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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The story is told in a non-linear order, and events become clear through flashbacks and time travel experiences from the unreliable narrator, who begins the novel by writing “All of this happened, more or less.” The narrator spends the first chapter describing his writing of the book, his experiences as a University of Chicago anthropology student and a Chicago City News Bureau correspondent, his research on the Children’s Crusade and the history of Dresden, and his visit to Cold War-era Europe with his war friend Bernard V. O’Hare. He writes about Billy Pilgrim, an American man from the fictional town of Ilium, New York, who believes he was held in an alien zoo on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore and has experienced time travel.
As a chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army during World War II, Billy is an ill-trained, disoriented, and fatalistic American soldier who finds he does not like war and refuses to fight. He is transferred from a base in South Carolina to the front line in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge. He is captured in 1944 by the Germans. Billy nearly dies due to a string of events. Before he is captured, he meets Roland Weary, a patriot, warmonger, and sadistic bully who derides Billy’s cowardice. When the two are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has and force him to wear painful wooden clogs. Weary eventually succumbs to gangrene caused by wounds from the stiff clogs. While dying in a rail car full of prisoners, Weary convinces fellow soldier Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame for his death. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary’s death by killing Billy, because revenge is “the sweetest thing in life”.
At this exact time, Billy becomes “un-un-unstuck in time” and has flashbacks from his former and future life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported into Germany. By 1945, the prisoners have arrived in the German city of Dresden to work in “contract labor” (forced labor). The Germans hold Billy and his fellow prisoners in an empty slaughterhouse called Schlachthof-fünf (“slaughterhouse five”). During the extensive bombing of Dresden by the Allies, German guards hide with the prisoners in the slaughterhouse, which is partially underground and well-protected from the damage on the surface. As a result, they are among the few survivors of the firestorm that rages in the city between February 13 and 15, 1945. After V-E Day in May 1945, Billy is transferred to the United States and receives his honorable discharge in July 1945.
Soon, Billy is hospitalized with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and placed under psychiatric care at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Lake Placid. There, he shares a room with Eliot Rosewater, who introduces Billy to the novels of the obscure science fiction author Kilgore Trout. After his release, Billy marries Valencia Merble, whose father owns the Ilium School of Optometry that Billy later attends. Billy becomes a successful and wealthy optometrist. In 1947, Billy and Valencia conceive their first child Robert on their honeymoon in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and two years later their daughter Barbara is born. On Barbara’s wedding night, Billy is abducted by a flying saucer and taken to a planet many light-years away from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are described as being able to see in four dimensions, simultaneously observing all points in the space-time continuum. They universally adopt a fatalistic worldview: death means nothing to them, and their common response to hearing about death is “so it goes”.
On Tralfamadore, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome exhibit in a zoo; the dome represents a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians later abduct a pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack, who had disappeared on Earth and was believed to have drowned herself in San Pedro Bay. They intend to have her mate with Billy. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to relive past or future moments of his life.
In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash in Vermont. While driving to visit Billy in the hospital, Valencia crashes her car and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard University history professor researching an official history of the war. They discuss the bombing of Dresden, which the professor initially refuses to believe Billy witnessed; the professor claims that the bombing of Dresden was justified despite the great loss of civilian lives and the complete destruction of the city.