A 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.
The 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.
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 in 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.
Bernhard 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.
The 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.
A 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.
An 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 pointless.
Another POW 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.
Another 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 reflects this notion of time. Their acceptance of death, which Billy embraces, leads the narrator to remark simply “So it goes” at each mention of death.
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 Trout.
A 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.
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.
A 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 her.
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.
Rumfoord’s 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.
Billy’s 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.
Billy’s 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.
Billy’s father throws young Billy into the YMCA pool 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.