It is 1968. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are both dead, assassinated within a month of one another. Body counts from the jungle war in Vietnam fill the evening news.
According to Billy, Tralfamadorians are more interested in Darwin than in Jesus Christ. They admire the Darwinian view that death serves a function and that “corpses are improvements.” A Kilgore Trout book, The Big Board, features aliens who capture an earthling and ask him about Darwin and golf.
Vonnegut tells us that he is not overjoyed if what Billy learned from the Tralfamadorians about eternal existence is true. Still, he is grateful for all the pleasant times experienced in his life. Vonnegut recalls one of those moments—his return to Dresden with his war buddy O’Hare. On the plane, the men eat salami sandwiches and drink white wine, and the author’s friend shows him a book that claims the world population will reach seven billion by the year 2000. “I suppose they will all want dignity,” Vonnegut remarks.
Billy is also back in Dresden, two days after the war, digging for bodies. Vonnegut and O’Hare are there too. After spending two nights in the stable, the prisoners are put to work excavating the ruins of Dresden, where they discover innumerable “corpse mines.” The bodies rot faster than they can be removed, making for a grisly cleanup job. One prisoner, a Maori, dies of the dry heaves. Eventually, as the pace of putrefaction outstrips the recovery efforts, the authorities adopt a new policy. The bodies are cremated where they lie in subterranean caverns. The soldiers use flamethrowers to carry out this grim task.
During the course of the excavations, while the men are still under German command, Edgar Derby is discovered with a teapot found in the ruins. He is arrested and convicted of plundering, then executed by firing squad.
Soon it is spring, and the Germans disappear to fight or flee the Russians. The war ends. Trees sprout leaves. Billy finds the horses and the green, coffin-shaped wagon. A bird says to him, “Poo-tee-weet?”
The bird asks a question, “Poo-tee-weet?” to which there can be no reply. As the narrator warns in the first chapter, there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. The novel’s ending suggests that bird-talk makes as much sense as anyone’s talk about war. Yet, like the bird, Vonnegut has persisted in filling the silence left after the massacre. Even if words and stories are meaningless, that they have managed to survive at all in the aftermath of a war that saw the mass incineration of books as well as of bodies is quite a feat. Moreover, Vonnegut has succeeded in constructing a thing of beauty out of the shards of senselessness and anguish.
In the end, the problem of dignity returns. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of people born every day wants dignity. The equalizing power of death brings dignity at a high price. Billy must travel far from this planet to find his own sort of dignity. Vonnegut wonders if there will ever be enough dignity to go around here on earth. There is no answer to this question, either.
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut not only dismisses conventional story structure, which includes a climax, but he also shows how the war has made the idea of a climax completely irrelevant. While Vonnegut suggests to O’Hare early in the novel that the story should climax in the shooting of Edgar Derby for plundering a teapot, his portrayal of this moment is quite matter-of-fact: “Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. So it goes.” In another narrative, the death of such a kind, just man might be the ultimate tragic irony. But with the phrase, “So it goes,” Vonnegut implies that there is no justice in death.
The Tralfamadorians advise eternally revisiting the pleasant moments of one’s life, but Billy Pilgrim exerts no control over his time-traveling. Likewise, we often lack control over our own memories, which may make it hard for us to find comforting Billy’s message about the eternity of moments. Furthermore, a Tralfamadorian universe implies more accountability than Billy would have us believe, for if a pleasant moment lasts forever, so does an awful one like the firebombing of Dresden. Those responsible continually relive the direct consequences of their decision. Somewhere, Billy Pilgrim’s moment of sheer joy dozing in the spring sunshine still exists. But somewhere else, 130,000 civilians are burning and suffocating. Still elsewhere, prisoners of war will eternally uncover an infinite mine of corpses. Time cannot erase such moments.