Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Chapter 2 | Summary



Billy Pilgrim's story begins with his birth in Ilium, New York, in 1922. Billy is an above-average student who attends optometry school until he is drafted. He suffers a nervous collapse when he returns from the war, but after recovering in a psychiatric ward he gets married and starts his optometry practice. He survives a plane crash on Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont, and then he begins trying to tell the world about his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. This causes his daughter great distress when she finds him in the basement of his house, writing a letter about the Tralfamadorians for the local paper, oblivious to the fact that the heat has gone out.

The Tralfamadorians look like small, green toilet plungers with a hand on top and an eye in the middle of the hand. They believe all moments of time happen simultaneously, not sequentially, which allows Billy to understand why he has been unstuck in time since he was sent to war. While Billy is in training his father dies in a hunting accident, and Billy is allowed to return home for the funeral before shipping out. He joins his regiment in Luxembourg in December 1944 in the midst of battle, but he never meets the chaplain he is meant to assist.

After the battle Billy winds up behind enemy lines with two infantry scouts and an 18-year-old antitank gunner named Roland Weary. The scouts ignore Billy and Weary, but Weary constructs elaborate fantasies in which he and the scouts are known as the Three Musketeers, and they heroically save Billy. Billy is overwhelmed by battle and apathetic about his own survival, which frustrates his companions. Weary abuses Billy, menacing him with stories of torture devices and showing Billy his trench knife with a triangular blade that makes a wound that won't close. He repeatedly shows Billy a photo he has of a woman engaging in sexual intercourse with a pony. Weary has lots of equipment and is warmly dressed. As a chaplain's assistant Billy has no weapons, no warm clothing, and no combat boots.

In the forest with these companions, Billy first becomes unstuck in time and travels to his childhood, when his father throws him into a YMCA pool to teach him to swim. Billy remembers sinking to the bottom and resenting being rescued. He visits his mother in a nursing home in 1965, his son's little league banquet in 1958, a cocktail party where he cheats on his wife in 1961, and a speech to the Ilium Lion's Club in 1957. When he returns to 1944, he and the other soldiers are pursued by Germans, and the scouts leave Billy and Weary behind. Feeling abandoned and blaming Billy, Weary beats Billy savagely until five German soldiers and a dog appear on the scene.


Every detail of Billy Pilgrim's background shows how unfit he is for combat. He has trained as an optometrist, and even when he gets into the army the best job his superiors can find for him is only a chaplain's assistant, "powerless to fight the enemy or help his friends." His training is interrupted by his father's death, and it is reasonable to assume he is still mourning his loss when he arrives in Luxembourg. The incidents described in Chapter 2 also begin to reveal why Billy feels he has no control over his own life. As a child he was thrown into a swimming pool by his father, a larger, more powerful force than he, against his will. He finds the bottom of the pool peaceful but is removed, to save his own life, also against his will. At age 22 he does not volunteer for combat but is drafted by the army, another larger, more powerful force than he. His physical fitness comes into question when he is described as tall and incredibly thin. Then he is dropped into the midst of a battle without supplies, weapons, or proper shoes. After the war it comes as no surprise that he reacts passively to his broken furnace and his daughter's nagging: all the formative moments of his life have been dictated by other people.

While 18-year-old Roland Weary is the opposite of Billy in many ways, he is no more prepared for combat than Billy. Weary's interests tend to the obscene, in contrast with the chaplain's assistant. Weary is an unpopular bully from Pittsburgh who enjoys beating up people less popular than he is. While Billy is underweight, Weary's fatness makes him less than physically ideal for combat, but his psychological unfitness is more disturbing. He carries a gruesome knife designed to inflict maximum damage on a victim—a gift from his family, for whom interest in torture methods seems to be a hobby. Lots of soldiers carry dirty pictures or pin-ups, but Weary carries a photograph depicting sexual activity well outside normal human behavior. He has delusions about his heroism in the war, and his choice to call himself and the two scouts "The Three Musketeers" shows how those delusions were likely inspired by books or movies, echoing Mary O'Hare's concerns from Chapter 1. While he has equipment and supplies that Billy lacks, Weary's sadistic nature and inflated sense of purpose make him a poor asset in battle because Weary has no sense of danger. His attempts to intimidate Billy and his violence toward Billy paint Weary as a young man who has come to war as an excuse to do violent things and possibly gain some notoriety for himself.

Billy has his first experience with time travel while in the forest with Weary and the scouts, but the leap to his near drowning at the YMCA pool is not random. Under fire from the Germans, Billy is in the midst of another near-death experience. In the swimming pool he did not want to be saved, and he does not want to be saved now. He takes no action to protect himself, possibly because he has little reason to believe his actions would make any difference.

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