In Slaughterhouse-Five, explain the significance of Billy Pilgrim's becoming unstuck in time.

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eir eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Slaughterhouse-Five was written in 1969, long before the discovery of  PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],. Billy Pilgrim's frequent flashbacks, however, in part show us the experience of a solider, who suffered traumatic experiences and is reliving them.

The OED defines this experience as:

a condition which can develop following exposure to an extremely stressful situation or series of events outside the usual range of human experience, which may manifest itself in recurrent nightmares or intrusive vivid memories and flashbacks of the traumatic event, and in withdrawal, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms associated with prolonged stress or anxiety.

In accordance with a treatment goal of replacing traumatic memories with mundane ones, Billy Pilgrim's recounting of his war experiences is linear. Rather than flashing back to traumatic memories, he flashes backwards and forwards to events in his childhood and events in the future.

Other evidence of this goal is to be seen in the video Billy Pilgrim plays backwards to show bullets and shells being sucked out of airplanes that have been shot, bombers sucking up bombs, bullets flying out of the breasts of the wounded, and guns dissolving back into their mineral components (93).

Such a philosophy is not inconsistent with the slogan 'and so it goes.' Vonnegut does  not wish to deny the wrongs of the past. He is merely seeking to alleviate the trauma of PTSD by placing traumatic moments in the context of his everyday experiences.


Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy's becoming unstuck in time, first of all, serves the purpose of allowing Vonnegut to continually revisit the two main events in the novel:  Billy's time as a prisoner of war during which he witnesses the allied bombing of Dresden, and Billy's abduction by the Tralfamadorians.

Billy's being unstuck in time also underscores the theme of alienation and isolation in the novel.  Billy is not in any one place long enough to have the kind of experiences and develop the kind of relationships humans need.  His time travel emphasizes Billy's disconnectedness, which, of course, is the result of his war experiences. 

Most importantly, perhaps, Billy's being unstuck in time echoes the Tralfamadorian "worldview," if you will.  The problem with humans, according to the Tralfamadorians, is that we see only the present.  Implied, if not directly stated, is the fact that we too often do not consider the consequences of our actions.  We do not see the big picture.  Billy's time travel reveals the big picture, the consequences of human behavior.  I say "most importantly," because the novel is very much an anti-war work, and the allies not considering the consequences of bombing a city inhabited mostly by civilians is the center of the work.  The allied bombing of Dresden is the most important target of Vonnegut's satire. 

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