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Free Study Guide for Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut-BookNotes
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The structure of the novel is totally unconventional and does not really have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The story really begins around 1968 after Billy Pilgrim has survived the war and a nervous breakdown and has settled down in Ilium, New York as an optometrist. Almost immediately, however, Billy begins to time travel back to the past, especially to the war years around 1944, and into the future. Because of his time warps, he is even able to see ahead to his plane crash and his eventual assassination in 1976.

In the opening chapter, Vonnegut himself appears and reveals what the end of the novel will be. Then in the course of the narrative, there is constant movement between the future, past, and present in unpredictable ways. Although the war, the true central concern of the novel, was obviously chronological, it is revealed in bits and pieces through flashbacks and time travels. Only at the end is the reader able to completely piece together Billy's life into a whole.

Besides the total lack of a time unity, there is no unity of place. The setting jumps rapidly and repeatedly between the war in Germany, the planet of Trafalmadore, and Ilium, New York. Additionally, in his time travels and his flashbacks, Billy goes to varied past and future locations of his life. At times, it is not clearly obvious where Billy is located at the moment or whether he is operating in the present, past, or future. In spite of the lack of time and place, the novel is carefully structured around a unity of character. The total emphasis of the novel centers on Billy Pilgrim.


There are really three plots about Billy working simultaneously and intertwined. One centers on Billy's past war experiences, which are grounded in facts; another is his "real" (although fictional) life in Ilium as a husband, father, and optometrist; and the third is his science fiction adventure of traveling through time and being held prisoner on the planet Trafalmadore. None of these are told in chronological order; instead, they are interspersed through the book. Because of Billy's ability to travel into the future, he often tells what will happen to him before it actually happens. For example, he knows about the arrival of the aliens and his captivity on Trafalmadore before they occur.

The major focus of the book is on the horror of the bombing of Dresden, which both Vonnegut and Billy endured and survived. Although this tragic event is first described in the opening chapter, details about it are found throughout the book. In almost every chapter, Billy painfully remembers the events surrounding the fateful Dresden air attack, and in his time travels, he is often taken back to the city and to Slaughterhouse Five to relive the horror. Only after he revisits Dresden towards the end of the novel, does Billy begin to have any degree of peace about his German experience. It helps him greatly to see that Dresden has again come to life and prosperity.

The Trafalmadorians also help Billy to cope with his war experiences. Their philosophy about living simultaneously in the past, present, and future help Billy to better understand his time travels; it also teaches him to focus on the pleasant and ignore the unpleasant in life. As he ages, Billy is able to put more distance between himself and pain of his war years.

The plot is further complicated by the point of view. Although largely told by a third person omniscient narrator, there is also first-person narration when Vonnegut enters the novel as a commentator or character. He is clearly present in the first and last (tenth) chapter; additionally he declares himself periodically as someone present in the action of the novel by saying, "That was me," "I was there," or "I said that." Vonnegut's narrative presence makes a crucial impact on the novel's tone. The reminiscences, the discussions with the O'Hares, the openness in declaring his difficulties with the subject all indicate that Vonnegut is a truthful narrator. His authenticity is vital to the telling of this extraordinary, often horrifying, story. His tone becomes one of compassion and understanding; but there is also resignation in the voice, as he constantly declares, "So it goes."

Recapitulation is an important part of the structure of the novel and one of its most fascinating aspects. The author invites the reader to see the book, as he says on the title page, as a "a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore." The tales of Tralfamadore are recounted in short books made up of clumps of symbols. And this novel, with its short chapters and paragraphs, its short sets of sentences or paragraphs with space between them, has a physical resemblance to the Tralfamadorian model. Many of these juxtaposed segments do not relate directly (sequentially or thematically) but do, taken together, build a total meaning. Although Vonnegut cannot arrange for the reader to read all of the novels segments simultaneously, as the Trafalmadorians would like, the effect that he does achieve comes remarkably close.

The nonlinear characterization of Billy emphasizes that he is not simply an established identity, who undergoes a series of changes; instead, he is the total of all the different things he is at different times. This same principle governs events as well. Dresden is "led up to" by events that precede and follow it. It is surrounded by allusions to other catastrophes and to other events with comparable victims. Dresden becomes so large in the minds of Vonnegut and Billy that it dominates the book.

At the end of the novel, the reader is able to reconstruct Billy's life, which has been presented in disjointed segments. As a result, he can be seen as a whole, and his conflict can be defined. Throughout the novel, Billy's antagonist is himself - his passivity and acceptance of fate. In the end, he is destroyed by both, making the novel a clear tragedy.

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