Pilgrim asks for reading material on the trip to Tralfamadore and is given Valley of the Dolls. The Tralfamadorians give him several of their own planet’s novels on his request, which Pilgrim cannot read. But he observes how they are formatted: “in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.” A Tralfamadorian explains that the books have “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” They are meant to be read “all at once.”
An extremely important passage. Vonnegut has given, in some sense, a key to understanding Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel which attempts to show time without beginning, middle, or end, without linear direction, but rather time all at once. Thus Billy is hurled from one moment to another. Vonnegut has adapted this Tralfamadorian compositional method into English.
Pilgrim comes unstuck in time and is 12 years old, with his family by the Grand Canyon. He is terrified he will fall in. He is at Carlsbad Canyons in total darkness, and can see only his father’s radium watch dial. He is back in the POW camp, in the war. His clothes are de-loused but still dirty. He puts on his very small overcoat and realizes that it is filled with bullet holes. The POWs march and are entered into a ledger by the Germans, so that they are legally prisoners and therefore “alive.” An American “mutter[s] something which a guard did not like.” The German guard knocks down the American. The American asks why he has been selected for this punishment; the German answers, “Vy not?”
This tiny coat is another small and poignant reminder of the horror of war. Whoever was wearing it was too tiny to fight back, and the bullet holes in the coat indicate that the wearer suffered a gruesome end. The German guard echoes the Tralfamadorian statement that “there is no why,” no explanation for why events are the way they are. Yet the Tralfamadorians, in holding Billy captive, do not wish to harm him—rather, they wish to understand his way of life. The Germans here, in contrast, are interested only in controlling their prisoners.
Pilgrim, Lazzaro, Derby, and others are led to a shed filled with British POWs who have been in the camp since the start of the war. They are officers who have already attempted to escape from other camps. Over their four years of imprisonment they have sung songs and exercised; they are happy and boisterous. The Red Cross has shipped them vast quantities of food because of a “clerical error.”
The Englishmen exist in a time outside the linear time of war. They have not fought since the beginning of the conflict and can only learn of its atrocities from other sources. They create instead a fantasy-land within the camp, complete with plays and banquets that enable them to forget the reason for their imprisonment and even the entire war.
The Englishmen have known of the Americans arrival 12 hours in advance, and have been cleaning and preparing the camp. The Englishmen have prepared a large banquet for them with milk, soup, beef, and other delicacies. Billy is so dazed by this scene that he does not realize the hem of his coat has caught fire. It is put out by an Englishman, who tells Pilgrim the coat was a joke played on him by the Germans. Pilgrim faints from weakness and awakes to the Englishmen performing a rendition of the play Cinderella.
The Englishman here wants Billy to know that his coat is a deliberate affront by the Germans, who consider Billy ridiculous in his irregular chaplain’s assistant uniform. Billy is so enraptured, later, by the fiction of the Englishmen’s play that he cannot keep himself from laughing—it is this joy, rather than the cruel conditions of the camp, that lands him in the sick-room.
Billy finds a part of the play so hilarious that he cannot stop laughing. He is carted into the camp’s medical quarters, sedated, and put on bed rest. Derby watches over him and reads The Red Badge of Courage. Billy has a dream that he is a giraffe living with other giraffes. After coming unstuck in time, Billy awakes in a veteran’s nonviolent mental hospital in 1948, where he has voluntarily checked in after his breakdown just before finishing optometry school. The doctors who admit him don’t believe his breakdown has to do with war trauma, but rather with his father forcing him to swim and visit the Grand Canyon in his youth.
The Red Badge of Courage is an important American novel describing one young man’s wavering between courage and cowardice during the American Civil War. Billy has not even been given a chance to demonstrate courage: he was captured by the Germans before he even understood the battle he was fighting, or where he was supposed to go. Vonnegut also appears to be making fun of psycho-therapy in this passage, which tends, at least in the popular conception, to lay blame for mental illness on one’s relationships with one’s family.
In the bed next to Billy is Eliot Rosewater, checked in for alcohol abuse. Rosewater introduces Billy to the science fiction writings of Kilgore Trout, an author of cheap paperbacks. Both Rosewater and Billy “found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war.” Thus science fiction allows them to “re-invent themselves and their universe.” Billy becomes an avid fan of Trout’s work. Rosewater says The Brothers Karamazov contains everything one ought to know about life, but that the book “isn’t enough anymore.”
Another important passage. In introducing Trout, Vonnegut also introduces the idea of a science-fiction writer into the story, a person capable of creating new worlds and alternate realities with words. This, as Vonnegut describes, is very important both to Billy and to Rosewater, whose experiences in war have landed them in a mental institution. The Brothers Karamazov is not enough because the war has made Billy and Rosewater need more than just knowledge of human nature—human nature is what caused the war, after all. They don't want to know about the world; they want a different world.
When Billy’s mother visits the ward, he hides his head under the blankets until she leaves. Rosewater speaks with her instead. Rosewater suggests that perhaps Billy, who is about to finish optometry school, is overworked. Rosewater is reading a Trout book entitled Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, which argues that mental diseases are not of the three visible dimensions and therefore difficult for human doctors to understand.
Another important passage. If mental disease is in fact caused by one’s ability to see into another dimension, then Billy’s condition might be explained by the encounter he is to have with the Tralfamadorians in the future, when he is told about Tralfamadorian ideas of fate and time. Trout, then, is “given credit” for inventing, in his own novel-within-the-novel, a plot device which Vonnegut applies to his own characters in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Billy comes unstuck and is back in the war. Derby is still reading to him and Billy sees Derby’s execution in the near future. An English officer comes in to check on Billy. He tells Derby that, when the US prisoners shaved, he realized the war was “fought by babies”—“a Children’s Crusade.” Derby tells briefly of how he was captured after a period of intense German shelling.
When the English officer says that the Americans look like children when shaved, he is directly echoing Mary O’Hare’s idea that wars are fought by children. Thus Vonnegut links, in his subtitle “The Children’s Crusade,” something a fictional character says to Billy with something a “real” character, Mary, says to him while writing the novel.
Billy’s fiancée Valencia, the daughter of a wealthy optometrist, is visiting the mental ward in 1948. She offers him a Three Musketeers bar. Rosewater is reading about Tralfamadorian-like aliens who study Christianity on earth. The alien says the problem with Christianity is Jesus’ power, and the alien then describes an alternate Gospel where Jesus is a “nobody” who is later adopted by God on the cross. This is designed to reinforce the message that it’s not OK to hurt anyone, rather than the message of the original Gospels, which argue against hurting a “well-connected” person. Rosewater complains that Trout is a bad prose stylist; “only his ideas [are] good.”
An important discussion of theology, or the philosophy underlying a set of religious beliefs. The argument in Trout’s book is as follows: Jesus would be a more compelling figure if he were rescued by God not because Jesus is the son of God, but rather because Jesus is “a nobody,” a person without connections, whom God saves simply because he loves all mankind. With this “tweak” to the Gospels, Trout believes Christianity would be more sensible and more helpful to those in need.
Rosewater compliments Valencia’s diamond, which Billy took as booty in the war. Billy comes unstuck and is 44 years old, on display in a zoo on Tralfamadore. The natives are examining his naked body. His habitat has been set up with furniture taken from a Sears store in Iowa. The Tralfamadorians find Billy beautiful, as he exercises and eats, because they have seen no other humans. On Tralfamadore, Billy learns, there are five sexes, and on Earth there are seven, only these differences exist in the fourth dimension and cannot be seen by humans.
The Tralfamadorians observe Billy simply because they wish to know how he behaves. The notion that there are multiple sexes that are not visible echoes the idea, earlier, that mental illnesses might be caused by disturbances in the fourth dimension, and that time itself occupies a dimension unknown to many earthlings.
While Billy is on display in the zoo, a Tralfamadorian guide uses metaphors to explain to fellow aliens how Billy understands time. In one, Billy is strapped to a railcar and can only see through a small hole in a metal sphere. He does not know the railcar is moving, nor how fast. Billy later asks the Tralfamadorians how they have managed to live in a world without war. A Tralfamadorian answers that they know the Universe is destroyed “while [they are] experimenting with new fuels for flying saucers.” This event has always happened and will happen, therefore it cannot be prevented. Thus Tralfamadorians focus only on pleasant moments.
Here, again, Vonnegut breaks down the Tralfamadorian system for understanding time and fate. For humans, time can exist only in one direction, but if the metaphor of the train holds, then our feeling of “linearity” is in fact subject to the nature of the track we’re on—and if we learn about the track, we learn more about the nature of time. Similarly, knowing about war and destruction, and knowing it will always happen, is not paralyzing but liberating—it allows Tralfamadorians to enjoy the moment they are living, and to travel back and forth in time to enjoyable memories.
Billy comes unstuck and is making love to his wife on their wedding night. A green and orange boat, appearing orange and black in the night, glides outside their apartment. Valencia promises to lose weight for Billy—he sees their whole marriage, present and future, and realizes that things will be mostly tolerable. They lie together. Valencia says she feels Billy is “full of secrets.” Billy imagines an epitaph that Vonnegut thinks also describes himself: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” Valencia asks Billy about Derby’s execution.
The black and orange striped image returns, this time “coming unstuck” on Billy’s wedding night. The statement, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt” might describe those pleasant moments to which Billy can travel at any time—the moments that make life worth living. Valencia appears to recognize that Billy has experienced a great deal in the war, even if he is not really able to articulate his experience to her.
Billy comes unstuck and is in the POW hospital in 1944. Derby is asleep. Billy wanders outside, dancing, and becomes snagged on a fence, only to be freed by a Russian prisoner who is out at night to use the bathroom. Billy follows the sounds of crying toward the camp latrine. The rich food of the banquet has made many of the POWs ill. One man cries that he has passed everything except his brains, then passed his brains. Vonnegut steps in to say that that man is he, Vonnegut. Billy wanders back to Valencia and his wedding night.
Vonnegut once again inserts himself into the narrative. He knows exactly the joke the man in the latrine made because he himself was that man making the joke. It is another “near miss,” an instance where Billy and Vonnegut almost meet, as in the telephone call to Billy on the night of his daughter’s wedding, when Vonnegut sits silently on the other end of the line.
Back in the war, Lazzaro is carried into the sick-room; his arm was broken by an Englishmen when Lazzaro attempted to steal his cigarettes. A German officer comes in to talk to the Englishmen and reads from a book by an American, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who has become a propagandist for Nazi Germany. In this book, Campbell argues that Americans are mostly poor, uncouth, and terrible liars.
Howard Campbell, a fictional character, serves to confuse what is “right” and “wrong” in the Second World War, traditionally judged in the United States to be a war for democracy and against fascist dictatorships. Campbell believes that there is much to admire about the Germans and that Americans would do well to imitate the Germans and, eventually, turn the fight against the Russians.
Billy travels to 1968. His daughter Barbara is angry that he has been writing to newspapers about Tralfamadore. She turns the heat on, although Billy does not notice he has been cold. He travels to Tralfamadore, where he has been given a companion in the zoo, a Hollywood star named Montana Wildhack. Billy is kind to Montana, and they begin having a romantic relationship. Billy is back in 1968 in Ilium. He decides to return to work, where he tells a boy, whose father was recently killed in Vietnam, that his father would always remain alive. The boy’s mother complains, and Barbara worries about Billy once more.
Billy’s relationship with Montana, although it is initiated by the Tralfamadorians, becomes a very real and caring one, which later leads to a child cared for by both while on Tralfamadore (time there is different from time on earth; although Billy’s abduction is short in earth-years, it is long in Tralfamadore-years). Billy’s advice, given to a young patient, is well-intentioned but is quite shocking to the child’s mother, who is not accustomed to Tralfamadorian ideas of time.