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Free Study Guide Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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FREE BOOK NOTES: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES / ANALYSIS

CHAPTER 1

Summary

As an introduction to the novel, Vonnegut, the author, appears as a character in the first chapter to tell about the story he is writing and about the events that led to the novel. He informs the reader that the story is based mainly on real events, but it also contains fictionalized accounts. He reveals that he has been obsessed for years with writing a book about the bombing of Dresden, but he has found the task very difficult.

Vonnegut enlisted the help of one of his friends, Bernard V. O’Hare, to help him remember the events that occurred in the war, for the two of them fought together. He assures O’Hare’s wife, Mary, that his book is not a glamorized version of the war. She tries to persuade him to name the book The Children’s Crusade, to show its non-violent philosophy. In the end, he dedicates the book to Mary O’Hare and Gerhard Miller, a taxi driver who showed him around Dresden when the author and Bernard O’Hare visited it during peacetime.

Notes

In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction, Vonnegut directly addresses the reader, pointing out that the book is based on events that really occurred. He experienced first-hand the destruction of Dresden during the war, an event that he has never been able to put out of his mind. For twenty-three years, he has wanted to write about it.


Vonnegut’s attitude towards war becomes clear in this first chapter. He sees it as a totally futile occurrence, but he is resigned to the fact that war will always exist. He feels that wars have taught people insensitivity towards death. He cites the detached attitude of a woman writer as she relayed the news of a young veteran’s dying. He finds such a blasé, uncaring attitude repulsive in any human being. Vonnegut then points out the irony in the fact that war tries to fight violence with more violence. He also questions the American government’s treatment of violence as a “top secret” affair that is not to be discussed.

When faced with Mary O’Hare’s anger about war, Vonnegut assures her that his book will not glorify violence. Her main concern is the death of “babies” who will grow up and die in war. Along with his assurance to her, he also considers calling the book, “The Children’s Crusade.” The author has tried to pass on his knowledge of the futility of destruction to his children. He wants the younger generation to understand what the older ones have always failed to.

Vonnegut revisits Dresden with O’Hare, and this, along with the completion of this book, is of great importance to him. With these two things he has managed to free himself of his obsession. He says, “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”


CHAPTER 2

Summary

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time, traveling through time warps with no control over where he is going next. It has not always been that way. As a result, this chapter gives background information on Billy’s life. Explanations are given about his childhood, his time in the army, and his career as an optometrist. There is also an explanation of his head injury. Billy was in an airplane crash in 1968, wounding his head in the accident. In the same year, his wife died, further complicating his life. After her death, Billy went public on the radio about coming unstuck in time. He also wrote to the newspaper about being kidnapped by aliens. His daughter feels that his head injury has made him senile prematurely; she threatens to place him in an old folks’ home.

Billy first comes unstuck in time in 1944, during World War II. He is behind enemy lines with three other Americans. As they try to make their way to safety, Billy is too weak to go; however, one of the other Americans, Roland Weary, bullies him along. As he painfully moves, he begins to time travel - to his past and to his future. Billy is moving so slowly that two of the soldiers, the scouts, leave Billy and Roland behind, fearing the approach of the enemy. Ironically, the scouts are killed, while Billy and Roland survive.

Still Roland is angry and blames Billy for causing the scouts to leave; therefore, Roland starts hitting him. He then realizes that they are being watched by German soldiers.

Notes

The book’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, is introduced in this chapter, and a chronological summary of his earthly life is given. There was nothing extraordinary about his growing up or youth. In fact, there was never anything extraordinary about Billy until he became “unstuck in time.” Now he claims he has also been kidnapped by aliens. Since Billy’s public claims about time-travel and aliens occur after his plane crash, the people around him, especially his daughter, believe his fantastic stories are caused by brain damage from the head injury he sustained in the crash.

Billy is a harmless person who seems to merely exist, with little will of his own. Even when things happen to him that he does not like, he refuses to assert himself. During the war, he allowed Roland to bully him along. When he time travels, he has no input as to whether he goes, where he goes, or for how long he goes. As a result, Billy seems to be a weak character who is at the mercy of powerful forces that surround him and over which he has no control.


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