Summary of "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

by Shane Hall
Dresden, Germany, is the setting for events in

Dresden, Germany, is the setting for events in "Slaughterhouse Five."

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Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s 1968 novel "Slaughterhouse Five" has been praised as a modern classic and condemned as a work of obscenity. The novel, based in part on the author's experiences in World War II, explores themes of war, human nature, free will, fate and even time travel, all through the eyes of the book's central character, Billy Pilgrim.


Billy Pilgrim is an awkward, unimpressive man from Illiium, New York, who becomes, in Vonnegut's words, "unstuck in time." A chaplain's assistant during World War II, Billy is captured by the Germans and sent with other American prisoners to the German city of Dresden and housed in an old slaughterhouse known as "Slaughterhouse Five." Billy and other prisoners survive the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, which killed more than 135,000 people. After the war, Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, has children and is later abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore and exhibited in a zoo there, along with a B-movie starlet named Montana Wildhack, with whom he mates. For the Tralfamadorians, all events in life occur simultaneously and constantly. Billy Pilgrim adopts this view of life and claims to know that he will die from a laser gun in 1976 in a then-Balkanized United States.


The events in "Slaughterhouse Five" proceed in a nonlinear fashion as Billy travels back and forth in time to various episodes of his life: the war, captivity in Dresden, his dull married life, his hospitalization after a mental breakdown and his time on Tralfamadore. The first and final chapters frame the novel. In these, Vonnegut writes in his own voice about how the novel reflects his own experiences in Dresden and how they affected his life.

Major Characters

In addition to Billy Pilgrim, major characters in "Slaughterhouse Five" include Roland Weary, a bully and fellow soldier who blames Billy for his death; Lazzaro, a soldier who keeps a mental list of enemies to kill; and Edgar Derby, a former high school teacher and prisoner of war at Dresden, whom the Germans execute for stealing a teapot after the bombing. Other characters include Billy's wife, Valencia; his daughter, Barbara, who is convinced her father is mentally ill; and actress Montana Wildhack. Two other characters, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and Billy's friend Eliot Rosewater, appear in other Vonnegut novels, including "Breakfast of Champions" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater."


The New York Times praised "Slaughterhouse Five," calling it "highly imaginative" and "often funny." In 2005, Time magazine ranked it among the 100 best English language novels. However, "Slaughterhouse Five's" profanity and irreverent tone has made it the subject of censorship efforts, especially in school libraries. The book ranks at number 29 on the American Library Association's list of the most frequently banned or challenged books.

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