Slaughterhouse-Five

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Billy Pilgrim Character Analysis

The novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist and former chaplain’s assistant in the US Army who has “come unstuck in time,” meaning he can travel between moments in his life. Billy was captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and shipped from a POW camp to Dresden, where he survived the Allied firebombing by hiding in Slaughterhouse-Five. After the war Billy married Valencia, a well-off daughter of an optometrist, went into business, became successful, and had two children, Barbara and Robert. After a plane crash that nearly kills him and results indirectly in the death of his wife as she travels to see him in the hospital, Pilgrim announces he was once captured by aliens, the Tralfamadorians, and taught their philosophy of life, death, and time. A vision of a barbershop quartet at an anniversary party prompts further reminiscences about Dresden.

Billy Pilgrim Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five

The Slaughterhouse-Five quotes below are all either spoken by Billy Pilgrim or refer to Billy Pilgrim. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
War and Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dell edition of Slaughterhouse-Five published in 1991.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous phrases in a novel full of famous phrases. Coming "unstuck in time" means losing the narrative order of one's life. It can be a scary process - Pilgrim himself wonders how it is possible - but it can also be a liberating one. For Pilgrim, the coming unstuck happens because of his interactions with the Tralfamadorians, who tell him of their world and their perceptions, which are not limited to the three dimensions of human perception.

Vonnegut also uses "coming unstuck" as a way of moving through the novel he has created. He does not always rely on strict narrative chronology. Instead, he purposefully disrupts this chronology - he attempts to tell Pilgrim's story, and the story of the war, and his own life's story at the same time, using whatever means are necessary, and ignoring the sequential logic of some accounts. Vonnegut does this not because he wants to confuse the reader, but because he wants to break down the reader's expectations for how time, in fiction and in life, ought to function. 

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He didn’t look like a solider at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut notes that Pilgrim has very little of the soldier about him - and he does so throughout the text. In this, Pilgrim is exactly not like the "heroes" Mary O'Hare fears Vonnegut might use to populate his text. Instead, Pilgrim is a man swept into war without really choosing that war, and without knowing how to fight. For Pilgrim, war is a set of confusions one might survive. It is not about tactics or the defeat of the enemy - it is about desperate self-preservation.

Again, Vonnegut displays his humor here. Despite the horrors of the war and the genuine fear, on Pilgrim's part, that he might die, the scene is played for laughs. Vonnegut's black or "gallows" humor is one of the text's primary features, and it is another way that Vonnegut tries to portray war fully - to show that, even in war, people recognized the ludicrousness of their situations, often as they unfolded. 

Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and why the victim should laugh.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Roland Weary
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut, in this passage, describes the fight between Pilgrim and Weary, and shows how arbitrary the animosities of war can be. For, of course, the Germans and the Americans are enemies and should be fighting one another. The Americans, on the other hand, have no business fighting among themselves, at least according to official Army regulations.

But war is really a set of artificial constraints, especially in the way Vonnegut depicts it. The Germans do not necessarily, or in fact seldom, have personal grudges against the Americans. And the Americans, despite their general understanding that Nazi Germany has committed crimes of its own, do not necessarily believe that each and every German is their "natural" enemy. In fact, what Vonnegut takes pains to show is how bizarre and outlandish the notion of a "natural" enemy is. In Slaughterhouse-Five, men only have accidental, or provisional, enemies - enemies brought on by the circumstances in which people find themselves. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

But lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is an indication of both the whimsy and the religious seriousness of Vonnegut's writing. This scene is played, in part, for laughs - as, of course, Pilgrim couldn't "actually" see Adam and Eve in the boots of the soldier standing over him. But Vonnegut is not so much concerned with the explicit possibility or impossibility of the scenes he describes. For him, the validity of what Pilgrim believes he saw is the same as what someone might have "reported" from a given scene. Perception and external reality are described on equal footing throughout the text.

The story of Adam and Eve is, of course, a commonly-referenced one - if not the most commonly-referenced in Western literature. Yet it is almost certainly the case that no author has described Adam and Eve viewed in exactly this context - amid the horrors of war, in the polish of a boot. Vonnegut's ability to make new even the most tried-and-true of tropes is another feature of his writing. 

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.

Related Characters: Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

This prayer for serenity, and for acknowledgement of what is and is not in someone's power, is a common one - it did not originate with Vonnegut, and it has been used in other contexts since Slaughterhouse-Five. But the prayer has a particular resonance for Vonnegut's novel. Because in the text, there are in fact some things that people might not necessarily believe are open to being changed - like, for example, narrative time - and these things are changed over the course of the novel, most famously in the notion that Billy Pilgrim has "come unstuck in time."

What Vonnegut appears to be saying, then, is more complex than what one might typically associate with this serenity prayer. Vonnegut, with his characteristic irony, wants in fact to encourage people to consider changing, or at least to look at anew, parts of their lives they thought to be set in stone, immutable. Thus Pilgrim is able to move through his past and into his future - things no human "should" be able to do. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

Related Characters: Tralfamadorians (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another take on what it means to be in, and outside of, time. For the Tralfamadorians, time appears like the side of a mountain ridge - a series of peaks and valleys, which can be traversed at will. To humans, of course, time seems unidirectional and impossible to stop. But for Billy Pilgrim, who is "unstuck," time assumes the qualities of Tralfamadorian time.

Interestingly, then, Pilgrim is "trapped" in time when speaking to the Tralfamadorians - but in a manner different from normal human "entrapment" in time. Humans are trapped in time without knowing it. They are imprisoned in a present, and can view the past and speculate on the future. But they do not have the ability to traverse these moments. Pilgrim, however, in speaking to the Tralfamadorians, is able to understand just how the "present" is like an "amber" (sticky sap) in which one is stuck - and how one might move forward or backward to different moments at will. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut makes a serious justification of the social impact of science fiction. He argues that writers like Pilgrim and Trout are invested in sci-fi not simply because it is an interesting way to think about the world and its future - although it is that, too. Vonnegut argues that science fiction can be a vehicle for social change - a way of imagining how problems might be solved, a way of constructing another universe in which humans might live.

This is another example of Vonnegut's self-reflexive commentary in Slaughterhouse-Five - his analysis of what it means to write a novel while writing a novel. Just as the novel itself is partially science fiction - and therefore concerned with creating a new world - Vonnegut's characters write novels that envision and create new worlds in which peace might be possible, in which the wars of the 20th century might be left behind. Both Vonnegut and Trout are therefore engaged in the same utopian act of writing.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Somebody behind him in the boxcar said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut writes himself directly into the novel as a character. Throughout, we have been reminded that Billy Pilgrim is not "real" in the sense of historical "reality." He is not a character one could find in a work of history, because he did not live - although Pilgrim is "real" in the sense that Vonnegut establishes and fleshes him out in the context of the novel.

But Vonnegut is real both as an author and historical person - the man who wrote the book - and as a character within it. His response to Dresden, a city he had until that point never seen, underscores his youth and inexperience, and the grandeur of a Europe he is about to witness destroyed. Characteristically, also, Vonnegut changes his own grammar, saying "That was I" and "That was me," searching for the appropriate way to convey what he had seen. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Billy thrust it into the vat, turned it around and around, making a gooey lollipop. He thrust it into his mouth . . . and then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

When Billy finds this enormous vat of sugar, he has not eaten for days, and his body is about to fall apart. In this way, Vonnegut links Pilgrim's appetites to the discussion of machine-hood, above - Pilgrim is, after all, a person who needs food in order to survive, and war has created a set of circumstances in which food is terribly hard to come by.

The scene is also a comic one, another in a sequence of many throughout the novel, in which a man's serious problems (in this case, hunger) are contrasted with the humorous circumstances of wartime conflict and restriction. It may not have been funny to Pilgrim at the time, to eat an enormous lollipop in the throes of terrible hunger. But the scene is revealed to be a humorous one in its recounting. This links to Vonnegut's continual assertion of "so it goes" - that even the worst events in human life will be followed by other, sometimes funnier events. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut returns to the narrative to begin the summary section of the novel, in which he describes his relationship to some of the characters whose lives he has depicted. Vonnegut argues that Tralfamadorian time implies that all human life extends infinitely in all directions, that it can be accessed at this or that point - that any human being, in other words, is capable of becoming unstuck in time, just like Pilgrim. 

Indeed, Vonnegut has offered a world in the novel in which any reader can become unstuck right along with Pilgrim. The novel is a technology for accessing different moments, different memories. These are moments from Vonnegut's life, but the things Vonnegut describes are relatable to the context in which any given reader might live. The novel is therefore a kind of time machine in the Tralfamadorian model, showing us how humans behave at different points, shuttling constantly between them. 

Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the most famous lines in the novel. Vonnegut here uses the sound of a bird chirping in the trees - played for comedic effect - as a reminder of the indifference of nature to the violence humans inflict on one another. The birds would sing in the trees whether humans were kind to one another or not. They will sing in the trees before and after atrocities are committed. They would have sung if Americans had lost the war, just as soon as they sang when the Americans won.

Vonnegut does this not to argue that these distinctions, between right and wrong, good and bad, don't matter - for him, they matter an enormous amount. But he does claim, in the indifference of nature, that good and bad occur in a world that does not necessarily arc toward the former or latter. Goodness and badness are matters of human choice in a greater world filled with arbitrariness and seeming bad luck. The choices that humans make are a small counterweight against the randomness and indifference of the events surrounding. 

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Billy Pilgrim Character Timeline in Slaughterhouse-Five

The timeline below shows where the character Billy Pilgrim appears in Slaughterhouse-Five. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
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Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, has “come unstuck in time,” meaning he can move freely from... (full context)
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After treatment for his breakdown, Billy married and took up his father-in-law’s optometry business, becoming wealthy and having two children, Barbara... (full context)
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After the accident, Billy goes on the radio in New York City, claiming he was abducted by aliens, the... (full context)
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Billy includes this information in a letter to the local newspaper. In a second letter, he... (full context)
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Billy first became “unstuck in time” in 1944, during the war. He serves as a chaplain’s... (full context)
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Billy is then shipped to Luxembourg and to the fighting at the Battle of the Bulge... (full context)
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...looks and violent temper, and his father collected instruments of torture, which Weary describes to Billy in the field. He explains a “blood gutter,” or the trough on the side of... (full context)
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Weary, Pilgrim, and two scouts continue through the snow, hoping to avoid detection by the Germans. Weary... (full context)
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Pilgrim is leaning against a tree; this, according to Vonnegut, is when he “first comes unstuck... (full context)
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Weary rescues Pilgrim by the tree, though Pilgrim wishes to be left behind or to “turn into steam”... (full context)
Chapter 3
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The Germans who come upon Weary and Pilgrim are part of the “mopping up” after the battle. Two of the five are very... (full context)
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Pilgrim is helped up by one of the beautiful young boys. The scouts who had abandoned... (full context)
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Billy comes unstuck in time. He is looking at a “jade green mechanical owl,” part of... (full context)
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Billy is back in 1967, in his Cadillac. He is driving through Ilium, NY’s “black ghetto,”... (full context)
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On Pilgrim’s office wall is a prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I... (full context)
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Pilgrim goes home to nap. He has a large home and owns parts of various businesses... (full context)
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Pilgrim sees “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a kind of radiant halo, around the heads of the Americans... (full context)
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A colonel dying of pneumonia asks Pilgrim if he was one of his men. Pilgrim is ignorant of military terminology and does... (full context)
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Pilgrim is placed into a train car with his fellow privates, Weary with soldiers of his... (full context)
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Pilgrim’s train, the lowest in the hierarchy by rank, does not move for two days. “Water,... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Pilgrim has trouble sleeping the night of his daughter’s wedding (which took place that day under... (full context)
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...the ground, and humanity reverses so that all humans are babies, producing Adam and Eve. Billy thinks he hears an owl outside but it is the flying saucer from Tralfamadore. (full context)
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The saucer is 100 feet in diameter. Pilgrim is sucked inside and greeted by a Tralfamadorian, who asks if he has any questions.... (full context)
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In the railcar Pilgrim is trying to lie down and sleep. The car is moving slowly across Germany. No... (full context)
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Pilgrim is helped from the boxcar and he “flows” with the other prisoners toward the entrance... (full context)
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...from Illinois, is introduced. He was also in Weary’s car and has pledged to kill Pilgrim to avenge Weary. All the Americans are showered and “de-loused.” Billy comes unstuck in time... (full context)
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...but Tralfamadorians see “all time as all time,” like a “stretch of the Rocky Mountains.” Pilgrim says the Tralfamadorian sounds like he doesn’t believe in free will. The Tralfamadorian replies that... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Pilgrim asks for reading material on the trip to Tralfamadore and is given Valley of the... (full context)
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Pilgrim comes unstuck in time and is 12 years old, with his family by the Grand... (full context)
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Pilgrim, Lazzaro, Derby, and others are led to a shed filled with British POWs who have... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Billy finds a part of the play so hilarious that he cannot stop laughing. He is... (full context)
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In the bed next to Billy is Eliot Rosewater, checked in for alcohol abuse. Rosewater introduces Billy to the science fiction... (full context)
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When Billy’s mother visits the ward, he hides his head under the blankets until she leaves. Rosewater... (full context)
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Billy comes unstuck and is back in the war. Derby is still reading to him and... (full context)
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Billy’s fiancée Valencia, the daughter of a wealthy optometrist, is visiting the mental ward in 1948.... (full context)
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Rosewater compliments Valencia’s diamond, which Billy took as booty in the war. Billy comes unstuck and is 44 years old, on... (full context)
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While Billy is on display in the zoo, a Tralfamadorian guide uses metaphors to explain to fellow... (full context)
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Billy comes unstuck and is making love to his wife on their wedding night. A green... (full context)
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Billy comes unstuck and is in the POW hospital in 1944. Derby is asleep. Billy wanders... (full context)
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Billy travels to 1968. His daughter Barbara is angry that he has been writing to newspapers... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Billy wakes from his morphine slumber in the POW camp. He feels an “animal magnetism” behind... (full context)
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...Englishman who injured him shot. He also promises that, as Weary requested, he will have Billy shot after the war as well. Because Billy can travel in time, he knows this... (full context)
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Billy, Lazzaro, and Derby go to the theater in the camp, where an election is to... (full context)
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Billy and the Americans arrive in Dresden. Someone remarks that the city resembles Oz. This man... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Twenty-five years later, Billy is boarding the plane to the optometrists’ convention in Montreal, knowing it will crash. His... (full context)
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...quartet on the plane begins to sing for everyone’s amusement. They sing Polish songs and Billy recalls a Pole he saw hanging in Dresden, executed for sleeping with a German woman.... (full context)
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Billy is taken to a hospital; his brain injury is operated on by a famous surgeon... (full context)
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One of Billy’s jobs in Dresden is to seal boxes in a malt syrup factory. Billy takes some... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...Jr., who wrote the anti-American book read by the Germans in the POW camp, visits Billy’s group in Slaughterhouse-Five two days before the bombing of Dresden. He wishes to recruit Americans... (full context)
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...nothing happens, but the second night the bombing takes place and 130,000 Dresdners are killed. Billy sleeps and thinks about Kilgore Trout, whom his daughter says she would like to kill,... (full context)
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Billy first meets Trout when Trout is corralling his group of delivery boys (and one girl).... (full context)
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Billy helps Trout deliver the papers of the boy who quits. Trout admits that he has... (full context)
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...(same as on the plane, later) sings “That Old Gang of Mine” to Valencia and Billy. Billy becomes sickened by the song and doesn’t understand why; he feels there is some... (full context)
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Trout follows Billy around the party and compares Billy’s expression to that of a dog standing on a... (full context)
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Billy and Montana Wildhack are lying in bed in the Tralfamadorian zoo. Montana asks Billy to... (full context)
Chapter 9
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The chapter begins with the story of Valencia’s death. After hearing that Billy was in a plane crash in Vermont, Valencia drives the family Cadillac and, because she... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Billy is in a hospital room in Vermont with a Harvard professor named Bertram Copeland Rumfoord,... (full context)
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...disarmament must take bombings like Dresden into account, conducted as they were with conventional weapons. Billy continues to mumble in his sleep. (full context)
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Barbara, having just learned that her mother is dead and her father gravely wounded, visits Billy, who is time-traveling: to 1958, prescribing lenses; to age 16, in a doctor's waiting room... (full context)
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Rumfoord believes Billy is merely repeating what Rumfoord had been saying earlier; he does not believe Billy was... (full context)
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Barbara takes Billy home, where a nurse can take care of him, but Billy sneaks off to a... (full context)
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A clerk comes up to Billy and tells him that adult materials are in the back of the shop. Billy continues... (full context)
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Billy knows what actually happened to Montana: she was on Tralfamadore with him. He walks to... (full context)
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Billy finds his way into a radio show in progress, its topic: the future of the... (full context)
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Billy is back on Tralfamadore with Montana, who says she knows he has been time-traveling. She... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...Vonnegut does not use the guns his father left him in his will. On Tralfamadore, Billy says the aliens care more about Darwin than Christ, since Darwin taught the necessity of... (full context)
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Money and Success Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
...earth in the year 2000. Vonnegut says he supposes all those people “will want dignity.” Pilgrim is back in 1945, being marched into Dresden’s rubble, and Vonnegut says again that he,... (full context)
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
Billy and a Maori prisoner dig and find numerous bodies; the hole is widened and a... (full context)
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
...the Russians, the corpse mines are closed, and the end of the war is announced. Billy walks out onto a street and sees the horse-cart and horses he will use to... (full context)