billy will be lecturing in Chicago on the Tralfamadorian concept of time and the fourth dimension. He tells the spectators that he is about to die, and urges them to accept it. After the lecture, he is shot in the head by a high-powered laser gun.
Back in the POW camp, Billy, Derby, and Lazarro go the theater to elect a leader. On the way over, they see a Brit drawing a line in the dirt to separate the American and British sections of the compound. In the theater, Americans are sleeping anywhere that they can. A Brit lectures them on hygiene, and Edgar Derby is elected leader. Only two or three men actually have the energy to vote. Billy dresses himself in a piece of azure curtain and Cinderella's boots. The Americans ride the train to Dresden. Dresden is a beautiful city, appearing on the horizon like something out of a fairy tale. They are met by eight German irregulars, boys and old men who will be in charge of them for the rest of the war. They march through town towards their new home. The people of Dresden watch them, and most of them are amused by Billy's outlandish costume. One surgeon is not. He scolds Billy about dignity and representing his country and war not being a joke, but Billy is honestly perplexed by the man's anger. He shows the man his two treasures from the lining of his coat: a two-carat diamond and some false teeth. The Americans are brought to their new home, a converted building originally for the slaughter of pigs. The building has a large 5 on it. The POWs are taught the German name for their new home, in case they get lost in the city. In English, it is called Slaughterhouse Five.
Billy's death in the future is described in comic terms. From the high-powered laser beam to the Chicago "hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen," the future looks like a parody of science fiction. The comic and fantastic elements of Billy's death and his Tralfamadorian experiences suggest that these sections should be understood in playful terms. The comic elements of the story can still instruct, but we should not necessarily take Tralfamadorian wisdom at face value. Vonnegut relieves the pressure of the novel's atrocities by pairing the tragic with the absurd. His sense of humor and imagination are defense against the world. In a similar way, Billy's escape into a science fiction world is a relief from the indignities of his real life.
Billy does not mean to be disrespectful when he dresses himself in the curtain and boots from the Cinderella play. He is cold and needs better shoes. He is also in a real state, mentally. The surgeon who scolds him has a certain conception of war, one that has its merits: war is about the loss of human life, and must be dealt with respectfully. Billy should represent his country. War is not funny. But Vonnegut's depiction of war seems at odds with the surgeon's comments, and points out some of the problems with the surgeon's point of view. In the Poetics of Aristotle, Aristotle defines comedy as art in which people are worse than they are in real life. Worse in this case means sillier, more stupid, base. In these terms, war is a sick comedy on a grand scale. As Vonnegut depicts it, war is darkly humorous. Billy is a buffoon, but his ridiculous costume is no worse than the millions of other undignified things that happen in wartime. It is no more ridiculous than the British offering Americans a huge feast after they have been deprived of food for days, resulting, of course, in everyone getting the shits. It is no more ridiculous than pathetic Paul Lazarro threatening men with death, or poor Edward Derby surviving the Battle of the Bulge only to be shot for trying to steal a tea pot. And we already know that Vonnegut is skeptical of the idea of representing one's country. The British behave in ways that the surgeon might respect, but there is something bombastic and hollow about their high spirits. They have hoarded food while the Russians around them starve. They call the Americans weak and dirty when these same American troops have just come in from some of the worst fighting of the war in Western Europe. In all of this, Vonnegut points out how easily human dignity can be taken away; he also questions the idea of dignity itself, and its place in conventional war narratives. Dignity has many forms, and some of these forms are of questionable value.
Irony saturates the circumstances surrounding the American POW camp in Dresden. They are told before they go that Dresden has no significant industries or military force, and so it will not be bombed. They expect to be safe. They also are staying at a slaughterhouse, but ironically, the POWs and their guards are some of the only people who are going to survive the bombing.
Slaughterhouse Five Essays and Related Content
- Slaughterhouse Five: Major Themes
- Slaughterhouse Five: Essays
- Slaughterhouse Five: Questions
- Slaughterhouse Five: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Kurt Vonnegut: Biography
- Slaughterhouse Five Summary
- About Slaughterhouse Five
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-2
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-10
- Related Links on Slaughterhouse Five
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources