Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4

Chapter Three:


The troops who capture Billy and Weary are irregulars, newly enlisted men using the equipment of newly dead soldiers. Their commander is a tough German corporal, whose beautiful boots are a trophy from a battle long ago. Once, while waxing the boots, he told a soldier that if you stared into their shine you could see Adam and Eve. Though Billy has never heard the corporal's claim, looking into the boots now he sees Adam and Eve and loves them for their innocence, vulnerability, and beauty. A blond fifteen-year-old boy helps Billy to his feet; he looks as beautiful and innocent as Eve. In the distance, shots sound out as the two scouts are killed. Waiting in ambush, they were found and shot in the backs of their heads.

The Germans take Weary's things, including the pornographic picture, which the two old men grin about, and Weary's boots. The fifteen-year old gets Weary's boots, and Weary gets the boy's clogs. Weary and Billy are made to march a long distance to a cottage where American POWs are being detained. The soldiers there say nothing. Billy falls asleep, his head on the shoulder of a Jewish chaplain.

Billy leaps in time to 1967, although it takes him a while to figure out the date. He is giving an eye exam in his office in Ilium. His car, visible outside his window, has conservative stickers on the bumper; the stickers were gifts from his father-in-law.

He leaps back to the war. A German is kicking his feet, telling him to wake up. The Americans are assembled outside for photographs. The photographer takes pictures of Billy's and Weary's feet as evidence of how poorly equipped the American troops are. They stage photos of Billy being captured. Billy then returns to 1967, driving to the Lion's club. He drives through a black ghetto, an area recovering from recent riots and fires. He largely ignores what he sees there. At the Lion's club, a marine major talks about the need to continue the fight in Vietnam. He advocates bombing North Vietnam into the Stone Age, if necessary, and Billy does not think of the horror of bombing, which he has witnessed himself. He is simply having lunch. The narrator mentions that he has a prayer on the wall of his office: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference." The narrator tells us that Billy cannot change past, present, or future.

After lunch, Billy goes home. He is a wealthy man now, with a son in the Green Berets and a daughter about to get married; he also is seized occasionally by sudden and inexplicable bouts of weeping. During one of these spells, he closes his eyes and finds himself back in World War II. He is marching with an ever-growing line of Americans making their way through Luxembourg. They cross into Germany, being filmed by the Germans who want a record of their great victory. Weary's feet are sore and bloody from marching on the German boy's clogs. The Americans are sorted by rank, and a colonel tries to talk with Billy. The colonel is dying; he tries to be chummy with Billy. He has always wanted to be called "Wild Bob" by his men. He dreams of having a reunion of his men in his hometown of Cody, Wyoming. He invites Billy and the other men to come. Vonnegut mentions that he and Bernard O'Hare were there when the colonel gave his invitation. All of the POWs are put into train cars. The train does not leave for two days; during that time Wild Bob dies. The boxcars are so crowded that to sleep the men have to take turns lying down. When the train finally begins its trek deeper into Germany, Billy jumps through time again. It is 1967, and he is about to be kidnapped for the first time by the Tralfamadorians.


The sight of Adam and Eve in the corporal's boots and the beauty of the fifteen-year-old boy are contrasts to the grittiness of war. These images are of vulnerability and innocence. By making Billy's hallucination echo what the corporal himself has said, Vonnegut makes the vision in the boots something slightly more than a hallucination. Billy is gazing on a fantasy of unspoiled human innocence, one longed for by both Germans and Americans, but that innocence appears in the boots that were stripped as a trophy from a dead soldier. The fifteen-year-old is a picture of youth and beauty, but he will not remain innocent for long. Vonnegut focuses on the loss of innocence here: he makes a parallel between Adam and Eve and the young boy. Though Adam and Eve appear in the boots as they did in Eden, vulnerable and naked, we know that after Eden came the fall. Their innocence is also complicated by the fact that their image appears in boots that are spoils of war. Adam and Eve symbolize the innocence and lost innocence that the young boy embodies. Note that the older soldiers grin together about Weary's pornographic photo, with the young boy left out of their crude jokes and leering. But the young boy will inevitably lose his innocence; though for now he is new to war, time and experience will put blood on his hands. Vonnegut chooses to focus on the beauty of this boy, pre-war, rather than the steely manhood of, say, the nearby scouts. The boy is compared to Eve rather than Adam, emphasizing his distance from manhood and his vulnerability. Vonnegut does not depict the heroic beauty of men like the scouts. The scouts, in fact, die a very unglamorous death. Trying to lie in ambush for the enemy, they are shot from behind, denied even the dignity of facing their killer. Again and again, Vonnegut chooses to focus on what is lost in wartime, rather than depict the heroism of soldiers. One of the only moments of heroism in the entire novel occurs much later, and it happens far from the battlefield.

The theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here again. Notice that the Germans, some of the greatest producers of war narrative ever, are constantly constructing narratives. They take misleading pictures of Weary's feet to prove that U.S. soldiers lack proper equipment, even though Weary's boots were taken from him and his current shoes were originally on the feet of a German soldier. They stage photos of Billy's capture, making a story in pictures that fits ideas of what a capture is supposed to look like; note that the phony picture looks much more like our idea of a capture than the carnival-like reality of Billy's actual capture. The pathetic Wild Bob dreams of having his men call him "Wild Bob," although so far the name only sticks with irony. He hopes to have a great, manly reunion in Wyoming, although in truth he will not even survive the war. Nor will his death be a glorious battlefield martyrdom. He will die from illness. The more familiar styles of war narrative are very different from what Vonnegut gives us in the novel. We are given the story of war in jumbled fragments, with the focus on a character who is not in the slightest bit heroic.

These scenes of Billy in 1967 tell us important things about his character. He is deeply passive. The bumper stickers on his Cadillac are not even his own; they are gifts from his father. When Billy drives through the ghetto, he chooses to ignore the suffering there. When a black man taps on his window, wanting to talk about something, Billy does the easy thing: he drives on. When the marine major lectures about the need to bomb Vietnam, Billy is silent. He just keeps having in lunch. These scenes are important social commentary. Keep in mind that Slaughterhouse Five was published in 1969, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. More tonnage of explosives was dropped onto Vietnam than in all of World War II put together, including the two atomic bombs.

Billy has a very peculiar interpretation of the prayer on his wall. If he cannot change past, present, or future, than what is left? Billy's indifference should not be mistaken as Vonnegut's. Although Billy believes in aliens and the fixed nature of fate, Vonnegut does not intend for the reader to take these things as the important lessons of the book. At times, Vonnegut seems to despair of being able to change the world with a book, but Billy's maddening acceptance and silence are not being offered as the admirable way to act. Billy's acceptance is in direct opposition to Vonnegut's own attitude put forward in Chapter One. Vonnegut tells his sons that they are never to participate in massacres; in contrast, Billy's son is a Green Beret in Vietnam. Vonnegut struggled for over two decades to write an "anti-war book" about Dresden, and his concerns are for the "babies," the children who fight in wars. The reader should not take Billy's Tralfamadorian philosophy as Vonnegut's.

Chapter Four:


In 1967, on his daughter's wedding night, Billy cannot sleep. Because he is unstuck in time, he knows that he will soon be kidnapped by a Tralfamadorian flying saucer. He kills time unproductively in the meantime. He watches a war movie, and because he is unstuck in time the movie goes forward and then backward. He goes out to meet the ship, and he is taken as planned. As the ship shoots out into space, Billy is jarred back to 1944. In the boxcar, none of the men want Billy to sleep next to them because he yells and thrashes in his sleep. He is forced to sleep while standing. In another car, Weary dies of gangrene in his feet. As he slowly dies over the course of days, he tells people again and again about the Three Musketeers. He also asks that someone get revenge for him on the man who caused his death. He blames Billy Pilgrim, of course.

The train finally arrives at a camp, and Billy and the other men are pushed and prodded along. The camp is full of dying Russian POWs. At points, Vonnegut likens the Russians' faces to radium dials. The Americans are all given coats; Billy's is too small. They go into a delousing station, where all of the men strip naked. Billy has one of the worst bodies there; he is skinny and weak, and a German soldier comments on that fact. We are introduced briefly to Edgar Derby and Paul Lazarro. Derby is the oldest POW there, a man who pulled strings to get into the army. He is a high school teacher from Indianapolis, and he is physically sturdy despite his forty-four years of age. He will be shot after the Dresden bombing for trying to steal a teapot. Paul Lazarro is a car thief from Illinois. His body is even weaker and less healthy than Billy's. He was in Roland Weary's boxcar, and he vowed solemnly to Weary that he would find and kill Billy Pilgrim. When the scalding water turns on, Billy leaps back to his infancy. His mother has just finished giving him a bath. He then leaps forward to a Sunday game of golf, played with three other optometrists. Then, he leaps in time to the space ship, on his first trip to Tralfamadore. He talks with one of his captors about time, and he says that the Tralfamadorians sound like they do not believe in free will. The alien replies that in all of the inhabited planets of the galaxy, Earth is the only one whose people believe in the concept of free will.


The movie Billy watches is both a sweet and gentle dream and another comment on the impossibility of replacing the things lost in war. When Billy watches the movies in reverse, he sees bombers sucking up fire into capsules that fly up for storage; German fighters magically pull the bullet holes out of bombers and heal the wounds of aircrews. The planes land backwards. Billy extrapolates: the capsules are returned to America, where women work to disassemble and make sure that the destructive things inside will never be able to harm anyone. Hitler becomes a baby. All people become babies, generation after generation, returning to "two perfect people named Adam and Eve" (75). Vonnegut is invoking Adam and Eve again as symbols of innocence and the loss of innocence. The theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here in a different form, pairing a war story with its mirror image. By putting the movie in reverse, Vonnegut provides a reversed war story. The machinery of war is used to heal, rather than hurt. The expense and effort of war is for the aid of humanity, rather than to kill. The conclusion is a return to the beauty and perfection of Adam and Eve. But this reversed narrative is only a fantasy. Watching films in reverse is always slightly comic, not possible to take as a real story. The return to Adam and Eve's innocence is impossible. In real life, we are not unstuck in time. We cannot reverse the losses of war. Death and destruction cannot really be undone.

Although Billy is not heroic, Vonnegut makes him an extremely sympathetic character. Weary's mean-spirited call for revenge is certainly undeserved by Billy. Vonnegut also constantly points out how weak and unsuitable for war Billy is; it is not his fault that he is no soldier.

We see the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Because the Tralfamadorians experience all time simultaneously, they know everything that will happen. The aliens accept fate completely and without struggle. Billy, unstuck in time, knows everything that will ever happen to him. But are we meant, as readers of this novel, to learn that fate is fixed? Probably not. The Tralfamadorians are, after, all, sentient toilet plungers, and Billy is a mentally unhinged man; there are also suggestions throughout the novel that the aliens are a coping mechanism for Billy, the products of mental damage from the war and exposure to the writing of Kilgore Trout. But whether or not the aliens are real does not affect how fate operates within the confines of Billy's story. By setting up fate as unchangeable within the confines of the Billy Pilgrim story, Vonnegut discounts the possibility of heroism. He is continuing to play with anti-narrative by making his characters subject to much larger forces. The individual has no real place in this view; the events and forces are too great for any man to be a hero. But Vonnegut is not advocating passive acceptance of war and brutality. Remember the publication date of 1969, and the novel's place as pertinent social commentary on the Vietnam War. Remember Vonnegut's own insistence in Chapter One that he has told his sons never to participate in massacres. The acceptance of fixed events occurs within the confines of the Billy Pilgrim story. For the Billy Pilgrim story, fate operates as a way to preclude any possibility of a conventional heroic war narrative.