Billy Pilgrim

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Billy Pilgrim
Created byKurt Vonnegut
OccupationOptometrist; soldier
SpouseValencia Merble
ChildrenRobert; Barbara
NationalityUnited States

Billy Pilgrim is a fictional character and protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, who has appeared in adaptations of the novel for film and the stage. Billy Pilgrim was based on Vonnegut's comrade-in-arms Edward R. Crone, Jr.[1]

Biographical summary[edit]

Prior story[edit]

Billy Pilgrim was born in Ilium, New York on July 4, 1922. After Billy graduated from high school, he enrolled in the Ilium School of Optometry. He is tall at 6 feet 3 inches, but weak and skinny at around 140 pounds. He is also friendly and kind toward others, even when others are rude or accusatory towards him. Billy also tries to pass on wise advice or information that he has learned from the Tralfamadorians.

Plot summary from "Slaughterhouse Five"[edit]

Billy Pilgrim was born in 1922, in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber there. A few of his childhood memories are shown: such as when his father attempted to teach him to swim by throwing him into the deep end of a pool and a trip to the Grand Canyon when he is twelve.

In 1943, 21-year-old Billy Pilgrim was drafted into the Army. He served as a chaplain's assistant in Virginia, and was serving on the front lines in Germany by 1944. At the Battle of the Bulge, Billy is taken prisoner along with fellow soldier Roland Weary. At this moment, Billy becomes "unstuck in time", and he re-experiences moments from various points in his life, albeit without any control over which moments. Billy and the other prisoners are transported to Luxembourg, where Roland Weary dies of gangrene. Roland's insane friend Paul Lazzaro promises to find and kill Billy Pilgrim some years after the war. By 1945, the prisoners are transported to Dresden to perform "contract labor". Their living area is an abandoned slaughterhouse called "Schlachthof Fünf" (Slaughterhouse Five). Allied forces bomb the city, and Billy takes refuge in a meat locker. This allows him to survive until the end of the war in May 1945. He is transported from Germany to the United States, receiving an honorable discharge from service in July 1945.

A few months after the war ends, Billy is institutionalized with post-traumatic stress disorder and put into psychiatric care to recover. A man named Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Once Billy is released, he marries Valencia Merble. Valencia's father owns the Ilium School of Optometry, which Billy later attends. In 1947, Billy and Valencia's first child Robert is born, and two years later they have a daughter named Barbara. On Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet billions of miles away from Earth called Tralfamadore. On Tralfamadore, Billy meets a motion picture star, also abducted, named Montana Wildhack, who disappeared and is believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life.

In 1968, Billy is the only survivor (or one of two survivors, depending on the telling) of a plane crash. Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving to the hospital where Billy is being treated. Billy returns to his home in Ilium, and tells his daughter Barbara about the Tralfamadorians, but she believes him to be crazy. By 1976, Billy is 54 years old. He gives a speech to a convention in Chicago (which is now part of a separate country due to the United States having been divided into small, fractious sovereign countries) about his alien abduction. Billy also tells the crowd that Paul Lazzaro, a man he knew during the war, is going to murder him. The crowd begins to protest and does not want the killing to take place. Billy then says, "If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I've said." Billy Pilgrim is later assassinated by Lazzaro or someone hired by Lazzaro.

Film, TV or theatrical portraits[edit]

In the 1972 film Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim was portrayed by Michael Sacks. In the play adaptation by Eric Simonson, directed by Joe Tantalo, Billy Pilgrim was played by Gregory Konow.[2] The operatic adaptation by Hans-Jürgen von Bose,[3] premiered July 1996 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich; Billy Pilgrim II was sung by Uwe Schonbeck.[4]


  1. ^ Kurt Vonnegut (2003). Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death). Caedmon Unabridged edition. ISBN 978-0-06-057377-5.
  2. ^ Blankenship, Mark (January 22, 2008). "Slaughterhouse-Five". Variety.
  3. ^ "Hans-Jürgen von Bose", German Wikipedia
  4. ^ Della Couling (19 July 1996). "Pilgrim's progress through space". The Sunday Independent. London.

Sources, external links[edit]