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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
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
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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