Slaughterhouse-Five has a non-linear narrative, which means that the events occur out of the order in which they happened. The plot is non-linear for a number of reasons. First, Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, has become “unstuck in time.” He travels between different moments in his life, unable to choose where he will go next, and the narrative travels with him. Second, Slaughterhouse-Five appears to take the Tralfamadorian novel, which has no beginning, middle, end, or suspense, as its model. Telling the story in a non-linear fashion helps achieve this. If the end comes before the beginning, there’s no suspense. If the effect comes before the cause, there’s no cause and effect. Lastly, this narrative structure makes the novel “short and jumbled and jangled,” as the author Kurt Vonnegut writes directly to his editor in Chapter 1, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Therefore, the novel’s “jumbled,” non-linear structure reinforces Vonnegut’s message about the violence of war.
The novel opens and closes with chapters in which Vonnegut directly addresses his own war experiences and his struggle to write the very novel you are reading. In between these chapters, Vonnegut tells Billy’s story with occasional interruptions, such as “I was there,” that link his war experience to Billy’s. Vonnegut’s narrative voice is so strong and his experience so similar to Billy’s that he serves as a secondary protagonist himself. For both Billy and Vonnegut, the novel’s main conflict is not external but internal. This means that neither Billy nor Vonnegut are up against a traditional villain or antagonist. Instead, they are both trying to make sense of the trauma—specifically the devastating fire bombing of Dresden—that they witnessed as prisoners of war during World War II. In addition to making sense of that experience, Vonnegut struggles to write a book about Dresden that does not romanticize war. Thus, for both characters, the inciting incident, or event that sets the story in motion, is the bombing of Dresden.
The rising action that leads to the climax is split into two central narrative threads. One is the story of Billy’s deployment to and subsequent capture in Germany, where he and his fellow prisoners are transported to a camp and then on to the slaughterhouse in Dresden. Among the prisoners are Edgar Derby, the teacher who will be killed for stealing a teapot, and Paul Lazzaro, the man who will assassinate Billy years later to avenge the death of a former fellow soldier named Roland Weary. The second thread follows Billy’s life after the war as an optometrist, husband to Valencia, and father to Robert and Barbara. After a devastating plane crash from which Billy emerges as one of two survivors, he declares that years ago he was abducted by aliens who took him to their planet, Tralfamadore. There, they displayed him at a zoo and mated him with another “Earthling,” the celebrity Montana Wildhack. The Tralfamadorians can see the past, present, and future all at once and know there is no such thing as free will. Billy adopts their view of time and begins promoting their ideas in public forums.
The narrative reaches a climax in Chapter 8. While celebrating his wedding anniversary, Billy becomes distressed watching the barbershop quartet sing. Upset, he runs upstairs and realizes why the quartet affected him in this way: their faces reminded him of the stunned faces of the German guards upon seeing Dresden for the first time after the fire bombing. Only then, in Chapter 8, does Billy recount his experience of the bombing of Dresden. Crucially, however, Billy “did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly.” Remembering is a choice, whereas, time travel for Billy is not. The fact that Billy remembers this event indicates that he is truly confronting it for the first time, almost 20 years later. Given the novel’s non-linear structure, the inciting incident—the bombing of Dresden—is also part of the book’s climax.
In the falling action that begins in Chapter 9 immediately following the climax, Billy is in the hospital recovering from the head injury sustained in a plane crash many years later. It is only after the plane crash and the subsequent death of his wife Valencia that Billy begins to speak of time travel and Tralfamadore. Interestingly, both the plane crash and the death of his wife echo his experiences in Dresden. With the plane crash, as in Dresden, Billy is a lucky survivor of an event that killed almost everyone else. His wife, Valencia, dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning after losing her exhaust pipe in a fender-bender on the highway. In this way, her death recalls the deaths of many in Dresden, who died in their shallow basement shelters from carbon monoxide poisoning. The fact that these later traumas resonate with the Dresden bombing points back to the bombing as the primary trauma for Billy. It also indicates that perhaps Billy’s idea of time and time travel was developed as a coping mechanism for the trauma of the Dresden bombing, which the subsequent traumas may have triggered.
In the final chapter, as in the first, Vonnegut addresses the reader from the first person point of view. However, in this chapter, his experience eventually merges with Billy’s: “Now Billy and the rest were being marched into the ruins by their guards. I was there. O’Hare was there. We had spent the past two nights in the blind inn-keeper’s stable.” The novel ends, as Vonnegut tells us it will, with the words of a bird: “Poo-tee-weet?” This ending is both comical and absurd because it is nonsense. It is also, however, slightly hopeful. It is spring, the birds are out, and the war is over.