The first chapter serves as an introduction in which Vonnegut directly addresses the reader, pointing out that the book is based on events that really occurred. He experienced first-hand the destruction of Dresden, during WWII, an event that he has never been able to put out of his mind. For twenty-three years, he has wanted to write about it.
Vonnegut’s attitude towards war becomes clear in this first chapter. He sees it as a totally futile occurrence, but he is resigned to the fact that war will always exist. He feels that wars have taught people insensitivity towards death. He cites the detached attitude of a woman writer as she relayed the news of a young veteran’s dying. He finds such a nonchalant, uncaring attitude repulsive in any human being. Vonnegut then points out the irony in the fact that war tries to fight violence with more violence. He also questions the American government’s treatment of violence as a “top secret” affair that is not to be discussed. I took this as interesting it’s just the first chapter and yet the author is pointing out and beating you with multifaceted issues that he will hopefully find solutions to towards the end of the novel.
The character displayed as the author of the story tells of how he writes it and the events which lead to publication. In one instance he meets with a fellow veteran, Bernard O’Hare. When faced with his wife, Mary O’Hare’s anger about war, Vonnegut assures her that his book will not glorify violence. Her main concern is the death of “babies” who will grow up and die in war. Along with his assurance to her, he also considers calling the book, “The Children’s Crusade.” The author has tried to pass on his knowledge of the futility of destruction to his children. He wants the younger generation to understand what the older ones have always failed to. Mary seems bizarre but I understand her purpose and that is to set out the mindset that the book wants the reader to adhere. There is a lot of precautions Vonnegut is making before he even preludes the story.
Vonnegut revisits Dresden with O’Hare, and this, along with the completion of this book, is of great importance to him. With these two things he has managed to free himself of his obsession. He says, “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” I’m not sure if I agree with this entirely. Reflection sets a basis for change and growth. However with post war symptoms like post-traumatic-stress, and what have you it’s understandable to want to move on. War is so surreal sometimes the idea is ludicrous.
The book’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, is introduced in this chapter, and a chronological summary of his earthly life is given. There was nothing extraordinary about his growing up or youth. In fact, there was never anything extraordinary about Billy until he became “unstuck in time.” Now he claims he has also been kidnapped by aliens. This too me is concerning. It makes me uncomfortable the way it’s described. I like books that play into the psyche, however when it becomes bombast and silly it’s disheartening. I want to be able to understand and believe the main character. Since Billy’s public claims about time-travel and aliens occur after his plane crash, the people around him, especially his daughter, believe his fantastic stories are caused by brain damage from the head injury he sustained in the crash. This portion of the novel really upsets me. I am concerned that the novel will be inaccurate in light of the one telling it to be insane.
Billy is a harmless person who seems to merely exist, with little will of his own. Even when things happen to him that he does not like, he refuses to assert himself. In this second chapter it flashes back and forth in time. Billy is just starting as a Chaplain’s assistant in the war. He is unprepared and awkward. He gets “saved” but this obnoxious Boy named Ronald Wearily- a blood thirsty bull from Pittsburgh. During the war, he allowed Roland to bully him along. When he time travels, he has no input as to whether he goes, where he goes, or for how long he goes. As a result, Billy seems to be a weak character who is at the mercy of powerful forces that surround him and over which he has no control. Again this upsets me. Perhaps that is the point though; Billy’s whole design is a sort of figurehead of everyone fighting in a war they know nothing about
The chapter begins on a note of irony. At the end of the last chapter, a frustrated Roland is seen hitting Billy for moving so slowly and causing the scouts to leave. Ironically, the arrival of the German soldiers, the enemy, saves Billy from further mistreatment by Roland; in other words, Billy is rescued from his American compatriot by the enemy.
The Germans who capture Billy and Roland are portrayed as weak men, not the invincible, omnipotent “enemy” that the Americans imagine them to be. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut tries to convey the message that the “enemy” is also human, and humans are vulnerable and imperfect, whether they are Germans or Americans. He also makes it obvious that war is an unnatural state of existence that dehumanizes people. This is clear in the description of the captured Americans who lose their individuality and their will to resist. Focusing only on survival, the prisoners become totally passive. The enemy is also dehumanized by treating the captured men as inanimate objects. I think this is what truly captures the essence of war. To kill you have to deny your humanity. It is all a state of disillusionment that people get conditioned to.
As an escape form the unpleasantness of imprisonment, Billy begins to involuntarily time-travel. In his future, he sees himself falling asleep at work. This action, coupled with his time traveling, reveals his tendency to escape from anything unpleasant. It is significant that in his time-traveling, Billy sees himself as a rich, prosperous, and respected man. In spite of his success, however, he is still “unenthusiastic about living.” This makes me wonder about the author’s whole view of existence in its entirety. Billy lives with his wife, has a stable job and a good family yet however he needs his escape. Perhaps when things are referred to as being easier we relax our conscious and only resort to those in every way we can.
Vonnegut makes it clear that Billy does not feel he has any control in shaping his life. He states, “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.” In other words, Billy simply takes what life dishes out and becomes depressed about his fate. His weeping fits result from his chronic depression. I still think that the whole idea of Aliens from Tralfamadore or is bizarre and I don’t like it. However despite the ridiculousness about it the idea that you don’t have any control over your past present and future is an interesting concept. It is a very passive way to live. I’m wondering if the author is going to try and glorify this mindset
Within the chapter, Vonnegut offers several criticisms. He compares the ravaged black ghetto in Ilium to the war ravaged towns of Europe. This comparison points out the fact that destruction is not restricted to war. It is also found in civilian life, wherever there is prejudice, poverty, and injustice. Vonnegut also critically points out that the attitude of the American military towards a problem is simply to destroy it. As an example, he tells of a major who wants to bomb North Vietnam until the country agrees to do what the United States wants. I’m beginning to question if this book is even about the war at all or about society in a whole?
This chapter is set on the wedding night of Billy’s daughter. He goes out in his garden, and an alien flying saucer comes and takes him inside. Before the flying saucer presents itself, Billy is aware that it will arrive and take him away on the night of his daughter’s wedding; but he does absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening. He simply allows events to happen to him with absolutely no resistance on his part. Couldn’t Vonnegut just use some sort of flashback scenario instead of schizophrenic tendencies? After falling asleep in the saucer, he finds himself traveling back in time to the war. He is in a boxcar crossing Germany with Roland, who is dying of gangrene. Roland accuses Billy of killing him. He never takes the blame for any of his actions, therefore never gets truly past them. So Ron is dying of gangrene, could this perhaps be symbolism of Roland’s rotting character? Billy and the other captured Americans are brought to a German prison where they are deloused and given used overcoats. One of the Americans, Paul Lazzaro, warns Billy that he will make him pay for Roland’s death. I am getting to the point where I am accepting that I am not going to like ANY of the characters. They are completely unrealistic and uncanny. Again, that could be all premeditated.
Billy then travels further into the past. First he returns to a scene in his infancy; he next visits the Middle AgesMiddle ages!?! Finally he is again aware of the fact that he is in the flying saucer on his way to Tralfamadore. When Billy says he does not want to go, he is told by one of the aliens that “free will” is a concept unique to Earth. Even this gives me Goosebumps, ever sentence about aliens really upsets me, and I simply don’t want to read it at all.
Although they have been mentioned before, it is in this chapter that the Tralfamadorians make their first direct appearance. Their conversation with Billy centers on how they differ from human beings in their style of perceiving reality. Unlike humans, they do not question what happens nor seek an explanation for events; much like Billy, they just accept life as it comes. Their philosophy is that what happens does so because “the moment is structured that way, and nothing can alter that. As a result, they totally discount the human concept of free will. There is this overwhelming essence that Vonnegut seems to be trying to portray that lack of anything humanity is higher. However the way he presents it discredits this notion entirely. Perhaps he is using irony to emphasize his point. As Billy time-travels back to the war, he sees the mistreatment that the American prisoners receive at the hands of the Germans. In a dehumanizing process, they are intentionally treated like a herd of cattle, and like unthinking animals with no free will, they do as they are told; they are imprisoned psychologically as well as physically.
After listening to the Tralfamadorians explain their perception of time, which is entirely different from the way Earthlings perceive it, Billy again travels to the German delousing center, where the American prisoners are enrolled and tagged. They are then taken to a compound filled with British prisoners, who at first welcome them; soon, however, they resent the weak and bedraggled Americans. Billy becomes hysterical around the British and is taken to a hospital. Under the influence of morphine, he dreams that he is a giraffe. It’s said dreams are representations of the subconsciousWhat could the giraffe symbolize? Simplicity.
Next Billy travels forward into the future and sees himself being voluntarily committed to a veteran’s hospital as a mental patient. In the hospital, a fellow patient introduces him to the literary works of Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, whom he enjoys reading. While still confined in the hospital, his mother comes to see him, but he is too embarrassed to face her. His fiancee, Valencia Merble, also comes to visit him; she is a rich, fat girl whom he finds very unattractive. Earlier in the novel he explains his wife as skinny and pretty -however, this was the author talking and not Billy. Billy travels to the future to the time he has a nervous breakdown. Although he has become successful in his career, he cannot cope with life and commits himself as a mental patient to the veterans’ hospital, where he meets other ex-soldiers who, like him, also “found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war.” In the hospital, Billy begins to realize what is afflicting him. As a totally passive person, he never asks himself what he wants, nor does he make any attempt to make his life more pleasant. He sees his marriage proposal to “ugly Valencia” as concrete evidence that he is going crazy. After leaving the hospital, Valencia does become Billy’s wife, and through his time-travels, he learns that his marriage is “at least bearable all the way.”
Billy continues his time travels in rapid succession. He finds himself in the future, living on the planet Tralfamadore, where he is displayed naked in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians try to teach him that nothing can be changed and advise him to concentrate on the pleasant moments of existence. It is so euphoric, like a drug induced sense of inaccuracies. The aliens strip Billy of all his integrity and pride and tell him to enjoy it. He then travels back to his wedding night, when his son Robert is conceived. He also visits his father’s funeral. Next he is again in the German prison hospital, where he meets Vonnegut, a fellow soldier. He also encounters Paul Lazzaro again; he has been brought to the hospital with a broken arm. Billy learns that the American prisoners are soon going to be shipped to Dresden as contract labor.
Billy goes to sleep and when he awakes he finds himself in 1968, being reproached by his daughter for writing letters to the newspaper about aliens. Billy travels back in the past to his captivity in the Tralfamadore zoo. The aliens bring him a mate from Earth; she is a motion picture star, named Montana Wildhack. (What does this have to do with anything?) When asked if he is happy on Tralfamadore, he answers, “About as happy as I was on Earth.” He travels again to 1968 and sees himself in his optometrist practice. When he tells one of his clients about his time travels, the client’s mother accuses him of being crazy… His time travels rush from the past, to the future, and back to the past again. He travels back to the German prison, and Vonnegut gives a comparison of the British and Americans who have been captured. The British officers, who have been German prisoners for almost the entire length of the war, have eaten well and are in top physical form. In sharp contrast, the newly arrived American prisoners appear more dead than alive. The British are at first horrified over their bedraggled condition; however, they soon become contemptuous of the weak-bodied, dirty-looking, shuffling American soldiers. Although the “perfect” British look down upon the Americans as inferior beings, the reader is made to sympathize with the poor Americans, who seem real because of their imperfections. The chapter also gives a foreshadowing of what will eventually happen to Billy. When he tries to tell others about his time travels and his imprisonment on Tralfamadore, he is accused of being crazy. Even his daughter becomes totally exasperated with him.
This chapter returns to the German prison. Paul Lazzaro tells the Englishman who has broken his arm that he is going to have him killed after the war. He informs Billy that he will do the same to him, in revenge for Roland’s death. Billy knows the truth of Paul’s words. As a time-traveler, he has seen his own future death and knows that he will be shot by a man hired by Paul. Paul Lazzaro is obsessed with revenge, wanting to kill the man who broke his arm and to kill Billy, whom he blames for Roland’s death. Although Lazzaro seeks personal revenge, he voices strong criticism of the destruction of Dresden, an innocent civilian city, and hates that “innocent bystanders” are harmed in the fighting. The fact that Lazzaro, who is more bestial than human, condemns what he sees in Dresden points out the depth of the horror and inhumanity of war.
The American prisoners are told that they are going to Dresden to do hard labor. They travel there by train; upon their arrival, they are amazed to see the beauty of the city. They are taken to the Dresden slaughterhouse, called Slaughterhouse Five, which will be their residence. The Americans arrive in Dresden and are placed under the control of eight inept German soldiers, who have been sworn into the army only the day before. They are marched to the streets to their new residence. Billy envisions himself there in a blue toga, silver shoes, and a muff, a comical figure in a tragic situation. I really enjoy knowing where the title comes from in novels. It gives me an outside understanding of the point given and the message. Most of the characters in the novel are one dimensional. It could be a source for more emphasis but it makes them ALL hard to relate with.
Twenty-five years after the war, Billy is flying to a convention with other optometrists from Ilium. Although he knows that the plane will crash, he does not say anything about it, for he does not want to sound foolish. Never daring to interfere with his future, he never makes an effort to change the flow of events, event if they are tragic. When the plane does crash, everybody is killed except Billy and the co-pilot. Billy sustains a serious head injury and is taken to a hospital, where he is operated on by a famous brain surgeon. He remains unconscious for two days after the operation; during these forty-eight hours, he has many time travels. He goes back to Dresden, to the time when he, Werner Gluck, and Edgar Derby accidentally come across naked German girls in a communal shower. He also visits a malt syrup factory and watches the Americans at work there.
When Billy travels back in time to Dresden in this chapter, he realizes that he, Derby, and their young German guard were all very unlikely soldiers; but war drags in all types of men, usually against their will. As the war drags on, many of the “real soldiers” are killed. As a result, stranger and stranger men are killed to be soldiers. Billy acknowledges that the three of them are, indeed, a motley trio.
Howard W. Campbell, the American turned Nazi, visits the Americans in Dresden, trying to recruit men for a military unit that fights only on the Russian front. Campbell is wearing an elaborate and outlandish costume, appearing much like a Lincoln outfit with a swastika. The irony of the image and the silent criticism of the traitor is intentional on Vonnegut’s part. Though Campbell offers the hungry Americans food if they will follow him to fight on the Russian front, they refuse and criticize his traitorous ways. Derby stands up to Campbell, berating him about his Nazi beliefs.
Billy travels to the future to 1964, when he meets Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer. The two of them become friends. His daughter blames Trout for causing all of Billy’s strange ideas.
At a wedding anniversary celebration, Billy becomes upset over the performance of a quartet of singing optometrists. At first, he is at a loss to explain his reaction. Later he recalls the night when Dresden was destroyed. The Americans from Slaughterhouse Five, along with four German guards, were hiding in the underground meat locker as the bombs dropped on the city. To Billy, the four guards looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet. Billy remembers telling a pregnant Montana Wildhack about the horrible night. He described the destroyed city and how they, the only survivors, had to fight their way out of the rubble. They finally came to an inn, where a blind innkeeper gave them food and shelter. It is very obvious that Billy has been deeply affected by the bombing of Dresden. He clearly remembers the horrible night when he was hiding in the basement of the slaughterhouse, listening to the bombs dropping above. He, the four German guards, and the other Americans in the basement were amongst the few survivors. He leaves his own party to deal with his emotions in privacy. When he told Montana about it, he was able to give a matter-of-fact narration, contrasting sharply with his reaction at the party. It is obvious that Billy is sinking deeper and deeper into mental instability. This is interesting I don’t really understand the reference to the Barber shop movie. I’m not very cultured in that way. Billy’s Daughter enjoys the safety in blaming all of her father’s mental disturbances on outside influence; such as a plane crash, surgery, or science fiction writers.
When his wife tragically dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, Billy is lying unconscious in a Vermont hospital. Sharing the hospital room with him is Bertram Copeland Rumford, a Harvard professor, who is writing a one-volume history of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He becomes a springboard for discussions about the tragedy of war.
When Rumford talks about Dresden to his wife, Billy overhears him and announces that he was there during the bombing of the city. Rumford, however, refuses to take Billy seriously at first. Billy insists he is telling the truth. He explains how the Russians had come after the bombing and arrested everyone. Fortunately, two days later, he was turned over to the Americans and shipped back home. Rumford finally believes Billy’s story. Rumford talks about the American government keeping the destruction of Dresden a secret from its own people. The simple minded Lily asks Rumford a very important question: “Why would they keep it a secret so long?” Rumford’s answer is matter- of-fact and to the point; he explains that the American people would never have approved of the bombing. This raises the important issue as to whether a government, the body that represents the people of a country, should make decisions that are not in keeping with what the people really want and then keep it a secret from them. Vonnegut seems to imply that the American government has done wrong and refuses to take responsibility for it. Rumford, however, does not take a stand. He is so busy trying to justify what has been done that the question of responsibility never even occurs to him.
A large portion of this chapter focuses on the American government’s attitude toward the destruction of Dresden and on the violence perpetrated on enemy countries. President Truman’s statement about the atomic attack on Hiroshima is celebratory in its tone. It glorifies retaliation and ends with the vow, “We shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.” Although the author does not openly criticize this stand, his silence indicates his disapproval.
After Billy has his brain surgery, an important change occurs in his personality. He becomes determined to make the public aware of “flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time.” His reason for doing this is purely altruistic. He wants human beings to benefit from the wisdom of Tralfamadorians. Until the surgery, Billy had been a passive creature of fate, allowing things to happen to him. Now he wants to take a proactive stance that is a total departure from his former resigned and indifferent attitude about life. For the first time in the book, he shows initiative and a desire to actively help others around him. However, realistically it is only about some insane idea about aliens perhaps alluding to compassion on a whole and the gaminess of it.
. Billy also reveals for the first time that he was released to the Americans and sent home shortly after the bombing of Dresden
In this chapter, Vonnegut details some contemporary events and explains Billy’s trip back to Dresden with O’Hare, his friend from the war; Billy feels that the visit was “one of the nicest ones in recent times,” for the city has been rebuilt and has returned to a normal existence. Since it is a very pleasant trip for him, it serves as a happy finish to his traumatic war memories. He is finally able to bury the old ghosts.
Billy also time travels to Dresden, two days after the city was destroyed. All the American prisoners, including Billy, O’Hare, and Vonnegut, are marched into the ruins of Dresden and made to dig out the dead bodies. When one of the soldiers dies of dry heaves caused by the smell of the decomposing bodies, the other soldiers are relieved of the task of digging through the rubble. Instead, they are instructed to use flame-throwers to burn the piles of ruin, cremating the bodies in the process. During the clean-up activities, Edgar Derby is shot dead for taking a teapot from the ruins.
During their captivity in Dresden after the bombing, the American prisoners are locked in a suburban stable. One day they wake up and find the stable door is open; they realize that the war is finally over.
Earlier in the book, Vonnegut had asked O’Hare if Derby’s execution should be the climax of the book because of the great irony involved in his death. He has managed to survive the war and the bombing of Dresden and is then needlessly shot for a minor offense. After the destruction of an entire city and the deaths of thousands of people, Derby is murdered for stealing a teapot, while the American government that inflicted the tragedy on Dresden simply ignores the needless destruction and death, keeping it a secret from its own people.
It is obvious that in this last chapter Vonnegut wants to drive home the fact that during wartime issues of right and wrong become totally confused. Everything seems to be turned upside down, and people lose sight of the value of human life. That is the real tragedy of the novel.