How is appearance vs reality shown through Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five?

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Kurt Vonnegut emphasizes the disconnect between appearance and reality in several ways. The author presents Billy Pilgrim’s story largely as Billy’s understanding of his experiences, but he also offers a narrator’s perspective on the events and ideas that have shaped Billy’s post-war situation. Those events are concentrated on an actual occurrence: the bombing of Dresden.

One important concept is that Billy is “unstuck in time.” This concept can apply to memory, as Billy reflects on his traumatic wartime experiences. It can also apply to time travel, which is linked to space travel through Billy’s alternate life on Tralfamadore. Although it is not a utopian life, Billy appreciates the Tralfamadorians’ approach of concentrating on good times and pleasant memories.

The reader understands that this time-and-space travel is not a mild fantasy but the product of mental instability: it is real to Billy. Although Billy cannot understand this phenomenon in other terms, he also tries to reverse time conceptually by playing a movie backward. He knows that the time in the film is not real, but he aims for respite by controlling the course of events, if only for a brief while.

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Your question is about the use of appearance vs reality as a literary device in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Written from the perspective of a man who served with the main character, Billy Pilgrim, during the second world war, Slaughterhouse-Five is the narrator’s attempt to tell his story of the bombing of Dresden, in conjunction with the life story of Billy Pilgrim. The novel is told in a non-linear fashion, as Billy perceives the events of his life out of order, sometimes on purpose and sometimes unintentionally. From the beginning, the disconnect between the narrator and Billy sets up a miscommunication of reality. This is not Billy telling his own story, but a friend of his being told the story, and then ordering it in such a way that it reflects Billy’s detachment from time and places the bombing of Dresden at the climax of the novel.

Appearance vs reality in this novel is shown differently when through Billy’s perspective or through the narrator’s telling of the story. The narrator is able to present a situation from all perspectives, usually followed by Billy being led into the situation, or giving context for what is happening around Billy without his knowledge. Despite Billy’s ability to travel through time within his own life, he is frequently surprised by the events taking place around him, occasionally blaming his surprise or inability to understand his own actions on illness and trauma.

One of Billy’s fellow soldiers, Roland Weary, constantly harrasses him during their time together in the European theater and eventually dies, claiming Billy is the cause. From the perspective presented by the narrator, Roland is a villain to Billy, taking advantage of his meek nature. To Billy, Roland is a light nuisance but only a small part of his entire life, which he had already gained the ability to see before Roland’s death. To Paul Lazzaro, who was present for Roland’s final words, Billy is the villain, whom he will ultimately murder, meaning that Roland is the cause of Billy’s future death. Roland died from gangrene, which he contracted by wearing wooden clogs given to him by the germans after his capture, not by Billy’s own action. Whether or not Billy’s story of time travel and living on the planet Tralfamadore is an accurate telling of events doesn’t matter to the narrative, because the narrator presents it in such a way that all perspectives of an interaction can be known to the reader.

Billy dies because of the actions taken by Roland and Lazzaro, but the knowledge of his death nullifies the effectiveness of reality as something to be concerned with. By seeing and knowing his entire life, Billy finds much more interest in the appearances of things, which could be connected to his profession as an optometrist.

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