World War II veteran, POW
survivor of the firebombing
of Dresden, prospering optometrist, husband, and father. Billy Pilgrim
is the protagonist of the novel who believes he has “come unstuck
in time.” He walks through a door at one moment in his life and suddenly
finds himself in another time and place. His fragmented experience
of time structures the novel as short episodic vignettes and shows
how the difficulty of recounting traumatic experiences can require
unusual literary techniques.
in-depth analysis of Billy Pilgrim.
novel’s author and a minor character. Vonnegut himself was a prisoner
of war during the firebombing of Dresden, and he periodically inserts himself
in the narrative, as when he becomes the incontinent soldier in
the latrine in the German prison camp. This authorial presence reappears
throughout the novel, particularly in the refrain “So it goes” that follows
each mention of death. Vonnegut’s commentary as a character and
an author enables a more factual interpretation of a story that
seems almost preternaturally fictional and adds support to the idea that
such fantastical elements may be the reality of a traumatized mind.
Bernhard V. O’Hare
A wartime pal of Vonnegut. O’Hare appears when Vonnegut
visits him and his wife in Pennsylvania while trying to do research
and collect remembrances for his Dresden book. Like his wife, Mary,
and Vonnegut himself, O’Hare, a nonfictional character, helps ground Slaughterhouse-Five
reality. Vonnegut actually has this other survivor of the firebombing
contribute to the research and recollection process involved in
creating the book, which allows us to take the novelistic details
as fact and appreciate the thoughtful manner in which they are presented.
O’Hare’s wife. Mary gets upset with Vonnegut because she believes
that he will glorify war in his novel; Vonnegut, however, promises
not to do so. Slaughterhouse-Five
is a condemnation
of war, and Vonnegut’s decision to dedicate the novel in part to Mary
suggests how deeply he agrees with her that the ugly truth about
war must be told.
nonfictional taxi driver who takes Vonnegut and O’Hare back to their
Dresden slaughterhouse. Müller later sends O’Hare a Christmas card
bearing tidings of peace, and Vonnegut dedicates the novel in part
to Müller—two simple gestures of sympathy that stand out amid the
novel’s pervasive cruelty and violence.
stupid, cruel soldier taken prisoner by the Germans along with Billy.
Unlike Billy, who is totally out of place in the war, Weary is a
deluded glory-seeker who fancies himself part of the Three Musketeers
and saves Billy’s life out of a desire to be heroic.
army colonel in the German rail yard who has lost his mind. Wild
Bob asks if Billy belongs to his regiment when, in fact, all his
men are dead. He invites everyone to visit him in Wyoming, but his
arbitrary death shows how the war makes such gestures both poignant and
the man responsible for Billy’s death. Lazzaro, a revenge-loving
ruffian with criminal tendencies, arranges for Billy’s assassination
to avenge Roland Weary’s death. Lazzaro’s determination to kill Billy
does not create a conflict between the two characters, however;
because Billy has accepted the Tralfamadorians’ conception of nonlinear
time, he is unconcerned by his death.
survivor of Dresden’s incineration. Following the firebombing, Derby
is sentenced to die by firing squad for plundering a teapot from
the wreckage. His death is anticlimactic, since Billy does not view
it with any sense of pathos, but rather as an inevitability.
Billy’s pleasant, fat wife who loves him dearly. Valencia
and Billy share a well-appointed home and have two children together,
but Billy consistently distances himself from his family.
Aliens shaped like toilet plungers, each with one
hand containing an eye in its palm. The Tralfamadorians’ philosophies
of time and death influence the narrative style of the novel. They
perceive time as an assemblage of moments existing simultaneously
rather than as a linear progression, and the episodic nature of Slaughterhouse-Five
this notion of time. Their acceptance of death, which Billy embraces,
leads the narrator to remark simply “So it goes” at each mention
A war veteran who occupies the bed near Billy in
the mental ward of a veterans’ hospital. Like Billy, Rosewater is
suffering from the aftereffects of war, and he finds escape—and
helps Billy find escape—in the science-fiction novels of Kilgore
bitter, unappreciated author of several cleverly ironic science-fiction
novels that have a great influence on Billy. Trout, who appears
in many of Vonnegut’s works, functions as Vonnegut’s alter ego.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
An American who has become a Nazi. Campbell speaks
to the prisoners in the slaughterhouse and tries to recruit them
for “The Free American Corps,” a German army unit that he is forming
to fight the Russians. Campbell represents all that is wrong with
war; he desires to use people for perverse ideological ends.
young German guard at the slaughterhouse. Gluck gets his first glimpse
of a naked woman along with Billy. Their shared intrigue and interest
in the naked female body unites these two men from different sides,
reflecting how fundamentally human feelings—such as lust—can trump
differences of political ideology.
A nubile young actress who is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians
to be Billy’s mate inside the zoo. Billy wins Montana’s trust and
love, and fathers a child by her in Tralfamadore. But Billy likely
is delusional about his experiences with Montana, whose presence may
have been imaginatively triggered by a visit to an adult bookstore
in Times Square, where he sees her videos and a headline claiming
to reveal her fate.
Billy’s daughter, newly married at the age of twenty-one,
who is faced with the sudden death of her mother and the apparent
mental breakdown of her father. Barbara represents the follow-up
generation to the one ravaged by World War II. While Billy’s ability to
function in life and be successful in a career paves the way for
Barbara’s development, his war trauma and delusions constantly frustrate
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord
A Harvard history professor and the official U.S.
Air Force historian who is laid up by a skiing accident in the same
Vermont hospital as Billy after his plane crash. Rumfoord’s reluctance
to believe that Billy was present during the Dresden raid embodies
the bureaucratic attitude that seeks to glorify the war and its
heroes instead of realistically portraying war’s destructiveness
and its haphazard selection of survivors.
young trophy wife and research assistant. Lily Rumfoord is frightened
of Billy, but she lies silent in the next bed as a symbol of the
scope of powerlessness and lack of free will.
son, who is a failure and a delinquent at school, though he cleans
up his life enough to become a Green Beret in the Vietnam War. Robert’s
presence in the story during Billy’s later life helps illustrate
the pervasiveness of Billy’s war trauma, especially his inability
to communicate and relate to his own son. Robert’s successful self-reformation
from delinquency to discipline (in Vietnam) seems to indicate Vonnegut’s acceptance
of the inevitability of war.
mother is described as a woman “trying to construct a life that
made sense from things she found in gift shops” (she once hung a
grisly crucifix in Billy’s room but never joined a church because
she couldn’t settle on a denomination). She visits Billy in the
mental hospital, and her presence embarrasses him because he feels
like an ungrateful son for being indifferent to life.
father throws young Billy into the YMCA
to teach him how to swim. Billy prefers the bottom of the pool,
but he is rescued unwillingly from drowning after he loses consciousness.
This incident initiates the novel’s theme of the illusory nature
of free will.