Summary of Slaughterhouse Five

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Kurt Vonnegut's anti-war masterpiece 'Slaughterhouse Five' tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man unstuck in time. As a result, the narrative is fragmented and not always reliable. Let's see if we can't untangle it a bit.

Slaughterhouse Five in Chronological Order

Since Vonnegut skips around in Billy Pilgrim's life so much, it's important to first get an idea of the exact order of events. Billy might experience his life outside of linear time, but we don't have that luxury. We'll look at the plot of Slaughterhouse Five in order, then look at the way Vonnegut presents the events.

The Chaplain's Assistant

Billy Pilgrim is a skinny, nerdy guy. He's in night classes for optometry when World War II breaks out, and he's drafted into the Army as a chaplain's assistant. Billy's father dies right before he gets shipped overseas, where he's tossed into battle and captured immediately. Right before he's captured, he goes through the first instance of something that's about to start happening a lot: he gets unstuck in time, seeing his entire life from start to finish.

Billy and several other troops (including the narrator of the story, Kurt Vonnegut) are taken to a POW camp in Germany and then to the German city of Dresden, where they're housed in an old slaughterhouse (Schlachthof-fünf -- Slaughterhouse-Five). During their stay there, the Allies bomb the city to ruin, killing over 100,000 people. The Russians capture Dresden a few days later, and Billy and the other POWs are saved.

From the Earth to Tralfamadore

Back in America, Billy goes through a nervous breakdown. While he's recovering, he discovers an author named Kilgore Trout, who writes science fiction books. After Billy gets out he gets married, finishes optometry school, and has pretty much a normal life, until a barbershop quartet triggers a flashback to Dresden and he breaks down again. Shortly thereafter, Billy is kidnapped by aliens from Tralfamadore, a planet whose citizens see all of time at the same time -- they experience life kind of like we experience the plot of this book.

The Tralfamadorians keep Billy in a kind of zoo exhibit under a dome. His companion/mate is the Earthling movie star Montana Wildhack -- the Tralfamadorians want them to mate, essentially. This is where Billy learns about how the Tralfamadorians see time. Rather than moving along a ''track'' of life, where you can only see what's in front of you, they see the whole track at once.

Back to Earth

Billy doesn't tell anybody back on Earth about what happened to him at first. Then he's the only person that survives a plane crash, his wife dies coming to visit him in the hospital, and his daughter puts him in a nursing home. What better time to tell the world about your experience with alien abduction? Billy gets on the radio in New York and writes letters to the newspaper, but people don't believe him until he leaves a cassette tape of what he knows will happen when he dies: a man from the war, wanting revenge on Billy, will have hired somebody to shoot him. So it goes.

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