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The Slaughter House Five Essay, Research Paper





Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe

in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran

well- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in

Vietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was the

single most important event in his life. The sights and scars of war

remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories

of 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 his

six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have

dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms

with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of

his war experiences.

Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He

reorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context of

his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy’s

prewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was

many years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but the

real story of the novel is the story of Billy’s wartime days. All

the other events in Billy’s life are merely incidental to his time

as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events that come

to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in


Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of “time-travel.”

Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t live his life one day

after another. He has become “unstuck in time,” and he jumps around

among 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 and

three other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemy

lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his

past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in

the 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 finds

himself 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 a

train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great

adventure in the future: on his daughter’s wedding night in 1967, he

is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet

Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him

in a zoo.

Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The

train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British

officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.

Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in

1948, where he’s visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he

recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in

business as an optometrist by Valencia’s father. Billy is introduced

to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose

favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout’s writing is terrible, but

Billy comes to admire his ideas.

Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most

popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billy

because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that

wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.

Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After

making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy can

say much about it, he’s back there himself.

The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an “open

city” (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, while

almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows

that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there’s

nothing worth bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories,

nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housed

in 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 Tralfamadore

he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden.

Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat

locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day,

Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been

reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is

moving anywhere.

After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the

others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have

disappeared. The war is over and they are free.



One way to keep straight the many characters in

Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appear

in Billy Pilgrim’s life.

There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul

Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from

his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his

daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Professor

Rumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (the

Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).

A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and

actual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O’Hare. Some of

the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by

Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr.

Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night, and the

Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O’Hares, you

meet all of these characters only when they interact with Billy




Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When

you first see a character’s name, you usually know something about

that character even before you read about what he or she has done.

Billy Pilgrim’s last name tells you that he is someone who travels

in foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious or

spiritual aspect.

Otherwise Billy doesn’t appear very promising as the hero of a

novel. Physically, he’s a classic wimp. He’s tall, weak, and clumsy,

with “a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches” and the

overall appearance of “a filthy flamingo.”

He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child

and his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to the

bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by the

Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and

companionship, yet he keeps saying, “You guys go on without me.” After

the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupid

and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his

daughter 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 the

wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peace

for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy’s assassination

by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross.

But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his

“meek faith in a loving Jesus” makes everybody else sick. His

pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billy

look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.

Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to

him, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragile

personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is

such a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he

has no answer.

Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to

turn the other cheek rather than put up a fight. This may be his

weakling attempt at “the imitation of Christ,” but to many readers

it looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable

him to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heart

people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness

never lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it’s

his imagination that saves him.

Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to

science fiction, Billy’s fantasies are aimless and childish. Then,

in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who

not only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions

of reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasy


In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana

Wildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy must

become “innocent” again, and to do this he has to discharge the

guilt and despair associated with his past. He does this by

reorganizing his life through time-travel, gradually putting

everything- but especially Dresden- in perspective. When this is

accomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free.



A soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly at

risk, the tension sometimes unbearable. You know when you first see

his name that Billy’s fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted after

many months of fighting. What he needs is some rest.

Weary is a hard person to like: he’s stupid, fat, and mean, and he

smells bad. It’s no surprise that his companions want to “ditch” him

most 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 war

movie in which he is the hero. Because Weary fears that his

real-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war movie

concentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in real


Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid off him sooner or

later. His “Three Musketeers” story is only a fantasy. He will want

revenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his revenge by

ditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even less

popular than himself, suckers him into a friendship, then ditches

him first. This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim.

One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way he

would have wanted- in the arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Weary

has finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last, knowing

that Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary’s life, to

kill Billy Pilgrim.



The American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest character

in the book. Not only is he disgusting to look at, he’s nasty to the

core, a real snake. In civilian life his friends are gangsters and

killers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing in

life to him is getting revenge on people who have crossed him.

It’s not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both of

them have regularly been snubbed by the more popular and attractive

people in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness than

Weary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he’s

speaking in the abstract, not talking about torturing anyone in

particular. But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, each

torture is tailor-made for a specific victim.

Vonnegut’s description of Lazzaro is devastating: “If he had been

a dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his head

to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies.”



At the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hats

whenever they went outdoors. But by then the derby, a hat with a

dome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually seen

only on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derby

is an older man than his fellow American POWs, and his values are

those he learned in an earlier era.

Because you know from the first that “poor old Edgar Derby” (as he

is usually called) is doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindness

and generosity with a sinking heart. For Edgar Derby doesn’t deserve

to 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 in

the prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim while the

other Americans party with the Englishmen.

Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulled

strings to get into the fighting after the army told him he was too

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