Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Billy Pilgrim and Roland Weary are captured by five soldiers and a dog. Two of the soldiers are teenage boys, two are toothless old men, and their leader is an exhausted corporal, four times wounded and sent back to the front. The dog is on loan from a farmer. While this tired band captures and searches Billy and Weary, the scouts are discovered by other German soldiers and shot.

The corporal takes Weary's weapons, his bulletproof Bible, and his dirty photo. He gives the photo to one of the old men and makes Weary exchange his boots with one of the teenage boys who is wearing hinged clogs. They march for miles to a stone cottage where other captured Americans are also being held.

Billy then flashes forward to his optometry practice in 1967 where his patient is confused by Billy's prolonged silence. He then returns to the gathering of war prisoners. A photographer makes the soldiers reenact Billy's capture for the German newspapers. At the flash Billy returns to 1967 and drives his Cadillac through a burned-out ghetto to a Lion's Club meeting. He hears a speech from a man endorsing the Vietnam War. Billy then returns to the large home he has purchased with wealth accumulated from his many investments and lies on his vibrating bed to weep. He finds himself back in Luxembourg, marching to a transport depot in Germany. Weary is also marching, the clogs destroying his feet with each step.

As the prisoners are herded into the trains for transport, Billy encounters a colonel who calls himself Wild Bob. He is dying on his feet from pneumonia, searching for his regiment. The narrator mentions himself and Bernard V. O'Hare as witnesses to this scene. The prisoners are packed into cattle cars, and Billy glimpses inside the German officers' car a stove, warm beds, and a table set for dinner. After the officers emerge from their dinner, Wild Bob's corpse is removed from one of the other cattle cars, and some of the trains leave for Germany. Billy's train does not move for two days. The men are given bread and sausage through the vents, and they defecate into helmets that are dumped out of the vents. They take turns standing and lying down to sleep in the cramped space. A hobo near Billy on the train assures Billy he has seen worse than this. Billy falls asleep and jumps through time to 1967.

Analysis

The party that captures Billy Pilgrim and Roland Weary shows how the enemy forces are as unprepared, if not more so, than the Americans. The war is near its end at this point, and the only recruits left are old men and teenage boys. The dog, a skinny female German Shepherd named Princess, is shivering in cold and fear, taken from her life on the farm into a war she does not understand. Even the commanding officer of this tiny unit no longer understands why he is here: after his years of service he was prepared to surrender, a plan that is mentioned in the same sentence that calls him a "very good soldier"—implying a very good soldier is one prepared to stop being a soldier.

Weary's pure terror at his capture confirms his lack of preparation or true understanding of what he is part of. Seeing his weapons—the triangular knife and the spiked brass knuckles—confiscated must be especially horrifying for him. These weapons gave Weary the sense he had the upper hand, but now that upper hand belongs to his captors. Weary, who refused to share any of his supplies or clothing with Billy, also has his boots taken away; he is now literally on equal footing with Billy, whom he abused in the forest for being unable to keep up in his civilian shoes. In fact Weary's footwear—probably made of wood with an actual hinge in the middle—is now worse than Billy's.

Billy's uneventful first flash to 1967 provides some indication his time travel may actually be intense flashbacks to his war trauma, as he faces a patient who is confused by his prolonged silence. In Billy's second flash to 1967 his postwar prosperity becomes visible, and so does the emptiness of materialism: he drives a Cadillac, the ultimate symbol of wealth and status in the mid-20th century—not that Billy's wealth has given him any sense of happiness or stability. The scenes in 1967 also raise the specter of Vietnam, the current war in progress. Although Billy is passive when he hears the speaker at the Lion's Club, the reader is clearly meant to draw a parallel between the bombings of North Vietnam and the bombing of Dresden.

Billy's tremendous wealth and the comforts of his life in 1967 (along with his vision of the comforts afforded to the German officers) contrasts with the profound discomfort of his time in the prisoner transport train. His movement through time, whether literal or in the form of flashbacks, appears random only on the surface.

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