Slaughterhouse-Five By Kurt Vonnegut Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

Summary

Two days before Dresden is bombed, the American prisoners are visited by Howard W Campbell, Jr., an American Nazi. The author of propaganda about the demeanor of American prisoners of war, Campbell has come to the food processing facility to recruit volunteers for a new German military organization, "The Free American Corps," whose purpose is to fight against the Russians.

Outfitted in an outrageous uniform, including a white ten-gallon hat, a blue body stocking with yellow stripes reaching from armpit to ankle, and a red arm band with a blue swastika in a circle of white, Campbell offers the prisoners a full meal of steak and potatoes if they will join his organization. He tells them that they will be repatriated once the Russians are defeated.

At first there is no response, but then Edgar Derby hauls himself to his feet and declares that Campbell is lower than a blood-filled tick. Inspired, Derby speaks about freedom, justice, and fair play. He talks of a brotherhood between Americans and Russians, telling Campbell how the two nations will crush "the disease of Nazism."

Disrupted by the sound of air raid sirens, everyone takes shelter in a meat locker deep beneath the slaughterhouse. Bombs are not dropped on Dresden that night, but the prisoners and their guards remain underground. As Billy falls asleep in the meat locker, he travels to Ilium.

Billy describes meeting Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction writer who also lives in Ilium. Because he has never made any money as a writer, Trout works in the circulation department for the Ilium Gazette, supervising newspaper delivery boys. When Billy meets him, Trout is haggling with dozens of his delivery boys. Billy helps Trout deliver papers and invites him to a party celebrating his and Valencia's eighteenth wedding anniversary.

At the anniversary party, the barbershop quartet that will later sing on the ill-fated chartered plane to Montreal performs. Their singing arouses a distressing response in Billy. He looks so strange that several of the guests conclude that he is suffering a heart attack. Trout asks Billy if he has seen through time — many of Trout's novels deal with time travel — and Billy denies that he has. When the barbershop quartet strikes up another song, he is overcome once again. Escaping upstairs, he ponders the effect the men in the quartet have on him and remembers the first night of the Dresden bombing.

Billy and the prisoners are still deep underground in the meat locker. From above they feel the concussion of bombs. When they emerge the following day, the sky is black with smoke. The city looks like the surface of the moon — no vegetation, no buildings, only charred rubble. Of the camp's inhabitants, only the prisoners and the remaining four guards are alive. Most of the population of Dresden is dead.

Billy travels in time to the Tralfamadore zoo, where he and Montana lie in bed together. Montana is six months pregnant. When she asks Billy to entertain her with a story, he responds with a description of the Allied bombing of Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945. He recounts how the prisoners are marched from the locker site to the hog sheds that had been their homes. Only the walls of the slaughterhouse are standing. Inside, the comprehension of the widespread devastation sets in — there is no water, no food, no shelter. Leaving the camp, the American prisoners and their guards climb and crawl through the smoking rubble of the city. American fighter planes, swooping down to see if anything is stirring, strafe them with their machine guns, but none of them are hit.

The guards and their prisoners continue struggling through the Dresden streets until nightfall, when they reach a suburb untouched by fire. At an inn run by a German couple and their two daughters, the four guards and the one hundred American POWs are fed. Later, the innkeeper offers rooms with beds to the Germans, but the Americans must sleep in the stable.

Analysis

The beginning of this chapter offers one of the novel's best character contrasts — that of Edgar Derby and Howard W. Campbell, Jr. Previously, Derby has seemed a rather pathetic figure, unable to act when faced with the contemporary problems of war that his high school students discussed. Now, prompted by the traitorous actions of Howard W, Campbell, Jr., he provides the most heroic action in the novel by standing up to Campbell. Verbally attacking the American Nazi, he defends the American prisoners' integrity.

Derby's active assault is in stark contrast to Campbell's demeanor. Clad in blue and white — colors that symbolize stasis, inaction, and death — Campbell baits the prisoners with promises of hearty meals in order to recruit them into his new organization, ironically called "The Free American Corps," even though there is nothing "free" about it. In this scene between the two men, Vonnegut juxtaposes the heroic resilience of the American prisoner with the deceptive, snakelike charm of the American traitor.

The conversation between Kilgore Trout and Maggie White at the Pilgrims' anniversary party provides Vonnegut the chance to comment on the authority bestowed on a writer by a gullible public. Similar to the theme of questioning authority highlighted in the comparison between Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout in Chapter Five, here Vonnegut suggests that writers create outlandish stories because the reading public wants them to. He criticizes readers who do not care enough to read books and are interested only in being superficially familiar with an author. Such a reader is Maggie White, who does not read books but adores authors. When Trout tells her that he could go to jail for fraud if he writes something that has not really happened, she believes him.

Vonnegut continues to add touches of irony to his text. The night of the Dresden bombing, as the Americans and four of their guards find refuge down in the meat locker, the other guards are at home "being killed with their families." Later, when Allied planes swoop down to strafe any survivors of the bombing, no one in Billy's entourage is hit. But near the river, the pilots manage to shoot some of their human targets. We are told that the machine-gunning of these unfortunates is an attempt to "hasten the end of the war," when, in fact, the American planes are firing on their fellow American soldiers. Sadly ironic scenes such as these sustain the tone of the novel.

The innkeeper's permitting the American prisoners to sleep in the stable furthers the biblical allusions in the novel. We recall the epigraph at the beginning of the novel: In the Christmas carol, the "little Lord Jesus" is born in a stable.

Glossary

mince pie a pie made from mincemeat, a mixture of finely chopped apples, raisins, spices, suet, and sometimes flavored with rum or brandy.

carbolic acid a poisonous compound used in resins, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Crimea a region and peninsula of southern Ukraine in eastern Europe, on the Black Sea.

Martha's Vineyard an island off the southeast coast of Massachusetts known for its fabulously expensive living quarters and as an exclusive vacation resort.

Ivanhoe an 1819 historical romance by Sir Walter Scott about the life of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a fictional Saxon knight.

calcimine a white or tinted liquid used as a wash for walls and ceilings.

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