Slaughterhouse Five Summary

Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Slaughterhouse Five Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969, is as much an attempt to explain the author’s experience with war as it is an entertaining walk into the world of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vonnegut was a POW saved from the Dresden bombing during WWII because he was being held in a meat locker. Twenty-five thousand people died in this British/American attack. The story, originally reviewed as a product of the psychedelic sixties, can now be reviewed under a mental health umbrella. There is pain, disillusion, and disconnection below the matter-of-fact words but no explicit violence. One of Vonnegut’s perennial devices is the use of humor. In Slaughterhouse Five it helps to make the sharing of the trauma bearable. The book could arguably be labelled an extremely clever work of biographical, historical fiction—one of the reasons it has become a cult favorite and a classic.

The story begins with the narrator telling how difficult it’s been to write about the experience of war and how long—twenty years—it’s taken to do it. Vonnegut allows the narrator to frame the story with beginning and final paragraphs, giving the book a parable feel. While not stated, this is likely Vonnegut talking directly to the reader, and although he doesn’t talk about triggers and PTSD, we understand today how impossible it can be to control horrendously real flashbacks and why it would have taken him twenty years to tell this story.

Billy Pilgrim, the story’s main character, is introduced as a typical young man, with nothing particularly exceptional about him. Billy, like Vonnegut, is a survivor of the Dresden bombing, who witnesses many wartime atrocities. Upon rescue, Billy is taken to a veteran’s hospital and has a bed next to Elliot Rosewater, who just happens to be the namesake of another of Vonnegut’s books. The two, who have lost their sense of self and any meaning life once had, escape feeling ‘unhinged’ by delving into the fiction of Kilgour Trout (also Vonnegut).

Billy is a kid, an innocent, an observer. In this traumatized, unhinged state, he also becomes a traveller in his own life because of what is described as being ‘unstuck in time’. While the science fiction he’s been reading may influence this, it is in reality, another symptom of PTSD.

The story jumps between his life events, the Dresden bombing, and hospitalization acting as the touchstone for his current reality. Billy learns about the future and how his decisions are influenced by his trauma. He witnesses his life as a successful optometrist married to a large wife named Valencia. He didn’t really want to marry such an ugly woman, but does so when fear gets the better of him. Valencia eventually dies in a tragedy, and he witnesses that, too.

Billy experiences his own death a few times and comes to terms with it. He knows he will survive a plane crash, and he knows the exact date on which he will die. He also comically revisits and reviews his childhood, figuring out why he is who he is.

The most acclaimed, and most absurd, part of the book is the alien abduction. It occurs during his daughter’s wedding. The Tralfamadorians, bottle shaped creatures, reminiscent of a lapse into self-medication, teach him that life is just moments, and death is just one brief unpleasant one of those. Billy loses his free will during this time period, much the way an addict might. On Tralfamador, he is paired with a ‘professional’ woman for a while and enjoys ‘human mating season’ with fervor. The experience serves to free Billy from the shame and guilt of war and of being alive. It allows him to finally see that what he witnessed, what he survived in war, wasn’t his fault. This ‘kidnapping’ is integral to Billy’s healing. It eats up time in a comfortable way that he is not responsible for. Billy picks up the Zen mantra, ‘so it goes,’ from the Tralfamadorians. It expresses acceptance of that which he can not control. It also gives his life new parameters and thus provides hope that he will be better equipped to navigate the trials of experiences and the future without the same level of fear and high anxiety that might have accompanied him.

The narrator conflates history and fiction and takes on more responsibility in educating the reader about the ugliness of war. He sees that humans a responsibility to put an end to war. This adds another layer of deeply human experience to the novel and allows the reader to see and explore the dualities that exist in our psyches as well as in the book.

The irony of being saved because he was locked up in a slaughterhouse is not lost on Vonnegut. Clearly, he felt he needed to write this book not only to share his feelings on the perils and futility of war, but to give purpose to his own suffering. The theme is timeless, but interestingly, the hidden story of PTSD has only recently been recognized in Society and Vonnegut’s book, making it as poignant a book today as it was in the seventies—another reason Slaughterhouse Five has become a cult favorite and a classic.