What is the significance of Billy Pilgrim's powerful reaction in the following passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? “Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.” Why does he have this powerful reaction to the song? How does his reaction pave the way for the memory of Dresden described shortly thereafter?
Vonnegut has Billy react this way because the barbershop quartet reminds Billy of the German soldiers when they saw the destruction of their homeland after the bombing of Dresden. Billy, the prisoners of war, and the German guards had been in a meat locker below ground during the bombings. When they first saw the destruction, Billy noted that the guards (with their mouths hanging open) resembled a barbershop quartet.
"So long forever," they might have been singing, "old fellows and pals; So long forever, old sweetheart and pals—God bless 'em—"
The German soldiers have likely lost their families and friends, their "sweethearts and pals."
Billy does not immediately know why he is having this reaction to the barbershop quartet. He has forgotten about this moment from the war, quite possibly because it was the most painful moment since he was witnessing complete and utter destruction. The trauma that Billy experienced during the war was so horrific that he is forced to revisit these moments through flashbacks. However, Vonnegut stresses that Billy specifically remembers this event, rather than flashing back to it.
Unlike the other traumas, Billy cannot go back to this one. It is too painful, and he has hidden the memory from himself until the moment that it comes flooding back to him when he sees and hears the barbershop quartet. It is only at this point that Billy can remember the destruction of Dresden.
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