Summary and Analysis
Following his tragic airplane accident, Billy lies in a Vermont hospital. Valencia sets out from Ilium, headed for Vermont to see him. In her frantic state, she has a car accident, yet she continues on to Vermont, minus the muffler to her car. As she turns off the car's ignition outside Billy's hospital, she falls unconscious, overcome by carbon monoxide. An hour later, Valencia is dead, her face an ashen blue.
Unconscious himself, Billy is unaware of Valencia's death. He shares a room with a retired brigadier general, Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, the official U.S. Air Force Historian and a professor at Harvard. Seventy years old and married to his 23-year-old fifth wife, Lily, the professor is working on a book about the history of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Lily brings Rumfoord the books that he requests, including a copy of President Truman's announcement concerning the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and a book about Dresden's destruction. The author of the Dresden book admits that the bombing was, indeed, a tragedy, but submits that those who approved the air raid were neither wicked nor cruel — it was simply one of those terrible things that sometimes happen in war.
After two brief time travels, the first to his office in Ilium in 1958, where he examines a patient's eyes, and the second to a day when he is sixteen years old and waiting to see a doctor for an infected thumb, Billy is visited in the Vermont hospital by his son, Robert. Robert is decorated with medals for being wounded in Vietnam. This is the young man who had such scholastic difficulty in his school years; now he is a model soldier. Billy closes his eyes and is unresponsive to Robert's presence.
While Billy lies in seeming unconsciousness, Rumfoord tells Lily about the bombing of Dresden. He is trying to condense 27 volumes of air force history into one volume, but he has a problem concerning the Dresden bombing: It has been kept secret for so many years that American books make little mention of the event. Billy breaks his silence and tells Rumfoord that he was in Dresden when it was bombed, but Rumfoord does not take him seriously. He says that Billy is suffering from echolalia, a mental disease that makes people repeat things they hear.
Billy travels to 1945 Germany. It is two days after the end of the war in Europe, and he and five others are returning to the ruins of the slaughterhouse for souvenirs. Billy dozes in a horse-drawn wagon that they found, while his companions scour the camp. A middle-aged German couple passing by discovers that the horses are in a terrible state: Their mouths are bleeding, their hooves are broken, and they desperately need water. The couple scowl with reproach at Billy, who is still clownishly dressed in his azure toga and silver boots. They try to communicate with him using a number of languages. Discovering that he speaks English, they scold Billy for the condition of the horses. Suddenly aware of the horses' suffering, he bursts into tears. Up to now, he has not wept about any of the wartime atrocities that he has witnessed.
Billy travels in time back to the hospital in Vermont, and Rumfoord, who is beginning to become interested in what Billy says, satisfies himself that Billy has really been in Dresden. Billy tells the professor about the horses and the German couple, then describes how Russian soldiers arrived on motorcycles and arrested the Americans. Two days later, Billy Pilgrim was turned over to the Allies and shipped on a freighter home to America.
When Billy is released from the Vermont hospital, his daughter takes him home and puts him to bed, forbidding him to work or leave the house. But when a nurse hired to care for him is not looking, he sneaks out and drives to New York City, where he hopes to make an appearance on television and tell the world about the lessons he learned on Tralfamadore.
After checking into a hotel, he walks to Times Square and discovers a bookstore: In the back of the store, adults watch pornographic movies for 25 cents. Surrounded by hundreds of cheap books of pornography, he discovers four paperbacks by Kilgore Trout and buys one. He is unable to get a guest appearance on television, but he is booked for a radio talk show. A group of literary critics have gathered to discuss the purpose of writing novels; however, when Billy gets his turn, he speaks about flying saucers and Montana Wildhack. During the next commercial, he is gently expelled from the studio.
Billy returns to his hotel room, where he falls asleep and travels to Tralfamadore. When Montana asks him where he has been, he relates the events of his visit to New York City. He tells her that he bought one of Trout's books and saw part of a pornographic movie that she made. Montana's response shows that she has adopted Tralfamadorian philosophy: She feels free from guilt for having been a porn star.
Vonnegut continues many of the same themes established in previous chapters, namely the color imagery and the biblical allusions. Overcome by carbon monoxide caused by the car accident, Valencia turns a "heavenly azure" as she dies. The azure of her death recalls the many references to blue and ivory, which denote stasis and death. The biblical allusion occurs when Billy dozes in the wagon and becomes aware of voices speaking in hushed tones. He imagines that the voices he hears are similar to the voices of those who removed Christ's body from the cross. Similar to the infant Jesus in the novel's epigraph, Billy is once again cast in the role of a Christ-figure. Aware of the horses' suffering, he bursts into tears. Later in life, he will weep uncontrollably in private.
The texts that Lily brings to Rumfoord are used by Vonnegut to demonstrate the official response to the brutality of World War II. Remembering that Rumfoord is the official U.S. Air Force Historian, and that he is attempting to condense a 27-volume history of the air force into one volume, Vonnegut suggests that an "official response" to the bombing of Dresden, and, by association, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, is ludicrous. The personal stories of the havoc caused by war, of which Billy's is just one example, are dismissed by those in charge. That the Dresden bombing was unfortunate is minimized by Rumfoord's assertion that it had to be done. Given the picture that Vonnegut presents of Dresden being a charming city without war factories or military installations, we conclude that Dresden did not need to be destroyed, that it offered no threat to the Allies, and that it was therefore mindlessly destroyed.
Throughout the novel, events separated by chronological time arc often closely linked psychologically. One of the most poignant examples of this pairing concerns the elderly man in the waiting room with Billy when Billy is sixteen years old, and the hobo in previous chapters, who dies en route to the first camp that Billy and his fellow prisoners are taken. The elderly man in the waiting room apologizes profusely for his flatulence, telling Billy that he knew growing old would be bad, but he did not think that aging would be as bad as it really is. We are reminded of the hobo, who continually states that being taken prisoner and forced into a boxcar by Nazis is not as bad as it might seem. The hobo's repetitive assertion, that he has been in worse situations than the one he now finds himself in, ironically ceases when he dies on the ninth day of the journey. The general tone evoked by these two events contrasts Billy's clownish profile and makes the novel much more emotionally complex than we might at first believe it to be.
Billy's radio talk show appearance with literary critics affords Vonnegut the opportunity to lampoon those who would criticize his and other authors' novels. Previously, Vonnegut discussed the role of authors and the role of readers. Now he turns his attention to the critics and their puffed-up egos. Believing to know the reason why people read novels, one critic says that novels provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls. Another submits that a novel's function is to teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant. Of course, Vonnegut is making fun of these assertions: Adding touches of color in rooms with all white walls means nothing, and certainly novels do not help teach wives of junior executives how to act in French restaurants. Such comments suggest that literary critics perceive themselves as superior to other readers, a notion that Vonnegut is quick to ridicule.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) the twenty-sixth president of the U.S. 1901–09); won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05).
Harry S Truman (1884–1972) the thirty-third president of the U.S. (1945–53); authorized the use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945.
Pearl Harbor the Hawaiian harbor where most of the U.S. naval fleet was when Japanese planes attacked without warning on December 7, 1941; afterward, the U.S. declared war against Japan.
V-1 a robot bomb deployed by the Germans in World War II.
V-2 a long-range, liquid-fuel rocket used by the Germans as a ballistic missile in World War II.
Buchenwald a village in central Germany; site of a Nazi concentration camp during World War IL
Coventry a city in central England that was heavily bombed by the Germans during World War II, laying waste to over 50,000 homes.
Purple Heart a U.S. military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces wounded in action.
Silver Star a U.S. military decoration awarded for gallantry, or courage.
Lucretia A. Mott ( 1793–1880); middle initial is C for Coffin, not A as Vonnegut writes American suffragist who advocated that women should have the same rights as men; Mott was instrumental in organizing the first convention for women's rights, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.
Appomattox a town in south-central Virginia; on April 9, 1865, at the Appomattox Courthouse, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War.
Uncle Tom's Cabin A novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in book form in 1852, it dramatizes the plight of slaves and is often cited as one of the causes of the American Civil War.
Norman Mailer American novelist born in 1923; best known for his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948).