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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The plot of the book is multi-fold and complicated. First and foremost, it tells of Billy Pilgrim's experiences during World War II, including his capture by the Germans and subsequent imprisonment, in a somewhat chronological manner. Mixed in with the war story are events that occur in Billy's life, both before and after the war; many of them are told as Billy time travels to the past and to the future. It is learned that Billy leads a somewhat ordinary life in Ilium, New York. He is a reasonably successful optometrist and has an unattractive wife and two children (a son and a daughter). In addition to telling about Billy's present life and his war experiences, his experience of being kidnapped by aliens is chronicled; he is captured, placed in a flying saucer, and taken to Trafalmadore, where Billy is displayed in a zoo.
The novel begins with Billy serving as an American soldier in World War II. While fighting behind enemy lines, he is captured by the Germans. After his release, he is assigned to work hard labor in Dresden, Germany. During his stay, the city is destroyed by an Allied air raid. Billy and a hundred other Americans manage to survive the holocaust. At the end of the war, Billy returns to his hometown of Ilium, New York, where he settles down and becomes an optometrist. Struggling with his memories of the war, he has a nervous breakdown. After he recovers, he marries a wealthy woman and has two children.
On the night of his daughter's wedding, Billy is kidnapped by an alien flying saucer and taken through a time-warp to the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is imprisoned in a zoo for a number of years and mated to an American pornographic movie star. During his stay, which is only a few seconds in earth time, he learns about the Trafalmadorians' philosophy of time and reality, which he later tries to teach to Americans.
After Billy returns to earth, he continues in his optometry practice. On his way to a convention, he is in a plane crash. He suffers head injuries and must have brain surgery. When he recovers from his operation, he starts talking about his time-travel and his visit to Tralfamadore to his patients, who accuse him of being insane. Determined to tell the world about his experiences, he travels to New York City and appears on a radio show to detail what he has learned from the Trafalmadorians. Everyone considers him crazy, including his daughter. In Ilium, he writes to the local newspaper about the wisdom of the Trafalmadorians and becomes somewhat popular. At a public speaking engagement, Billy is killed by an assassin.
The major theme of the book is the role of fate in life. Billy never seizes control of his existence, but allows himself to be ruled by chance. When he begins to time travel, he does nothing to try and control when or where he is taken on his journeys. Knowing he is to be kidnapped, he goes out to meet the Trafalmadorians, offering no resistance. While on Tralfamadore, he accepts the philosophy of these aliens without question and begins to believe, like them, in the inevitability of what has happened, is happening, and will happen.
The minor theme of the novel is the inhumanity of war, as seen in the destruction of Dresden. Vonnegut is clearly pointing out in the novel that voluntary violence of any sort, particularly that perpetrated by a war, is completely unjustifiable and senseless.
For all its surface nonchalance and its unemotional stating of events, the mood of the book is one of strong and controlled tragic emotions pulsating just beneath the surface. Billy Pilgrim is constantly grappling with the past, trying to forget the horrors of Dresden that have haunted him for years. As he time travels into his past and relives the war, the picture of violence and destruction is powerful and frightening. Mixed in with the horrendous mood set by the war is a surrealistic one created by Billy's time travels and his stay on Trafalmadore.