This Slaughterhouse Five summary of chapters 1-2 will impress your friends and neighbors during your next literary discussion.
Chapter 1: Vonnegut spends much of the first chapter of the novel explaining how he’s been trying to write a book about the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, where he was held as a prisoner of war. He struggles mightily. He meets up with an old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare and the two travel back to Germany to visit Slaughterhouse Five, which served as a prison for him and other American prisoners. Chapter one acts more like a preface. It contains mainly autobiographical information and establishes the jumbled narration that characterizes the rest of the novel. It also sets the stage for Vonnegut’s continued authorial intrusions that add depth and complexity to what appears on the surface a jumbled mess.
Chapter 2: Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” and travels from one incident to another, unchronologically. Billy is a wealthy optometrist who was also a prisoner of war at the slaughterhouse. After the war, Billy has a nervous breakdown. He is also the lone survivor of a plane crash in 1968, after which he writes a letter to the newspaper about becoming unstuck in time and his time spent on Tralfamadore, an alien planet. His 21-year old daughter is embarrassed and orders him to stop his insane ramblings.
We learn of Billy’s harrowing week behind enemy lines after the Battle of the Bulge, his joining up with two scouts and an insecure bully, who repeatedly saves Billy’s life, although Billy doesn’t want it saved. Billy experiences time travel for the first time, recalling his sink or swim lessons at the YMCA. He then travels to 1965 visiting his mother in a nursing home, in 1958 at his son’s Little League banquet, and in 1961 cheating on his wife.
Roland Weary, the bully, shakes Billy awake. The two scouts ditch them. Billy and Roland are captured by Germans. The two scouts are shot.
Trick your teacher into thinking you read the novel after reading this Slaughterhouse Five summary of chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Chapter 3: Billy time travels to 1967 where he has fallen asleep while giving an eye exam. Billy returns to World War II where German soldiers reenact his capture for a news crew. He returns to 1967 while driving to a Lion’s Club meeting. Billy returns to his home and weeps while lying on his “magic fingers” bed. Billy falls asleep and is back in Luxembourg where he joins a larger group of POWs. He is herded into a train car to be transported to a work camp. He travels to the night he is kidnapped by Tralfamadorians.
Chapter 4: It is the night of Billy’s daughter’s wedding. Billy is nervous, knowing he will be kidnapped by Tralfamadorians in an hour. Billy watches a movie backwards and forwards. He is captured by aliens and learns there is no answer to the question “why.” It just is. The acceleration of the spacecraft sends him back to the war on the train car. Billy must sleep standing up on account of his kicking and screaming. Weary dies two cars over. He blames Billy. Weary’s friend, Paul Lazzaro vows revenge. The train reaches its destination. Billy time travels several times.
Chapter 5: Billy is in a zoo on Tralfamadore. He time travels to a prison camp in Germany, where he and his fellow prisoners are welcomed by British POWs. The British officers are soon disgusted by their behavior. The British perform Cinderella. Billy laughs uncontrollably, is drugged, and wakes up in 1948 in a mental hospital. After the war, Billy finds life meaningless. At the mental ward, he is introduced to science fiction writer Kilgore Trout.
Billy’s mother visits and Billy covers his head with a blanket. He wakes up back in Germany, back to the veteran’s hospital, to the zoo on Tralfamadore, to his wedding, and back to Germany where he wanders into a latrine where Vonnegut is pooping his brains out. Paul Lazzaro enters the hospital, having his arm broken by a British officer who caught him stealing cigarettes. He travels to 1968 and listens to his daughter’s scolding, and to Tralfamadore where he meets actress Montana Wildhack, with whom Billy mates.
Chapter 6: Billy wakes up in the prison camp, prior to being transported to Dresden. He feels two lumps in his pockets and senses they will produce miracles as long as he doesn’t attempt to see what they are. Lazzaro vows revenge on the British soldier who broke his arm and warns Billy not to answer his door after the war. Billy already knows that Lazzaro will kill him. After a lecture on hygiene from the British officers, Billy and the other prisoners are transported to Dresden and put in a slaughterhouse where they are guarded by eight, broken-down soldiers.
Chapter 7: Back in 1968, Billy’s plane takes off for Toronto. He knows the plane will crash and that everyone will be killed except him. The plane crashes in Vermont and Billy is rescued by Austrian ski instructors. Billy wakes up in 1944 with Edgar Derby, a forty-year old soldier whom we know gets shot for stealing a tea pot after Dresden is bombed.
Chapter 8: American propagandist and traitor Howard W. Campbell arrives at the slaughterhouse attempting to persuade American prisoners with promises of food and comfort to switch sides. Edgar Derby, in his finest moment, discusses the greatness of the American way and denounces Campbell (the protagonist of Mother Night, another Vonnegut novel). A false air raid siren sends the prisoners to a meat locker for protection. Billy dozes and wakes up in Ilium when he first meets Kilgore Trout. Billy invites Trout to his 18th wedding anniversary celebration.
At the celebration a barbershop quartet sings. Billy, visibly shaken, goes to his room. He realizes the barbershop quartet reminded him of the four prison guards the night Dresden was bombed. He time travels to Tralfamadore and tells Montana Wildhack, six months pregnant, about the bombing of Dresden. He time travels back to Dresden where he compares the city to the moon.
Chapter 9: Billy’s wife, Valencia, drives to the hospital where Billy resides after the plane crash. She gets in an accident but continues to drive, with a broken exhaust system. She dies from carbon monoxide poisoning. In the bed next to him is a Harvard professor, writing a history of the Air Force in WWII. He discusses his task of writing about the successful bombing of Dresden. Everyone thinks Billy is a vegetable after regaining consciousness. He tells the professor he was at Dresden. The professor doesn’t believe him.
Billy wakes up in Dresden two days before the end of the war. He is in a horse drawn carriage. He exits the carriage and notices the horrible state of the horses, which causes him to cry. Back in the hospital, he escapes and goes to New York to tell everyone about time travel on a radio program.
Chapter 10: Billy is back in 1968. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King have both been killed. Vonnegut tells that if what the Tralfamadorians say is true about time then he is grateful for all the pleasant moments in his life, like his time with Bernard V. O’Hare when they returned to Dresden. Billy is back in Dresden, digging for dead bodies in the rubble. It is in the rubble that Edgar Derby takes a teapot, for which he is executed. It is Spring. The Germans have fled to fight the Russians. A bird tweets.
This post is part of the series: Study Guide for Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Time travel is of no use on your next class discussion. This study guide is.