Summary and Analysis
On the trip to Tralfamadore, Billy asks for something to read. After reading the only Earthling novel onboard, he is given some Tralfamadorian books. Unable to read the alien language, he is surprised that the books' tiny text is laid out in brief knots of symbols separated by stars. He is told that the clumps of symbols are like telegrams — short, urgent messages. Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other; there is no beginning, no middle, no end. There are no causes, no effects.
As the saucer enters a time warp, Billy is hurled back into his childhood: He is twelve years old. With his father and mother, he is visiting the Grand Canyon. Jumping ahead ten more days, he is still with his family on the same trip, only now they are in the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns. Billy prays for God to deliver him before the ceiling collapses.
Suddenly, he finds himself back in 1945 Germany. He and his fellow POWs are marched to a shed, where a one-armed, one-eyed corporal writes their names and serial numbers in a ledger. Now the prisoners are legally alive — moments before, they were missing in action. Following a quarrel between a guard who understands English and an American who mutters some offensive remark, each prisoner is given a dog tag with a number stamped on it. The tag is perforated through the center: In case of death it can be snapped in two — one part to mark the corpse, the other to mark the grave. Billy and his fellow prisoners are housed with a group of fifty spirited Englishmen, who have been imprisoned for four years.
That night in the Englishmen's compound, the English officers perform a musical version of Cinderella. Watching it, Billy begins to laugh hysterically, and then he begins to shriek. He continues shrieking until he is carried out of the shed to the hospital, where he is tied down in bed and given a shot of morphine.
The morphine triggers another time trip, this time to spring 1948. Billy finds himself in a New York veterans' hospital, where he has voluntarily committed himself to a ward for nonviolent mental patients. In the bed next to Billy is a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater, who introduces Billy to the science-fiction novels of Kilgore Trout. Billy and Rosewater have one thing in common — both have found life meaningless and are trying to come to grips with the horrors of World War II. During the war, Rosewater mistook a 14-year-old fireman for a German soldier and shot him. Billy experienced the senseless destruction of life during the firebombing of Dresden. Science fiction is a tool that Billy and Rosewater both use to reconstruct themselves and their universe.
In a split second, Billy is flung back to 1945 before being hurled ahead once more to the veterans' hospital. Billy's mother is visiting him; when she leaves, Valencia Merble, Billy's fiancée, sits with him. Drawn into their conversation, Rosewater tells them that he is reading a Kilgore Trout novel, The Gospel from Outer Space, about an alien who visits Earth and writes a new Gospel. In the new Gospel, Jesus is not the Son of God, yet people still decide to lynch this nobody.
Billy time trips again, and this time he travels to the Tralfamadore zoo, where he is confined in a geodesic dome. Outside the dome, thousands of Tralfamadorians observe him. Naked, Billy goes through the regimen of eating, washing the dishes, and putting them away; he does a series of exercises; he shaves, trims his toenails, and sprays deodorant under his arms. Outside, a guide lectures telepathically to the crowd. When one of the spectators asks Billy if he is happy on Tralfamadore, he answers that he is about as happy as he was on Earth.
Billy is surprised to learn that the Tralfamadorians are not alarmed by the acts of murder and war carried out on Earth. Asked about the most valuable thing he has learned on Tralfamadore, he replies that it is how the inhabitants of an entire planet can live together in peace. In soaring elocution, he describes the murder and mayhem that take place on Earth, and he concludes by suggesting that this mass behavior will surely be a threat to the future of the universe. But the Tralfamadorians find him ignorant: They know how the universe will end, and madness and violence on Earth have nothing to do with it. A Tralfamadorian conducting experiments with flying-saucer fuel will blow up the universe. When Billy asks if there is not some way to prevent this destruction, he is told that there is not: The future is simply structured this way.
Falling asleep that night, Billy travels back to Ilium. He has been out of the mental hospital for six months; he has graduated from the Ilium School of Optometry — which is ironic given that he now prescribes corrective lenses for people with defective physical vision, yet no one understands his own philosophical vision of the world; and he has just married Valencia Merble. The night of their wedding, Billy travels through a series of experiences: to the prison hospital, to his father's funeral, back to the prison hospital, to 1968 and his being reproached by his daughter, Barbara, and to the Tralfamadore zoo.
The Tralfamadorians furnish Billy with a mate named Montana Wildhack, a pornographic motion picture star on Earth. He makes no attempts to entice her affections, but within a week she asks him to sleep with her. After Billy makes love to Montana, he travels through time and space back to his home in Ilium.
Two instances of Vonnegut's commenting on his own writing are presented in this chapter — first, Billy talks about the Tralfamadorian books, and second, Eliot Rosewater offers his opinions about Kilgore Trout's writing.
Onboard the flying saucer, Billy puzzles over the Tralfamadorian books laid out in brief knots of symbols separated by stars. He is told that the clumps of symbols are like telegrams — short, urgent messages; Tralfamadorians read the messages all at once, not in sequence. The Tralfamadorian concept of writing is similar to that which Vonnegut proposes in Chapter One. Billy's story in Slaughterhouse-Five has no beginning, no middle, no end, just as Tralfamadorian writing has none. No suspense occurs in the novel because Vonnegut divulges all of Billy's life by the end of Chapter Two, just as all of the past, the present, and the future is known to the Tralfamadorians.
Because much of Vonnegut's writing questions the validity of authority, he is careful not to set himself up as an authority on any subject, not even his own writing. When Rosewater tells Billy that Trout's writing is frightful, we understand that Vonnegut is comparing himself to Trout: Any comments made about Trout as a writer also extend to Vonnegut since he, too, is a writer of little-known, philosophical novels.
The nature of time is again a primary theme in this chapter, as it has been throughout the preceding chapter. When a park ranger turns out the lights deep inside Carlsbad Caverns, Billy questions his state of being. Deep inside the dark caverns, the ghostly iridescence of the dial on Billy's father's watch serves as a reminder of the dichotomy between linear and psychological time. The watch displaces the events of psychological time and brings back the world of authoritarian reality in chronological time. The limitations of chronological time are similar to the limitations of humans' three-dimensional vision, described in terms of Billy's perspective. Using the metaphor of looking through a pipe, we realize that three-dimensional vision is like being able to see only a speck at the end of the pipe. Only Tralfamadorians have the benefit of four-dimensional vision: They see everything at once, while Billy sees only what is in front of him.
In the Tralfamadore zoo, Billy is the focus of observation, just as he is in the Dresden parade of prisoners. On Tralfamadore, he is estranged because he is a naked alien. In the Dresden camp, he is estranged because of the clownish overcoat he is given to wear: The ragged coat has a fur collar that makes him look like a clown and causes guards and prisoners alike to laugh. The comparisons between Billy's experiences on Tralfamadore and those in the Dresden camp heighten the novel's satire. The horror of his ordeal during World War II is related to the horror of his being kidnapped by space aliens. His captivity on Tralfamadore happens on a fantasy level and is comical, which serves to make his World War II captivity seem far worse because it occurs on a realistic level.
millipedes insects with long, segmented bodies and two pairs of legs attached to each segment; when they scurry across a surface, they look as if they have a thousand legs.
Carlsbad Caverns a group of limestone caverns in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeast New Mexico.
Pirates of Penzance A comic opera with lyrics by W S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan, it debuted in London on April 3, 1880.
croquet an outdoor game in which players, using long-handled mallets, drive wooden balls through a series of wickets.
Jerry a German soldier.
The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane's 1895 novel about the American Civil War, depicting the psychological turmoil of a cowardly soldier in combat.
morphine a drug extracted from opium and generally used as a sedative.
The Brothers Karamazov Written by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and first published between 1879 and 1880, this novel addresses one dysfunctional family's search for values and unity.
WACS Women's Army Corp.
WAVES Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service.
SPARS Women's Reserve of the U.S. Coast Guard; derived from the U.S. Coast Guard's motto, Semper Paratus, meaning "Always Prepared."
WAFS Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.
William Blake (1757–1827) English poet and engraver, perhaps best known for his book of poems Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794).
Dunkirk a city in northwest France on the North Sea; in World War II, more than 330,000 Allied troops were evacuated from its beaches in the face of enemy fire (May–June 1940).
Gay Nineties the 1890s, an era characterized by a carefree attitude, that all's right with the world.
Queen Elizabeth the First (1533–1603) Queen of England and Ireland (1558–1603) who reestablished Protestantism in England.
Indian Summer a period of mild weather occurring in late autumn.
French doors a pair of doors of light construction, with glass panes extending for most of their length.
the battle for Hill 875 near Dakto a battle during the Vietnam War beginning November 3, 1967, and lasting 22 days.