Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1340
Paul Lazzaro: a rabid American with a thirst for revenge
Edgar Derby: a kind, middle-aged American doomed to be shot for stealing a teapot
Billy is unable to sleep the night after his daughter’s wedding. He wanders around the house, knowing he is about to be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. He watches a movie in reverse time, then imagines it continuing from World War II all the way to Adam and Eve. After watching the movie in regular time, he goes outside and enters the space ship.
Billy asks why he has been taken. A Tralfamadorian tells him that the moment just is, and that there is no “why” to be asked. Billy is stuck like a bug in amber.
The acceleration of the Tralfamadorian ship sends Billy back to his boxcar. He wants to sleep, but his fellow prisoners refuse to let him lie among them because he thrashes in his dreams.
No food is given to the prisoners as they are transported across Germany. In the car ahead of Billy’s, Roland Weary dies of gangrene. He tells everyone on his car that he wants Billy to be punished for killing him.
The prisoners finally arrive in a converted extermination camp and leave their boxcars. Billy is given a ridiculous overcoat.
In the camp, the prisoners are stripped prior to delousing. Among the men are Edgar Derby, who comforted Weary as he died, and Paul Lazzaro, who promised Weary he’d get Billy Pilgrim.
The shower sends Billy back to a happy moment in his infancy. Then he travels to his middle age, where he is playing a game of golf. In a moment of dizziness, he goes back to the spaceship, where he is strapped to a contour chair. The spaceship is heading for a time warp.
A Tralfamadorian tells Billy that he is on the spaceship because that is the way things have to be. When Billy asks if this means that the creature doesn’t believe in free will, the Tralfamadorian responds that across the universe, only Earthlings believe in free will.
This chapter follows young Billy up to his arrival in the prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, while simultaneously recounting the events surrounding Billy’s kidnapping by the Tralfamadorians. In both of these story lines, Billy is being held against his will by kindly jailors.
Lawrence Broer finds many other parallels between Billy’s experiences with the Tralfamadorians and his memories of being a prisoner of war. For example, Billy himself finds that the buildings look the same. Billy’s reception in both places is also similar; he is laughed at by Germans and Tralfamadorians alike. Later, both of his prisons will be destroyed in an apocalyptic fashion. The primary difference between the two scenarios is, according to Lawrence R. Broer, that “in the case of his Tralfamadorian fantasy, Billy himself holds the keys to the locked doors of his mind.”
The argument for Billy’s flying saucer adventure being a delusion is great. The living situation in which he describes there, that of being in a zoo with an Earth woman as his mate, parallels the plot of a science fiction book he reads after the war. Furthermore, the woman who is chosen for his mate is a porn star—exactly the kind of woman a man living in a sexless marriage might fantasize about living with. While in a New York sex shop, Billy reads that his zoo mate Montana has disappeared and is presumed to be “wearing a cement overcoat” in the bottom of a bay. This is a clear example of reality intruding into Billy’s fantasy. The only argument in favor of Billy not being delusional is his foreknowledge of his death; but as one critic put it, this could be a fantasy, too.
The main purpose of the existence of the Tralfamadorians in this novel (they previously appeared in Sirens of Titan) is to introduce a new philosophy. The primary component of Tralfamadorian philosophy is their understanding of time. Since they can see in four dimensions, they can view all moments in time simultaneously, like a mountain range. (By comparison, the human concept of time will later be described as that of a man strapped on a flatcar who sees the world flashing by through a tiny hole in a helmet.) With this type of vision, the Tralfamadorians can choose what exact moments they wish to admire, and as they tell Billy, they prefer to look at the good times.
This view of time has given the Tralfamadorians two other important beliefs. The first regards their view of death. The Tralfamadorians do not see death as a tragedy. As explained by Billy in Chapter Two, the Tralfamadorians believe a person only appears to die. Since Tralfamadorians can see all moments in time simultaneously, they see the moments in time when a person is alive as well as the moments in which he is dead. In this event, as in all others, they need only focus on the moments at which they enjoy looking. This is why a Trafalmadorian can say “so it goes” at the mention of a person’s death: he can still enjoy the person being alive.
The second Tralfamadorian belief that is of importance to the book regards free will. Simply put, the Tralfamadorians do not believe that free will exists. People do what they have to in the ballet of time. All actions are predetermined: we are like insects frozen in amber. The theme of free will—or, rather, its non-existence in the life of Billy Pilgrim—runs subtly throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.
Why should free will be so important to this novel? The answer seems to hinge on its relationship to the firebombing of Dresden. There was absolutely no strategic benefit to be gained from destroying Dresden. The annihilation of such a beautiful city, in a manner guaranteed to result in massive, horrible civilian deaths (more died there than in Hiroshima), can therefore only be explained as an act of free will.
The question that remains is what lesson Vonnegut wants the reader to learn about free will. This is a matter of some debate among Vonnegut critics. The question is made more complex by the identification of Vonnegut’s view, which appears in the first and last chapter, with that of either Billy Pilgrim or the narrator. It has been said that Billy is Vonnegut, and they do share a well-documented similarity of appearance as well as experience. It has also been claimed that Vonnegut’s view is identical to that of omniscient narrator of Chapters Two through Nine. This argument hinges on all of the chapters’ use of the Tralfamadorian phrase “so it goes.”
Since the point of view of the narrative, with its “so it goes,” seems to be Tralfamadorian, and Billy’s attitude is also Tralfamadorian, the conclusion would be that Vonnegut also does not believe in the existence of free will. The lesson to be learned from Slaughterhouse-Five would therefore be not to be upset by the world’s tragedies and to concentrate instead on the happy moments.
Yet while Billy may be aspiring to such a state of detachment, he still has his crying jags. While the omniscient narrator may be unmoved by people’s deaths, Vonnegut, an active pacifist who remained horrified by Dresden long enough to hold its memory into the 1960s, clearly is not. Vonnegut’s own opinion, and hence that of the novel, cannot therefore be to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy explained so vividly in the book.
Billy, the shell-shocked soldier, needs the lies of Tralfamadore to deal with the innumerable deaths he has witnessed and his own inability to control his life. His philosophy allows him to reach a state of bliss. However such massacres will continue if people believe they are inevitable. While wars may actually be as unstoppable as glaciers, to do nothing only encourages their proliferation. Adopting fatalism is not the lesson to be learned from Slaughterhouse-Five.
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