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War has, undisputedly, been an element of every civilization’s history throughout time, but the cause of war, however, is a topic of dispute. Is war something that humans bring on themselves, or has it been deemed inevitable, no matter the circumstances? In many ways, the question of the cause of war is what brought Kurt Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse-five. After decades of contemplating his own war experiences, Kurt Vonnegut presents war in Slaughterhouse-five as uncontrollable, and touches on the even greater subjects of free will and fate, making an unconventional, yet extremely moving, anti-war statement. In Slaughterhouse-five, Kurt Vonnegut presents the main character, Billy Pilgrim, with the epic struggle between free will and fate by demonstrating the differences between free will and fate through a spatial concept of time and by explaining the relevance of free will and fate through examples of death and war to elevate the awareness of human control over destiny.
Both free will and fate are considered under the terms of a spatial concept of time and explored thoroughly by the main character, Billy Pilgrim, after his experience in the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Billy Pilgrim is left in a state of psychological instability after being faced with such horrific situations in World War II, and makes the subconscious decision to deal with the pain by creating an alternate universe where the death and war he witnessed have no meaning (Vonnegut 29). This alternate universe is called Tralfamadore and serves as a tool for Kurt Vonnegut to present the ideals of pre-destination. The inhabitants of Tralfamadore, known as Tralfamadorians, are the beings who introduce the concepts of pre-destination and fate to Billy Pilgrim through their own concept of time. The aliens do so by explaining “to Billy that time is different for Tralfamadorians and Earthlings because in the fourth dimension, time is spatial, and one can visit a moment in time like Earthlings visit locations” (Hines 1). This means that time is not linear, but that Billy Pilgrim experiences time as though he is travelling an extensive journey out of order. The moments in Billy Pilgrim’s life are oriented as various locations one might travel to, not a linear sequence of cause and effect.
Not only is the Tralfamadorian concept of time spatial, but “moments in time,” meaning different locations on a life path, may be viewed out of chronological order. This explains the sporadic structure of the novel (Harris, “Time” 1). Kurt Vonnegut constructed Slaughterhouse-five not to be read as a chronological story, but as a group of uncontrollable events to convey the meaning of fate and its effect on Billy Pilgrim’s perception of life. The Tralfamadorian concept of time, aside from not being chronological, is also viewed as being simultaneous (Harris, “Time” 1). “Everything that has happened or will happen exists in a vast omnipresent eternal now,” meaning that there is no linear, cause-and-effect order of time (Harris, “Time” 1). All moments are of the moment, and should not be contemplated as individual decisions. Time, instead, is spatial, and “rather than each moment coming once and then passing away forever, Billy can relive moments from his past and preview those of his future” (Hines 1). At whatever moment in his life Billy Pilgrim is visiting, he is already aware of what has occurred up to and after that point. The knowledge that Billy Pilgrim has about his entire life span is why his life, and Tralfamadorianism, are considered omnipresent time structures.
Since Billy Pilgrim can relive moments from his past and preview those of his future, he carries the information he learns about his future to his past. In this sense, Billy Pilgrim has the ability to “predict the future,” except that he truly has already lived the future (Vonnegut 29). The Tralfamadorians view this ability as being able to “see time in a completely different way than humans. They see an entire event instead of individual moments like humans” (Lewis 1). Tralfamadorians can view life as a whole, while humans are only aware of the past and do not know what to expect in the future. In this sense, Tralfamadorians have a more perceptive understanding of life than humans do because they can view all the events of a lifespan at once. Billy Pilgrim explains in his own words:
Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and once that moment is gone it is gone forever (Vonnegut 34).
Kurt Vonnegut uses strong metaphors to depict the differences between Tralfamadorianism and linear time and makes it known to the reader that Billy Pilgrim is well aware of his past, present, and future. In this particular metaphor, the entire range of Rocky Mountains symbolizes an entire lifespan. Humans view the Rocky Mountains as one single, connected unit, just as Tralfamadorians view life as one single episode. If the Tralfamadorians viewed life as individually arranged events, than that would imply that events in life have a cause and effect scheme. Although Billy becomes fully aware of all the various moments in his life, he fails to comprehend any connection between those moments and sees them as an array of random events.
Once Billy Pilgrim discovers the fate of his future, he feels helpless, knowing that no matter his actions, the consequences will result in his pre-determined death. This, in and of itself, is the curse of Billy Pilgrim’s gift, meaning that Billy Pilgrim has been given the wisdom of Tralfamadorianism but can do nothing with that wisdom (Harris, “Themes” 1). Tralfamadorianism can be explained as “the philosophy… that each moment in time is pre-structured with no purpose, but is totally random. But, despite the randomness of the moment, it cannot be changed because it simply exists the way it is” (Hines 1). Kurt Vonnegut presents Tralfamadorianism as not only a concept of time, but as a philosophy as well, and this is how Billy Pilgrim uses it as an escape from his war trauma. Billy Pilgrim uses Tralfamadorianism as a shield protecting him from the real world where decisions need to be made, and those decisions have consequences. With the philosophy of Tralfamadorianism, however, Billy Pilgrim does not have to make decisions and uses the excuse of pre-destination to reason with any unfortunate events.
The most prominent of the unfortunate events that Billy Pilgrim experiences is World War II, specifically the bombing of Dresden.
Although Billy Pilgrim uses Tralfamadorianism as an excuse for the war, it still, like the war, presents him with situations that are beyond his control. Time itself is out of his control, as is the manner in which Billy Pilgrim views time. (Harris, “Time” 1). The Tralfamadorians enlighten Billy by stating, “Time does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all… bugs in amber” (Vonnegut 97). In Slaughterhouse-five, Billy Pilgrim, unwillingly, is the bug in the amber because he is placed in moments of his life without his control and exudes a frozen state of mind. In this state of mind, Billy Pilgrim establishes no control over his own actions or the actions of others and approaches life with a passive numbness. This frozen state of mind that Billy Pilgrim experiences proves his powerless and vulnerable position in life.
Billy Pilgrim’s sense of helplessness translates into his ultimate acceptance of fate and the admittance of his lack of control over his life. One of the most apparent elements of life that Billy Pilgrim has no control over is the way he travels through time (Vonnegut 29). “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun” (Vonnegut 29). Billy Pilgrim has no control over his time travel and therefore has no control over his life. He is a passive personality and Kurt Vonnegut makes little effort to describe him as little more than that: passive and helpless (Lewis 1). This obvious lack of character description and development is purposeful, though, and Kurt Vonnegut uses the lack of description to enforce his themes. “The characterization of Vonnegut’s characters are neither dramatic nor descriptive: they are merely there. That is a large part of the story line, though. Vonnegut wants one to think that the characters have no will and are forced by a stronger force: fate” (Lewis 1). Kurt Vonnegut’s purposeful lack of description further enforce the theory of Tralfamadorianism by portraying Billy Pilgrim as a powerless spectator in his own life.
Considering that Tralfamadorianism endorses the concept of pre-destination, the word Tralfamadore becomes synonymous with fate and therefore, the absence of free will. As a soldier in World War II, Billy struggled between the concepts of fate and free will, but after being introduced to Tralfamadorianism, he seems so stop inquiring about his life and simply accepts it (Hines 1). When the Tralfamadorians first came in contact with Billy, their explanation for life was “because the moment simply is… there is no why” (Vonnegut 97). This explanation demonstrates the ideal that life has no reasoning or purpose. In Tralfamadore, and consequentially, in Billy Pilgrim’s frame of mind, there is no free will and no room for decision making. The theory of pre-destination is one that modern-day people are generally not accustomed to, though.
Kurt Vonnegut presents free will as a special concept that separates humans from beings such as the Tralfamadorians who do not believe in making their own destiny. Slaughterhouse-five introduces an alternative to free will that many readers are not aware of, and by doing so, causes the reader to examine their own beliefs after learning of the Tralfamadorian beliefs. In an encounter between Billy Pilgrim and a Tralfamadorian, the Tralfamadorian reveals:
If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by free will. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will (Vonnegut 86).
While this portrays free will as a unique ideal that only humans believe, it also discloses Kurt Vonnegut’s bias on the comparison between free will and fate. “Mr. Vonnegut gives us his views on free will… without free will, there is no point in anything, because it will do no good” (Green 1). In Slaughterhouse-five, Kurt Vonnegut takes free will and puts it on a pedestal, declaring it to be the element that drives our will to live. Free will is what separates humans from Tralfamadorians and free will is also what gives life its purpose.
Through Kurt Vonnegut’s personal commentary in the first chapter and the way Kurt Vonnegut depicts Billy Pilgrim as a helpless bystander in his own life, it becomes apparent that Kurt Vonnegut is an enthusiastic advocate of free will. The battle between free will and fate takes center stage in this anti-war novel and it is evident that “one of the most important themes is that of free will, or, more precisely, its absence” (Harris, “Themes” 1). By making free will so obsolete in the life of Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut incites the reader to actively hope for Billy Pilgrim to gain control of his life. Kurt Vonnegut reveals his own hopes when he speaks in first person in the first chapter by admitting, “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep” (Vonnegut 23). In this instance of uncertainty, Kurt Vonnegut is expressing his curiosity in regards to the extent of free will and its roles in the individual’s life. Nonetheless, Kurt Vonnegut’s own desire for free will demonstrates the will that all humans have to maintain an active role in their lives.
Even though Kurt Vonnegut feels strongly about the concept of free will, he still presents the concept of fate as a form of comparison. Kurt Vonnegut is clear in making the point, “Any form of pre-destination cancels out free will” (Hines 1). Kurt Vonnegut allows the character of Billy Pilgrim to demonstrate free will for a portion of the novel by giving him the choice of choosing or denying free will. When Billy Pilgrim chooses to accept Tralfamadorianism, that is the last choice he ever makes for himself, and at that moment when Billy Pilgrim made that decision, he relinquishes control of his life (Lewis 1). Even with both free will and fate present in Slaughterhouse-five, Kurt Vonnegut uses fate to demonstrate how people can allow elements of life to overrule their free will. In the case of Billy Pilgrim, Billy Pilgrim allows his post-war insecurities to overrule his desire to actively live his life. Infact, Billy Pilgrim’s post-war trauma, and subsequently Kurt Vonnegut’s post-war trauma, is what initiates the inner struggle between free will and fate.
With the message of an anti-war novel in mind, the concepts of free will and fate are applied to numerous situations in which death is involved. “Death is the central point to which all action in the book connects,” meaning that death is literally the main plot of the story, considering a death occurs at least once in every chapter (Green 1). Death is an inescapable aspect of life, one that Billy witnesses in war, at home, in his family, and through spatial time, Billy Pilgrim is even able to see his own. Billy Pilgrim’s ability to view his own death makes death the ultimate form of pre-destination because it is an inevitable facet of life that cannot be determined by humans.
To divert his fear of death, Billy Pilgrim applies Tralfamadorianism to his life and is able to comprehend death on a different level. When he speaks in first person, Kurt Vonnegut implies that he, too, has gained a better understanding of death and its relevance in life. (Vonnegut 103). “Death seems too real for Vonnegut to omit from his reinvented cosmos, but by reinventing the nature of time, Vonnegut deprives death of its sting” (Harris, “Time” 2). The reason that Tralfamadorians are able to desensitize death is because “when a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments” (Vonnegut 34). Tralfamadorians view death as minute and meaningless in comparison to their overall perception of life. So despite Tralfamadorianism’s basis on pre-destination, the theory of spatial time allows for an unconventional view of death that divests its overall impact on life.
Considering the way in which Tralfamadorians view death, it is deemed utterly meaningless and insignificant, and it is in this particular facet of Tralfamadorianism that Billy Pilgrim latches onto to keep himself from deteriorating after the war. Billy Pilgrim is willing to accept Tralfamadorianism after witnessing the atrocity of Dresden and takes on the attitude that, “given the absence of free will and the inevitability of events, there is little reason to be overly concerned with death” (Harris, “Themes” 1). Billy Pilgrim, in his later years, even shares these ideas with other people because he has grown so comfortable under the shield, Tralfamadorianism, that separates Billy Pilgrim from reality:
It is entirely in keeping with his calling, then, when he has learned to see time in an entirely new Tralfamadorian way, that he should try to correct the erroneous western view of time, and explain to everyone the meaninglessness of individual death, because everyone lives forever in the eyes of a Tralfamadorian (Lewis 1).
Since Tralfamadorian time is everpresent and ominous, a person’s death is only one portion of the entire, collective lifespan. Tralfamadorianism is fundamentally an elaborate escape method that Billy Pilgrim creates to make his life simpler and to lessen the impact death once had on his life.
To emphasize the absolute meaningless of death, Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “so it goes” over eighty times within Slaughterhouse-five after every instance of death that is mentioned. This phrase is not only a way for Billy Pilgrim to distract himself from his own death but it also allows Billy Pilgrim to denote the deaths of others as well (Green 1). “‘So it goes’ is a reminder that no matter how important we think our death or the death of a loved one is, there have been countless billions of deaths before us” (Green 1). This unsympathetic statement coincides with the theory of Tralfamadorianism because in a pre-destined world, nothing can be done to escape or alter death. Tralfamadorians do not give death any special thought because they view death as outside their realm of control. “In allowing instances of death to trail off into oblivion with ‘so it goes,’ Vonnegut conveys to the readers that death, the ultimate sacrifice in war, can be a rather indifferent matter” (Young 1). With less emphasis on the final outcome of life, Billy Pilgrim is able to view death as an insignificant result of a pre-destined life. This attitude can be applied to war situations as well, and allows Billy to remember World War II as a detached bystander rather than a pained participant.
When Kurt Vonnegut brings the reader to the climax of the novel, the bombing of Dresden, Billy’s sense of helplessness is finally understood. Just as individual deaths do not have specific meaning, it was not the individual deaths of war that have an impact on Billy Pilgrim, it is the collective death toll of war that causes him to resort to Tralfamadorianism (Young 1). After Billy Pilgrim mentions his experience at Dresden multiple times in Slaughterhouse-five, the actual event itself does not live upto Billy Pilgrim’s description. Vonnegut’s choice to describe Dresden with little detail emphasizes that “ultimately, Vonnegut’s ‘famous book about Dresden’ is less about Dresden than it is about the impact on one man’s sensibilities” (Harris, “Time” 2). Slaughterhouse-five focuses mainly on the impact that death and war have on Billy Pilgrim in a psychological respect and how one day’s experience at Dresden changes his view of free will.
Once the bombing of Dresden is described, it is clear why Billy Pilgrim used Tralfamadorianism as an escape method to forget about the horrors of war and death that were revealed to him. Dresden causes Billy Pilgrim to reexamine his life and his values, which reflects Vonnegut’s examination of free will and fate. “For Vonnegut, war is not an enterprise of glory and heroism, but an uncontrolled catastrophe” (Harris, “Themes” 2). It is the sense of helplessness that war inflicts on people that gives Vonnegut an anti-war outlook. This helplessness, when applied to Billy Pilgrim’s life, is what causes him to invent Tralfamadorianism:
Billy’s being “unstuck in time” is both a literal event and a metaphor for the sense of profound dislocation and alienation felt by the survivors of war, while the aliens from the planet Tralfamadore provide a vehicle for Vonnegut’s speculations on fate and free will (Harris, “Themes” 2).
Becoming unstuck in time is another way of admitting that after World War II, Billy Pilgrim removes himself from the active world of decision-making and allows his life to consume him under the false pretenses of pre-destination.
The way in which the bombing of Dresden is presented, through a memory, demonstrates that free will triumphs over fate because Billy Pilgrim made the conscious decision to remember Dresden, not revisit it. This active, conscious decision that Billy Pilgrim makes shows an inconsistency with Tralfamadorianism because Billy demonstrates control over his life. (Vonnegut 102). “For the first time in the novel, Billy Pilgrim remembers a past event rather than time-travelling to it. Time-travel, it seems, would have made the event too painful. Memory, on the other hand, supplies a twenty year buffer (Harris, “Time” 2). Billy Pilgrim obviously created Tralfamadorianism so that he could disconnect himself from his life and remain distant from the occurrence of death and war. Billy Pilgrim’s choice to remember Dresden, rather than relive it, also proves the triumph of free will over fate because Billy Pilgrim had to make a conscious, active decision. “If he fully accepts the Tralfamadorianism view, then he could simply choose to look forward to moments beyond or before Dresden, but instead he feels emotional pain while reliving his prisoner days” (Hines 2). The fact that Billy Pilgrim used his free will to choose to remember Dresden demonstrates Tralfamadorianism’s ineffectiveness in providing an escape for Billy Pilgrim from death and war. It is with this last major decision that “Vonnegut finally answers the question [What is the meaning of life?] by affirming that man must arbitrarily make his own purpose” (McGinnis 1). Kurt Vonnegut could not be clearer, especially after the remembered scene at Dresden, how vital free will is to human existence. Free will is what gives life its purpose and is what allows people to make active decisions, such as the decision Billy Pilgrim made to remember, not revisit, Dresden.
The decision to remember, not revisit, Dresden demonstrates the clear triumph of free will over fate and liberates Billy Pilgrim from his uncontrolled time travel. The plot of Slaughterhouse-five introduces the reader to concepts of free will and fate, in the context of death and war, and then arrives at the conclusion that humans control their destiny. Slaughterhouse-five is an anti-war novel unlike any other, in which Kurt Vonnegut not only informs, but persuades the reader to actively examine their view of destiny. The timeless struggle between free will and fate could not be presented in a more compelling manner than through the inner struggle of a war-torn veteran.
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