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Free Study Guide Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. He or she must usually overcome some opposing force. The protagonist of this novel is Billy Pilgrim, a mild mannered man who takes life as it comes, without complaining and without trying to control it. Although he becomes a successful optometrist, marries Valencia, and has two children, he never really takes charge of his life. Instead, he allows fate to control him and time traveling to direct him. When the Trafalmadorians come to kidnap him, he goes out to meet them, doing nothing to stop his capture. When he tries to tell the world about the Trafalmadorians and their philosophy, he is judged to be insane, especially by his daughter, who blames his crazy stories on his head injury received in a plane crash.


The antagonist of a story is the character that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. Billy’s antagonist is really himself. He is too weak to control his life; instead, he allows fate to rule his existence. Although he has the ability to time travel, he does nothing to control his journeys and lives in constant dread of where he is going to find himself next. He also dwells on the horrors that he experienced in war, which seems to trigger his time travels back to war-torn Germany.


The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. In this novel, the climax occurs when Billy is shot before he ever masters his fate or convinces others of his captivity on Trafalmadore or his ability to time travel to the past and to the future.


The outcome, resolution, or denouement occurs when the story ends in tragedy. Billy, never able to fully take control of his life, is judged as insane. As he speaks at a public appearance, he is killed by an assassin, hired to revenge Roland Weary’s death.

In spite of the tragedy of his life, there are three positive notes in Billy’s existence. Before his death, he does try to teach others about Trafalmadorian philosophy, which he believes is beneficial; unfortunately, he is judged to be insane by most who hear him speak. Through his time travels, however, he knows that someday in the future the truthfulness of his stories will be accepted. Billy also travels back to Dresden and is happy to see that it has been rebuilt and has become prosperous. It allows him to end his traumatic war memories on a more positive note.


The plot of the book is multi-fold and complicated. First and foremost, it tells of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during World War II, including his capture by the Germans and subsequent imprisonment, in a somewhat chronological manner. Mixed in with the war story are events that occur in Billy’s life, both before and after the war; many of them are told as Billy time travels to the past and to the future. It is learned that Billy leads a somewhat ordinary life in Ilium, New York. He is a reasonably successful optometrist and has an unattractive wife and two children (a son and a daughter). In addition to telling about Billy’s present life and his war experiences, his experience of being kidnapped by aliens is chronicled; he is captured, placed in a flying saucer, and taken to Trafalmadore, where Billy is displayed in a zoo.

The novel begins with Billy serving as an American soldier in World War II. While fighting behind enemy lines, he is captured by the Germans. After his release, he is assigned to work hard labor in Dresden, Germany. During his stay, the city is destroyed by an Allied air raid. Billy and a hundred other Americans manage to survive the holocaust. At the end of the war, Billy returns to his hometown of Ilium, New York, where he settles down and becomes an optometrist. Struggling with his memories of the war, he has a nervous breakdown. After he recovers, he marries a wealthy woman and has two children.

On the night of his daughter’s wedding, Billy is kidnapped by an alien flying saucer and taken through a time-warp to the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is imprisoned in a zoo for a number of years and mated to an American pornographic movie star. During his stay, which is only a few seconds in earth time, he learns about the Trafalmadorians’ philosophy of time and reality, which he later tries to teach to Americans.

After Billy returns to earth, he continues in his optometry practice. On his way to a convention, he is in a plane crash. He suffers head injuries and must have brain surgery. When he recovers from his operation, he starts talking about his time-travel and his visit to Tralfamadore to his patients, who accuse him of being insane. Determined to tell the world about his experiences, he travels to New York City and appears on a radio show to detail what he has learned from the Trafalmadorians. Everyone considers him crazy, including his daughter. In Ilium, he writes to the local newspaper about the wisdom of the Trafalmadorians and becomes somewhat popular. At a public speaking engagement, Billy is killed by an assassin.

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