Nearly twenty-five years after his experience in Dresden, Billy boards a chartered plane with twenty-eight other optometrists, including his father-in-law, headed for a trade conference in Montreal. Valencia waves goodbye from the tarmac while eating a candy bar. The narrator informs us that, according to the Tralfamadorians, Valencia and her father, like every other animal and plant, are both machines. Billy knows that the plane will crash. A barbershop quartet of optometrists called the Four-eyed Bastards serenades the passengers with bawdy tunes. One of them is a Polish song about coal miners, which makes Billy remember a public hanging he witnessed in Dresden in which a Polish man was lynched for having sex with a German woman.
Billy dozes off and drifts back to a moment in 1944. Roland Weary is shaking him; Billy tells the Three Musketeers to go on without him.
The plane crashes into Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont, and Billy survives with a fractured skull. Austrian ski instructors wearing black ski masks arrive on the scene. As they check for signs of life, Billy whispers “Schlachthof-fünf” (“Slaughterhouse-Five” in German), a phrase he learned in Dresden in order to communicate the address of his prison if he got lost. The ski instructors transport Billy down the mountain on a toboggan. A famous neurosurgeon operates on him, and Billy remains unconscious for two days. The narrator tells us that Billy’s convalescence is filled with dreams, some of them involving time travel. He goes back to Dresden and his first evening at the slaughterhouse, when he, Edgar Derby, and their young German guard Werner Gluck accidentally open a door onto a shower room full of beautiful naked girls. This incident marks the first glimpse of female nudity that Billy and Gluck have ever had. The three men finally make it to their intended destination, the prison kitchen. The cook regards their sorry condition and declares, “All the real soldiers are dead.”
Another Dresden time trip after his plane
accident takes Billy to a factory that manufactures malt syrup.
The philosophy of the Tralfamadorians is reminiscent of a principle of Einsteinian physics. Einstein argued that an object is described by four coordinates: the three spatial dimensions and time. Put simply, in order to know where something is, one must know when it is. Because objects change over time, true descriptions of an object require describing it at every moment. The kinds of descriptions we give are merely snapshots that convey an object as it appears at a given point in time. The true nature of the object is expressed only by the totality of snapshots taken throughout the object’s history and its future.
In effect, Slaughterhouse-Five proposes that the same thing could be said of a person. The Tralfamadorians, who see in four dimensions, perceive all of an object and all of a person, whereas humans do not. But Billy’s rapid, relentless time-tripping approximates this ability to perceive holistically. This dimensional quality of perception is particularly present in Chapter 7, when Billy goes on a series of rapid-fire time trips while recovering from his head injury. We never see Billy wholly at any one moment, as Vonnegut does not engage in typical character description. Instead, we catch brief glimpses of very different Billy Pilgrims from very different moments. We try to grasp the sum of all the different Billy Pilgrims from all the different moments through quick, alternating glimpses of his past, present, and future. But one dilemma that surfaces in attempting to discern which Billy is the real Billy is the possibility that perhaps he is just a summation of all his different snapshots. Billy’s value as a character, then, might be in sync with the value of Slaughterhouse-Five as a whole: it is less important to try to understand Billy and the novel as coherent entities than to recognize the scope and significance of their respective journeys.
Vonnegut also creates a curious distinction between true time travel and dreams. He tells us that “Billy was unconscious for two days after that, and he dreamed millions of things, some of them true. The true things were time-travel.” This last sentence suggests an interpretation of Billy’s spastic tripping through time that saves him from a verdict of insanity. Instead, we can understand his time travel as dreams about his real life. Billy, like most people, has some dreams that are like memories of real-life events and some that are fantastical fabrications. Time travel may just be a label for the dreams about real-life events to suggest how powerful these dreams are. If we take this interpretation to its logical conclusion, most of Slaughterhouse-Five would qualify as one big dream in Billy’s head. Of course, we may still believe that Billy has a sleep disorder if he can drift off into dreams while standing up in the forest, standing behind his optometer at work, speaking to the Lions Club, or visiting the bathroom after making love to his wife on their wedding night. Over the course of the novel, we actually encounter very few dreams that would not qualify as time travel. These include the time that Billy dreams he is a giraffe and the occasion on which he daydreams about doing tricks for a crowd by sliding around on a smooth floor in gym socks.