Kurt Vonneguts character Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, is an American soldier in Europe in the last year of World War II. What he sees and does during his six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have dominated his life. He comes to terms with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of his war experiences by putting the events of his life in perspective. He reorganizes his life by using the device of “time travel. ” Unlike everyone else, he does not live his life one day after another.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” and he jumps around among the periods of life in a constant state of transience. In the beginning of the novel, it is December 1944 and Billy, along with three other American soldiers, is lost in a forest far behind enemy lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his past, then suddenly opens his eyes in the future: its 1965 and he is visiting his mother in a nursing home. He blinks, then time changes to 1958, then 1961, and finally he finds himself back in the forest in December 1944.
Billy does not have much time to wonder about what has just happened. He has been captured almost immediately by German soldiers and put onto a train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great adventure into the future. He finds himself at the night of his daughters wedding in 1967, where he is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him in a zoo. Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.
Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in 1948, where hes visited by his fiancee, Valencia Merble. As soon as he recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in business as an optometrist by Valencias father. Billy is introduced to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trouts writing is terrible, but Billy comes to admire his ideas. Billy soon travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to him because his ideas are so strange to them.
He thinks, for example, that wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can. The American POWs are now being moved to Dresdan, which as an “open city” of no military value has come through unscathed, while almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows that Dresdan will soon be totally destroyed, even though theres nothing worth bombing there. The Americans are housed in building number five of the Dresdan slaughterhouse. There, Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968.
A few years before that, he meets Kilgore Trout. Also, on Tralfamadore, he tells his zoo-mate, Montan Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresdan. Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day, Dresdan looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been reduced to ashes and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is moving anywhere. After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have disappeared.
The war had now ended, and they are free men. There are many ways for an individual to cope with post-traumatic stress. The way in which one chooses to deal with emotionally taxing situations is determined, in part, by the individuals character traits. Because Billy Pilgrim is insecure and unable to effectively reestablish a sense of normalcy, he chooses “time-travel” as his own personal brand of denial. The result of his emotional journey was the further development of his character, as well as his neurosis.