Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literary fiction that combines historical, sociological, psychological, science-fiction, and biographical elements. Unlike novels based on traditional forms, Vonnegut's novel does not fit a model that stresses plot, character conflict, and climax. There is no protagonist/antagonist conflict, nor is the novel structured by the usual sequence of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. With Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel's traditional form is dislodged, and Vonnegut offers us a multifaceted, many-dimensional view of fantasy and rock-hard reality.
Disruption of the novel's traditional form is not unique with Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut's form is similar to the works of other authors writing after World War II, including Joseph Heller and John Barth. For Vonnegut, the form for Slaughterhouse-Five grew out of events arising from his World War II experiences, particularly the horrors of the months-long Dresden air raids. Because he views the Dresden bombing as senseless, everything Vonnegut writes describing the bombing has to feel senseless as well.
Vonnegut was evolving as a novelist just when academicians were pronouncing what they termed "the death of the novel." Critics argued that modern life, with its political assassinations, the threat of nuclear war, and the dilemma of the war in Vietnam, made it impossible for a novelist to offer any logical assessment of reality. For instance, the events in Slaughterhouse-Five are not told chronologically; an episode in the present triggers an episode in the past or into the future. Even its title page is radically different from other novels' title pages: To its supplemental label, The Children's Crusade, Slaughterhouse-Five adds a second subtitle: A Duty-Dance with Death. In addition, Vonnegut includes a "telegraphic schizophrenic" narrative explaining who he is and where he has been. We are engaged in the Dresden story even before the novel begins: Not until Chapter Two does the actual narrative of Billy Pilgrim's odyssey start.
Chronology of the Events in Slaughterhouse-Five
1922 Billy Pilgrim is born in Ilium, New York (Chapter Two).
1934 Billy and his family vacation at the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns (Chapter Five).
1944 Assigned as a chaplain's assistant, Billy is on military maneuvers in South Carolina when his father dies after being accidentally shot by a friend while hunting (Chapter Two).
December Billy joins an infantry regiment fighting in Luxembourg. After the regiment is decimated by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge, he and three others, including Roland Weary, find themselves behind German lines. Billy and Weary are captured after three days of wandering (Chapter Two).
December 23 After being forcibly marched into Germany, Billy and the other American prisoners are loaded into boxcars bound for eastern Germany (Chapter Three).
December 25 The trainload of American prisoners begins to creep eastward after sitting idle for two days (Chapter Three).
1945 January 3 Roland Weary dies of gangrene (Chapter Four).
January 4 After ten days of traveling, Billy's train stops at a prison camp originally built as an annihilation camp for Russian POWs. Billy and his fellow prisoners are forced from the train, after which they are deloused and given overcoats (Chapter Four).
January 5 They are shipped by train to a prison camp in Dresden, Germany, where they are housed in building five, previously used as a slaughterhouse (Chapter Six).
February 13–April 17 Dresden is destroyed by American and British bombers; according to some historians, 135,000 people, including civilians and military personnel, are killed (Chapter Eight).
The army honorably discharges Billy (Chapter Two).
1948 Spring During his final year at the Ilium School of Optometry, Billy voluntarily commits himself into a veterans' hospital ward for nonviolent mental patients. In the hospital, he meets Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to Kilgore Trout's science-fiction novels (Chapter Five).
Billy graduates from the Ilium School of Optometry and marries Valencia Merble (Chapter Five).
1957 Autumn Billy is elected president of the Ilium, New York, Lions Club (Chapter Two).
1964 The narrator visits Bernard V. O'Hare, an old war buddy, to discuss the bombing of Dresden (Chapter One).
1964–1966 During these two years, the narrator teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa (Chapter One), and Billy meets Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction writer whom Eliot Rosewater talked about, for the first time (Chapter Eight).
1965 Billy commits his mother into a nursing home (Chapter Two).
1967 The narrator and Bernard V. O'Hare return to Dresden to recount their wartime experiences (Chapters One and Ten).
August Now a past president of the Lions Club, Billy attends a Club luncheon, where a Marine Corps major comments that he should be proud of his son, Robert, a Green Beret fighting in Vietnam (Chapter Three).
A flying saucer from Tralfamadore kidnaps Billy on his daughter
Barbara's wedding night (Chapters Two and Four).
1968 A plane carrying Billy to an optometry convention in Montreal, Canada, crashes on Sugarbush Mountain, Vermont; except for Billy and the copilot, everyone, including Billy's father-in-law, is killed (Chapters Two and Seven).
Valencia, Billy's wife, dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while he is recuperating in a Vermont hospital following the plane crash (Chapter Two).
On the day he returns home from the hospital, Billy goes to New York City, hoping to appear on television to discuss his kidnapping by Tralfamadorians; eventually he appears on a New York City radio talk show (Chapter Nine).
1976 February 13 As he foresaw, Billy is assassinated in Chicago by a hit man hired by Paul Lazzaro, a fellow soldier during the war; Lazzaro had promised Roland Weary that he would kill Billy to avenge Weary's claim that Billy caused his capture by the Germans after their three days of wandering (Chapter Six).