Why does Kurt Vonnegut choose to make a man like Pilgrim be the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five?

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wesadcott eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Vonnegut states in the first chapter that he is attempting to write an anti-war novel. He promises Mary O'Hare, to whom the book is dedicated, that he will not have any John Wayne type characters in his novel, meaning that he will not glorify war. Billy Pilgrim is the perfect protagonist for an anti-war novel because he shows the effects war can have on the psyche. Vonnegut writes, "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." Billy travels from one moment in his life into another. He has no control over what moment in his life he will have to relive next: essentially he cannot live in the present. It soon becomes clear, however, that Billy suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He cannot live in the present because of the trauma he has experienced during the war, especially during his time as a prisoner of war.

Even before Billy experiences post-traumatic stress, it is clear that his character will not make war look admirable. When Billy first arrives at the Battle of the Bulge, he has no combat boots and no gun. Vonnegut writes that he looks more "like a filthy flamingo" than a soldier. Later Billy looks foolish in a coat that is too small and combat boots that have been painted silver. At one point, Billy looks so foolish he is even slapped by a German civilian for making such a mockery of war.

Billy's last name, "Pilgrim," is also significant in that it sets him apart from the macho John Wayne type of character. In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne's character repeatedly calls Jimmy Stewart's character "Pilgrim." Thus, Billy is more like the kinder and gentler Jimmy Stewart than the heroic and macho John Wayne.

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Slaughterhouse-Five

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