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Throughout the course of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the reader is taken through the life events of Billy Pilgrim, a character who amazingly lives through the Dresden firebombing and many other tragedies. Ironically, Billy finds comfort in the idea that free will is a fictional belief, and that nothing can be done about any of the surrounding misfortunes that occur throughout his lifetime, or throughout any lifetime. He vocalizes his thoughts and justifies them with a claim of alien abduction, and consequently is not taken seriously. While the text may imply that his extraterrestrial experiences did not occur, it still recognizes his ideology as valid and one of the main themes prevalent throughout the novel. Vonnegut utilizes Billy Pilgrim’s life experiences as well as other devices to convey the idea that free will is a mere illusion, and that there will perpetually be hardships through life that all beings will be forced to withstand.
There are several characteristics of Billy Pilgrim that illustrate him as a peculiar character. One of the most prominent ones is that subsequent to the firebombing of Dresden, the death of his wife, a plane crash in which he was miraculously the only surviving passenger, as well as other misfortunes, he states to have been abducted by aliens who have unique philosophies on time, and the nature of life in general. The Tralfamadorians the aliens who abduct him–have distinct views on time and space, whereas the past, the present, and the future, are eternally ongoing events that will never cease to end. Essentially, each and every moment is simultaneously occurring, and the Tralfamadorians possess the capability to see any point in time, which they describe as the fourth dimension. They state that they have seen all parts of time, such as the end of the world, but there is simply nothing they can do to alter the future; it just simply is. This belief is contrary to the common idea of free will on Earth, as a Tralfamadorian bluntly stated, “I’ve visited thirty-one planets…and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will”(86).
Billy’s experience with Tralfamadore is a turning point in the novel where the myth of free will is made an obvious theme. He is involuntarily drafted into World War II, where he later lives through the firebombing of Dresden, and finally after the war, he is the lone survivor of a plane crash all things he has no power to change. As a result, he develops a mental illness, although it is also implied that he may have had a predisposition for it in the first place (again, something he has no control over). To add on, a quote that appears twice once on a sign in Billy’s office, and last in the engraving of a locket of Billy’s fellow captor of the Tralfamadorians is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference (60, 209). This serves to stress the theme that certain fates are set in stone and cannot be altered through any means, and accepting this fact is the easiest way to cope with it. Billy Pilgrim does this, and sits back, allowing life to take its course with no interference or objections.
The passive writing style also emphasizes the narrator’s disbelief of free will. “So it goes” is a repetitive line that follows each description of death in the novel and illustrates the inevitability of the event. “And so on” is another line often used after a description of events. The repetition creates a distant, unfeeling tone, while moving on from the topic, displaying how life continues and there is nothing we can do to alter fate. Additionally, the narrator demonstrates that although he views war as cruel and tragic, it is unavoidable. In the introduction, he states that he is writing an anti-war book to a character, with his response being, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”. This statement analogizes wars with glaciers, and by doing so, implies that they are both things that are naturally occurring and unpreventable. The narrator agrees with this statement, but still feels the need to express his thoughts of the tragedy of war and the lack of free will that humans posses through his novel and in reality.
The revolutionary essence of Slaughterhouse-Five is a direct result of the different devices Vonnegut applies, such as humor, irony, and tragedy. All of these devices serve to cause society to collectively think about the nature of war, and the nature of life itself, changing our perceptions of what power we truly possess to reshape our fate.
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