When Billy is in the hospital in Vermont, Valencia goes crazy with grief. Driving to the hospital, she gets in a terrible accident. She gears up her car and continues driving to the hospital, determined to get there even though she leaves her exhaust system behind. She pulls into the hospital driveway and falls unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning. An hour later, she is dead.
Billy is oblivious, unconscious in his bed, dreaming and time traveling. In the bed next to him is Bertram Copeland Ruumford, an arrogant retired Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. He is a seventy-year-old Harvard professor and the official historian of the Air Force, and he is in superb physical condition. He has a twenty-three year-old high school dropout with an IQ of 103. He is an arrogant jingoist. Currently he is working on a history of the Air Corp in World War II. He has to write a section on the success of the Dresden bombing. Ruumfoord's wife Lily is scared of Billy, who mumbles deliriously. Ruumfoord is disgusted by him, because all he does in his sleep in quit or surrender.
Barbara comes to visit Billy. She is in a horrible state, drugged up so she can function after the recent tragedies. Billy cannot hear her. He is remembering an eye exam he gave to a retarded boy a decade ago. Then he leaps in time when he was sixteen years old. In the waiting room of a doctor's office, he sees an old man troubled by horrible gas. Billy opens his eyes and he is back in the hospital in Vermont. His son Robert, a decorated Green Beret, is there. Billy closes his eyes again.
He misses Valencia's funeral because he is till too sick. People assume that he is a vegetable, but actually he is thinking actively about Tralfamadorians and the lectures he will deliver about time and the permanence of moments. Overhearing Ruumford talk about Dresden, Billy finally speaks up and tells Ruumford that he was at Dresden. Ruumford ignores him, trying to convince himself and the doctors that Billy has Echonalia, a condition where the sufferer simply repeats what he hears.
Billy leaps in time to May of 1945, two days after the end of the war in Europe. In a coffin-shaped green wagon, Billy and five other Americans ride with loot from the suburbs of Dresden. They found the wagon, attached to two horses, and have been using it to carry things that they have taken. The homes have been abandoned because the Russians are coming, and the Americans have been looting. When they go to the slaughterhouse and the other five Americans loot among the ruins, Billy naps in the wagon. He has a cavalry pistol and a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber. He wakes; two Germans, a husband-and-wife pair of obstetricians, are angry about how the Americans have treated the horses. The horses' hooves are shattered, their mouths are bleeding from the bits, and they are extremely thirsty. Billy goes around to look at the horses, and he bursts into tears. It is the only time he cries in the whole war. Vonnegut reminds the reader of the epigraph at the start of the book, an excerpt from a Christmas carol that describes the baby Jesus as not crying. Billy cries very little.
He leaps in time back to the hospital in Vermont, where Ruumford is finally questioning Billy about Dresden. Barbara takes Billy home later that day. Billy is watched by a nurse; he is supposed to be under observation, but he escapes to New York City and gets a hotel room. He plans to tell the world about the Tralfamadorians and their concept of time. The next day, Billy goes into a bookstore that sells pornography, peep shows, and Kilgore Trout novels. Billy is only interested in Kilgore Trout novels. In one of the pornographic magazines, there is an article about the disappearance of porn star Montana Wildhack. Later, Billy sneaks onto a radio talk show by posing as a literary critic. The critics take turns discussing the novel, but when Billy gets his turn he talks about Tralfamadore. At the next commercial break, he is made to leave. When he goes back to his hotel room and lies down, he travels back in time to Tralfamadore. Montana is nursing their child. She wears a locket with a picture of her mother and the same prayer that Billy had on his office wall in Ilium.
What kind of hero is Billy? What are we to make of his passivity, his total acceptance of events? Is this wisdom? Or is this the shirking of responsibility? He survived the worst massacre of European history, but he has raised a son who is involved in a continuous series of massacres in Vietnam. When Billy comes to in the hospital and sees his son there, he simply closes his eyes again. Is it because of the injuries, or because his son represents something he would prefer not to look at, one of those things that the Tralfamadorians taught him to ignore? Vonnegut gives us very little sense of how Billy worked as a father or a husband; in the interactions we see, he is almost always completely passive. In his final conversation with Ruumford, he agrees with the professor's conclusions. Dresden was necessary. Although their reasoning is different, the conclusion is the same. Is this kind of complete acceptance healthy?
As stated before, Billy's time travel and the fixed nature of fate means that heroism becomes impossible. Vonnegut attacks the concept of heroic manhood in other ways; pay attention to Ruumford, an arrogant and uncompassionate old man married to a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is a trophy; the professor has taken a wife just to reinforce his claim to being a superman. But Ruumford is totally devoid of compassion, and, like the Tralfamadorians, he is strangely selective in the writing of his history. The excerpts in his own books indicate that Dresden was unnecessary, but he seems to have reached the opposite conclusion by the time he is talking to Billy. And for days he ignores Billy, unwilling to change his view of Billy as a repulsive and useless person.
But Vonnegut clearly wants the reader to view Billy with sympathy. The epigraph links Billy to Christ, as does Billy's sense of his mission to spread the truth about time. Earlier in the book, Vonnegut talked about the problems with Christ as seen by Kilgore Trout. The gospels only teach that it is wrong to kill someone if he is well connected. In a Kilgore Trout novel, an alien brings a new gospel. In it, Christ is not God's son; he is just "a bum," and after his execution God adopts him. Billy, too, is a bum. He is unheroic, weak, and passive, but the characters that despise him for these traits often come off far worse than Billy. Vonnegut also makes Billy his own double: in Chapter One, Vonnegut says that in the war he took a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber as a trophy. In this chapter, we see Billy take the exact same item. Billy and Vonnegut are born in the same year, 1922. When talking about Billy's fantastic thought that "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt," he says that it would make a fitting epitaph for Billy and for Vonnegut, too.
And although complete acceptance seems problematic, there is a value to acceptance. Billy's Tralfamadorian adventure at least helps him to come to terms with his own life. He treats everyone with courtesy, even those who despise him. He does not cast blame on anyone for anything. These behaviors provide some lessons, but they are only part of the truth. Chapter Nine leaves us with an illustration of Montana's locket, on which is the prayer asking God for the ability to accept the world when necessary and change it when possible.
Vonnegut tells us that Robert Kennedy died last night. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated a month ago. Body counts are reported every night on the news as signs that the war in Vietnam is being won. Vonnegut's father died years ago of natural causes. He left Billy all of his guns, which rust. Billy claims that on Tralfamadore the aliens are more interested in Darwin than Jesus. Darwin, says Vonnegut, taught that death was the means to progress. Vonnegut recalls the pleasant trip he made to Dresden with his old war buddy, O'Hare. They were looking up facts about Dresden in a little book when O'Hare came across a passage on the exploding world population. By 2000, the book predicts, the world will have a population of 7 billion people. Vonnegut says that he supposes they will all want dignity.
Billy Pilgrim travels back in time to 1945, two days after the bombing of Dresden. German authorities find the POWs in the innkeeper's stable. Along with other POWs, they are brought back to Dresden to dig for bodies. Bodies are trapped in protected pockets under the rubble, and the POWs are put to work bringing them up. But after one of the workers is lowered into a pocket and dies of the dry heaves, the Germans settle on incinerating the bodies instead of retrieving them. During this time, Edgar Derby is caught with a teapot he took from the ruins. He is tried and executed by a firing squad.
Then the POWs were returned to the stable. The German soldiers went off to fight the Soviets. Spring comes, and one day in May the war is over. Billy and the other men go outside into the abandoned suburbs. They find a horse-drawn wagon, the wagon green and shaped like a coffin. The birds sing, "Po-tee-weet?"
The events Vonnegut mentions put the writer in 1968. America is involved in a new war, in which body counts are reported as signs of progress. He is grounding the events of the novel in current history. He is making the link between one unnecessary massacre and another. The conversation with O'Hare brings up the important theme of dignity. The world's population is only getting larger, and seems as troubled as it ever has been. Vonnegut's comment is caustic, cynical. It suggests that dignity is something that has always been hard to come by. More people in the world means that more people will be denied dignity, more people will suffer.
We finish in Dresden. Vonnegut touches on the massacre one more time by describing the process of retrieving the bodies. A few more men are added to the death list: a Maori who dies of dry heaves, and poor Edgar Derby. We are left with that incredible image of waste, and the cruel, small atrocity of the high school teacher executed for taking a teapot. The disparity between Derby's death and his crime suggests a larger problem that Vonnegut has with killing as a form of punishment. Throughout the book, people defend the massacre at Dresden by talking about the Holocaust or the Allied pilots who faced fighters and anti-aircraft fire. But Vonnegut shows us people in Dresden who probably had nothing to do with the Holocaust. There is awkward Werner Gluck, as unfit for war as Billy; the old war widow who complains that all the real soldiers are dead; the teenage girls who survive one bombing only to die in the next.
And Vonnegut leaves us with a dual image. It is May, the time of the war's end, and also the time for the renewal and rebirth of springtime. But Billy and his friends are still finding reminders of death. Their wagon is shaped like a coffin. They are wandering in suburbs that have become ghost towns, abandoned by Germans fleeing from the Russian advance. They are looting in the rubble of a dead city.
The last line of the novel is the bird's nonsense singing, singing that is posed as a question. The theme of narrative versus anti-narrative is behind the last line. Narrative, by its nature, makes sense of events. Everything so far in this novel has warned us that it is impossible to make sense of a massacre. Vonnegut closes appropriately. It is not only impossible to have answers for a massacre; here, it is even impossible to ask questions that make sense. Instead, we have an unintelligible question posed by birds.