Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Chapter 8

Howard Campbell, Jr., the American-turned-Nazi propagandist, visits the captives of Slaughterhouse Five. He wears an elaborate costume of his own design, a cross between cowboy outfit and a Nazi uniform. The POWs are tired and unhealthy, undernourished and overworked. Campbell offers them good eating if they join his Free American Corps. The Corps is Campbell’s idea. Composed of Americans fighting for the Germans, they will be sent to fight on the Russian front. After the war, they will be repatriated through Switzerland. Campbell reasons that the Americans will have to fight the Soviet Union sooner or later, and they might as well get it out of the way. Edgar Derby rises for his finest moment. He denounces Campbell soundly, praises American forms of government, and speaks of the brotherhood between Russians and Americans. Air raid sirens sound, and everyone takes cover in a meat locker. The firebombing will not occur until tomorrow night; these sirens are only a false alarm. Billy dozes, and then leaps in time to an argument with his daughter Barbara. She is worrying about what should be done about Billy. She tells him that she feels like she could kill Kilgore Trout.

We move to Billy’s first meeting with Trout, which happened in 1964. He is out driving when he recognizes Trout from the jackets of his books. Trout’s books have never made money, so he works as a newspaper circulation man, bullying and terrorizing newspaper delivery boys. One of Trout’s boys quits, and Billy offers to help Trout deliver the papers on the boy’s route. He gives Trout a ride. Trout is overwhelmed by meeting an avid fan. He has only received one letter in the course of his career, and the letter was crazed. It was written by none other than Billy’s friend from the mental ward, Elliot Rosewater. Billy invites Kilgore Trout to his anniversary party.

At the party, Trout is obnoxious, but the optometrists and their spouses are still enchanted by having an actual writer among them. A barbershop quartet sings "That Old Gang of Mine," and Billy is visibly disturbed. After giving Valencia her gift, he flees upstairs. Lying in bed, Billy remembers the bombing of Dresden.

We see the events as Billy remembers them. He and the other POWs, along with four of their guards, spend the night in the meat locker. The girls from the shower were being killed in a shallower shelter nearby. The POWs emerge at noon the next day into what looks like the surface of the moon. The guards gape at the destruction. They look like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.

We move to the Tralfamadorian Zoo. Montana Wildhack asked Billy to tell her a story. He tells her about the burnt logs, actually corpses. He tells her about the great monuments and buildings of the city turned into a flat, lunar surface.

We move to Dresden. Without food or water, the POWs have to march to find some if they are to survive. They make their way across the treacherous landscape, much of it still hot, bits of crumbling. They are attacked by American fighter planes. The end up in the suburbs, at an inn that has prepared to receive any survivors. The innkeeper lets the Americans sleep in the stable. He provides them with food and drink, and goes out to bid them goodnight as they go to bed.


Before Derby’s heroic condemnation of Campbell, Vonnegut points out that his book has no characters. Most of the people in the book are too sick and tired to really have confrontations with people; one of war’s effects, Vonnegut says, is to discourage people form being characters. His theme of narrative and anti-narrative is here again. The people of this novel are not heroes. They are subject to incredible forces much larger than themselves. This is another key theme, emphasized by Vonnegut’s play with narrative.

Finally, we are at the destruction of Dresden. Although Billy often seems to bounce through life, at key points he shows the signs of serious damage. The barbershop quartet, the same one that will die on the plane, makes Billy remember the destruction of Dresden. A sentimental song about a gang of friends (the kind of gang, incidentally, of which Billy has never been a part) makes him think of the four guards looking out on their destroyed city. This is not a jump through time. This part is memory. There is a connection between the Tralfamadorian concept of time and memory; in a real sense, memory means that events in the past do continue to exist. Here, we do not see the firebombing of Dresden after one of Billy’s leaps through time. He remembers it, an old man unnerved by a song, and the memory is as real as a time leap. The Tralfamadorian concept of time may teach us more than their pain-avoiding philosophy. According to the alien view, massacres that happen are always happening. Time’s passage cannot get rid of them. Although Billy and the aliens choose to try to take comfort from the always-existing quality of events, Billy’s near-breakdown and the return of his memories of Dresden suggest that things are not always so easy. Atrocities cannot just be ignored.

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