The narrator assures us that the book we are about to read is true, more or less. The parts dealing with World War II are most faithful to actual events. Twenty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and for much of that time the narrator has been trying to write about the bombing of Dresden. He was never able to bring make the project work. When he thinks about Dresden's place in his memory, he always recalls two things: an obscene limerick about a man whose penis has let him down, and "My Name is Yon Yonson," a song which has no ending.
Late some nights, the narrator gets drunk and begins to track down old friends with the telephone. Some years ago he tracked down Bernard O'Hare, an old war buddy of his, using Bell Atlantic phone operators. When he tracked his old friend down, he asked if Bernard would help him remember things about the war. Bernard seemed unenthusiastic. When the narrator suggests the execution of Edgar Derby, an American who stole a teapot from the ruins, as the climax of the novel, Bernard still seems unenthusiastic.
The best outline the narrator ever made for his Dresden book was on a roll of wallpaper, using crayon. Colors represented different people, and the lines crisscrossed when people met, and ended when they died. The outline ended with the exchange of prisoners who had been liberated by Americans and Russians.
After the war, the narrator went home, married, and had kids, all of whom are grown now. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and in anthropology he learned that "there was absolutely no difference between anybody," and that "nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting." He's worked various jobs, and tried to keep up work on his Dresden novel all this time.
He actually did go to see Bernard O'Hare just a few weeks after finding him over the telephone. He brought his young daughters, who were sent upstairs to play with O'Hare's kids. The men could not think of any particularly good memories or stories, and the narrator noticed that Mary, Bernard's wife (to whom Slaughterhouse Five is dedicated), seemed very angry about something. Finally, she confronted him: the narrator and Bernard were just babies when they fought. Mary was angry because if the narrator wrote a book, he would make himself and Bernard tough men, glorifying war and turning scared babies into heroes. The movie adaptation would then star "Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" (14). Wars would look good, and we would be sure to have more of them. The narrator promised that it won't be that kind of book, and that he'd call it The Children's Crusade. He and Mary were friends starting at that moment. That night, he and Bernard looked through Bernard's library for information on the real Children's Crusade, a war slightly more sordid than the other crusades. The scheme was cooked up by two monks who planned to raise an army of European children and then sell them into slavery in North Africa. Sleepless later that night, the narrator looked at a history of Dresden published in 1908. The book described a Prussian siege of the city in the eighteenth century.
In 1967, the narrator and O'Hare returned to Dresden. On the flight over, the narrator got stuck in Boston due to delays. In a hotel in Boston, he felt that someone had played with all the clocks. With every twitch of a clock, it seemed that years passed. That night, he read a book by Roethke and another book by Erika Ostrovsky. The Ostrovsky book, Céline and His Vision, is a story of a French soldier whose skull gets cracked during World War I. He hears noises and suffers from insomnia forever afterward, and at night he writes grotesque, macabre novels. Céline sees death and the passage of time as the same process.
The narrator also read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the hotel room's Gideon Bible. He calls attention to the moment when Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. He loves her for that act, because it was such a human thing to do.
Now, he presents us with his war book. He will strive to look back no more. This book, he says, is a failure. It was bound to be a failure because it was written by a pillar of salt. He gives us the first line and the last, and the central story of the novel is ready to begin.
Chapter One asks us to see the author's hand in the novel. This section is written earnestly and without artifice, more like a disjointed memoir than a work of fiction. Rather than detach the author from the work, Vonnegut asks us to see him in it. Nor is this the fictional framing of narrator-as-character: although Vonnegut is often flippant and amusing in specific moments, overall the tone is too earnest, the subject matter too important, for us to take this is as a mere setup for a novel. Although equating the narrator with the author is always dangerous, in this book it is safe to say that the narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. At the very least, Vonnegut wants us to think of the narrator as Vonnegut.
One of the most important themes of Slaughterhouse Five is the pairing of narrative and non-narrative or anti-narrative. Creating narrative (making stories) is a way of making sense of events, ordering them and arranging them to show cause and effect. Narratives seek to justify themselves and the events they describe. Slaughterhouse Five can be thought of as an anti-narrative. The novel is disjointed, with dozens of chronological leaps in every chapter. The statement is clear: Vonnegut prefers not to make a narrative of the Dresden massacre. His goals are sensitive to the anxieties of Mary O'Hare. This book will not be the kind of story that could be adapted as a John Wayne movie. Narratives are often used to make sense of events, and there is no way to make sense of a massacre. Nor should there be.
The struggle with creating a narrative is part of why it took the narrator so long to write the book. When he talks to Bernard O'Hare about the climax of his planned Dresden book, the idea of a novel with climax, plot, characters, and all of the other tricks of the novelist's trade seems ridiculous next to the reality of the massacre. O'Hare's cold response to Vonnegut drives home the difficulty of putting together a narrative about the event. Everything seems inadequate and incredibly detached from the actual bombing. The linear outline he makes with crayon on a roll of wallpaper drives home the same point. By juxtaposing the crayon-on-wallpaper outline with the events of the end of the war, the idea of linear narrative is made to look like child's play. What real connection can there be between the massacre and crayon marks drawn on paper used to wipe up feces?
Another important theme of the novel is time and memory. The Tralfamadorian concept of time holds that all events happen simultaneously, and thus they always exist. Billy leaps through time, and we are given the story of his life in pieces. However, many of the key events in the past are not related after a leap in time. Some are recalled through good old-fashioned memory. Memory is the human answer to the Tralfamadorian fourth dimension. Memory means that for humans, too, events continue to exist long after they have ended chronologically. After an atrocity like Dresden, the survivors have their scars. Dresden has continued to haunt Vonnegut in the twenty-three years afterward. The story of Lot's wife warns that to look back means being frozen in time, paralyzed forever. But it is also, according to Vonnegut, the human thing to do.
Repetition of phrases and images is an important part of the novel. A few of the phrases and images in Chapter One will resurface later on. These repetitions help to create a sense of connection between events, although the connections are not often logical or linear. The repetitions are too numerous for this study guide to always point them out; a careful reader will be able to notice many of them on a first read. One of the most important repetitions is the famous response to every new death. With the report of each new death, the narrator always says, "So it goes." We first hear it in Chapter One. This repeated sentence is one of great acceptance and resignation, but it does not necessarily soothe the reader. There is resignation, but not resignation without anger: when Dresden is destroyed and over 130,000 people die, and the narrator comments, "So it goes," Vonnegut is not necessarily speaking to us with a voice of bland acceptance. The repetition of the sentence becomes almost maddening. Although there is an element of acceptance in the statement, at times it highlights death rather than dismisses it.
The preoccupation with time is already here in Chapter One. Time and its meaning is a broad theme for the novel. Because of the force of his Dresden memories, in some sense his life has already ceased to be linear. Vonnegut uses the children's song about Yon Yonson as a metaphor for his feelings about Dresden. The last line of the song is the first, and so there is no escape, no clean way to end it. His feeling in the Boston hotel that the clocks have gone crazy also returns us to this theme of time knocked out of whack, foreshadowing the time travel of Billy Pilgrim. The Ostrovsky novel's equation of time's passage with death further develops the theme of time, acting as a counterpoint/complement to the rosy view of time taken by Billy Pilgrim's alien abductors.
"Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." He wanders from moment to moment in his life, experiencing chronologically disparate events right after one another. He sees his birth and death and everything in between, all out of order, with no pattern to predict what will come next. Or so he believes.
Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. Tall, thin, and embarrassingly weak, he made an unlikely soldier. He was going to night school in optometry when he got drafted to fight in World War II. His father died in a hunting accident before Billy left for Europe. The Germans captured Billy during the Battle of the Bulge. In 1945 he returned to the States, finished optometry school, and married the daughter of the school's owner. During the engagement, he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. After his release, he finished school, married the girl, got his own practice with help from his father-in-law, became quite rich, and had two kids. In 1968 he was the sole survivor of a plane crash. While he was in the hospital, his wife died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He returned home for rest, but without warning one day he went to New York and claimed on the radio that he had been kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians. Billy's daughter, Barbara, retrieved him from New York. A month later, Billy wrote a letter to Ilium's newspaper describing the aliens. The Tralfamadorians are shaped like two-foot tall toilet plungers, suction cup down.
We now see Billy working on a second letter describing the Tralfamadorian conception of time. All time happens simultaneously, so a man who dies is actually still alive, since all moments exist at all times. Billy works on his letter, oblivious to the increasingly frantic shouts of his daughter, who has stopped by to check on him. The burden of caring for Billy has made Barbara difficult and unforgiving.
We move to the first time Billy gets unstuck in time. Billy receives minimal training as a chaplain's assistant before being shipped to Europe. He arrives in September of 1944, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He never meets his chaplain or gets a proper helmet or boots. Although he survives the onslaught, he wanders behind German lines, tagging along with two scouts and an anti-tank gunner named Roland Weary. Weary repeatedly saves Billy's life, mostly by not allowing him to lie down in the snow and die. Although the scouts are experienced, Weary is as new to the war as Billy is; he just fancies himself as having more of a taste for it. By firing the anti-tank gun incorrectly, his gun crew put scorch marks into the ground. Because of those marks, the position of the gun crew was revealed to a Tiger tank that fired back. Everyone but Weary was killed. He is stupid, fat, cruel, and violent. Back in Pittsburgh he was friendless, and constantly getting ditched. His father collects torture devices. He carries a cruel trench knife, various pieces of equipment that have been issued to him, and a pornographic photo of a woman with a horse. He plagues Billy with macho, aggressive conversation. In his own mind, Weary narrates the war stories he will one day tell. Although he is almost as clumsy and slow as Billy, he imagines himself and the two scouts as fast friends. In his head he dubs them and himself the Three Musketeers, and tells himself the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the life of a dumb, incompetent college kid.
Straggling behind the others, Billy becomes unstuck in time. He goes back to the red light of pre-birth and then forward again to a day in his childhood with his father at the YMCA. His father tries to teach him how to swim by the sink-or-swim method. Billy sinks, and someone has to rescue him. He jumps forward to 1965, when he is a middle-aged man visiting his mother in a nursing home. Then he jumps to 1958, and Billy is attending his son's Little League banquet. Leap to 1961: Billy is at a party, totally drunk and cheating on his wife for the first and only time. Then, he is back in 1944, being shaken awake by Weary. Weary and Billy catch up to the scouts. Dogs are barking in the distance, and the Germans are searching for them. Billy is in bad shape: he looks like hell, can barely walk, and is having vivid (but pleasant) hallucinations. Weary tries to be chummy with his supposed buddies, the scouts, grouping himself with them as "the Three Musketeers." The scouts coldly tell him that he and Billy are on their own.
Billy goes to 1957, when he gives a speech as the newly elected president of the Lion's Club. Although he has a momentary bout of stage fright, his speech is beautiful. He has taken a public speaking course.
He leaps back to 1944. Ditched again, Weary starts to beat Billy up, furious that this weak college kid has cost him his membership in "the Three Musketeers." He cruelly beats Billy, who is in such a state that he can only laugh. Suddenly, Weary realizes that they are being watched by five German soldiers and a police dog. They have been captured.
Billy's name is a symbol of his innocence. He chooses the child's form, "Billy" rather than "William," and his last name of Pilgrim has symbolic significance. He is on a journey, and "pilgrim" here strongly intimates innocence. He is more like a naïve traveler than a warrior or hardened ascetic. He is not a conventional war hero. Vonnegut chooses to make Billy weak, fearful, incompetent, and mentally unstable. He refuses to glorify war by creating a glamorous hero; instead, he gives us Billy.
Billy's hometown is Ilium, another name for the city of Troy, the doomed city under siege in the Iliad of Homer. The allusion only reinforces the contrast between Billy and a glorious war hero. Ilium is the city that lost; its people were either butchered, scattered, or enslaved. Billy's hometown is named after a city that was destroyed by war.
The theme of narrative versus non-narrative is apparent in Weary's self-aggrandizing war stories, which the stupid man expends energy inventing even before he has survived the war. Billy's chronological jumping and unglamorous military experience provides a cold contrast to the hokey fantasies of the anti-tank gunner. Weary's fantasies come in part from a deep loneliness; a great part of the fantasy is the idea of camaraderie, which Weary has never had before. Weary's real situation is a contrast to his fantasies. He incorrectly fired a shot at a tank and survived by pure luck. Neither the scouts nor Billy can stomach his company. His own narration of the war attempts to turn him into a hero, ignoring pressing dangers and the decidedly unglamorous aspects of his military experience so far. Vonnegut juxtaposes the reality with Weary's narrative to throw all war stories into question. He refuses to give us a hero, and he makes conventional war stories seem preposterous. There is no place here for swelling music or daring deeds. Not enough narrative structure or heroism has showed up to make war look anything other than miserable. The scouts are good soldiers, but they take the non-heroic and necessary path when they abandon their countrymen. In another kind of novel, one closer to the kind of narrative made up by Weary and feared by Mary O'Hare, these scouts might be the central characters. But they are peripheral here, and their deaths will be as quick and inglorious as any in Slaughterhouse Five.