Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513
Eliot Rosewater: a patient next to Billy at the insane asylum
Valencia Merble: Billy’s fiancée, and later wife
Montana Wildhack: Billy’s mate in the Tralfamadorian zoo
Billy reads Valley of the Dolls while he is aboard the spaceship. His captor explains to him the curious Tralfamadorian style of writing, which is like reading several telegrams at the same time.
Passing through a time warp sends Billy to two events on a family vacation in the West when he was twelve. Then he goes back to the prison camp. The Americans are led to a bright shed, from which a troop of Englishmen marches out to meet them. The Englishmen are in excellent shape. They have prepared a feast and entertainment for their American guests.
After setting his coat on fire and shocking the British with his miserable condition (and ridiculous coat), Billy watches a drag performance of Cinderella that makes him so hysterical he has to be carried out and given a shot of morphine. He is watched over in the prison hospital by Edgar Derby, who reads to him from The Red Badge of Courage.
Billy dreams, then time travels to 1948, where he is a patient at a mental ward in Lake Placid. In the bed next to Billy’s is Eliot Rosewater, who also is finding life meaningless. Rosewater has brought with him his beloved collection of science fiction books by Kilgore Trout. He has introduced Billy to them, and both of them have been using science fiction to help them reinvent their lives.
Billy hides from his mother underneath the bedcovers. She talks instead to Rosewater, telling him that Billy is engaged to a rich woman.
Billy wakes up in the prison hospital, where an Englishman is checking on him. He then returns to the asylum, where his fiancée, Valencia, is now visiting him. Rosewater talks to them about the Trout book he is reading.
Billy then travels to the zoo on Tralfamadore. While in the zoo, Billy is told that the Tralfamadorians will one day, accidentally, destroy the universe. The Tralfamadorians also tell Billy that they deal with such unpleasant moments by not looking at them. Instead, they look at enjoyable things, like the zoo. They think it’s a philosophy Earthlings would do well to follow.
Billy goes to his wedding night. Valencia tells him how happy she is, then tries to talk to him about the war. Walking into the hotel bathroom, Billy comes back to the prison camp, where the Americans are sick with diarrhea.
The next morning, Paul Lazzaro shows up in the hospital with a broken arm. A German major visits the Englishmen there and reads to them from a monograph about the pitiful condition of American enlisted men. Billy regains consciousness in Ilium, where his daughter is still lecturing him.
He then travels to the zoo, where Montana Wildhack has just arrived. Although she is initially terrified, she grows to love Billy and they have delightful sex together. Billy wakes up in his bed in Ilium, where he remembers his daughter taking him after she discovered the furnace was broken. He has had a wet dream about Montana Wildhack.
The next day he goes back to his office for the first time since his trip to New York. His first patient is a boy whose father has just been killed in Vietnam. Billy tries to share his Tralfamadorian philosophy with the boy, whose mother tells the receptionist that Dr. Pilgrim is insane. His daughter comes back to the office and takes him home.
This chapter is full of insights into Billy’s character. Outstanding among the elements of his personality is Billy’s lack of passion for life. He is a zombie, albeit a cheerful one. His existence is summed up in the words of the English officer who says that it must be nice to feel nothing and still get full credit for being alive. Billy’s view improves as he adopts the attitude of the Tralfamadorians, who only want to feel pleasant emotions, as is shown by Billy’s chosen epitaph. Billy manages his mind so that he can go from merely feeling nothing to seeing life as pleasant and empty of pain.
However, Billy’s commitment to an asylum after the war shows that Billy was hurt and needed help. Like Rosewater, Billy suffers from the feeling that life is meaningless. Science fiction is supposedly helping Billy with his problems. This would only leave him needing to be loved and accepted—the desires shown in his giraffe dream—to be a truly happy man.
So why does Billy see marrying Valencia as a symptom of his insanity? Outwardly, it seems a means to provide Billy with the love he wants. But since Billy does not love Valencia and is not even attracted to her, the only reason he married her was to set himself up financially. By choosing money over love, Billy will certainly be able to fit in to a materialistic society. He will then be able to create meaning in his life through his possessions, at the expense of any possible emotional fulfillment.
In choosing this path, Billy shows that he has decided to deal with his troubles by running away from them. Science fiction books are not providing him with psychological insights, but rather a way to escape the horror of war and (later) the reality of his banal existence. Billy even refuses to air his war memories with his wife. Billy remains a kind person, but his choice of a shallow life (and his lack of intellect) will not allow him to deal with his war experiences in a therapeutic way. Ultimately, his subconscious’ attempt to resolve his inner conflict will send him on a imaginary trip to another galaxy.
A further intriguing layer of Slaughterhouse-Five is its inclusion of the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s other novels. First, Billy himself is from Ilium, New York, the setting of Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first full-length novel. (It is generally assumed that Ilium is meant to be Schenectady, where Vonnegut worked for General Electric.) Second, many of the characters from Vonnegut’s earlier novels reappear in Slaughterhouse-Five. Among them is Eliot Rosewater (of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and Howard Campbell (the protagonist of Mother Night), as well as the time-travelling Tralfamadorians of Sirens of Titan. The cumulative, and somewhat humorous, effect of these intrusions is to make Billy appear to be travelling through yet a third fantasy: that of Vonnegut’s fiction.
More important to the novel is Vonnegut’s direct intrusion into the text. Both the omniscient narration of Slaughterhouse-Five and the use of a fictional protagonist seem necessary devices for Vonnegut to manage this subject. These devices allow Vonnegut to discuss his war experiences in a detached way. Vonnegut’s clear identification of his own voice within the narrative establishes his existence as separate from it. His intrusions also give more power to the narrative by reminding the reader that much of what this book describes is not fiction but fact. This makes each quietly depicted scene of war leap into high relief in the reader’s mind.
By switching back from third to first person, Vonnegut succeeds again in breaking the rules of the traditional novel form. Vonnegut simply does not allow the reader to relax into the usual state of suspension of disbelief. (This is the device which allows the reader to make sense of a “fiction” by telling himself that what he reads is real within the context of the story). Instead, Vonnegut plays games with the concept of fiction. He tells the reader that his story is “pretty much true,” but Billy’s adventures are clearly imaginary. At the same time, the novel’s fantasy world intrudes into “reality” (in the autobiographical opening chapter) when the clocks in Vonnegut’s hotel room begin to act strangely. Finally, Vonnegut interrupts the narrative by inserting himself directly into the novel. The cumulative effect is that Vonnegut slaps the reader back into an awareness of the nonexistence of the world which his mind has been inhabiting. This type of unconventional writing, which gives “attention to its own artificiality,” is called “metafiction,” as explained in William Rodney Allen’s piece, Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. It is a further sign that Vonnegut is anything but a writer of simple tales.
Finally, Vonnegut’s intrusion into his story invites a comparison between himself and his protagonist. Billy and Vonnegut are both creators of fantasy. But Billy is a man of little imagination. His fantasies seem to have arisen spontaneously from his subconscious mind in response to the tension of suppressing so many bad memories. He uses his fantasies to escape his troubles. Vonnegut, who is obviously more intelligent than his protagonist, has recast his troubles as fantasy in order to confront, and hopefully, subdue them. Denial might have been the easier choice, but Vonnegut has chosen instead to turn the evils he has experienced into a lesson for others.
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