What is the role of free will and fate in Slaughterhouse-Five?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is concerned with war and the dehumanization it causes. A number of issues come up in Vonnegut’s postmodern treatment of WWII. Among these, the tension between fate and free will is prevalent.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” and he jumps back and forth from the war to his life in New York and back to the war and to outer space, where he has been kidnapped by aliens. His experiences, likely the result of PTSD caused by the horrors of surviving the firebombing of Dresden, bring him into contact with fate and free will. The alien Tralfamadorians teach him that time is not linear and that free will is an illusion. The leader tells him, “I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (86). The Tralfamadorians believe the people of Earth are misguided when they believe they have any power over their fates at all.
The reader learns that back in New York, Billy has the “Serenity Prayer” hanging in his office. The words, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” seem to suggest man has some control. The authorial voice, however, interjects and says, "Among the things that Billy could not change were the past, the present and the future." Again, the suggestion becomes that while man believes he has free will, he does not.
In the end, Vonnegut’s postmodern message seems to be that when man succumbs to the horror and devastation of war, the consequences are grave and unchangeable. The message isn’t necessarily that free will does not exist and everything is predetermined. The message is that war takes one’s humanity and one’s free will. As the author says he told his sons, “they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.” The loss of free will, then, comes from man's separation from his own humanity.
It is the slightly bizarre introduction of the alien presence of the Tralfamadorians that allows Vonnegut to discuss the central question of free will that operates in this novel. Tralfamadoreans have a curious way of looking at the world that incorporates the fourth dimension, allowing them to see all moments of time, both past, present and future, occupying simultaneously. This means that for them, free will does not exist, and they accept their fate, believing that since they can already see their future they are unable to change it. It is only on Earth that humans speak of the myth of free will, they argue, because humans mistakenly see time as a linear progression. Note what the Tralfamadorean says to Billy Pilgrim about the myth of free will at the end of Chapter 4:
I am a Tralfamadorean, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber.
However, even though Billy Pilgrim does seem to find his free will is curtailed throughout the novel, there is an interesting tension between free will and fate. Even whilst Vonnegut in Chapter 1 admits that all humans will die, supporting the forces of fate, at the same time he acknowledges that he has forbidden his sons to become involved in making weapons. However, overall, the fact that Billy Pilgrim, who is so badly trained and ill-equipped, survives the war when so many others better prepared for war, such as Ronald Weary, die, suggests that fate is the stronger force in the novel.