Slaughterhouse-Five was published by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969. It was an immediate best-seller, rocketing the author to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. The book was and is still read in schools and universities around the United States and the rest of the world. The strong anti-war message that Vonnegut crafted in this novel, as well as his skillful use of personal life events to create it, helped develop his legacy.
‘Spoiler-free’ Summary of Slaughterhouse-Five
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim’s capture by German forces during World War II. It explores his life through a non-linear narrative. The novel is separated into episodes from his life before and after the war, as well as a science fiction interlude during which he’s transported to another planet. He moves forward and backward in time, experiencing parts of his life out of order.
At the center of the novel is the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces. Billy, like Vonnegut, was there during the bombing. He witnesses many horrors and learns a new way to consider life and death. After the war, he encounters many of the obstacles that soldiers in the real world do. He is unsettled and unhappy. It’s here that Vonnegut explores one of his most poignant themes, the existence (or lack thereof) of free will.
Slaughterhouse-Five Plot Summary
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of a man who becomes “unstuck” in time. Billy Pilgrim, an average American, grows up in New York and trains to be an optometrist. He does good enough at school and is then drafted into the military during World War II.
Billy’s father dies just before he deploys to Luxembourg, and Billy is forced to fight at the Battle of the Bulge despite his broader pacifistic attitudes. He’s captured by German forces and taken to a POW camp. It’s at this time that he shifts in time, seeing all of his life from beginning to end. It’s also at this point that the reader truly becomes aware that this is going to be an untraditional narrative. Vonnegut spends the rest of the novel-writing Billy’s life in pieces. He moves forwards and backward in time with everything that happens at once.
Billy breakdown at the POW camp despite his kind reception by the English officers there. He goes on another time travel trip after receiving some morphine before he and the Americans go to Dresden. He labors there with everyone else within a slaughterhouse. Up until this point, the city was in almost pristine shape. But, one night, the Allies bomb the city, killing around 130,000 people. This real-life event, known as a firebombing of Dresden, incinerated the city. He survives the night in a meat lock and escapes later to a city that looks very different. Throughout this period, Billy meets a variety of soldiers and citizens. One, Roland Weary, will eventually hire Paul Lazzaro to kill him.
After this turning point in Billy’s life, he goes home, gets married to Valencia Merble, and has a nervous breakdown. He commits himself to a mental hospital where he meets Kilgore Trout. Trout, a reoccurring character in Vonnegut’s novels, is a strange science fiction writer and only one of many temporary characters who pass through Billy’s life. Trout, like the others, is there to provide Billy the chance to experience things. There are no true secondary characters who have any real development.
Billy and his wife have two children together and he acquires everything that should make him happy. He has wealth, a good job, a nice car, and more. But, due to the impact of the war, he’s not the same person he was before. His memories of the war are triggered suddenly and he is forced to think about all the horrors he witnessed.
In a surprising science fiction twist, Billy was kidnapped by aliens in 1967. Vonnegut describes them as two feet tall and shaped by upside-down toilet plungers. They’re called Tralfamadorians, and they take him to their planet, Tralfamadore. These aliens also feature in Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan. The more existential elements of the novel come through in this section. When asking the aliens why he’s been kidnapped and why he especially was chosen, they don’t explain why. Things just happen. Life is irrational that way.
He’s taken to a zoo and forced to live as an exhibit there alongside a chosen mate, Montana Wildhack. Depending on one’s reading of the novel, this is a very real occurrence, or as some scholars have suggested, a complete fiction that reveals how disturbed and damaged Billy’s mind is. This is partially supported by the fact that he saw an image of her in a pornography store.
While with the Tralfamadorians, he learns about their way of life and how they consider time. They exist in the fourth dimension where everything happens at once. Life and death have no real meaning when one can be at any moment in their life whenever they want. Billy has a child with Montana as the aliens want and he returns to Earth. He never talks about what happens to him.
The next year, he gets in a plane crash on the way to a convention. He’s the only survivor but he has to have brain surgery. In another tragic occurrence, Billy’s wife dies on the way to visit him when she crashes her car.
It’s at this point in the novel that Billy feels like he needs to share his message with the world. His daughter is embarrassed by her father’s irrational behavior and doesn’t know how to deal with him. He has experienced his own life out of order, and he decides to make a tape recording of his death. Billy also goes on a talk radio program and travels to New York. He predicts his death will occur in 1976 when someone he knew during the war will hire someone to shoot him.
Billy also mentions that Chicago is going to be hydrogen bombed by the Chinese. He’ll only be there for a moment before jumping back to another part of his life. Billy’s well aware of what’s going to happen to him, and since he came to terms with four-dimensional time, he’s not bothered by it.