Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Chapter 10 | Summary



The narrator comments on the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the body counts from the ongoing war in Vietnam. He says his father left him his guns when he died years ago, and they are rusting now. He recalls the trip to Dresden he took with Bernard V. O'Hare and describes how pleasant one of their flights was. They had a nice meal and a nice steward, and O'Hare read statistics that estimated the world's population at seven billion by the year 2000. The narrator says that, if the Tralfamadorians are correct, this flight is among the pleasant moments he would like to spend eternity visiting.

Billy Pilgrim, the narrator, and O'Hare return to Dresden in 1945, two days after the bombing. They, along with an international assortment of prisoners of war, are put to work clearing rubble and removing bodies. Billy is assigned to work with a group of Maori prisoners, and they dig the first of many "corpse mines" in the wreckage. As the bodies rot the work gets more difficult. One of Billy's Maori coworkers dies of dry heaves. Eventually the soldiers cremate the bodies where they are, using flamethrowers. During this operation Edgar Derby is shot for stealing.

When spring comes the German soldiers leave to fight the oncoming Russians. Billy and the others are returned to the stable at the suburban inn. Then one day the door is unlocked; the war has ended and Billy wanders outside to hear birds chirping.


The narrator returns in Chapter 10 to draw connections between the violence and inhumanity he saw during World War II and the violence and inhumanity he sees in the 1960s, including the Vietnam War and the assassinations of two prominent figures who worked to bring peace to the American people. His commitment to avoiding any trappings of violence is evident in his neglect of his father's gun collection. Likewise his frustration with humanity is evident in his hope the Tralfamadorians are wrong when they say we live forever in the moments we are alive; even though he attempts to focus on the nice moments, the narrator clearly doesn't relish living forever with humanity.

The choice of an airline flight as one of those nice moments is unusual, but his later-life trip to Dresden with Bernard V. O'Hare shows how quickly alliances can be reforged between nations recently at war and how connections can be made at the individual level: this flight's passengers of all different nationalities travel together happily and comfortably. The same international connections are seen in Billy's last visit to Dresden in 1945, where prisoners of war from around the world are brought to the city to help with cleanup efforts; the number of prisoners necessary for the job provides another indication of the extent of the damage. But why Maori soldiers? The author's choice to include the Maori prisoners is interesting: even though they fought in World War II they were a people alien to the European conflict. Not only is the cleanup not their responsibility, but their presence also reminds us of the alien Tralfamadorians, who have "helped" Billy to deal psychologically with the wreckage of the war.

When Edgar Derby is tried and executed for stealing a teapot, the situational irony and absurdity of the novel reach a sort of climax. Of all the soldiers in the novel Derby is the finest, and yet he too is lost at the end—he too is a casualty of the war. After an event that in one night leveled a city and incinerated thousands of people, can one more death really make a difference? In the face of carnage does one life matter? Vonnegut clearly withholds this situational irony until the end, so that readers are left to ponder it. In war it seems even the commonest of household items is a bomb. The end of war finds Billy, however, who escapes with his life and a diamond, standing on a shady street with birds chirping and trees "leafing out"; although these are images of hope and renewal, they can be so only in a limited sense here since the reader has over the course of the book glimpsed the instability and alienation in Billy's future.

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