In order to indirectly evaluate the nonsensical conflict of Dresden and the war overall in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses subtle symbolic links between a variety of events in Billy Pilgrim’s journey, suggesting that Billy is not unstuck in time, but rather psychologically traumatized by the war and all the experiences he’s collected. His experiences have an intense mix of pathos and logos, having been one of the sole survivors of one of the most destructive notions of World War II. By doing this, Vonnegut has filled Billy with dread and burdened him with PTSD, a disorder the narrator shares as well, demonstrating how they use the defense mechanism of dissociation to cope with their grief and fear.
The story of Slaughterhouse Five revolves around our main character, Billy Pilgrim, and his life during World War II. He is an optometrist and a soldier, despite being a pacifist, until he is one day taken captive by foreign alien beings known as the Tralfamadorians. These beings are described as equally as cold as the Germans of World War II, forcing Billy to undress himself before them as the Germans did at their prison camp. They teach Billy that time is and always will be predetermined and unchangeable, telling him that there is no such thing as free will and there is nothing he can do about where he is now. In a short gist, they basically instruct him that there is no purpose in fighting back against whatever confronts him and that all his suffering is okay, which is why he does not stop his son from going to war and tell the world about the philosophy of Tralfamadore.
Despite literally being the main character and probable protagonist of the novel, Billy Pilgrim is the most unlikely of heroes. Weak and complacent even before becoming a soldier, he is a joke of a soldier now. He trained to be a chaplain’s assistant, a position that caused his peers to see him with revulsion. With little to no preparation and an obvious pacifistic nature, Billy is thrust into the Battle of the Bulge.
To make things more interesting, Billy is dressed much more differently compared to the rest of his comrades, wearing an azure strip of curtain and an awfully small overcoat, creating this image of a man walking through a battleground, scrawny yet untouched. Meanwhile his fellow soldiers, more burly and appropriately dressed, are torn and weary, underscoring a perfect central irony. Billy has lived a life full of dignity, and has shown absolutely no fear of death, which could explain why he is so quick to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy: you have no control over the events of your life, and you never will.
At the center of this blackly humorous work of science fiction about time travel and interplanetary travel is a deadly serious novel about the wastes of war. Billy is one of the only survivors of one of the most destructive acts of World War II. A city of no apparent military value, Dresden was bombed in order to bring Germany to its knees and thus to hasten the end of the war. Billy’s experiences in Dresden have an almost surreal but intense mix of pathos and trivia: a middle-aged German couple in the rubble of the city berate Billy for mistreating a horse, and his friend Edgar Derby is executed for stealing a teapot.
Billy’s psychological response to the devastation he has been part of the novel in of itself, an escape through time and space. The Tralfamadorians provided Billy with the deterministic view of life he appeared to be in need of. Because every moment, past, present, and future, has always existed and always will exist, people can run away to a more pleasant moment in the past, present, or future. Such a relativistic philosophy—the Tralfamadorians say free will exists nowhere in the universe except on Earth— allows Billy to live in a world of which he has lost the essential meaning.
Billy, however, does not live happily, as he is “unenthusiastic about living” in the present of 1968, Vonnegut writes, and he bursts into inexplicable bursts of weeping, describing him as a victim of delayed stress syndrome. Billy’s bawling is shown as connected to Dresden through a variety of images. The novel is held together not by any linear plot line but by these recurring images (such as spoons, the color orange and black, and dogs barking) and phrases (particularly the Tralfamadorian “So it goes” when death has been alluded to).
On his trip to Tralfamador, Billy learns from the locals that he has no control over his future, much less his present time.. He cannot change the events of his life because it was all predestined long before he came into the world. In a way “the moment always exists” (Tanner 128). The Tralfamadorians conferred about the idea of “free will” (Vonnegut 86) with Billy. They know that free will is not a real thing in their world and say that the people of Earth are the only ones who believe in the concept of free will.
Billy cannot fully understand this concept because he lives with a three-dimensional state of mind, while the Tralfamadorian live with a four-dimensional mind. They are omnipresent, being able to witness the past, present and future, and they realize that it is impossible to change destiny because it has already been set. Billy becomes dulled by this idea and spends the rest of his life without a care for anything that happens in his life. Nothing shocks Billy because he believes that it was always supposed to happen. He does not feel sorry because he believes nothing could have been done about it, by him or anyone else.
The story of Billy Pilgrim raises the question, “What is the purpose of life?” (McGinnis 55). Billy believes that life has no purpose, and that he is destined to live a life that fate was weaved for him. Through the dread and sorrow in Billy, it can be seen that the answer to the question is “man must arbitrarily make his own purpose” (McGinnis 55). People are not born with a sole duty in life as Billy believes, but one must search to find the reason for one’s existence in life. Billy believes he did not need to find a purpose because it would just come to him anyway, one way or another.
Billy seems rather unmoved by life at each of these distressing moments. Robert Merrill believes that “Vonnegut is concerned with the problem of quietism, a philosophy rooted in the common conviction that modern life is beyond the influence of responsible individuals” (177). Billy has a vehement belief in quietism that prevents him from caring about the catastrophes in his life, even prior to meeting with the Tralfamdorians. Through the life of Billy Pilgrim “. . . Vonnegut wants us to see the terrible consequences of giving into such beliefs [quietism]” (Merrill 178). Vonnegut is not recommending a belief in quietism, but is using the story of Billy to explain the problem of being detached to the events in one’s life.
Billy Pilgrim is used to demonstrate the horrid results of war. Billy’s time in the war had affected him psychologically, changing his perspective on the world. From his captivity, Billy has come to feel that nothing worthwhile comes from war. He believes that “. . .war is not a heroic contest between the forces of good and evil but a senseless slaughter with many victims and no villains” (Marvin 113). When Billy makes it back home from the war, he does not speak much about what he saw or how he felt about it. He tries to put distance between himself and the topic of war as much as possible.
Vonnegut uses “Billy’s innocence and passivity to help Vonnegut [to] focus the reader’s attention on the brutality of war (Marvin 124). Vonnegut appeals to the readers, trying to make them feel empathy for Billy. The reader sees the sad figure of Billy Pilgrim suffering through a war he believes is pointless and the reader begins to see the horrors of the war that Billy is living through.
The moral presented by Vonnegut agrees that some things will always be out of anyone’s control, but there are also things that anyone can change as well. Vonnegut wants the reader to grasp “that it would be nice to possess the courage to change the things we can” (Harris 137), but this is only part of the moral. Vonnegut also shows that people shouldn’t worry so much about the things they cannot change. He believes that when life presents an obstacle that cannot be stopped, then people should react with “resigned acceptance” (Harris 137). From his experiences in the war, Vonnegut has learned that death is something that neither he nor anyone can stop, and will come at any moment, whether they are willing to die or not. He has understood that “even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would be plain old death” (Vonnegut 4).
Vonnegut uses the persona of Billy Pilgrim to show the reason why people should not react to horrible circumstances the way Billy does. Vonnegut uses the pitiful story of Billy as an example of what can happen when a person feels that life is utterly meaningless and one has no power to control their fate. Tanner asserts that the “whole work suggests. . .if man doesn’t do something about the conditions and quality of human life on earth, no one and nothing else will” (130).
If people feel that they cannot work harder to get farther in life, then their passion to enhance themselves and better their society will come apart at the seams. Harris believes if you “strip purpose from the cosmos. . .man’s confidence collapses” (131). This idea of a resolute universe does not have to be true at the very least to all, but as long as people see “the illusion of a purposeful universe” (Harris 131), then they will continue to believe as though it were true.