Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Plot Summary

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After an introductory chapter in which the narrator describes his personal difficulties in writing about his experiences in World War II and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in 1945, Slaughterhouse-Five recounts the life story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran whose wartime experiences parallel those of the narrator. Billy's traumatic past has left him "unstuck in time," leaving him to bounce from one experience in his life to another without warning or foreknowledge regarding which part of his life he will live through next, so the plot does not follow a strict chronological order.

Billy Pilgrim, the son of a barber, is born in 1922 and grows up in Ilium, New York. His childhood is unremarkable, with the exception of two incidents that loom large in his memory: the first being thrown into a swimming pool for his first swimming lesson and nearly drowning; the second traveling to the Grand Canyon with his family and being so overwhelmed he wets himself. As a young man Billy enrolls in optometry school, but his studies are interrupted when he is drafted in 1944 to serve in World War II, where he is assigned to be a chaplain's assistant. He is sent to basic training in South Carolina but is allowed to return to Ilium for the funeral of his father, who is killed during a hunting accident.

Billy is stationed in Luxembourg in December 1944, arriving in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge, which was the final German offensive campaign during World War II. During the fighting he is separated from the other troops and ends up accompanying two scouts and a tank gunner named Roland Weary. Weary bullies Billy mercilessly and ignores his material needs. The scouts, fed up with both Billy and Weary, abandon them behind enemy lines and are killed moments later. Billy and Weary are captured and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Weary dies before they reach the camp, blaming Billy for his death.

At the camp the soldiers are showered and deloused; then they are given a warm greeting and a feast by the British officers who have been in camp for several years. Within a few days however, Billy and many of the other Americans are transferred to Dresden where they are put to work in a factory making malt syrup and housed in a former slaughterhouse.

Within a few weeks of arrival in Dresden, the city is attacked by British and American bombers; the bombing destroys most of the buildings and kills much of the population. Billy and his fellow prisoners of war survive the attack because they are in the slaughterhouse when the bombs start falling. Afterward they are assigned to cleanup duty, recovering and disposing of bodies and clearing rubble. During the cleanup effort Billy witnesses the trial and execution of a soldier named Edgar Derby, who is accused of looting after he is caught in the rubble holding a teapot.

The war ends and Billy returns home, where he resumes optometry school and proposes to the school owner's daughter, Valencia. The overweight Valencia is thrilled by the offer of marriage, but Billy suspects his proposal is a part of his own mental illness. He suffers a breakdown and spends a brief time in a psychiatric hospital for veterans, where he receives shock treatments and meets fellow patient Eliot Rosewater, who introduces Billy to the novels of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Upon release from the hospital Billy graduates from optometry school and marries Valencia. The couple honeymoons in New England, and when they return Billy sets up his business with the help of Valencia's wealthy father.

Over the years Billy's practice is successful, and he invests in businesses and real estate holdings around Ilium. He has a large home and drives a Cadillac. Valencia is a devoted wife, and they have two children, Robert and Barbara. Robert is somewhat troublesome to his father as a teenager, but he joins the army and becomes a Green Beret. Barbara gets married in her early 20s, and on the night of her wedding Billy first encounters the alien Tralfamadorians, or at least, he first imagines his encounter with them.

The Tralfamadorians put Billy on display in a zoo on their planet, where he lives in a transparent dome outfitted with a habitat composed of items stolen from a Sears Roebuck warehouse. Eventually the Tralfamadorians give him a mate, a B-movie star named Montana Wildhack. Billy and Montana bond with one another, become lovers, and conceive a child.

At some point however, Billy returns to Earth. On the way to an optometry convention in Montreal, his plane crashes on Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont, and only Billy and the copilot survive. Billy suffers a head injury. He is hospitalized, and Valencia rushes to see him. As she drives from Ilium to Vermont, she is involved in a relatively minor car crash, but in her hurry she leaves the scene in her damaged car, not realizing her tailpipe is now filling the car's interior with carbon monoxide. She dies moments after reaching the hospital.

The now-widowed Billy makes it his mission to tell the people of Earth about the Tralfamadorians and their concept of time; he believes the Tralfamadorian knowledge and philosophy will be a great comfort to people. He escapes to New York City to tell his story on a late-night radio program and writes multiple letters to Ilium's local newspaper. Barbara, Billy's daughter, is concerned about her father's mental health and fears for his safety, but Billy is undeterred. He makes a tape recording detailing his death: by a sniper's bullet after he gives a speech about Tralfamadore to a crowd in Chicago in 1976.

Slaughterhouse-Five Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Billy Pilgrim is born in Ilium, New York, in 1922.

Rising Action

2 Billy is drafted to serve in World War II.

3 Billy is deployed to Luxembourg as a chaplain's assistant.

4 After the Battle of the Bulge, Billy wanders on enemy soil.

5 Billy and Roland Weary are captured by German soldiers.

6 Billy and other soldiers are transported to a POW camp.

7 They go first to one POW camp and then to Dresden.

8 In Dresden they are housed in a slaughterhouse.


9 Dresden is bombed on February 13, 1946.

Falling Action

10 Billy and the other prisoners are housed in a stable.

11 The prisoners are put to work clearing bodies and rubble.


12 The prisoners are released from the stable at war's end.

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