Pilgrim has trouble sleeping the night of his daughter’s wedding (which took place that day under an orange- and black-striped tent.) He gets out of bed, where his wife is sleeping, and, moving down the hallway, he understands that he is about to be abducted by aliens. Pilgrim stops in his daughter’s room and answers the phone—a drunk has called the wrong number. He goes downstairs, knowing he has an hour till the abduction, and turns on the TV.
Vonnegut has mentioned drunkenly calling people he knew from the war in Chapter One—his own breath he describes as smelling like “mustard gas and roses.” Here, it appears that Vonnegut has again inserted himself in the narrative, calling Pilgrim but then having nothing to say to him on the telephone.
A World War II movie is playing and is unstuck in time. The movie runs backward. Corpses and destroyed planes fly backward and are “stacked neatly,” the bodies “made . . . good as new.” Minerals used to make bombs are hidden in 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.
The war film shown in reverse is an obvious manipulation of time that goes from destruction to peacefulness, rather than the other way around—the normal progression of warfare. This is another example of the manipulation of time, and it represents a wish on the part of the author, and Billy, to undo the suffering war has created.
The saucer is 100 feet in diameter. Pilgrim is sucked inside and greeted by a Tralfamadorian, who asks if he has any questions. Pilgrim asks why he was chosen and the Tralfamadorian responds that they are “trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” Billy is fastened to a Barca-Lounger and anesthetized; the acceleration of the ship takes him back to the war.
This passage, “ . . . trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why,” is often repeated in discussions of the novel. The notion that events simply happen as they do, as they are fated to happen, reappears throughout the book. And just as an insect trapped in amber can be “unsealed” in a new time period, so can Billy be transported from one epoch or planet to another.
In the railcar Pilgrim is trying to lie down and sleep. The car is moving slowly across Germany. No privates in the car wish to have Pilgrim next to them because he kicks in his sleep. On the ninth day of their travels the hobo, who thought their treatment was not “so bad,” dies, as does Weary, of gangrene caused by his ill-fitting clogs. He bemoans the fate of the Three Musketeers and asks someone to avenge him—to kill Billy Pilgrim, whom Weary holds responsible for his injury and subsequent death. On the tenth day they reach the POW camp, originally built to exterminate Russian prisoners.
Both Weary and the hobo die on the same day, and their approaches to death are opposed. The hobo dies still believing that life in the railcar as a POW is not so bad as life as a hobo in peacetime. Weary, on the other hand, rages at his misfortune, at his bad luck, and seeks someone to blame. Thus he wishes that Billy pay the price for his own unlucky death.
Pilgrim is helped from the boxcar and he “flows” with the other prisoners toward the entrance gate. From a pile of clothing left behind by dead prisoners he is given a very small, frozen coat. He passes through a “de-lousing station” where he is asked to strip; Vonnegut remarks that this is the same protocol used when Pilgrim is abducted and taken to Tralfamadore. Walking near Pilgrim is Edgar Derby, a forty-four year old English teacher from Indianapolis, who held Weary’s head as he died and who has a son fighting in the Pacific. Vonnegut announces that, in 68 days, Derby will be executed by firing squad.
This passage introduces Edgar Derby in more detail—a good man with a family, not unlike the man Billy will become, whose poor luck leads him to be executed, but who is in many respects the opposite of Weary. Derby wishes to help Billy and later looks after him in the POW camp’s sick-room. Vonnegut’s comparison of the de-lousing station in the POW camp to the Tralfamadorian abduction serves to link war and science fiction: in many ways, war is as “un-real” seeming as any sci-fi novel.
Paul Lazzaro, a skinny car thief 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 and becomes a baby. Then he is playing golf, a middle-aged optometrist. He is back on Tralfamadore, “three hundred million miles from Earth.”
Lazzaro survives the POWs’ trip to the camp and pledges to avenge Weary’s death by killing Pilgrim. This is then “fated”; Pilgrim himself later acknowledges that he will die because Lazzaro wishes for it to happen. By the point of his death in the 1970s, however, Billy has met with the Tralfamadorians and has a new understanding of “four-dimensional” time; thus he is at peace with his coming death.
The Tralfamadorian present says humans are “the great explainers,” 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 free will is a concept created and used only by human beings on earth.
Again free will is tied to the notion of time-travel and four-dimensional time. If all moments of one’s life can be seen at once, beginning to end, then everything is already determined. Tralfamadorians believe that this makes it easier to concentrate only on the good moments in one’s life.