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How is a reader suppose to respond to a character like Billy Pilgrim in...

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bri101010 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted December 13, 2010 at 8:58 AM via web

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How is a reader suppose to respond to a character like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five?

I know Billy Pilgram is an outside figure or in other words different, but other novels with outside protagonist there usually is an emotional connection between them and the reader. When I have read novels in the past where the protagonist is portrayed as a loser or as an ordinary person compared to the more heroic character I could relate to the ordinary character. I felt that since I could relate to that character I developed an emotional connection and in a way wanted to fight for that character. I am confused with the character Billy Pilgram in the sense of how the reader is suppose to respond to this type of person. Basically I what to know why the "loser" status of Billy's character is important to the novel and how we are suppose to respond to his type of character.

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:45 AM (Answer #1)

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Billy is difficult to identify with because Vonnegut doesn’t spell out what the “moral” of the story is. And without that overt moral, the reader is forced to figure things out alone. Billy uses the nonlinear philosophy of time, from the Tralfamadorians, to justify apathy and “so it goes” attitude towards anything unpleasant. The appeal is that humans are then no longer responsible for anything that happens. Everything is the result of forces that are beyond our control. There is no free will; so why dwell on the bad stuff. Since Billy adopts this philosophy, it is hard to empathize with him. We want to see Billy reject the Tralfamadorian concept of no free will. We compare this to the idea of determinism in Christianity, where God divines everything; and likewise, we have no free will. Billy is an involuntary time traveler. So, at every turn, Billy is at the mercy of enormous forces and to his mind, he has no free will. So, he finds it logical and justified to embrace a philosophy where the response to things like the Dresden bombing is “so it goes.”

But, this is all about free will. Justifying war with “God’s will” or “unstoppable forces” is a cop out. It is hard to say if Billy is actually unstuck in time or if it is a neurological disorder as a result of his war experience, plane crash, wife’s death or some other traumatic event. Because Billy endures all this, he can’t logically justify his own free will. He feels overwhelmed.

It is up to you, but I look at Billy as a dichotomy: pathetic and tragic = hard to root for, easy to sympathize with. In this sense, he is like most people. That is, Billy is faced with some overwhelming social, physical and other forces; and he seems complacent to just focus on the nice things because he has no control. He feels like a loose bolt in an automatic, mechanized universe. I sympathize with Billy’s feeling of helplessness but I feel he needs to step up. The example is Dresden. It is an analogy between unstoppable random forces (random universe) or God’s will and social forces. The analogy is incomplete because social forces are the collective result of individual will power.  The Dresden bombing served no strategic purpose in the war. Saying this is God’s will or random universal effects is a cop out; a lazy relinquishing of responsibility. As a reader, you implore Billy to see that not all things are beyond our control.

I agree with you that it is difficult to pin Billy as a hero or anti-hero; but that’s the point. Cliché; the world is not black and white. Billy is struggling to be an individual (responsibly, meaningfully and morally); in what he sees as a predetermined, meaningless universe. Being unstuck in time just makes it all the more bewildering for him.

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