Summary and Analysis
Twenty-five years after the bombing of Dresden, Billy boards an airplane in Ilium, New York, chartered to carry him, his father-in-law, Lionel Merble, and nearly thirty other optometrists to a convention in Montreal, Canada. Billy knows the airplane will crash, but he says nothing. The passengers are entertained by a barbershop quartet. The group sings lewd, racist songs to entertain Billy's father-in-law. Merble laughs heartily: He begs the quartet to sing a second ethnic-degrading song, one he regards highly. When the plane crashes into Sugarbush Mountain, Vermont, everyone is killed — except Billy and the copilot. First to arrive at the wreckage are Austrian ski instructors from the Sugarbush Ski School. Speaking in German, the ski instructors move quickly from body to body. As one of the ski instructors bends over Billy to hear his dying words, Billy whispers, "Schlachthof-funf." Taken to a small hospital, where a brain surgeon operates on him, he lies unconscious for two days, experiencing a multiplicity of dreams.
Billy finds himself in 1945 Dresden. He and Edgar Derby, sent to fetch supper for their fellow prisoners, are guarded by 16-year-old Werner Gluck. Leading the way to a building that he thinks is the kitchen, Gluck discovers a dressing room and a communal shower. Inside are 30 teen-age girls — refugees from the city of Breslau who have just arrived in Dresden. Standing in the nude, the girls find themselves under the examining eyes of the teenage Werner Gluck, the tired, old Edgar Derby, and the clownish Billy Pilgrim. The girls scream and cover themselves with their hands as best they can. Neither Gluck nor Billy has ever seen a naked woman before. They eventually locate the kitchen.
During their stay in the converted slaughterhouse, the prisoners are assigned a variety of daily duties. They wash windows, sweep floors, and clean toilets in a factory that makes malt syrup enriched with vitamins and minerals for pregnant women. They also pack jars of the malt syrup in boxes.
Throughout the day many of the workers filch spoonfuls of the syrup. Spoons are hidden all over the plant. On his second day, Billy discovers a spoon. He uses the spoon to taste the syrup, then passes the syrup-covered spoon to Derby, who is standing outside a window watching Billy. Derby bursts into tears.
The doomed plane trip on which Billy's father-in-law dies allows Vonnegut to explore once again the theme of predestination. Although Billy knows that the plane will crash, and that everyone but the copilot and himself will die, he says nothing to avert the disaster: He cannot change the series of events that is his life.
Slaughterhouse-Five is replete with sexist, racist language, as exemplified by Lionel Merble and the barbershop quartet. The barbershop quartet's singing vulgar songs calls attention to the transgressions among many everyday people. The degrading songs that Merble and the quartet so enjoy emphasize the point that no character is totally good. However, no character is all bad, either. After all, despite Merble's fondness for the lewd songs, he has helped establish Billy in his profession. Also, Vonnegut might be hinting at the theme of passivity — which certainly has affected Billy's life — a notion recalling various charges against German citizens who were thought to have passively condoned the Nazis' actions during World War II.
The mention of the vitamin-and mineral-enriched syrup manufactured for pregnant women serves the ongoing theme of irony. The malt syrup is made to strengthen women and to nurture babies that are yet to be born. The life-sustaining syrup is a positive symbol of the human condition surrounded by the chaos and massacre of war. Bringing forth life in an environment that will soon be destroyed is a potent example of the novel's irony. Also, note that Edgar Derby is associated with this example of irony, just as he has been throughout the novel.
Elbe River a major European river flowing through Germany, including the city of Dresden, and the Czech Republic.
Breslau also known as Wroclaw, a city in southwest Poland; assigned to Poland by the Potsdam Conference.