Skip over navigation

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter 9

Chapter 8

Chapter 10

Summary

A hysterical Valencia drives to the hospital where Billy is recovering from the plane crash. She hits another car on the way and drives from the scene of the accident without a functioning exhaust system. She pulls up in front of the hospital and passes out from carbon monoxide poisoning. Her face is bright blue. She dies one hour later.

Billy is unconscious, time-traveling and oblivious to his wife’s passing. In the next bed, an arrogant Harvard history professor named Bertram Copeland Rumfoord is recovering from a skiing accident. Rumfoord is the official Air Force historian, and he is working on a condensed history of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He has to write a section on the smashing success of Dresden’s bombing, despite the fact that some of his sources characterize it as an unnecessary carnage.

When Billy first regains consciousness, everyone thinks the accident has left him a vegetable. But behind his catatonic facade he is preparing to tell the world about Tralfamadore and to explain the true nature of time. Billy tells Rumfoord that he was in Dresden for the firebombing, but the professor doesn’t want to listen. Billy then travels back to a May afternoon in Dresden, two days before the end of the war.

Many Germans have fled because they heard that the Russians were coming. Billy and a few other prisoners find a green, coffin-shaped wagon hitched to two horses, and they fill it with food and souvenirs. Outside the slaughterhouse, Billy remains in the wagon and dozes in the sun. It is a happy moment in his life. The sound of a middle-aged German couple talking about the horses awakens him. The animals’ mouths are bleeding, their hooves are broken, and they are dying of thirst. Billy has been oblivious to their poor condition until now. The couple makes Billy get out and look at the animals, and he begins to cry his first tears of the war.

Back in the hospital the next day, Rumfoord quizzes Billy about Dresden. Billy’s daughter, Barbara, arrives and takes him home. She places him under the care of a live-in nurse. Billy’s message cannot wait any longer. He sneaks out and drives to New York City to tell the world about Tralfamadore.

Once in the city, Billy goes to Times Square. He sees four Kilgore Trout books in the window of an adult bookstore and goes in to read them. One of the books is about an earthling man and woman who are kidnapped by aliens and taken to a zoo on a faraway planet. While inside the shop, Billy glimpses the headline of a pornographic magazine: “What really became of Montana Wildhack?” He also sees a few seconds of a pornographic movie starring a teenaged Montana.

There happens to be a radio station near Billy’s hotel. Claiming to be a writer from the Ilium Gazette, Billy gets on a talk-show panel of literary critics discussing the state of the novel. Billy waits his turn, then speaks about Tralfamadore and Montana Wildhack and the nature of time. He is escorted to the street and makes his way back to his hotel. There he falls asleep and time-travels back to Tralfamadore, where Montana is breast-feeding their child. She says that she can tell that Billy has been time-traveling. A silver locket hanging between her bare breasts bears the same inscription—the Serenity Prayer—as the plaque in Billy’s optometry office.

Analysis

Vonnegut throws the tragic absurdity of human life into sharp relief in his description of Billy’s happiest moment. The day after the German surrender, Billy dozes blissfully in the sun amid Dresden’s ruins, but he is lying in a tomb on wheels. The coffin-shaped wagon points to a symbolic death suffered even by the survivors of war. It is the death of a meaningful existence, the death of innocence for all the “babies” who carry out the latest Children’s Crusade. Billy has not yet grasped the emptiness of victory. Yet when two Germans point out the miserable state of the horses hitched to Billy’s coffin, he cannot avoid the fact that his victory also contains his own defeat. The happiest moment in Billy’s life ends in tears for the plight of two beleaguered beasts of burden.

Billy’s interaction with the historian in the Vermont hospital shows how history and fiction are to some degree interchangeable in Slaughterhouse-Five. Although Billy’s stories of time travel and alien abduction are clearly spurious, it is still possible that he has been a soldier in World War II. But when the official author of Dresden’s history of destruction dismisses Billy’s claim of having witnessed it, it becomes clear that our conception of history is shaped by the people who are in charge of writing about it. The world knows little about the massive and grisly loss of civilian life at Dresden, and it is partly up to Rumfoord to keep it that way. He would rather not hear what he fears Billy might have to say about the events. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s offensive against the collective amnesia propagated by people like Rumfoord.

The things Billy sees when he visits the bookstore in Times Square further confuse our understanding of reality within the novel’s fictional framework. Books by Kilgore Trout are displayed mysteriously in the store’s window, making us wonder whether or not it is a coincidence that Billy looks at the Trout book about aliens abducting a man and a woman right before he tells a nighttime radio audience about an experience of his own similar to what Trout’s book describes. When Billy brings the book to the front of the store, the clerks react with bewilderment—they do not even know that they carry Trout novels. The books take on a fantastical aura; it seems possible that they have been placed by an alien hand for Billy’s eyes only, to open him up to a new consciousness. Or, perhaps, Vonnegut is removing the credibility with which Billy’s story begins. We see similar stories of alien abduction in other Trout novels within Slaughterhouse-Five, and Billy also sees pornographic movies starring Montana Wildhack that portray her as a captive in an alien zoo. These late mentions of such material suggest that Billy’s life with Montana in the Tralfamadorian zoo might not be a lucid memory or an instance of time travel but rather a delusion that incorporates elements that Billy has encountered in fictional works.

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

584 out of 618 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

33 out of 34 people found this helpful

See all 4 readers' notes   →

Follow Us