The narrator bids us listen and declares that “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Billy travels randomly through the moments of his life without control over his chronological destination. Born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, Billy grows up a funny-looking weakling. He graduates high school and trains to be an optometrist before being drafted. After his military service in Germany, he suffers from a nervous collapse and is treated with shock therapy. He recovers, marries, has two children, and becomes a wealthy optometrist.

In 1968, Billy survives a plane crash in Vermont; as he is recuperating, his wife dies in an accident. After returning home, Billy goes on a radio show in New York City to talk about his abduction by aliens in 1967. His twenty-one-year-old daughter, Barbara, discovers his proselytizing and brings him home, concerned for his sanity. The following month, Billy writes a letter to his local paper about the aliens.

The day the letter is published, Billy is hard at work on his second letter to the Ilium newspaper about lessons he learned when he was taken to the planet Tralfamadore. He is glowing with the expectation that his letter will console many people by explaining the true nature of time. Barbara is distraught by his behavior. She arrives at his house with newspaper in hand, unable to get Billy to talk sense.

Billy describes his entry into the army, his training as a chaplain’s assistant in South Carolina, and his dazed trek behind enemy lines after the disastrous Battle of the Bulge in World War II. After the battle, Billy falls in with three other American soldiers, two of whom are scouts and capable soldiers. The one who is not, the antitank gunner Roland Weary, is a cruel, insecure man who saves Billy’s life repeatedly in acts that he thinks will make him a hero.

Billy first time-shifts as he leans against a tree in a Luxembourg forest. He has fallen behind the others and has little will to continue. He swings through the extremes of his life: the violet light of death, the red light of pre-birth. He is then a small boy being thrown into the deep end of the YMCA swimming pool by his father, a proponent of the “sink-or-swim” method.

Billy time-travels to 1965. He is now forty-one years old and visiting his mother in a nursing home. He blinks and finds himself at a Little League banquet for his son, Robert, in 1958. He blinks again and opens his eyes at a party in 1961, cheating on his wife. Messily drunk, he passes out and wakes up again behind enemy lines. Roland Weary is shaking him awake.

The two scouts decide to ditch Weary and Billy, much to Weary’s chagrin. All his life people have ditched him. He has imagined himself and the scouts as the Three Musketeers, and he blames Billy for breaking them up. Billy is suddenly giving a speech in 1957 as the newly elected president of the Ilium Lions Club. He is then back in the war, being captured by Germans along with Weary.


The narrative device of spastic time leads to a logical and emotional instability in the novel, likening our experience as readers to the experience Billy has in attempting to make sense of his life. We can thus understand how Billy feels as he skips uncontrollably through his life. By telling the beginning, middle, and end of the story right away, Vonnegut departs from the familiar literary signposts of cause and effect, suspense and climax. We do not see Billy as everyone else in his life sees him; rather, instead of seeing his life in a linear progression, understanding it moment by moment, we see the entirety of his life come together to define him. In other words, we can better understand and sympathize with Billy’s dazed wandering through the totality of events that make up his existence.

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Slaughterhouse-Five questions the possibility of human dignity in a century marked by unprecedented massacres and technological advancements in the machinery of mass murder. The initial stages of Billy’s war experience reveal a man denied dignity. He lacks the proper accoutrements of a soldier, including military attire and loyal companions who would give their lives for him. Instead, Billy wears an absurd outfit and falls in with Roland Weary, who grudgingly saves Billy only to feed the delusional fantasy of his own heroism.

Read an in-depth analysis of Billy Pilgrim.

Weary, like the medieval crusaders and the Three Musketeers whom he idolizes, believes he is acting in dignified and exalted accordance with God’s will. We see, however, that he actually has no more dignity than Billy. Vonnegut indicates here that war is war and death is death. Wars that seem like they are waged for religious or pious reasons seem to trickle down to pride, which is what motivates Weary despite the rhetoric about crusades and piety. The novel thus indicates one of war’s most tragic ironies: that there can be no heroes without villains and victims, which makes even the most glorified aspects of war useless in the face of death.

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Even as the chapter begins, with a matter-of-fact rundown of Billy’s life story, Vonnegut confronts us with a litany of ironic deaths, each accompanied by the rhetorical shrug “So it goes.” Billy’s father dies in a hunting accident right before Billy ships overseas for combat; Billy is the only survivor in a plane full of optometrists when they crash into a mountain in Vermont; Billy’s wife dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning on her way to visit him in the hospital after the plane crash. These deaths lend weight to the declaration in Chapter 1 by filmmaker Harrison Starr that an antiwar book is as ineffective as an anti-glacier book. An overarching irony in Slaughterhouse-Five is that death does not discriminate. We already know that Billy will survive war and a plane crash, despite the fact that he is ill suited to a life of danger and hardship.

Read more about the inevitability of death as a theme.