This book is an anti-war novel and also a science fiction story. It takes us through the life of Billy Pilgrim as he comes unstuck in time and travels back and forth through his life and his experiences in World War II. He is kidnapped by aliens who teach him that time is continuous and that life goes on forever in some form or another. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a lot of cool, trippy books – most of them, like this one, have some connection to his own life.
The Narrator: He’s unnamed, but he is writing a book about his experiences in World War II and he pops up from time to time as a character.
Billy Pilgrim (BP): He’s the main and really only important character in the book. All things happen in relation to him and all the other people in the book only pass through for a very short time.
Bernard V. O’Hare: The narrator’s buddy from World War II.
Mary O’Hare: Bernard’s wife. She’s very anti-war.
Barbara: BP’s daughter. She thinks he’s going crazy.
Roland Weary: A soldier BP gets captured with. He hates Billy for being weak and blames him for their capture.
Edgar Derby: Another soldier. He’s an older man who is later executed for stealing a tea pot.
Paul Lazzaro: A soldier who threatens to have everyone who crossed him during the war shot later at home when they least expect it.
The Blue Fairy Godmother: A British soldier so called because of the part he plays in Cinderella.
Eliot Rosewater: A patient in the mental hospital where Billy goes after the war.
Valencia Merble: BP’s fiancé and later his wife.
Kilgore Trout: A science fiction writer and neighbor of BP.
The Trafalmadorans: Aliens who kidnap BP to learn about earthlings.
Montana Wildhack: A movie star kidnapped by the Tralfamadorans to mate with BP.
Howard Campbell: An American traitor and Nazi propagandist who lectures the prisoners.
Robert Pilgrim: BP’s son who is in the Green Berets.
Bertram Ruumford: A snobby military historian. He’s in the hospital with BP and thinks he’s insane.
Lily Ruumford: Bertram’s ditsy wife.
Mr. and Mrs. Pilgrim: They pop up from time to time in the story.
There really is no plot per se. In this novel, Vonnegut plays around with the way books are written and structured. When Billy becomes unstuck in time it allows the novel to race back and forth through time and all of the important events in Billy’s life without having to follow a true narrative line. Billy gets married, has children, goes to war, becomes a prisoner, gets kidnapped by aliens, is killed but lives on in the fourth dimension – it’s just that nothing happens in any order. Like the books that Billy finds on Tralfamador, the novel is structured so that "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time." It is an episodic narrative (told in bits, like episodes on t.v.) of a man’s life and death and a chronicle of the horror of war, specifically the havoc wreaked on the city of Dresden.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER
- The book the narrator is writing begins.
- BP starts to time travel. It is his wedding night and he’s kidnapped by aliens.
- The major events of Billy’s life follow.
- BP went to optometry school after high school.
- His father died in a hunting accident.
- He goes to World War II and gets an honorable discharge.
- He goes back to Optometry school and gets engaged to the daughter of the founder of the school.
- He has a nervous collapse and gets treated with shock treatments in a veteran’s hospital.
- After his release, he marries his fiancé.
- His practice is very successful. He becomes rich. He and his wife have two children. Eventually his daughter marries. His son joins the Green Berets.
- He is the only survivor of a plane crash.
- While he is in the hospital recuperating, his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- After he recovers, he goes on an all-night talk radio show and tells of how he came unstuck in time and was kidnapped by aliens and forced to mate and displayed in a zoo.
- BP’s daughter hears him on the radio.
- He writes letters to the local newspaper describing his alien encounters.
- His daughter finds him in the basement writing another letter. She becomes worried he is going senile.
- BP goes to war as a chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge.
- After the battle he wanders aimlessly in the countryside, trying to find his way back to the Allies.
- BP meets Roland Weary and two Army scouts who are also trying to find their way back. Weary is always saving BP’s life.
- He time travels to the time his father threw him into the pool to teach him to swim and then to the time he goes to see his mother in a convalescent hospital. She asks him how she got so old.
- He watches his son play little league baseball.
- He has a one-night stand with a woman at a party.
- He goes back to WWII. He tells Weary and the scouts to leave him behind, but Weary forces him to go with them.
- The scouts ditch him and Roland Weary.
- He time travels to his election as president of the Lion’s club.
- Back in the war Roland Weary beats him up.
- The scouts are shot and he and Roland Weary are captured by the Germans.
- Billy learns that the Trafalmadorans see the world in four dimensions and that time is continuous.
- They believe that death is just another state of being and when they see a corpse they say "so it goes."
- The Germans take him to a cottage with other prisoners
- He falls asleep and time travels to the future.
- He looks out the window of his office and wonders where all the years have gone.
- BP and the other prisoners are marched through the streets and a war photographer takes staged capture pictures of them.
- He travels to the sixties. Driving his car through some riot-torn, burnt-out ghettoes in the US, he compares them to what he saw during the war.
- Back in the war he meets a dying colonel who is suffering from dementia. The colonel tells him if he’s ever in Cody, Wyoming to ask for Wild Bob. This becomes a catch-phrase.
- All the prisoners are packed into box cars according to their rank. Billy is a ‘dumper’. He has to dump the other prisoners refuse and body waste out the ventilator.
- He travels to 1967 when he is kidnapped by aliens.
- It is BP’s daughter’s wedding night. He can’t sleep. He watches a war movie backwards which turns into the whole of history going back and back until the garden of Eden.
- The Tralfamadorans kidnap him and put him in a zoo where he sits naked on a yellow recliner.
- He asks the aliens why they have kidnapped him. They ask why not him?
- Back to the boxcar. BP has to sleep standing up since no one will let him sleep next to them because he kicks and moves in his sleep too much.
- In another boxcar Roland Weary dies of gangrene, but before he does he tells everyone it’s BP’s fault. A few vow revenge.
- The train arrives and the prisoners are given clothes and deloused. Billy gets a woman’s fur coat. He looks ridiculous.
- BP time travels. First he is a child being dried off by his mother, then playing golf later in his life, then he goes through a time warp and is a child again with his parents at the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns.
- The prisoners are taken into a hangar where there are other British prisoners. The Brits are well-dressed and well-fed. They put on a lavish feast and floorshow for the new arrivals. The show is Cinderella.
- BP has a nervous breakdown.
- BP goes to a mental hospital where he meets Eliot Rosewater and they discuss the science fiction books of Kilgore Trout. They feel he has good ideas, but is a terrible writer.
- At the hospital BP’s mother visits, so does Valencia Merble. BP hides under the covers.
- BP travels to Tralfamador. Thousands of aliens watch his habits while he sits in the zoo.
- BP time travels to his wedding night and then his honeymoon.
- Montana Wildhack arrives on Tralfamador and is terrified. Eventually she comes to trust BP. They have sex.
- Back to the future: In his office, BP tells a young boy whose father has just died that his father is still alive in some ways and always will be. The people think BP is going crazy.
- In the prison camp Billy discovers two sources of radiation in his coat, but is told by them not to worry, just to be content.
- Paul Lazarro tells BP that he will have him killed in five to ten years after the war to avenge Roland Weary.
- Billy delivers a lecture to a large group in Chicago and predicts his own death within an hour.
- BP is killed by an unseen gunman. He "experiences" death for awhile. There is nothing there. He is not even there.
- Back in the war BP gets Cinderella’s shiny silver boots.
- The English deliver a lecture to the American prisoners on personal hygiene. They also tell them that they are going to be shipped off to Dresden to work as contract labor.
- The Americans get back on the boxcars and head for Dresden.
- The guards in Dresden think the Americans are ridiculous because they are dressed in silly clothes, especially BP in his ladies coat and silver boots. The are taken to their new home- Slaughterhouse Five.
- BP gets on a plane twenty years later. He already knows that the plane will crash and that he will be the only survivor. He leans back and relaxes.
- After the crash a brain surgeon operates on BP. During the operation BP thinks of a million things, but only the true things take place during time travel.
- Back in Dresden BP and some others work in a syrup factory. The syrup is for pregnant women to make them strong. BP and the others sneak the syrup for themselves.
- Howard Campbell, an American traitor and Nazi comes to Dresden to lecture the Americans and try to get them to come over to the other side.
- Edgar Derby stands up against Campbell and praises the U.S.
- Back in Ilium BP tells his daughter he could kill Kilgore Trout.
- BP remembers meeting Kilgore Trout.
- Trout’s novels are mentioned. They are all prophetic, but very badly written.
- At his eighteenth wedding anniversary BP has a very emotional reaction to a barbershop quartet song.
- At the party Kilgore Trout talks about his novels to a group of boring optometrist
- BP gives Valencia a ring with a jewel in it that he looted in the war.
- BP runs upstairs and finds his son Paul on the floor of the bathroom cradling his guitar.
- BP recalls the day that Dresden was bombed.
- On Tralfamador Montana asks BP to tell her a story. He tells her about the bombing of Dresden. That there was nothing left after the bombing and the ground was like the surface of the moon.
- The guards and a few Americans wander Dresden and finally end up in an inn where the blind innkeeper feeds them all.
- Valencia is driving to see BP in the hospital after the plane crash. She has an accident, but is okay. She doesn’t know that there is a leak and carbon monoxide is seeping into the car. She is overcome by the fumes just as she arrives at the hospital. She dies an hour later.
- BP is in the hospital with Bertram Ruumford. Ruumford thinks BP is crazy and mocks him and calls him names.
- Ruumford is writing a book about Dresden. BP tells him he was there. Ruumford just thinks he’s crazy.
- BP time travels back to Dresden. He wanders the streets in a horse drawn cart. A German couple chastises him for the mistreatment of the horses. BP breaks down crying. It’s the first time he cries in the war.
- The Russians come and free everyone. BP goes home on a ship.
- BP goes to New York. He wanders around Times Square and goes into a porno bookstore because they have some Kilgore Trout novels in the window. He sees some porno movies that star Montana Wildhack.
- He gets on an all night radio talk show and talks about Tralfamador.
- He goes back in Tralfamador.
- The narrator talks about his trip to Dresden with O’Hare.
- He also talks about how BP learned that we will all live forever no matter how dead we appear to be.
- BP Travels back to Dresden. He and other prisoners have to dig out all the corpses after the bombing.
- He has a partner who is a Maori. The Maori dies from the dry heaves after being forced to dig out bodies from a "corpse mine."
- Edgar Derby is shot by a firing squad for looting a teapot.
- The war is over and BP and the others walk out into the empty streets. A bird talks to him. It says ‘poo-tee-weet?"
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
- One of the book’s points is that no matter what you do life goes on. You can’t change anything.
- The name Billy Pilgrim is symbolic. Billy is on a spiritual pilgrimage.
- Billy is a Christ-like figure. He has no shoes while he wanders. He has to sleep in the barn at the inn. He tries to tell the earthlings very controversial things. He is killed, but lives on forever, etc.
- Ruumford is really the voice of the government when he says that Dresden had to be bombed.
- A lot of the book is autobiographical. Vonnegut was in Dresden and was a POW. He had to dig the bodies out of the rubble. He worked in the syrup factory.
- The use of colors is very symbolic.
- There is a lot of irony in the book. Edgar Derby is an ironic character, he is strong and tough, but doesn’t survive the war. The British soldiers are brave and noble, but use soap made from humans by the Nazis. Billy is elected president of the Lion’s club, but he is nothing like a lion.
- "So it goes" pops up every time something violent is going to happen.
- BP is an anti-hero. A holy fool. He wanders the earth looking like a fool first because he is gawky and unarmed and then later when he has the fur coat and the silver boots. He has no strong qualities. He is really an observer of life.
- "So it goes" also means that nothing changes. Life goes on and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
- The bombing of Dresden was very controversial. Many thought it was unnecessary.
- Vonnegut is making fun of his own critics when he satirizes the ones on the radio talk show.