THE NOVEL-THE PLOT-Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europein the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteranwell- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war inVietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was thesingle most important event in his life. The sights and scars of warremain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memoriesof 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 hissix months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war havedominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to termswith the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result ofhis war experiences.
Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. Hereorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context ofhis days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy’sprewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which wasmany years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but thereal story of the novel is the story of Billy’s wartime days. Allthe other events in Billy’s life are merely incidental to his timeas a soldier and a prisoner of war.
You see them as events that cometo his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war inEurope. Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of time-travel. Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t live his life one dayafter another. He has become unstuck in time, and he jumps aroundamong 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 andthree other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemylines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in hispast with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes inthe 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 findshimself 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 atrain bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a greatadventure in the future: on his daughter’s wedding night in 1967, heis kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planetTralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put himin a zoo.
Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. Thetrain arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of Britishofficers throw a banquet for the American POWs. Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in1948, where he’s visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as herecovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up inbusiness as an optometrist by Valencia’s father.
Billy is introducedto science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whosefavorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout’s writing is terrible, butBilly comes to admire his ideas. Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the mostpopular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billybecause his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, thatwars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.
Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. Aftermaking love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy cansay much about it, he’s back there himself. The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an opencity (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, whilealmost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knowsthat Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there’snothing worth bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories,nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housedin 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 Tralfamadorehe tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meatlocker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day,Dresden looks like the surface of the moon.
Everything has beenreduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing ismoving anywhere. After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and theothers wake up one morning to discover that their guards havedisappeared. The war is over and they are free. THE CHARACTERS-One way to keep straight the many characters inSlaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appearin Billy Pilgrim’s life. There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, PaulLazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W.
Campbell, Jr. ), the people fromhis postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, hisdaughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and ProfessorRumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (theTralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack). A fourth group of characters might include the author himself andactual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O’Hare. Some ofthe characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels byVonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
, in Mother Night, and theTralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O’Hares, youmeet all of these characters only when they interact with BillyPilgrim. -BILLY PILGRIMKurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. Whenyou first see a character’s name, you usually know something aboutthat character even before you read about what he or she has done. Billy Pilgrim’s last name tells you that he is someone who travelsin foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious orspiritual aspect.
Otherwise Billy doesn’t appear very promising as the hero of anovel. Physically, he’s a classic wimp. He’s tall, weak, and clumsy,with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches and theoverall appearance of a filthy flamingo. He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a childand his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to thebottom and waited to drown.
While he is trying to avoid capture by theGermans, three other American soldiers offer him protection andcompanionship, yet he keeps saying, You guys go on without me. Afterthe war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupidand unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets hisdaughter 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 thewilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peacefor humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy’s assassinationby Paul Lazzaro and Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross.
But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army hismeek faith in a loving Jesus makes everybody else sick. Hispacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billylook like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes. Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel tohim, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragilepersonality is the fire-bombing of Dresden.
In what kind of world issuch a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which hehas no answer. Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers toturn the other cheek rather than put up a fight. This may be hisweakling attempt at the imitation of Christ, but to many readersit looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enablehim to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heartpeople are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodnessnever lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it’shis imagination that saves him.
Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him toscience fiction, Billy’s fantasies are aimless and childish. Then,in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit whonot only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versionsof reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasyworld. In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and MontanaWildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy mustbecome innocent again, and to do this he has to discharge theguilt and despair associated with his past. He does this byreorganizing his life through time-travel, gradually puttingeverything- but especially Dresden- in perspective.
When this isaccomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free. -ROLAND WEARYA soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly atrisk, the tension sometimes unbearable. You know when you first seehis name that Billy’s fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted aftermany months of fighting. What he needs is some rest. Weary is a hard person to like: he’s stupid, fat, and mean, and hesmells bad. It’s no surprise that his companions want to ditch himmost 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 warmovie in which he is the hero. Because Weary fears that hisreal-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war movieconcentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in reallife. Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid off him sooner orlater. His Three Musketeers story is only a fantasy. He will wantrevenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his revenge byditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even lesspopular than himself, suckers him into a friendship, then ditcheshim first.
This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim. One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way hewould have wanted- in the arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Wearyhas finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last, knowingthat Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary’s life, tokill Billy Pilgrim. -PAUL LAZZAROThe American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest characterin the book. Not only is he disgusting to look at, he’s nasty to thecore, a real snake.
In civilian life his friends are gangsters andkillers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing inlife to him is getting revenge on people who have crossed him. It’s not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both ofthem have regularly been snubbed by the more popular and attractivepeople in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness thanWeary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he’sspeaking in the abstract, not talking about torturing anyone inparticular.
But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, eachtorture is tailor-made for a specific victim. Vonnegut’s description of Lazzaro is devastating: If he had beena dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his headto a laboratory, to see if he had rabies. -EDGAR DERBYAt the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hatswhenever they went outdoors. But by then the derby, a hat with adome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually seenonly on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derbyis an older man than his fellow American POWs, and his values arethose he learned in an earlier era. Because you know from the first that poor old Edgar Derby (as heis usually called) is doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindnessand generosity with a sinking heart.
For Edgar Derby doesn’t deserveto 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 inthe prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim while theother Americans party with the Englishmen. Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulledstrings to get into the fighting after the army told him he was tooold. And in Dresden, when the American Nazi Howard W.
Campbell, Jr. ,tries to talk the prisoners into going over to his side, Derbystands up to him and makes a moving speech about the ideals ofAmerica: freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play forall. This takes courage, considering the position he’s in. -VALENCIA MERBLE PILGRIMBilly first checks into the mental hospital after hearing himselfpropose marriage to this overweight, not very bright daughter ofIlium’s richest optometrist.
He sees her as a symptom of hisdisease, his inability to deal with the alarming reality of the worldand his lack of interest in life. But he marries her anyway,apparently for lack of a good reason not to. The marriage is hardlya great romance, but Billy finds it at least bearable all the way. His unhappiness seems to have less to do with her than with lifeitself. Considering that Vonnegut frequently prefers female over malevalues, it’s difficult to find much to admire in Valencia. Not only isshe unattractive, she’s insensitive to the deep psychological damageBilly underwent in the war, from which he continues to suffer.
But for all her faults, Valencia adores Billy and is helplesslydevoted to him. She is so terrified of losing him after he barelysurvives a plane crash that she wrecks her car on the way to thehospital, passes out, and dies from carbon monoxide fumes. -BARBARA PILGRIMBarbara Pilgrim, Billy’s put-upon daughter, has hardly had achance to get married and set up her own household when her fatheralmost dies in a plane crash. While he is in the hospital, hermother inadvertently kills herself in an auto accident. Then, whenBilly comes home, he turns out to be prematurely senile from braindamage and begins telling crazy stories about time-travel and alienskidnapping him in a flying saucer. Not only is she suddenly the headof 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 RUMFOORDBilly meets Rumfoord while recuperating from the plane crash in1968. Relentlessly virile and athletic, this seventy-year-oldHarvard professor and Air Force historian embodies every traditionalmasculine virtue Billy finds so upsetting: blind patriotism,sexism (his young fifth wife is just one more public demonstrationthat he’s a superman), and a firm belief in the survival of thefittest. Vonnegut uses Rumfoord as the primary spokesman for what he callsthe military manner of thinking, which orders and then cravenlyjustifies atrocities such as the bombing of Dresden.
-THE TRALFAMADORIANSThe Tralfamadorians are two feet high, and green, and shaped likeplumber’s friends topped by a little hand with a green eye in itspalm. They can see in four dimensions, and this enables them tolook at all time all at once, so death and the future hold no fear forthem. The Tralfamadorians, who live on a distant planet, are creaturesof science fiction. Because of their alien perspective, the Tralfamadorians view humanbehavior with an objectivity few Earthlings can have. In this way,Vonnegut may be using the Tralfamadorians to tell you what he thinksabout human conduct.
Whenever the Tralfamadorians speak, Vonnegutmay be revealing his own philosophy of life. Some readers argue that the purpose of the Tralfamadorians is toresolve the contradictions in life that have made Billy so upset. Inthis interpretation, the aliens function in the same way as dreams andmythology: they explain things through images and stories. Others see the Tralfamadorians as the gods in Billy’s fantasyuniverse: they guide and protect the creatures in their charge.
Thismakes them a big improvement over the gods Vonnegut sees as therulers of the modern world- technology, which dehumanizes people,and authoritarian cruelty, which destroys people in the name of thesurvival of the fittest. The Tralfamadorians give Billy a philosophy through which he findspeace of mind. They also give him Montana Wildhack to mate with, andthat brings him true happiness as well. -MONTANA WILDHACKBilly’s lover in this alien zoo is a curious combination ofingredients.
On the one hand, she is the compliant sex kitten thatbored, middle-aged males dream about in erotic fantasies. She isbeautiful (and naked), and makes the first sexual advances- thoughshyly, of course. On the other hand, Billy requires more from his dream woman thanmere sexuality. His entire Tralfamadore fantasy is his attempt toreinvent the human race, with himself as the new Adam and Montana asthe new Eve. And so he makes her loving as well as sexy, understandingas well as seductive, and a good mother to their child as well as agood lover to him.
In Billy’s ideal Creation, both must be able tobehave as decently as he believes Adam and Eve really wanted tobehave. For all of her prodigious virtues, Montana Wildhack comes off asrather bloodless compared to the real-life women in the book, suchas the annoying Valencia, the prickly Barbara, or the fiery MaryO’Hare. But then Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It’s a lot safer. -ELIOT ROSEWATEROne of the richest and smartest men in America, Eliot Rosewater isalso one of the most disillusioned.
His faith in Americanrighteousness in World War II was shattered when he found that hehad killed a German fireman who was trying to put out a fire thatAmerican bombers had started. He tried drinking, but that just ruined his health withoutalleviating what he saw as the alarming unfairness of the modernworld. So he committed himself to a mental hospital. There he meetsa kindred spirit in Billy Pilgrim, who comes to share with him the oneconsolation Eliot has found in life: the peculiar wisdom in thescience fiction of Kilgore Trout.
-KILGORE TROUTThe science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has great ideas for novels. (The Gutless Wonder is about a robot with bad breath; in The Gospelfrom Outer Space Jesus is a nobody until God adopts him. ) But hisprose style is frightful. After thirty years and more thanseventy-five novels, Trout has only two fans, Eliot Rosewater andBilly Pilgrim, and even they are appalled by his writing. Kilgore Trout is a manic version of Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrotescience fiction and for years suffered from an indifferent public. Vonnegut uses Trout’s books to make fun of many of the valuesAmericans hold dear.
At the same time, he gets in a few good swipes atthe pretensions of his own profession. In Slaughterhouse-Five (as in the two other Vonnegut novels in whichhe appears) Kilgore Trout plays a small but important role. Hisbooks offer Billy inspiration for therapeutic fantasies, and hepersonally gives Billy the courage to face his Dresden experience. -HOWARD W. CAMPBELL, JR. Campbell is an American Nazi propagandist who writes a scornfulaccount of the behavior of American POWs in Germany and who shows upat the slaughterhouse in Dresden to recruit candidates for his FreeAmerican Corps.
He tries to bribe the Americans by promising them aterrific meal, but Edgar Derby puts Campbell in his place by callinghim lower. . . than a blood-filled tick. Campbell only smiles. In an earlier book, Mother Night, Vonnegut told Campbell’s wholestory- he’s really an American spy who delivers coded messages tothe Allies through his racist radio broadcasts.
But inSlaughterhouse we see him only in his official role as the Nazi hepretends to be. -MARY O’HAREVonnegut dedicates this book to a real person, Mary O’Hare, the wifeof his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare. He first meets her when hetries to get Bernard to reminisce with him about their warexperiences, with the idea of generating material for his famous bookabout Dresden. This makes Mary angry.
She cares deeply about life-she’s a nurse- and to her, all war does is kill people. She isstrong-minded and courageous enough to tell off an almost perfectstranger 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 oldfarts like him, enough people might see the absurdity of war and wewouldn’t have wars any more. -BERNARD V.
O’HAREWhen Vonnegut visits Bernard O’Hare after the war, O’Hare appears tobe little more than a henpecked husband, and acts embarrassed whenVonnegut tries to get him reminiscing about the war. But O’Hare had refused to pick up souvenirs in Dresden, so even thenhe must have hated the war and the profit some people made from it(his buddies with their trophies, Vonnegut with his book). He’s agentle man who reproaches no one: when Vonnegut asks why Mary ismad, O’Hare lies to spare Vonnegut’s feelings. And even though hedisapproves of Vonnegut’s project, he is kind enough to leave a bookabout 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, andtogether they return to Dresden in 1967.
-KURT VONNEGUTThe author himself appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly in thefirst chapter, where he struggles vainly to get a handle on writinghis Dresden book. His breakthrough comes when Mary O’Hare remindshim that it’s really babies who fight wars, not grown men. From thatmoment 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 Americanprisoners of war saw and did really happened- and that he was there atthe time. In the last chapter he tells about his return to Dresdenas a tourist in 1967 with Bernard O’Hare. OTHER ELEMENTS-SETTING-There are three main settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.
-1. War-ravaged Europe, through which Billy travels as a POW and endsup in Dresden. -2. Peacetime America, where Billy prospers as an optometrist andpillar of society in Ilium, New York. -3. The planet Tralfamadore, where Billy and his fantasy loverMontana Wildhack are exhibited in a zoo.
-Each setting corresponds to a different period in Billy Pilgrim’slife, and the story jumps from one setting to another as Billy travelsback and forth in time. The physical contrast between the devastation of Europe and theaffluence of postwar America is tremendous. It’s ironic that Billy,who suffered extreme privations as a prisoner of war, is made tofeel no better by the material wealth he later acquires as asuccessful optometrist in Ilium, N. Y. Ilium is the classical name for Troy, one of the richest cities inthe ancient world.
In The Iliad, the Greek poet Homer (ninth centuryB. C. ) tells the story of the Trojan War, in which Troy waseventually destroyed by the besieging Greeks. Some readers believethat Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Iliad, for Troy wasreputedly as beautiful as Dresden was before it was bombed. Billy begins to be happy about life only in an artificial but cozyhabitat on another planet. Tralfamadore is an invention of Billy’simagination, a paradise in which he, as Adam, and a new Eve (theformer pornographic movie star Montana Wildhack) can start the humanrace over again.
Within the dome that protects them from the poisonousatmosphere of Tralfamadore, Billy and Montana are tended and watchedover by a new set of gods, the wise and kindly Tralfamadorians. But notice that in each of the novel’s main settings Billy isconfined: first as a POW, then as a prisoner of the meaninglesscontraptions 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 matterhow much he moves around from one to the other. The persistent imageof a bug trapped in amber is Vonnegut’s clearest expression of thisidea. THEMES-Slaughterhouse-Five is first and foremost about war and how humanbeings cope with it.
In treating this subject, Vonnegut exploresseveral major themes, but no single one of them explains the wholenovel. You’ll find that some of the following statements ring moretrue to you than others, yet you can find evidence in the book tosupport all of them. -WAR IS ABSURDVonnegut attacks the reasoning that leads people to commitatrocities by drawing character portraits (Roland Weary andProfessor Rumfoord) and by quoting from official documents(President Harry Truman’s explanation of the reasons for droppingthe atomic bomb on Hiroshima). And he gives you a look at the ruins ofDresden so you can see the ground zero consequences of what he callsthe military manner of thinking- which rationalizes a massacre bysaying it will hasten the end of the war. But more important than this generalized condemnation, Vonnegutfocuses on the enormity of war and its disastrous effect on humanlives, even long after it is over.
Billy Pilgrim’s problems all stemfrom what he experienced in the war. The hobo freezes to death inthe boxcar; Roland Weary dies from gangrene in his feet; Edgar Derbyis shot for stealing a teapot; the harmless city of Dresden isbombed into the ground: it shouldn’t be possible for such things tohappen, Billy feels. And yet he was there and saw them happen with hisown eyes. His science fiction fantasies and time-traveling are hisattempt to cope with the psychological damage the war inflicted onhim.
The fact that he succeeds (by going senile) is perhaps the mostabsurd thing of all. -AUTHORITY IS TO BLAME FOR ATROCITIESTo Vonnegut, both the boss and the underling escape guilt when anatrocity is committed: the boss’s hands are clean because others didthe dirty work, and the underling was only following orders. Hemaintains that this was just as true of the Allies as it was of theNazis in World War II. The Nazis built the death camps, and the Alliesbombed Hiroshima and Dresden.
Vonnegut believes that a great evil of authoritarianism is theassumption of righteousness, the claim that God is on our side. Inother writings he expresses regret that the Nazis were so plainly evilbecause that just made it easier for the Allied authorities to claimthat anything they did to defeat the Nazis was justified. To Vonnegut this is the same kind of authoritarian arrogance thatled the Nazis into evil acts in the first place. There is no moraljustification for atrocities, Vonnegut says, even though somedefenders of the Dresden bombing maintain that it did accomplish itsgoal: to end the war sooner by demoralizing the enemy. -MODERN LIFE IS MEANINGLESSBilly Pilgrim’s indifference to life comes as much from hispeacetime experiences as from anything that happened to him in thewar.
During the war he could at least tell whether he was alive ordead. But his postwar life is empty in spite of his material wealthand the respect of his peers. Vonnegut highlights this apparent contradiction by having Billy findpeace and happiness only through fantasy (or senility). Vonnegut seemsto say that in real life, life doesn’t work. -ART VS. REALITYVonnegut spends a good deal of time in Slaughterhouse-Five talkingabout fiction.
In Chapter 1 he shows how a writer distorts realityby forcing it to fit into the mold of a good story. In Chapter 5he discusses the good and bad effects fiction has on our understandingof life. In Chapter 9 he pokes fun at the pretensions of writers andcritics who take fiction too seriously. And the fragmented stylein which Slaughterhouse-Five is written may be an attempt toreinvent the novel.
As Eliot Rosewater says, fiction just isn’tenough any more. Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of art itself. Art selectsand orders its material, and the final product is a coherent whole. But life is messy and redundant: it can’t be contained in the neatformula of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the caseof such a horrifying event as the Dresden massacre, art has nothingintelligent to say. Some readers believe that Vonnegut overstates the problem inSlaughterhouse-Five, that the book itself is the solution.
just asBilly Pilgrim reinvents his life so he can cope with it, Vonnegutreinvents the novel so that it can cope with the absurd and oftenmonstrous events of the modern world. -TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZES PEOPLEMachine imagery abounds in Slaughterhouse-Five, and wherever itturns up, it means bad news for human beings. Obviously, withoutsophisticated technology, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshimawould not have been possible. But Vonnegut portrays even peacetimetechnology as making people into robots whose lives revolve aroundtending and improving machines. Billy’s father-in-law, LionelMerble, for example, is turned into a machine by the optometrybusiness. -There are several additional themes that Vonnegut only touches on inSlaughterhouse-Five, but which are given fuller treatment in his otherbooks.
-FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISMAt first the heroes of almost all Vonnegut’s novels believe infree will. (Free will is the idea that human beings make choices anddecide their own destinies, that their actions make a difference inshaping their futures. ) But inevitably Vonnegut’s heroes discover thattheir choices were manipulated by outside forces, that their fateswere predetermined all along. Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s most passivehero. He finds happiness and peace of mind only after adopting thedeterministic philosophy of his imaginary masters, theTralfamadorians.
-DARWIN VS. JESUSVonnegut feels that Charles Darwin legitimized cruelty with histheory of natural selection. Although Darwin limited his theorizing tobiology, other thinkers like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) applied this theory to social matters, and took Darwin’sidea that the strong are favored in natural survival one step further,implying that only the strong should survive. It is this version ofsocial Darwinism that Vonnegut disapproves of. In contrast, althoughhe has been an atheist all his life, Vonnegut has always admired theChristian virtues of pacifism, tolerance, and love. -ORGANIZED RELIGIONVonnegut doesn’t have much good will toward organized religion.
For him it is no different from any other form of authority, andtherefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How manyatrocities have been justified by the claim that God is on our side?-DEATHPeople are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of coursethe destruction of Dresden brought death on a massive scale. Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, Soit goes. In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude towarddeath by emphasizing that death is a common aspect of human existence. Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion thatpeople who are dead in the present remain alive in the times oftheir past.
Perhaps the author is saying that we too should beconsoled: the dead still live in our memories. STYLE-On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains thenature of novels on that planet:-Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing asituation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, notone after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship betweenall the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, sothat, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that isbeautiful and surprising and deep.
There is no beginning, no middle,no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we lovein our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all atone time. -When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shockof recognition. It sounds a lot like the very book you’re reading, andyou realize that the author is describing the effect he wants hisnovel to have. The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five isthe fact that the text is made up of clumps of paragraphs, eachclump set off by extra space before and after it.
A few of theclumps are only one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and ahalf. Each of them makes a simple statement or relates an incidentor situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotalstyle: the book is a collection of brief incidents, and the effectof each one depends on how the author tells it. Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say agreat deal in a few words. Three inoffensive bangs came from faraway.
The report seems an innocent one until you find out that thescouts have just been shot. The contrast between the inoffensivesound and its deadly meaning provides a startling effect. There is irony too in that inoffensive, for what is inoffensive toone person’s ears is fatally offensive to another person’s life. Ironyis a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly straightforwardstatement or situation actually means its opposite.
Irony occurs againand again in the incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that,for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, asoldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is ironyin a former hobo’s telling Billy- inside a boxcar prison that could betaking them to their death- I been in worse places than this. Thisain’t so bad.
And because Dresden was an open city during most ofthe war, it was full of refugees who had fled there for safety. Almostall of them died in the bombing. That is ironic. Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, aform of ridicule that uses mockery and exaggeration to expose thefoolishness or evil of its subject.
Professor Rumfoord is asatirical portrait of the all-American male ideal. And, almost everydescription of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern life in someway. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath iscleared up (advertising values), or a money tree is fertilized bythe dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its fruit(material values). Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billyas a filthy flamingo and a broken kite, the Russian prisoner as aragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.
Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gunmakes a ripping sound like the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breakingtenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tearswhen Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt syrup. Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) tohistorical events. He evokes the Children’s Crusade in order to draw aparallel between the babies he and O’Hare were in World War II andthe thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European childrenwere sent off to conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works ofliterature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer Celine, themedieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. Heparaphrases the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentionsJesus occasionally.
These allusions deepen our understanding andappreciation of Billy’s story by suggesting historical and literaryparallels to the personal events in his life. POINT OF VIEW-In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks toyou directly in the first person about the difficult time he hadwriting his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim’s story toldby a third-person narrator. Because an outside narrator is telling Billy’s story, you learnnot only what Billy is doing and thinking at any time but what theother characters are up to and what’s on their minds.
Because Vonnegutexplains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, thathis own experiences in Dresden were the inspiration forSlaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-personnarrator and Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, theauthor is looking at the events of his own life- past, present, andfuture- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way thatBilly is trying to order the events of his own life. On several occasions the author actually reminds you directlythat, while he’s telling Billy’s story, he- Kurt Vonnegut- wasthere, too. You’re reading about events that are based on the author’sexperience as a POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you thatyou’re being told a story by a much older man, someone with a quitedifferent outlook on life from that of the baby who went to Dresden. The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to commentfrequently on the action, on life, and on writing itself.
FORM AND STRUCTURE-As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadoriansread the clumps of symbols, or messages, that make up their booksall at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphsthat make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you provides the structure of thenovel. Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue inwhich he tells his own story of writing his famous book aboutDresden. The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim’sstory. Vonnegut begins this narrative with a short, factual history ofBilly’s life to the present in 1968.
You soon discover why he doesthis: in the pages that follow, Billy’s adventures are not relatedentirely in chronological order, and that little outline history inthe early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzleover the proper sequence of events. The portion of Billy Pilgrim’s history that is presentedchronologically 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 farthe most important in Billy’s life, and the novel is about how Billycomes 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, theauthor has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended. Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determinedby the sequence of events Billy experienced in the final months ofWorld War II.
Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happeningsof his life. He even believes that he first came unstuck in timein the Luxembourg forest in 1944, though the narrator seems to suggestthat this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the brain damageBilly sustained in the plane crash in 1968. Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memoriesand adding his fantasies, it’s important that you keep your bearingsas you follow Billy’s own rearrangement of his history. For this youmay find helpful the following chronological sequence of the importantevents 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 Battleof the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headedfor Czechoslovakia. -1945 Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, isJanuary housed in Slaughterhouse-Five. -1945 Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies. POWs and guards surviveFebruary in an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out ofthe rubble the next day.
-1945 War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes homeMay to Ilium. -1948 Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries ValenciaMerble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometrybusiness in Ilium prospers. -1967 Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and takento Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo andmated with Montana Wildhack.
-1968 Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies whileBilly is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tellabout the Tralfamadorians. -1976 Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flyingsaucers and time. THE STORY-Vonnegut’s method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult tofollow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelatedanecdotes. To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in thissection begins with a brief overview of the chapter’s structure.
CHAPTER 1-STRUCTURE: The string of anecdotes that lead up to Vonnegut’svisit with the O’Hares all describe problems related to writing hisfamous book about Dresden. After his visit to the O’Hares, thingsstart going well for him, and he is able to write the book. In thelast part of the chapter Vonnegut finds solutions to (or at least waysaround) 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 towrite about Dresden- all I would have to do would be to report what Ihad seen- he just can’t seem to get started. Vonnegut may be afraidthat he has used up his talent, or somehow ruined it (the off-colorlimerick suggests this idea), perhaps by writing so much sciencefiction instead of saving himself for his great book aboutDresden. EVERY TIME HE STARTS THE BOOK, HE ENDS UP GOING IN CIRCLES. TheYon Yonson poem illustrates this dilemma. Once you start it, you goaround and around forever.
ANOTHER ANTIWAR BOOK WOULD BE POINTLESS. This problem is clearlystated in the conversation Vonnegut has with the movie director. Booksdon’t stop wars because wars are as unstoppable as glaciers are. WRITING ISN’T THE NOBLE PROFESSION EVERYONE THINKS IT IS. Vonnegutcalls himself a trafficker in climaxes and thrills andcharacterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense andconfrontations.
He goes on to describe a diagram he made that reducesevery human being to a line of color and makes the destruction ofDresden nothing but a brilliant stripe of orange. What was once anatrocity has now become something abstract and pretty. ——————————————————————NOTE: PARALLEL IMAGES This chapter is full of images that resurfacein altered form later in the book. In Chapter 4, for example, theTralfamadorians use the metaphor of bugs trapped in amber todescribe human beings caught in time. This image parallels the idea ofcharacters trapped in a diagram for a story.
The idioticEnglishman with his absurd souvenir turns up again in the guise ofRoland Weary displaying his weapons to Billy (Chapter 2) and later(Chapter 6) as Billy himself, showing his treasures to the Dresdensurgeon. In a way the Englishman is also like Vonnegut trying tointerest O’Hare in his Dresden story. Vonnegut is not onlystruggling with writing problems here, he is generating materialthat he will rework into Billy’s story. ——————————————————————WRITING WON’T HELP VONNEGUT FIND MEANING IN HIS LIFE. Vonnegut isn’tvery happy with himself.
He’s getting old, he’s killing himself withalcohol 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 anold fart with his memories and his Pall Malls. WRITING DEHUMANIZES THE WRITER. The gruesome story of theveteran’s being killed by an elevator points up this problem. Nancydoes to the veteran the same thing that Vonnegut wants to do withEdgar Derby- she dehumanizes him by making him a character in a story. This in turn dehumanizes her, making her unable to feel anything forthe suffering of others.
Vonnegut fears that even if he does finishhis Dresden book, the very act of constructing a good story willturn him into a callous creep. ——————————————————————NOTE: MACHINE IMAGERY One of Vonnegut’s favorite themes is theuneasy relationship between man and machines, and this anecdote isshot through with machine imagery. it’s even possible to see theNews Bureau as being run by its machines. And it’s ironic that theveteran is killed by getting his hand caught in an iron gate that isimitating life forms- iron ivy, iron twigs, iron lovebirds. Keep aneye 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 anotherproblem. How do you respond when someone tells you these ghastlystories? Oh, my God doesn’t say very much, does it? That’sVonnegut’s point. These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, untilhe visited the O’Hares. You should look at this anecdote in somedetail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen throughthe eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend.
To them theworld is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls tostop and wonder at. The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with thepurpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if thattime of destruction and death were the good old days. O’Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seemsintent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, movesfurniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut offhe too is embarrassed because he realizes he’s been thinking andacting like a fool about his famous book on Dresden.
——————————————————————NOTE: EMBARRASSMENT Doesn’t every anecdote in this chapter dealwith embarrassment? Vonnegut has consistently portrayed himself as afool: a grown man playing with crayons, an idiotic Englishman withhis stupid souvenir, an old fart who talks to his dog, a greenreporter trying to act tough. The point is that he doesn’t realize howembarrassing his actions have been until he encounters Mary O’Hare. Perhaps Vonnegut is saying that embarrassment, not horror, is theproper way to feel about atrocities committed in war. It is thosepeople who are not embarrassed who are dangerous. They are the oneswho come up with the kind of thinking that says, We have to bombDresden so we can end the war sooner. ——————————————————————Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting theO’Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book The Children’sCrusade.
Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallizehis 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 Crusadesbetween the years 1095 and 1271. The Christian powers of Europe sentthese military expeditions to Palestine in a mostly unsuccessfulattempt to regain possession of the Holy Land from the Moslems. Thename 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 totallycontradictory: holy and war. The book is full of such ironicjuxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them. ——————————————————————The senselessness of the historical Children’s Crusade providesVonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And helearns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. Thequote 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. Thenhe gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, thatis what the enemy did!Vonnegut’s visit to the O’Hares has been fruitful, and on the wayhome he finds additional material. At the New York World’s Fair he andthe girls see official versions of the past and future that make himwonder about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, howmuch was mine to keep. This suggests one of the major subjects of thebook, the nature of time and how it works. Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigiouswriting programs in the country.
And he gets a three-book contract. Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. Hefinishes the book. ——————————————————————NOTE: VONNEGUT’S SELF-DEPRECATION Vonnegut often mocks himselfand his writing. Some readers see this as false modesty, othersbelieve he’s sincere. Slaughterhouse-Five has a loot of intelligentthings to say about the destruction of Dresden- about the thinkingthat 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 rememberit.
The book is not a failure, for it made Vonnegut’s reputation andis generally considered his masterpiece. And Slaughterhouse-Fiveinformed the public that Dresden- at least in terms of number ofpeople 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 hementioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter. ) Underneath therebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O’Hare are having so much fun,there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground. Bone meal isa fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouseanimals.
The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from thesterile ground of the moon (what Dresden looked like after it wasbombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones. ——————————————————————NOTE: RESONANCE This image, like so many others inSlaughterhouse-Five, has an extraordinary resonance. In music,resonance is the enrichment of sound by means of echoes. If you’veever been in a large church when the choir is singing, you know howrich that sound can be: the voices bounce off the walls and increasethe vibration in the air. In literature, an image is resonant whenit reminds us of other images and enriches our understanding byconnecting 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 willembody. The first idea he presents has to do with the differencebetween time as we think of it and time as we experience it. Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking atthe Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at asteady rate in one direction, from the past through the present towardthe future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to thefuture (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the timein between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time.
Andnot 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. Vonnegutmay be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us thanthe external time of clocks and calendars. Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writerLouis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leadsinevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die. We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internaltime is a different matter. Don’t we do exactly what Celine wants todo- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn’t thatwhat Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?——————————————————————NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had areputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America.
Butin the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and aNazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as awar criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine hada great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explainswhat Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much. He is willingto forgive what he calls Celine’s racism and cracked politicsbecause he was a great and inspiring writer: . .
. in my opinion, Celinegave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapseof Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideouslyvulnerable common women and men. ——————————————————————Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the Americanpoet Theodore Roethke’s poem, which implies that we are not masters ofour destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of lifeby doing what circumstances force us to do. ——————————————————————NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT Howard W.
Campbell, Jr. , the American Naziwhom we will meet later, is a perfect example of this theme. In MotherNight he’s an American spy whose radio broadcasts contain codedmessages about Nazi troop movements and battle plans. After the war heis tried as a war criminal because of the obvious damage he did as aNazi propagandist. Whether he was a real Nazi or just pretending to beone makes no difference.
——————————————————————Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblicalSodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of good storyVonnegut doesn’t want his Dresden book to be. Sodom and Gomorrah aredestroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared becausethey are good. But there’s a wrinkle in this otherwise typical taleof great destruction: Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into apillar of salt.
This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she mightnever have thought of looking back until she was told not to. (Youknow the feeling of wanting something only after you’ve been toldyou can’t have it. ) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she mighthave had: Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back whereall 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 valueshe admires most to the women characters in his books, implying thatwomen are more humane than men.
Some see Vonnegut’s preference forwomen’s values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According tothis interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity bytaking a man’s job, while Mary O’Hare retained hers by staying homewith 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 startedthe war.
——————————————————————NOTE: LYSISTRATA In the literature of ancient Greece a very funnyplay by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, offers an ingenious solution tothe problem of war. In the play, Athens and Sparta have been at warfor twenty years, and the women are fed up. So they go on a sexstrike, demanding that the men sign a peace treaty. After a while themen become so desperate they have to agree. (In real life the wardragged on for seven more years and ended only when Athens wasdestroyed.
)——————————————————————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 thehome but that a human being’s place is not in a war. CHAPTER 2-STRUCTURE: In this chapter you meet Billy Pilgrim and get a taste ofhis peculiar experience of time. Vonnegut summarizes Billy’s life fromhis birth (1922) to the present (1968). Then he opens up two importantplot lines. The first involves Billy’s attempt to tell his story tothe world in 1968.
The second is the beginning of Billy’s adventuresin the war. Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is unstuck intime, that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits toall the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often morethan once. But notice the two words he says. Vonnegut uses themthree times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy saysmay not always be fact. Billy’s official biography condenses Billy’s life into the spaceof a couple of pages.
It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for hisDresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on theback of a length of wallpaper. And the biography serves the samepurpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at aglance. ——————————————————————NOTE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY There are parallels here to Vonnegut’s ownlife. He too was born in 1922, married and went to college after thewar, and worked in Schenectady, an upstate New York city much likeIlium. We already know that he was captured by the Germans in WorldWar II and lived through the bombing of Dresden. He is also over sixfeet tall.
——————————————————————The thumbnail sketch of Billy’s life provides a framework into whichyou can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel. ClearlySlaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another good story. For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there isthe event itself, how it is experienced, how it is rememberedafterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told. ———————————————————————-NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE It can be maddening to have to beaware of all these levels at once.
But Vonnegut’s point is that youcan’t fully understand the story until you realize that all theselevels exist simultaneously in any story. In effect you are beingencouraged to look at Slaughterhouse-Five in the way aTralfamadorian would- from every point of view, all at the same time. ——————————————————————Billy’s biography ends in 1968, the present, and Billy iswriting to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped himthe year before. Are the Tralfamadorians real? Vonnegut speaks of them as thoughBilly’s account is to be taken seriously. But he’s already castdoubt on Billy’s credibility with those repeated he says.
Notice,too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after theplane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imaginedthem in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, hasreleased vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could meanthat Billy’s coming unstuck in time didn’t happen in 1944, as itseems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked. Certainlythis is his daughter’s interpretation of her father’s stories. And notonly has he gone soft in the head, he’s determined to disgrace bothhimself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world!In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provideexposition- background information to help you understand what’s goingon- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life.
Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegutholds up the development of the story to indicate what he’s doing as awriter. ——————————————————————NOTE: EXPOSITION In a conventional story the author tries toweave the exposition into the action. Usually this is done by makingwhat happens in the scene so engrossing that you’re not aware you’rebeing given bits of necessary information. But Vonnegut believesthat a writer can’t separate his telling of the story from the storyitself. In Chapter 1 he went to a lot of trouble to demonstrate thisproblem.
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 andhis companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner RolandWeary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will firstcome unstuck in time. It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim thanRoland Weary.
In different circumstances these two might remind you ofan incongruous comedy team. To the scouts, who are clever,graceful, quiet (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren’tfunny, they’re dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise,Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. Ifthis were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expertsoldiers- would probably be the main characters, Billy and Weary thecomic relief. But Vonnegut is more interested in the clowns than inthe good soldiers, perhaps because to him the clowns behave morelike real people would.
He is also preparing us for the irony in thenext chapter, when the good soldiers will be killed and the clownsspared. ——————————————————————NOTE: ALLUSIONS AND PARODIES In this scene Vonnegut makes somecomplex literary allusions or indirect references to other works. The name Billy recalls the innocent victim/hero of Herman Melville’sBilly Budd. Pilgrim suggests John Bunyan’s seventeenth-centurymoralistic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the hero, calledChristian, encounters many adventures and setbacks on his journey fromthe 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’sProgress: Billy passes through absurd scenes of modern life to findhappiness among aliens from outer space. The scene in the Luxembourg forest also parodies the conclusion ofthe medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland.
(Vonnegut eventips you off to the allusion in Roland Weary’s name. ) In that war talethe protagonist and his best friend die heroically defending Western(i. e. Christian) civilization against attack by Muslim Saracens. Theparody is quite detailed.
The medieval Roland has a horn that herefuses to blow until he’s really in trouble, while Weary has awhistle he won’t blow until he is promoted to corporal. Roland is atrue Christian fighting the infidel (non-believing) Saracen. Weary,a smelly footsoldier who doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, is upagainst the Nazis, the modern-day infidels. ——————————————————————Vonnegut makes it clear that Roland Weary can’t help being anobnoxious jerk any more than Billy Pilgrim can help looking like afilthy flamingo. Weary’s life has been a disaster because people arealways ditching him, so he compensates by fantasizing an adventurein which he is a hero. Some readers see in this a parallel toBilly’s fantasy of the Tralfamadorians, who choose him to representthe human race in their zoo.
But it’s also just common psychology. Howmany times have you felt left out and dreamed of doing somethingextraordinary that would show the people who snubbed you?Notice the difference between Weary’s Three Musketeers movie whichis full of violence, triumph, and manly camaraderie, and Billy’sgentle, noncompetitive fantasies. Billy wins friends by sock skatingand influences people by taking a public-speaking course. Left to himself, Billy would have frozen to death days ago. So itmay be stress that brings on his first slip in time. Many people whohave come back from the brink of death have described the experienceof having their whole life flash before their eyes.
This comespretty close to Vonnegut’s description of Billy’s coming unstuck. Billy passes into death, moves backward to pre-birth, reversesdirection again, and stops at the memory of a traumatic experiencein his childhood. Then too he almost died because he wouldn’t doanything 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 oftime, and it’s perfectly real to him.
You’ll need to treat it asreal from now on, or you’ll miss a lot. Billy is snapped back to the present by Roland Weary, for whom thedreaded moment has come. The scouts have abandoned him. BillyPilgrim must now fulfill the destiny Weary has been keeping himalive for, that of sacrificial victim to Weary’s tragic wrath. Thespeech Weary makes while he’s beating Billy up echoes speeches inThe Song of Roland and other heroic epics.
(Notice also the machineimagery Vonnegut uses to describe Billy’s body: his spine is a tubecontaining all of Billy’s important wires. )Before Weary can kill Billy for ruining his movie, the Germansappear. CHAPTER 3-STRUCTURE: Billy Pilgrim’s time-travel now begins in earnest. Inthis chapter Billy jumps back and forth between 1944 and 1967. Eachtime he travels from one time period to the other, he picks up the newscene where he left off.
While we alternate between two stories, then,the story in each period is continuous. Later on Billy’s