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Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter 8

Chapter 7

Chapter 9

Summary

Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi propagandist, speaks to the weary, malnourished prisoners at the slaughterhouse. He solicits them to join his Free American Corps to fight on the Russian front, promising food and repatriation after the war. Edgar Derby stands up and, in his finest moment, denounces Campbell. He defends the American fight for freedom and praises the brotherhood between Russians and Americans. An air-raid siren concludes the confrontation, and everyone takes shelter in a meat locker carved into the bedrock beneath the slaughterhouse. The alarm is false. The narrator states that Dresden will not be destroyed until the next night.

Billy dozes off in the meat locker and travels back to a conversation with his exasperated daughter, Barbara. She blames Kilgore Trout for Billy’s Tralfamadorian pronouncements. Billy recalls the first time he mets Trout in his own hometown of Ilium. Trout manages newspaper delivery boys for the Ilium Gazette. He is shocked that Billy has read his books. Billy invites Trout to his eighteenth wedding anniversary celebration, where Trout is a hit with the optometrists and their wives. One of them, the credulous and attractive Maggie White, listens with concern as Trout leads her to believe that publishing made-up stories qualifies as a fraud punishable by God and worthy of jail time. In his enthusiasm, Trout accidentally spits a piece of salmon roe into Maggie’s cleavage.

The Four-eyed Bastards (or Febs), the barbershop quartet made up of optometrists, sing a sentimental song about old friendship. The experience of watching and listening to them visibly shakes Billy. Trout guesses that Billy has looked through a “time window.” When the barbershop quartet sings again, Billy has to leave the room. He goes upstairs, where he accidentally walks in on his son in the bathroom holding a guitar as he sits on the toilet. Billy lies down on his bed, trying to figure out why the Febs have such an effect on him. He remembers the night Dresden was destroyed. The American prisoners and four guards waited out the bombing in the meat locker. They emerged to find Dresden replaced by one big, smoking mineral deposit. The four guards huddled together, and the changing expressions on their faces—silent mouths open in awe and terror—seem to Billy like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.

Billy time-travels to Tralfamadore, where Montana Wildhack, who is six months pregnant, asks him to tell her a story. He tells her of the destruction of Dresden and of the little burned logs lying all around that were actually people. In bombed-out Dresden, the guards and the prisoners venture out onto the moonscape to forage for food and water. In the city itself they do not encounter another living soul. At nightfall, they reach an inn in a portion of a suburb untouched by bombs or flames. The blind innkeeper and his family know that Dresden has been destroyed. They give the prisoners soup and beer and a stable to sleep in for the night. As the prisoners prepare for bed, the innkeeper says in German, “Good night, Americans. Sleep well.”

Analysis

Billy’s realization that he is hiding his secret history of trauma from himself marks an important point in the novel. Despite the fact that Vonnegut has dispensed with most traditional narrative devices in Slaughterhouse-Five, the focusing of Billy’s self-awareness constitutes a crucial moment in the development of Billy’s character. It paves the way for his eventual decision to spread the Tralfamadorian gospel on earth. Ironically, instead of sitting back and accepting human ignorance of the true nature of time, Billy exerts his will to help his fellow inhabitants of earth.

Billy’s recognition of the effect of the Febs on his psyche demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness. Although he undergoes emotional stress in this section, his response is not to travel in time, as it has been in other chapters. The fact that he stays rooted in the present suggests that this moment is one of Billy’s sanest, even though he is suffering from tremendous emotional anguish. When Trout asks Billy if he has seen the past or the future through a “time window,” Billy answers no. Valencia hits closer to the mark when she says, “You looked as though you’d seen a ghost.” The sight of the Febs with their mouths open in song raises the specter of a tragic memory. As Billy retires to his room to attempt to sort out the cause of his distress, he remembers (without time-tripping, as the narrator takes pains to point out) the horrible sight of the four German guards, clustered together with their mouths agape.

The Febs’ singing provides Billy with a long-delayed catharsis for the tragedy that he seems to have passively observed in Dresden. In fact, Billy experienced the actual firebombing as no more than the sound of heavy footsteps above the safe haven of the meat locker. Seeing the Febs and remembering the sight of his German guards, Billy is finally able to create an association with the tragedy. Four open-mouthed men signify for Billy the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Realizing this fact allows him to grieve the loss and discuss it openly with Montana Wildhack when she asks for a story. By contrast, when Valencia questions Billy about the war on their wedding night, he tells her nothing because he cannot yet understand his own experience, much less recount it to others.

With his discovery that he has been keeping a secret from himself, a window opens for Billy not onto time but onto another facet of his personality. Similarly, Billy accidentally illuminates another side of his son, Robert, when he opens the bathroom door and discovers him sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles and a pink guitar slung around his neck. Billy comes to the important realization that although he likes his son, he barely knows him. It is as if Billy has partially awakened to the world around him and its potential for human relationships.

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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

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580 out of 614 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

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