The story is told in a nonlinear order and events become clear through flashbacks (or time travel experiences) from the unreliable narrator who describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to have experienced time travel.
Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight ("Billy wouldn't do anything to save himself"). He does not like war and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Billy's near death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingo character and bully, just out of childhood like Billy, who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm for war. When Weary is captured, the Germans confiscate everything he has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs in Luxembourg. While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary manages to convince another soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life."
At this moment, Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and he experiences moments from various points in his life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported to Luxembourg. By 1945, the prisoners are transported to Dresden to perform "contract labor". The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouseinDresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During thebombing, the prisoners of war and German guards hide in a deep cellar. Because of their hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of thefirestormcaused by Allied bombing between 13 and 15 February 1945. After the war in May 1945, he is transported from Germany to the United States, receiving an honorable discharge from service in July 1945.
A few months after the war ends, Billy is institutionalized with post-traumatic stress disorder and put into psychiatric care toRECOVER. A man named Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Once Billy is released, he marries Valencia Merble. Valencia's father owns the Ilium School of Optometry, which Billy later attends. In 1947, Billy and Valencia's first child Robert is born and two years later they have a daughter named Barbara. On Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet billions of miles away from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are described as being able to see in four dimensions, allowing them to simultaneously observe any and every point in the space-time continuum. They universally adopt a fatalistic worldview. The book adopts the Tralfamadorian philosophy on death, dispassionately saying "so it goes" whenever it refers to someone's demise.
On Tralfamadore, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome exhibit in a zoo that mimics a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians later abduct a porn star named Montana Wildhack, who disappeared and is believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean, with the intention of seeing the two mate. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to relive past or future moments of his life.
In 1968, Billy and a copilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving to the hospital where Billy is being treated. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard history professor. Billy eventually talks about the bombing of Dresden and the professor claims it was justified.
Billy's daughter takes him home to Ilium. He sneaks out and drives to New York City and checks in to a hotel. That evening he wanders around Times Square and visits a book store featuring pornography. Billy sees some Kilgore Trout books and reads them. That night he goes on a radio show where he starts talking about his time-travels to Tralfamadore and is kicked out of the studio. He returns to hisHOTEL ROOM, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden where the book ends.
Intrusive and recurring as a minor character, the narrator seems anonymous while also clearly identifying himself when he, the narrator, says: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book." Vonnegut was captured by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and transported to Dresden. He and fellow prisoners survived the bombing while being held in Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse 5). The narrator begins the story describing his connection to the fire-bombing of Dresden and his reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five.
A fatalistic optometrist ensconced in a dull, safe, marriage in Ilium, New York. He randomly travels in time and is abducted by aliens from planet Tralfamadore, who see everything in the fourth dimension. During World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Dresden, which had a lasting effect on his post-war life. His time travel occurs at desperate times in his life; he re-lives events past and future and becomes fatalistic (though not a defeatist) because he has seen when, how and why he will die.
A weak man dreaming of grandeur and obsessed with gore and vengeance, who saves Billy several times (despite Billy's protests) in hopes of military glory. Weary gets them captured, leading to the loss of his winter uniforms and boots. Weary dies of gangrene in the train en route to the POW camp and blames Billy in his dying words.
Another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois, who takes Weary's dying words as a revenge commission to kill Billy. He keeps a mental list of his enemies, claiming he can have anyone "killed for aTHOUSAND DOLLARS plus traveling expenses".
A failed science fiction writer whoMAKES MONEY by managing newspaper delivery boys and has received only one fan letter (from Eliot Rosewater; see below). After Billy meets him in a back alley in Ilium, New York, he invites Trout to his wedding anniversary celebration. There, Kilgore follows Billy, thinking the latter has seen through a "time window" (when he inexplicably becomes saddened by the barbershop quartet, later revealed as due to them reminding him of the four German guards trying and failing to vocalise the news of Dresden's destruction). Kilgore Trout is also a main character in Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions.
A middle-aged man who has pulled strings to be able to fight in the war. He was a high school teacher who felt that he couldn't just let his young students go off to war without him. While a POW with Billy and Paul Lazzaro, he is the only one that stands up to the traitor Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and defends American ideals. Though he appears to be unimportant throughout most of the book, he seems to be the only American before the bombing of Dresden, to understand what war can do to people. German forces summarily execute him for looting a teapot. Though it doesn't appear to be the most pivotal death in the book, Vonnegut declares that this death is the climax of the book as a whole.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
An American Nazi. Before the war, he lived in Germany as a famous German-language playwright and Nazi propagandist. In an essay, he connects the misery of American poverty, to the disheveled appearance and behaviour of the American POWs. Edgar Derby confronts him when he tries to recruit American POWs into the American Free Corps to fight the Communist Russians on behalf of the Nazis. Campbell is the protagonist of an earlier Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, in which he is revealed to have been working for the OSS against the Germans, using his pro-Nazi persona as a cover. The Americans never reveal Campbell's true role after the end of the war, forcing him to lead a life of anonymity to avoid disgrace. Eventually, Campbell surrenders himself to Israeli authorities and hangs himself while in their custody.
Billy's obese wife and mother of their children, Robert and Barbara. Billy is emotionally distant from her. She dies from carbon monoxide poisoning, after an automobile accident en route to the hospital, to see Billy after his airplane crash.
Son of Billy and Valencia. A troubled, middle-class boy and disappointing son who so absorbs the anti-Communist world view that he metamorphoses from suburban adolescent rebel to Green Beret sergeant.
Daughter of Billy and Valencia. She is a "bitchy flibbertigibbet", from having had to assume the family's leadership at the age of twenty. She has "legs like an Edwardian grand piano," marries an optometrist and treats her widower father as a childish invalid.
The extraterrestrial race who appear (to humans) like upright toilet plungers with a hand atop, in which is set a green eye. They abduct Billy and teach him about time's relation to the world (as a fourth dimension), fate and death's indiscriminate nature. The Tralfamadorians appear in several Vonnegut novels. In Slaughterhouse Five, they reveal that the universe will be accidentally destroyed by one of their test pilots.
A model who stars in a film shown in a pornographic book store when Billy stops by to check out the Kilgore Trout novels sitting in the window and appears on the cover of magazines in the store. She is also abducted and placed in Billy's habitat on Tralfamadore, where they have sex and produce a child.
A superannuated army officer Billy met in the war. He is delirious and eventually dies of pneumonia. He tells his fellow POWs to call him "Wild Bob", as he thinks they're the 451st Infantry Regiment and under his command. "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob," is an inspirational phrase of his that Billy repeats to himself. He was based on William Joseph Cody Garlow (grandson of the famed Buffalo Bill Cody) who surrendered his unit to the German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.[not in citation given]
A friend whom Billy meets in the veterans' hospital and who introduces him to the science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater turns out to be the writer of the only fan letter Trout ever received. Rosewater, like Billy, has experienced a horrifying event in the war. The two feel that the Kilgore Trout novels they read help them to deal with the trauma of World War II. Eliot Rosewater also appears in other books by Kurt Vonnegut, such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord
A Harvard history professor, retired Air Force brigadier general and millionaire, who shares a hospital room with Billy and is interested in the Dresden bombing. He is almost surely a relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a character in a previous novel by Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan.
Two American infantry scouts trapped behind German lines who found Roland and then Billy. Although Roland considers himself and the scouts to be best friends and heroes (calling their group the "Three Musketeers"), the scouts are uncomfortable around him. They later reveal that both Roland and Billy are slowing them down and abandon them. Shortly thereafter it is revealed they were found and shot from behind by German troops who were waiting in ambush.
The character briefly discussed in the beginning of the book, to whom Vonnegut promised to name the book The Children's Crusade. She is the wife of Bernard V. O'Hare.
Bernard V. O'Hare
The husband of Mary O'Hare. He is the narrator's old war friend that accompanies him on his trip back to Dresden, where they were held captive in Slaughterhouse Five during the firebombing.
The sixteen-year-old German charged with guarding Billy and Edgar Derby, when they first arrive at Slaughterhouse Five in Dresden. He does not know his way around and accidentally leads Billy and Edgar into a communal shower, where some German refugee girls from the Eastern Front are bathing. Comments are made on how similar in appearance he is to Billy. Coincidentally, they are distant cousins but they never discover this.
The story continually employs the refrain "So it goes" when death, dying and mortality occur, as a narrative transition to another subject, as a memento mori, as comic relief and to explain the unexplained. It appears 106 times.
As a postmodern, metafictional novel, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five and apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled", because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". As in Mother Night, but more extensively, Vonnegut manipulates fiction and reality. The first sentence says: "All this happened, more or less." (In 2010, that sentence was ranked No. 38 on the American Book Review's list of "100 Best First Lines from Novels".) The author later appears in Billy Pilgrim's World War II as another sick prisoner, which the narrator notes by saying: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
The story repeatedly refers to real and fictional novels and fiction; Billy reads Valley of the Dolls (1966), skims a Tralfamadorian novel, and participates in a radio talk show, part of a literary-expert panel discussing "The Death of the Novel".
The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the novel. The story begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fiction. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed narrative, from Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.
The Narrator reports that Billy Pilgrim experiences his life discontinuously, so that he randomly experiences (re-lives) his birth, youth, old age and death, not in (normal) linear order. There are two narrative threads: Billy's experience of war (interrupted with experiences from elsewhere in his life), which is mostly linear, and his discontinuous pre-war and post-war lives. Billy's existential perspective was compromised in witnessing Dresden's destruction, although he had come unstuck in time before arriving to Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is told in short, declarative sentences, that impress the sense of reading a report of facts.
The narrator begins the novel telling of his connection to the Dresden bombing, why he is recording it, a description of self, book and of the fact that he believes it is a desperate attempt at scholarly work. He then segues to the story of Billy Pilgrim: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", thus the transition from the writer's perspective to that of the third-person, omniscient narrator. The use of "Listen" as an opening interjection mimics the epic poemBeowulf.
Kilgore Trout, whom Billy Pilgrim meets operating a newspaper delivery business, can be seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, though the two differ in some respects. Trout'sCAREER as a science-fiction novelist is checkered with thieving publishers and the fictional author is unaware of his readership.
As in other novels, certain characters cross over from other stories, making cameo appearances, connecting the discrete novels to a greater opus. Fictional novelist Kilgore Trout, often an important character in other Vonnegut novels, in Slaughterhouse-Five is a social commentator and a friend to Billy Pilgrim. In one case, he is the only non-optometrist at a party, therefore, he is the odd-man-out. He ridicules everything the Ideal American Family holds true, such as Heaven, Hell and Sin. In Trout's opinion, people do not know if the things they do turn out to be good or bad, and if they turn out to be bad, they go to Hell, where "the burning never stops hurting".
It should be noted that while Vonnegut re-uses characters, the characters are frequently rebooted and do not necessarily maintain the same biographical details from appearance to appearance. Kilgore Trout in particular is palpably a different person (although with distinct, consistent character traits) in each of his appearances in Vonnegut's work.
In the Twayne's United States Authors series volume on Kurt Vonnegut, about the protagonist's name, Stanley Schatt says:
By naming the unheroic hero Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut contrasts John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" with Billy's story. As Wilfrid Sheed has pointed out, Billy's solution to the problems of the modern world is to INVENT a heaven, out of 20th century materials, where Good Technology triumphs over Bad Technology. His scripture is Science Fiction, Man's last, good fantasy".
Slaughterhouse-Five speaks of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, and refers to the Battle of the Bulge, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights protests in American cities during the 1960s. Billy's wife, Valencia, wears a Reagan for President! bumper sticker on her car, referring to Reagan's failed 1968 Republican presidential nomination campaign. The bumper sticker was edited out of a broadcast version of the film which aired on at least one cable channel during or after the Reagan administration. Another bumper sticker is mentioned that says "Impeach Earl Warren."
The slaughterhouse in which Billy Pilgrim and the other POWs are kept is also a real building in Dresden. Vonnegut was beaten and imprisoned in this building during World War II and it is because of the meat locker in the building's basement that he (and Billy) survived the fire-bombing; the site is largely intact andPROTECTED. One can visit it and take a two-hour guided tour called "Kurt Vonnegut Tour".
Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. American soldiers use profanity, his language is irreverent and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as "fairies", were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
In the USA it has at times been banned from literature classes, removed from school libraries and struck from literary curricula. In 1972 it was banned from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan. The circuit judge described the book as "depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian."
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries in the case ofIsland Trees School District v. Pico, [457 U.S.853 (1982)] and concluded that "local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'" Slaughterhouse-Five is the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association's list of the "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999" and number forty-six on the ALA's "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009". Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis.
Critics have accused Slaughterhouse-Five of being a quietist work, because Billy Pilgrim believes that the notion of free will is a quaint Earthling illusion. The problem, according to Robert Merrill and Peter A. Scholl, is that "Vonnegut's critics seem to think that he is saying the same thing [as the Tralfamadorians]. For Anthony Burgess, "Slaughterhouse is a kind of evasion —in a sense, like J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan —in which we’re being told to carry the horror of the Dresden bombing, and everything it implies, up to a level of fantasy..." For Charles Harris, "The main idea emerging from Slaughterhouse-Five seems to be that the proper response to life is one of resigned acceptance." For Alfred Kazin, “Vonnegut deprecates any attempt to see tragedy, that day, in Dresden... He likes to say, with arch fatalism, citing one horror after another, 'So it goes'." For Tanner, "Vonnegut has... total sympathy with such quietistic impulses." The same notion is found throughout The Vonnegut Statement, a book of original essays written and collected by Vonnegut’s most loyal academic fans.
A film adaptation of the book, also called Slaughterhouse-Five, was made in 1972. Although critically praised, the film was a box office flop. It won the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Hugo Award and Saturn Award. Vonnegut commended the film greatly. Guillermo del Toro has confirmed his intention to remake the 1972 film, originally hoping to release it in early 2011. Due to his involvement with The Hobbit, the date of release for a film adaptation was pushed back. Although Guillermo del Toro has since dropped out of involvement with The Hobbit, the possibility of a new adaptation remains in question, since it is not among several projects Del Toro is said to be working on as of summer 2013.
In 1989, a theatrical adaption premiered at The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, in the UK. This was the first time the novel had been presented onstage. It was adapted by Vince Foxall, andDIRECTED by Paddy Cunneen. In 1996, a theatrical adaptation of the novel was premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, IL. The adaptation was written and directed by Eric Simonson and included actors Rick Snyder, Robert Breuler and Deanna Dunagan.The play has been performed in several other theaters, including a January 2008 New York premiere production, at the Godlight Theatre Company. The operatic adaptation by Hans-Jürgen von Bose, premiered in July 1996 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Billy Pilgrim II was sung by Uwe Schonbeck.
From June 9 to July 3, 2015, Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, Washington (USA) presented an adaptation of the book by Josh Aaseng, who also directed. It starred Robert Bergin, Erik Grafton, and Todd Jefferson Moore as Billy Pilgrim (at three different ages). As is Book-It's practice, every word in the production is takenDIRECTLY from the text of the book.