My father recommended this book to me some time ago and I had started it but quickly fizzled out. It had actually been serving as a placeholder for a light in the window sill for quite some time before I finally picked it up again recently. Then, I went on a 6-day backpacking trip and read the whole thing pretty much straight through. This is my Slaughterhouse Five summary.
The Main Character
The main character’s name is Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut portrays him as quite the feeble character throughout his travels, both on Earth and afar. Billy serves in World War II and comes away quite scarred by the experience, although he doesn’t really allow that to be well-known.
Eventually, Billy attends dental school and becomes a dentist. He marries a rich girl and starts himself up a steady, lucrative dental practice. This, however, is only a small part of Billy’s story. He’s a unique character in that, early in his life, Billy becomes “unstuck” in time. I’ll explain that a little more in a bit.
The Plot Line
Billy’s storyline jumps around in time just like he does (again, more on that momentarily). There’s the time he spends behind enemy lines in the war, trudging through the snow with horrendous footwear. Then there’s his capture and subsequent detainment in a POW camp along with several hundred American soldiers.
There’s the time he spent in a work camp in Dresden, Germany, where he witnessed the aftermath of the infamous firebombing of that city. Then there’s his abduction by an alien species and subsequent years spent living as what amounts to a zoo specimen on their planet.
Throughout his travels and escapades, both on Earth and beyond, Billy grapples with questions about the true nature of time and the meaning of existence. Vonnegut’s style embodies his character perfectly. Although this is far from a linear tale, the fact that it does make the frequent jumps that it does serve to hold the readers’ attention and keep us asking, “What could possibly come next?”
More On This Idea of Coming “Unstuck”
So, as I mentioned, and as Vonnegut starts, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” This is to say that, Billy’s timeline is far from linear, although it would only be perceived as such by those around him. Billy, though, could be in 1946 at one moment and 1959 at another. He has no control over his “jumps” and his actions in the “past” are fruitless to change the outcome of his “future.”
Billy first came “unstuck” in 1944, as the story goes. As a result of his being “unstuck”, Billy reports to have seen his birth and death many times and to randomly visit all the events in between. His alien abduction, of course, could have had some effect on Billy’s coming “unstuck”, but he reports that his first experience with “time travel” came long before he was kidnapped.
And so, Billy doesn’t know when he’ll change time and he has no control over where he goes. As you might imagine, this can be a difficult thing to deal with, but I’ll let Billy (and probably more accurately, Kurt) fill you in more on the details of this tricky thing.
My Favorite Quotes
1. “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”
This quote is included in Chapter One, which serves as Vonnegut’s introduction to a book that he’s certain will be a total failure. We, of course, know that not to be true now. But it’s certainly an interesting statement on the time and energy we spend looking back, both on failures and successes, and whether that time is well-spent or whether we’d be better off focusing (and moving) forward.
2. “There was a soft drink bottle on the windowsill. Its label boasted that it contained no nourishment whatsoever.”
I included this quote (from Chapter 4) because it gives a sense of Vonnegut’s comic style, which I found to be very insightful and timely. I find a sense of humor to be increasingly important to my author selections (Tom Robbins, Edward Abbey, Kurt Vonnegut, to mention a few recents). If a book can’t make you laugh, it sure better make you cry. And ideally, they both make you think.
3. “Everything is all right. And everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfalmadore.”
I was trying not to mention it, but there it is: the name of the planet to which Billy is kidnapped. The Tralfalmadorians, although not responsible for Billy’s coming unstuck in time, do teach him quite a bit about the nature of time (and existence, for that matter). Vonnegut uses this alien species to send a few powerful messages about who we are and what we’re all doing here.
I highly recommend reading and digesting this book! It’s only 215 pages in total and once you get going it’s so easy to roll right on through. The spastic nature of Billy (and Vonnegut’s timeline) make it easy for the reader to stay engaged and keep wanting more. This isn’t to mention that Vonnegut will make you think hard about the true nature of time, how precious of a resource it really is, and what our purpose is here on Earth.
By my account, Slaughterhouse Five is a comedic look into the minutia of our lives, a historically significant piece detailing several aspects of World War II, and a commentary on the one thing we can’t get back when we lose it: time. I give it 5 out of 5 stars and recommend buying a paperback version on Amazon or Better World Books.
Now it’s your opportunity to read and digest Slaughterhouse Five for yourself! While I hope you’ve enjoyed the quotes I pulled from it and highlighted here, this is by no means a complete review. If you’ve read this selection already, I’d love to know your thoughts, feelings, and what you took away from it.
Please leave a comment below if you are inspired, perplexed, saddened, or angered by any of the ideas presented above. I welcome any and all comments and will do my best to respond hastily. I’d also encourage you to share this with others if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do!