Plot Summary

Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a non-traditional, non-linear style. The central character, Billy Pilgrim, has come “unstuck in time” and he therefore jumps among the various moments of his life without warning. The middle eight chapters, whose protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, are bookended by chapters narrated from the author Kurt Vonnegut’s perspective. Vonnegut, like his fictional protagonist, was an American prisoner of war during World War II who took shelter in a meat locker beneath the German city of Dresden while the city was annihilated in an air raid by the Allied forces. In the first chapter of the book, Vonnegut tells us that Slaughterhouse-Five represents his twenty-year-long effort to tell the story of that experience. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut inserts himself as an intrusive narrator, occasionally mentioning that he is also present for certain moments in Billy’s story during the war. Billy, however, is a fictional character, not to be confused with the real author, Vonnegut. For the sake of clarity, this synopsis will summarize the main events of Billy Pilgrim’s life in chronological order.

Billy Pilgrim is born in Ilium, New York, in 1922, where he grows up as a “funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.” He performs adequately in school and is not an especially remarkable boy in any way. He graduates from high school and enrolls in the Ilium School of Optometry. After a single semester, Billy is drafted into the Army to serve in World War II. He trains as a chaplain’s assistant, a non-combat job which requires him to play the organ. While Billy is training in South Carolina, his father, a barber, dies in a hunting accident, having been accidentally shot by his own friend.

As soon as Billy returns from the funeral, he is transferred to an infantry regiment and sent to Luxembourg. Completely unprepared and inept as a soldier, Billy manages to survive the devastating Battle of the Bulge in Belgium only by the merest chance. After the battle,...

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