Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Chapter 10
Summary

Vonnegut tells us that Robert Kennedy died last night. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated a month ago. Body counts are reported every night on the news as signs that the war in Vietnam is being won. Vonnegut’s father died years ago of natural causes. He left Billy all of his guns, which rust. Billy claims that on Tralfamadore the aliens are more interested in Darwin than Jesus. Darwin, says Vonnegut, taught that death was the means to progress. Vonnegut recalls the pleasant trip he made to Dresden with his old war buddy, O’Hare. They were looking up facts about Dresden in a little book when O’Hare came across a passage on the exploding world population. By 2000, the book predicts, the world will have a population of 7 billion people. Vonnegut says that he supposes they will all want dignity.

Billy Pilgrim travels back in time to 1945, two days after the bombing of Dresden. German authorities find the POWs in the innkeeper’s stable. Along with other POWs, they are brought back to Dresden to dig for bodies. Bodies are trapped in protected pockets under the rubble, and the POWs are put to work bringing them up. But after one of the workers is lowered into a pocket and dies of the dry heaves, the Germans settle on incinerating the bodies instead of retrieving them. During this time, Edgar Derby is caught with a teapot he took from the ruins. He is tried and executed by a firing squad.

Then the POWs were returned to the stable. The German soldiers went off to fight the Soviets. Spring comes, and one day in May the war is over. Billy and the other men go outside into the abandoned suburbs. They find a horse-drawn wagon, the wagon green and shaped like a coffin. The birds sing, "Po-tee-weet?"

Analysis

The events Vonnegut mentions put the writer in 1968. America is involved in a new war, in which body counts are reported as signs of progress. He is grounding the events of the novel in current history. He is making the link between one unnecessary massacre and another. The conversation with O’Hare brings up the important theme of dignity. The world’s population is only getting larger, and seems as troubled as it ever has been. Vonnegut’s comment is caustic, cynical. It suggests that dignity is something that has always been hard to come by. More people in the world means that more people will be denied dignity, more people will suffer.

We finish in Dresden. Vonnegut touches on the massacre one more time by describing the process of retrieving the bodies. A few more men are added to the death list: a Maori who dies of dry heaves, and poor Edgar Derby. We are left with that incredible image of waste, and the cruel, small atrocity of the high school teacher executed for taking a teapot. The disparity between Derby’s death and his crime suggests a larger problem that Vonnegut has with killing as a form of punishment. Throughout the book, people defend the massacre at Dresden by talking about the Holocaust or the Allied pilots who faced fighters and anti-aircraft fire. But Vonnegut shows us people in Dresden who probably had nothing to do with the Holocaust. There is awkward Werner Gluck, as unfit for war as Billy; the old war widow who complains that all the real soldiers are dead; the teenage girls who survive one bombing only to die in the next.

And Vonnegut leaves us with a dual image. It is May, the time of the war’s end, and also the time for the renewal and rebirth of springtime. But Billy and his friends are still finding reminders of death. Their wagon is shaped like a coffin. They are wandering in suburbs that have become ghost towns, abandoned by Germans fleeing from the Russian advance. They are looting in the rubble of a dead city.

The last line of the novel is the bird’s nonsense singing, singing that is posed as a question. The theme of narrative versus anti-narrative is behind the last line. Narrative, by its nature, makes sense of events. Everything so far in this novel has warned us that it is impossible to make sense of a massacre. Vonnegut closes appropriately. It is not only impossible to have answers for a massacre; here, it is even impossible to ask questions that make sense. Instead, we have an unintelligible question posed by birds.

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