Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Billy Pilgrim asks for something to read on the journey to Tralfamadore, and the only book the Tralfamadorians have in English is Valley of the Dolls. Billy asks to see a Tralfamadorian novel, which is made up of clumps of symbols meant to be read all at once. Tralfamadorian novels have no plot; they just present a series of scenes that produce "an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep."

When the spaceship enters a time warp, Billy falls back in time to a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. He is 12 years old, but he is so terrified of falling into the canyon that he wets himself. On the same vacation the family visits Carlsbad Caverns, and Billy is terrified of the darkness.

From Carlsbad Caverns Billy travels to the delousing station in the prison camp. He gets his clothes, and the Germans laugh at him when he puts on his ill-fitting coat. The men march to a barracks filled with British officers who have been in camp for years; they have a remarkable store of food and supplies. The Brits greet the Americans with a song, serve them a rich dinner, and give them grooming supplies, chocolate, cigarettes, and cigars.

One of the Englishmen tells Billy the Germans gave him the tiny coat as an insult. After dinner the Englishmen perform Cinderella for the Americans, and Billy becomes hysterical with laughter. They send him to their hospital and sedate him with morphine. Billy dreams he is a giraffe then travels forward in time to the veterans' hospital in Lake Placid, New York, where he is admitted in 1948.

In the psychiatric ward Billy shares a room with Eliot Rosewater, and the two men bond because they have been damaged by the war. Rosewater introduces Billy to the writings of Kilgore Trout, an unpopular science fiction novelist. When his mother visits him, Billy avoids her by hiding under a blanket; he feels guilty because she gave him a life he does not enjoy. Billy falls asleep during one of her visits and wakes up in the prison camp hospital, sees Edgar Derby reading, and remembers Derby's future execution. Billy listens to Derby and one of the English officers talk about the action of the war and how young the soldiers are. Paul Lazzaro is brought in with a broken arm.

When Billy returns to the psychiatric ward his mother has left, but Valencia is there. Valencia is obese and Billy believes asking her to marry him is a symptom of his mental illness, but she is devoted to him. He and Rosewater tell her about Kilgore Trout; she talks to Billy about their silver pattern. During this conversation Billy travels to the zoo on Tralfamadore where he is displayed in a habitat outfitted with every convenience in the Sears Roebuck catalog. He is naked but used to the crowds of Tralfamadorians watching him. They celebrate his every physical act. Billy praises the Tralfamadorians for their peaceful existence. They tell him in other moments they do have wars, and they cause the end of the universe experimenting with rocket fuels.

Billy travels from the zoo to his wedding night with Valencia. They have a pleasant evening and conceive their first child, and then Valencia asks Billy about the war. He hesitates but tells her about Edgar Derby's execution by firing squad. When he gets out of bed to go to the bathroom, he steps through the door into the prison camp hospital where Derby is alive and asleep next to Billy's bed. Billy wanders outside to pee and discovers the other Americans have destroyed the latrine with horrible diarrhea. Billy returns to the hospital and steps through the door into his honeymoon suite.

After he and Valencia fall asleep, Billy returns to the camp hospital where he hears a German officer console the Englishmen over the state of their latrine, telling them American soldiers have a terrible reputation. Billy hears him read propaganda by Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American turned Nazi, criticizing the American way of life and the behavior of the soldiers. Billy falls asleep in the camp and wakes in his basement in Ilium. His daughter scolds him for being in the basement with the furnace not working and puts Billy to bed while the furnace is repaired. Billy returns to the Tralfamadorian zoo on the day Montana Wildhack is brought in as his mate. She is terrified at first but comes to love and trust Billy. Billy wakes in his bed in Ilium to discover he has had a wet dream, but the furnace is working again. Billy returns to his office and upsets his patient, a young boy whose father was killed in Vietnam, by telling him about the Tralfamadorian view of time. The boy's mother complains, and Barbara takes Billy home, wondering what should be done with him.

Analysis

Because it is a novel about three women pursuing professional success while using pills to help them cope with the demands of reality, Valley of the Dolls is an interesting choice of reading material for Billy Pilgrim. Even though these characters are different from Billy in many ways, Billy may be using the Tralfamadorians as his escape from reality, and he has also battled mental illness in his postwar life. Both the women in Valley of the Dolls and Billy Pilgrim are pursuing success—American style—and yet they cannot form fulfilling connections with other people or find satisfaction in their material success.

Material goods also do the soldiers few favors in the prison camp. The English soldiers mean well with their lavish meal, but the Americans have been near starvation for weeks, so it is no surprise their bodies can't handle the abundance of food now set before them. The Englishmen's gifts also come with a gruesome aside. There is no way they could know the candles lighting their dinner table and the soap they give the Americans are made from the rendered fat of death camp victims, but including this knowledge in the narrative casts a pall over the scene. In war the dead are everywhere. This fact reminds readers that the Americans, and certainly the English, have it much better in this camp than other people who have been transported into other camps. It also serves as a reminder, however brief, of the causes of the war and the brutality happening elsewhere and that despite the jovial atmosphere between the English and the Germans in this camp, they remain enemies in war.

Billy's hysterics at the Englishmen's performance are another indication of his missing self-awareness and fragile mental state. His first dream in the hospital, of being a giraffe, is childlike in its innocence and simplicity. When he wakes Edgar Derby is reading The Red Badge of Courage, a sharp contrast with Valley of the Dolls, and a suitable choice for Derby's character. The main character is an 18-year-old boy who enlists in the Union Army in the Civil War, flees his first battle, but returns to his unit to fight bravely and make up for his previous cowardice. While Derby is shocked by how young the soldiers around him are and invokes the Children's Crusade in a conversation with one of the English officers, he also has strong ideals about duty and honor that have brought him to the war. His age and wisdom motivate him to serve his country, but they do him little good in the current circumstances.

In Billy's other hospital visit, when he is admitted to the psychiatric ward at the veterans' hospital, Billy's doctors think his problems stem more from his childhood swimming "lesson" at the YMCA than they do from the war. This indicates a denial of the trauma Billy has been through in the war, and since the hospital serves veterans it reflects the government's denial of responsibility for the damage it inflicts on others. Both Billy and his roommate, Eliot Rosewater, know they have sustained mental wounds in war. Rosewater, unlike Billy, is damaged by the things he has done—he shot a teenage fireman thinking he was a German soldier—rather than the things that were done to him. The two of them embrace science fiction because the genre allows for building whole new worlds from scratch and explores ideas about time, life, and death in ways unconstrained by Earth's norms.

Outside the hospital plans for Billy's marriage to Valencia continue. When Billy hides from his mother during her visits, she talks to Eliot Rosewater. She tells him about the power of prayer and Valencia's wealth, and Rosewater's disillusionment allows him to offer only empty, albeit agreeable, responses. After the wedding Mrs. Pilgrim will comment that her family is moving up in the world by way of the prosperous marriage, but Rosewater's responses and Billy's lack of enthusiasm show the inadequacy of great wealth in the face of emotional damage. When Valencia shows Eliot Rosewater the diamond Billy brought back from the war, he says, "That's the attractive thing about war. Absolutely everybody gets a little something." Coming from a man in a mental institution trying to cope with his own actions, though, the trade-off seems hardly worthwhile. There is a bit of verbal irony in the statement, too: everybody may indeed get a little something, but that something may be the indelible mental effects of war—or death.

When Billy praises the Tralfamadorians for their peaceful existence, they tell him they are responsible for the destruction of the universe. In a turn of situational irony this destruction does not happen as an act of war but as a side effect of testing new spaceship fuels. A pilot presses a starter button and the universe disappears. The Tralfamadorians are powerless to stop it, because, as they claim, "the moment is structured that way." They view time as fixed, immovable. The circumstances of the end of the universe and the inevitability of time reveal the dangers of using technologies that we may not fully understand and the possible unforeseen effects, a chilling message in a novel about the war that introduced the atomic bomb. Since 1945 humanity has feared an end of the world that could happen at the press of a button, a fear the Tralfamadorian story directly references.

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