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Free Study Guide for Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut-BookNotes
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When his wife tragically dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, Billy is lying unconscious in a Vermont hospital. Sharing the hospital room with him is Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, a Harvard professor, who is writing a one-volume history of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He becomes a springboard for discussions about the tragedy of war.

When Rumfoord talks about Dresden to his wife, Billy overhears him and announces that he was there during the bombing of the city. Rumfoord, however, refuses to take Billy seriously at first. Billy insists he is telling the truth. He explains how the Russians had come after the bombing and arrested everyone. Fortunately, two days later, he was turned over to the Americans and shipped back home. Rumfoord finally believes Billy's story.

While in the hospital, Billy travels back in time to two days after the end of World War II. He is accused by a German couple of mistreating the horses, which are drawing the wagon on which he is sleeping. For the first time, Billy notices the horses' pitiful condition and starts to cry. As a middle-aged optometrist, he still finds himself weeping quietly at times.

After Billy has his brain surgery, an important change occurs in his personality. He becomes determined to make the public aware of "flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time." His reason for doing this is purely altruistic. He wants human beings to benefit from the wisdom of Trafalmadorians. Until the surgery, Billy had been a passive creature of fate, allowing things to happen to him. Now he wants to take a proactive stance that is a total departure from his former resigned and indifferent attitude about life. For the first time in the book, he shows initiative and a desire to actively help others around him.

Billy's daughter takes him home from the Vermont hospital to recuperate further. Billy sneaks away to New York City and appears on a radio talk show. He tells about his encounter with the Trafalmadorians; of course, no one believes his tale. Billy then travels back in time to Tralfamadore and sees Montana Wildhack nursing their child. He tells her about his trip to New York.


A large portion of this chapter focuses on the American government's attitude toward the destruction of Dresden and on the violence perpetrated on enemy countries. President Truman's statement about the atomic attack on Hiroshima is celebratory in its tone. It glorifies retaliation and ends with the vow, "We shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war." Although the author does not openly criticize this stand, his silence indicates his disapproval.

Rumfoord talks about the American government keeping the destruction of Dresden a secret from its own people. The simple minded Lily asks Rumfoord a very important question: "Why would they keep it a secret so long?" Rumfoord's answer is matter- of-fact and to the point; he explains that the American people would never have approved of the bombing. This raises the important issue as to whether a government, the body that represents the people of a country, should make decisions that are not in keeping with what the people really want and then keep it a secret from them. Vonnegut seems to imply that the American government has done wrong and refuses to take responsibility for it. Rumfoord, however, does not take a stand. He is so busy trying to justify what has been done that the question of responsibility never even occurs to him.

There is a discussion about the book, The Destruction of Dresden. Eaker's foreword to it is an unsuccessful attempt to justify the killing of harmless civilians; he claims that Allied lives were more important than German ones. He seems to have a lack of respect for the value of human life. Saundy's foreword to the book is a more honest analysis of the destruction that goes hand in hand with modern warfare. He points out that in careless hands the weapons of destruction unleash great damage, as in Dresden.

The chapter makes it clear that Billy undergoes a personality change after his head injury and brain surgery. Up to this point in the book, Vonnegut has emphasized Billy's passive nature. Now he becomes determined to tell the world about the Trafalmadorians and what he has learned from them; his motive is altruistic, for he feels people will benefit from what he knows. As soon as his daughter takes him home from the Vermont hospital, he sneaks away to New York City and appears on the radio talk show to discuss his adventures. It is not surprising that no one believes his tales.

Although Vonnegut does not dwell on it, he also reveals in this chapter that Billy's wife dies of poison monoxide poisoning while Billy is in the hospital; he cannot even attend the funeral. Billy also reveals for the first time that he was released to the Americans and sent home shortly after the bombing of Dresden.



In this chapter, Vonnegut details some contemporary events and explains Billy's trip back to Dresden with O'Hare, his friend from the war; Billy feels that the visit was "one of the nicest ones in recent times," for the city has been rebuilt and has returned to a normal existence.

Billy also time travels to Dresden, two days after the city was destroyed. All the American prisoners, including Billy, O'Hare, and Vonnegut, are marched into the ruins of Dresden and made to dig out the dead bodies. When one of the soldiers dies of dry heaves caused by the smell of the decomposing bodies, the other soldiers are relieved of the task of digging through the rubble. Instead, they are instructed to use flame-throwers to burn the piles of ruin, cremating the bodies in the process. During the clean-up activities, Edgar Derby is shot dead for taking a teapot from the ruins.

During their captivity in Dresden after the bombing, the American prisoners are locked in a suburban stable. One day they wake up and find the stable door is open; they realize that the war is finally over.


Vonnegut explains how Billy goes back to visit Dresden with his war buddy, O'Hare. Since it is a very pleasant trip for him, it serves as a happy finish to his traumatic war memories. Since the city is rebuilt, alive, and prosperous, he is finally able to bury the old ghosts.

In juxtaposition to the description of the pleasant return trip to Dresden is the horrible explanation of the Americans digging in the rubble for dead bodies. One soldier dies from the dry heaves resulting from the terrible stench. In the end, the Americans are ordered to burn the rubble, cremating the dead civilians in the process. It is also reveled that Edgar Derby is killed for stealing a teapot from the ruins.

Earlier in the book, Vonnegut had asked O'Hare if Derby's execution should be the climax of the book because of the great irony involved in his death. He has managed to survive the war and the bombing of Dresden and is then needlessly shot for a minor offense. After the destruction of an entire city and the deaths of thousands of people, Derby is murdered for stealing a teapot, while the American government that inflicted the tragedy on Dresden simply ignores the needless destruction and death, keeping it a secret from its own people.

It is obvious that in this last chapter Vonnegut wants to drive home the fact that during wartime issues of right and wrong become totally confused. Everything seems to be turned upside down, and people lose sight of the value of human life. That is the real tragedy of the novel.

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