Summary and Analysis
Assigned the duty of rounding up lost or wounded Americans, the German soldiers who capture Billy and Weary include two boys in their early teens, two tattered, old men, and a middle-aged corporal who has been wounded four times and is sick of war. Billy's attention is drawn to the corporal's boots. Polished and pure looking, they remind Billy of the innocence and purity of Adam and Eve: Billy loves them. Standing next to the old corporal is a 15-year-old blond boy wearing wooden clogs. To Billy, the boy seems to be an angel. From some distance they hear shots. The two scouts who abandoned Billy and Weary have been discovered by other German soldiers and are shot. They now lie dying in the snow.
After searching Billy for weapons and taking Weary's pistol, trench knife, bulletproof Bible, and his pornographic picture of a woman and a pony, the German soldiers force Weary to give his boots to the 15-year-old boy. Billy and Weary are then taken to a cottage that serves as a collecting point for captured American soldiers.
Time traveling once again, Billy finds himself in his Ilium optometry office in 1967. He has trouble treating his patients, and he worries about his mental condition in general. Struggling to recall his age, he tries to remember what year it is but has no idea. Because he is terrified at the thought of another war, he is easily alarmed when he hears what he thinks is a siren, but it is only the noon-day whistle sounding from the firehouse across the street.
Billy closes his eyes and briefly returns to 1944 Luxembourg. He is being photographed by a German war correspondent, who will use the snapshot as propaganda, showing how poorly equipped the American army is. The guards throw Billy into some bushes, and his picture is taken as he emerges with Germans wielding their weapons.
Billy comes unstuck in time and again trips ahead to 1967. On a hot August day, he is driving to a Lions Club luncheon in Ilium. The speaker at the luncheon, a Marine Corps major, implores the audience to keep supporting the war in Vietnam until a victory is won, or until the Communists learn that they cannot impose their ways on others. The major is introduced to Billy and tells him that he should be proud of his son, Robert, a Green Beret fighting in Vietnam. Leaving the luncheon, Billy goes home for his daily nap, but sleep does not come. Instead, he begins to weep.
When he opens his eyes, he is still weeping, but now he is again back in Luxembourg, and it is the winter wind that brings tears to his eyes. Billy and his fellow American prisoners are forcibly marched into Germany, a march that Billy unexpectedly finds exciting. At sundown, they reach a railroad yard with rows of waiting boxcars; sorted according to rank, they are crammed inside. Pushed into a corner next to a ventilator, Billy is able to see outside.
Although their train does not budge for two days, the prisoners are not allowed to get out of the boxcars. Through the ventilators, they are given water, loaves of black bread, sausage, and cheese. They relieve themselves by excreting into steel helmets and passing the helmets to people at the ventilators, who dump them outside. Billy is a dumper.
On Christmas Eve, the train gets underway at last and begins to creep eastward. That night, Billy comes unstuck in time and travels to the night when he is kidnapped by Tralfamadorians.
Vonnegut's description of the blond German boy's feet being swaddled in rags alludes to the story of the birth of Christ, in which Mary wraps the baby in swaddling clothes. Such comparisons, often casting Billy in the role of a Christ-figure, are made throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. Both Billy's last name, Pilgrim, and the subtitle of the novel suggest that Billy is on a spiritual pilgrimage. Textually, the pilgrimage begins when Vonnegut foreshadows Billy as a Christ-figure in the epigraph. And just as Christ serves as an eternal role model for Christians, Billy becomes eternal because he will live on, according to Tralfamadorian philosophy, through the cyclical events of his life. Ultimately, he will be executed by a sniper, but Christ-like, he will not succumb to the finality of death in linear time; instead, he will endure in the never-ending cycle of psychological time.
The description of the dead scouts' blood turning the snow the color of raspberry sherbet demonstrates a verbal indifference to the act of death and recalls the distancing effect in the expression So it goes. Raspberry sherbet is a mild description for human blood, but the image foreshadows many acts of indifference demonstrated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. Despite the destruction he has seen in World War II, Billy is not aroused to protest the bombing of North Vietnam when he hears the Marine Corps major suggest bombing the country "back to the Stone Age."
Billy's avoidance of obligation is made paramount once again. When he observes a pair of disabled men selling bogus magazine subscriptions, he neither calls the police nor answers the door. Instead, he closes his eyes and simply ignores the matter. His passivity emphasizes the theme of predestination: Because he cannot alter the forces shaping his life, he chooses not to try.
The panorama of war tantalizes his imagination. The image he beholds of blue and ivory frozen feet invokes a state of paralysis that will become manifest in others. Later, Vonnegut will carry these color allusions to an even greater extent. Images of blue and ivory, denoting desolation, sterility, and disability, are used extensively throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.
Ausable Chasm Located in northeast New York, the chasm was caused by the plunging Ausable River, creating spectacular waterfalls, rushing rapids, and fantastic rock formations.
Earl Warren (1891–1974) chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969, during which time the Court ruled on many social issues, including civil rights.
John Birch Society an ultra-conservative organization founded by Robert H. W. Welch, Jr., in 1958, and named for a U.S. intelligence officer killed by Chinese Communists soon after the end of World War II.
Leica an expensive German camera introduced in 1924 and still manufactured today; known for the quality not only of the camera itself, but also for its excellent lenses.
Croesus the last king of Lydia (560–546 B.C.), an ancient and Roman province in southwest Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea; slang for a wealthy man.
fourragere an ornamental braided cord usually looped around the left shoulder of a uniform.
double pneumonia an acute or chronic disease marked by the inflammation of both lungs.
vertigo the sensation of dizziness often caused by the fear of heights.
cannonball stove also referred to as a cannon stove; a round, cast-iron stove, hence the term "cannonball."