Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703
Billy Pilgrim: the time-travelling protagonist; he primarily varies between being a chaplain’s assistant taken prisoner of war by the Germans and between his later life as a successful optometrist
Barbara Pilgrim: Billy’s worried daughter
Tralfamadorians: according to Billy, creatures from outer space who can see in the fourth dimension (time)
Roland Weary: a cruel American soldier who travels with Billy after the Battle of the Bulge
Billy’s mom (no name given): in this chapter, a weak, old lady
Billy Pilgrim is introduced as an involuntary time traveller. After a youth spent in Ilium, New York, Billy is sent to the battlefields of World War II in Europe. After the war, Billy finishes optical school, marries the daughter of his school’s founder, and becomes a successful optometrist in Ilium. His grown daughter marries another optometrist, while his juvenile delinquent son straightens out to become a Green Beret and fight in Vietnam.
In 1968, Billy survives an airplane crash. His wife dies accidentally of carbon monoxide poisoning while he was recuperating in the hospital. Back at home, Billy slips off to New York City, where he gets on a radio talk show and announces that he had been kidnapped by space aliens from Tralfamadore, who kept him in a zoo with his mate, the movie starlet Montana Wildhack. After being transported back to Ilium by his upset daughter, Billy proceeds to further aggravate his family by writing a letter to the local newspaper describing the Tralfamadorians in detail.
Billy is in the middle of writing his second letter to the paper. It describes the Tralfamadorian view of death, which is strongly tied to the Tralfamadorian view of time. Billy wants to try to help the people of earth by showing them how to see things the Tralfamadorian way. Billy’s daughter finds him in the basement and berates him for making a fool of himself and his family.
The scene shifts to World War II, where Billy serves as a chaplain’s assistant. Billy is sent to Luxembourg in December of 1944, where his regiment is destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge before Billy can even be properly uniformed.
Billy joins a group of three Americans wandering behind the German lines. Two of the men are scouts; the third is Roland Weary. Weary entertains himself by telling Billy about instruments and methods of torture, including ones of his own invention. Weary, who is warm and has energy to spare, runs back and forth between the scouts and Billy, pretending that he is in a war story.
Billy falls behind the group and has his first time-travelling experience, in which his father drops him into a pool, and Billy sinks to the bottom. He then travels to 1965, where he visits his mother in a nursing home, and to 1958, and 1961, where he passes out in the back of his car while looking for the steering wheel. He is awakened by Weary banging him against a tree.
Weary forces Billy back to the scouts, who have determined that they are being pursued. While Billy hallucinates, the scouts decide to ditch him and Weary. Weary is furious at Billy, whom he blames for the breakup of the noble fighting unit to which Weary imagined he belonged. As Weary is preparing to kick Billy in the spine, he realizes that he is being watched by a group of German soldiers and their dog.
In the second chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, the reader is finally introduced to the protagonist of the story, Billy Pilgrim, and given a quick summary of his life. After this, the main thrust of the story might be expected to be Billy’s conflicts with his daughter or his rise to success as a promoter of the Tralfamadorian way of life.
Yet, as this chapter shows, Vonnegut has not chosen to structure his novel around any expected form. The most important moment of Billy’s life, the time he spent as a prisoner of war, will have more weight than Billy’s life as an adult. Little time will be spent examining Billy’s activities after he writes his second letter about the Tralfamadorians; rather, the narrative will travel widely over Billy’s adult experiences as a resident of Ilium, New York.
Vonnegut, despite his self-characterization as a “trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization … and suspense”—that is, as a novelist—makes no attempts to adhere to such conventions of the novelistic form as building suspense. In Chapter One, Vonnegut announced the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. The next chapter starts by describing the important events of Billy’s life at the outset. Although the book will later explore many of these events in detail, the reader already knows what the outcome of the important events in Billy’s life will be. There is also little suspense as to what will happen to Billy in Dresden, given the historical background Vonnegut provided in the first chapter.
This lack of suspense does, however, give a tremendous irony to the actions of the characters. In fact, the predetermined outcome of their lives makes it appear that they have little control over their lives—that they lack free will. The question of the existence of free will provides yet another theme of the novel, one which will be explicitly explored in Billy’s encounters with the Tralfamadorians.
The traditional novel also naturalistically depicts a character’s movement through time. Each event depicted in the novel follows one that proceeds it in time as well. Chapter Two casually ignores this conventional structure of time. Instead of treating time in a “linear” fashion, one that moves from start to finish in a straight line, Slaughterhouse-Five oscillates wildly between one moment in the protagonist’s life and another.
Billy’s life story is not difficult to follow, however. The links between events, often a sight or action that mimics one Billy has taken at some other period of his life, are similar to the connections that a reader makes in his or her own mind to these sort of repetitions in real life. Vonnegut further aids the reader in reassembling the actual time of these episodes by providing chronological signposts at many of the interchanges. These usually take the place of references either to Billy’s age or to the actual year in which the event takes place. As Monica Loeb details in Vonnegut’s Duty-Dance With Death, rather than linking events together by time, Vonnegut has chosen to link them together through ideas and location. This is called the “‘spatialization of time.’” The result is a highly fragmented narrative, composed, as it were, of “‘shrapnel bits’” that the reader has to reassemble.
Billy’s being “unstuck in time,” as he is described at the beginning of Chapter Two, is the most stated justification for the logic of this structure. Yet it is questionable whether or not Billy actually is a time traveller because Billy’s judgement is itself questionable. Several textual elements combine to undermine Billy’s credibility as a reliable interpreter of the novel’s world. First, the narrative itself frequently indicates its doubt of Billy by inserting such phrases as “He says” (where it is set in its own paragraph for further emphasis). This immediately makes the reader question Billy’s perception of reality.
Second, the description of the Tralfamadorians discredits Billy’s sanity. While he may believe that he has been kidnapped by them, it is difficult to conceive of wise extraterrestrials shaped like plungers. The description seems designed by Vonnegut to evoke a response of hilarity instead of suspending the reader’s disbelief enough to accept the inclusion of aliens in the novel’s world. Finally, the moment when Billy’s time travels initially occur, when he has apparently resigned himself to death in the chilly German forest, provides a plausible explanation for Billy’s experiences: he is responding to a high-stress situation by escaping into a fantasy world.
In light of the doubt created in the reader’s mind as to the actual nature of Billy’s so-called “time travel,” the reader must search for an explanation of why Billy experiences life in this fashion. The banality of most of the events of Billy’s life and the simplicity of the prose used to describe them make them appear to be “true” within the context of the story. Since Billy appears to have lived a normal (stress-free) life since the war’s end (and since the Tralfamadorians only provide Billy with “insights” into his condition), his spasticity must have a purpose greater than providing an excuse for Slaughterhouse-Five’s disjointed narrative.
Given this fact, the reader should look further into what is causing Billy to travel through time. Its first occurrence in Billy’s life seems unsurprising, given that he is fairly close to, and indeed ready for death. In later life, when he has decided to spread the wisdom of Tralfamadore, he has just been in a plane crash that left him with “a tremendous scar across the top of his skull,” and his daughter with fears of damage to his brain. This, too, provides a plausible situation for Billy’s bizarre beliefs and actions.
Yet Billy also had a “nervous collapse” a few years after the war. Sandwiched in between the other events of his life and given little attention in the narrative, Billy’s mental breakdown should alert the reader to the unstable condition of his mind. What has caused it? What sets it off? While different interpretations are possible, the most obvious cause for the disturbance of Billy’s mind must be the horrors he experienced and witnessed as a prisoner of war. This throws a different light on Billy’s non-judgemental attitude toward his experiences as a prisoner of war. His mind appears to have been damaged by these events. The question will remain whether Billy ever regains his sanity, or if, indeed, his insanity provides him a point of view which is saner than that of most people. The reader should carefully consider this question when attempting to determine what the message of Slaughterhouse-Five is supposed to be.
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