Skip over navigation

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter 6

Chapter 5

Chapter 7

Summary

After spending the night on morphine, Billy wakes at dawn in his prison bed on the day he and the other Americans are to be transported to Dresden. He senses something radiating energy near his bed and discovers the source of this “animal magnetism”: two small lumps inside the lining of his overcoat. A telepathic communication informs him that the lumps can work miracles for him if he does not try to find out any more about them.

Billy dozes off and wakes again later the same morning. With him are Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro. The English officers are building themselves a new latrine, having abandoned the old one to the sick Americans. The Englishman who beat up Lazzaro stops by, and Lazzaro tells him that he is going to have the officer killed after the war. The sweetest thing in life, he claims, is revenge. He says that one time he fed a dog that had bitten him a steak filled with sharp pieces of metal and watched it die in torment. Lazzaro reminds Billy of Roland Weary’s final wish and advises him not to answer the doorbell after the war.

Billy says he already knows that he will die because an old, crazed Lazzaro will keep his promise. He has time-traveled to this moment many times, and he knows that he will be a messianic figure by that time, delivering a speech about the nature of time to a stadium crowd of admirers and granting them solace by sharing the understanding that moments last forever and that death is a negligible reality. He speaks at a baseball park covered by a geodesic dome. It is 1976, and China has dropped a hydrogen bomb on Chicago. The United States has been divided into twenty nations to prevent it from threatening the world. Moments after he predicts his own death and closes his speech with the words “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello,” Billy is killed by an assassin’s high-powered laser gun. He experiences the violet nothingness of death, and then he swings back into life and to early 1945. The record of these events, Billy says, he has recorded on a cassette that he has left in a safe-deposit box in a bank.

After a lecture on personal hygiene by an Englishman and an election in which Edgar Derby is named their leader, the Americans are shipped to Dresden. Arrayed in his fur-satin coat and swathed in cloth scraps and silver boots left over from the production of Cinderella, Billy looks like the war’s unwitting clown. When the boxcars open, the Americans gaze on the most beautiful city they have ever seen. “Oz,” says Kurt Vonnegut, who is in the boxcar too. Eight sorry, broken-down German soldiers guard one hundred American prisoners. They are marched through the city to a former slaughterhouse that will serve as their quarters. Billy is amazed by Dresden’s architecture. The city is relatively untouched by war, with industries and recreational facilities still operating. All the citizens are amused by the ragtag parade, except one, who finds Billy’s -ridiculous appearance offensive. The man is insulted by Billy’s lack of dignity and his apparent reduction of the war to a joke or pageant.

Analysis

Billy’s discovery of two mysterious lumps inside the lining of his overcoat can be better understood in relation to the biblical story of Lot’s wife mentioned in Chapter 1, when Vonnegut opens the Gideon Bible and reads the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although the firebombing of Dresden can be seen as a modern tale of fire and brimstone—ultimate destruction on the ground wrought by a faraway unseen force—the part of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah that interests Vonnegut most is the story of Lot’s wife, who looks back at the destruction even though she is told not to and is turned into a pillar of salt as punishment. Vonnegut praises her for knowing her fate and looking back anyway. The tale provides a counterpoint to Billy, who is content and grateful for the existence of the lumps and feels an almost inhuman lack of curiosity and temptation to find out more, to see them with his own eyes. The lumps seem to radiate a living force, but as long as Billy leaves them undisturbed, he lets part of his humanity lie dormant. The story creates a polarity between Billy and Lot’s wife, with Billy being the disillusioned man who escapes to his delusions and Lot’s wife the determined woman who stares her own destruction in the face. For Vonnegut, the war functions in the same way that the wantonness of Sodom and Gomorrah does—it is a force that condemns those it touches to one of two fates. On one side, Lot’s wife knows that looking back at the city will immobilize her, yet she is determined to take her last glance; on the other side, Billy accepts that he must avoid being curious about the war, since its effects would immobilize him, and instead must go through life with the delusion that there is no need to worry, since whatever will be already is.

However, the narrative technique in these chapters suggests that Billy’s future is not absolutely determined. The narrator’s tone shifts slightly when relating Billy’s account of 1976. Distancing himself from Billy’s own statements, the narrator is not exactly skeptical, but he adopts a disclaimer-like attitude. Instead of reporting the world events and the details of Billy’s assassination in his own voice, the narrator relays the transcript of Billy’s tape, opening the account with “Billy Pilgrim says. . . .” in order to make clear that it is Billy, not the narrator, saying what follows. Slaughterhouse-Five is, after all, an earthling’s approximation of a Tralfamadorian tale, and it is therefore subject to the limits of human perception and human skepticism. The narration, which earlier functions as a sense of external authority and support, now creates distance between us and the story, and this distance confuses our sense of what we can trust and believe.

More Help

Previous Next
A few observations on Slaughterhouse Five

by Akumeoi, November 04, 2012

Some things that are significant about this book (in my view) that were not mentioned in the SparkNote are this:
Billy Pilgrim's last name
A religious connection in the book
The colour of his feet again
As to the first, I think that since 'Billy' was obviously chosen with care, 'Pilgrim' was too. Pilgrim could refer to his otherworldly journey through time, although it's uncertain what he would be making a pilgrimage too - possibly death. Or, it could just be his journey through the war.
As to the religious impl... Read more

2 Comments

592 out of 626 people found this helpful

Where in the book is that

by mackeller, April 04, 2013

Do you know where in the book the christianity references are? The chapter might be more helpful because the pages are probably different.

An alternative explanation for Billy's "travels"

by almostpassingenglish, August 18, 2013

I think that BIlly Pilgrim's journeys through time could instead be a social commentary on Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. Billy isn't skipping through time, instead he's an old man sitting at his home, his daughter is taking care of him, and when he closes his eyes he suffers his wartime flashbacks and delusions about traveling through space in which he lives in a dream with elements from his life, like how Montana Wildhack was the Porn Star from the book store that Billy visited to see the Kilgore Trout novels. It also explains why the boo

0 Comments

35 out of 36 people found this helpful

See all 4 readers' notes   →

Follow Us