Meaning of Life in Slaughterhouse-Five

What Does Vonnegut Make Us Think is Real?

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is the story of how a person’s life experiences can all exist simultaneously within himself. The protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a man who has become unstuck in time, who experiences the moments of his life in a seemingly random and uncontrolled order, a kind of science fiction version of posttraumatic stress disorder. Vonnegut also toys with the idea of reality. Readers are constantly left trying to sift through the elements of the novel, to wonder what is reality (as some of this novel is semi-autobiographical) and what is purely fiction. Slaughterhouse-Five poses the question of whether reality is even trustworthy and whether these questions have any true answers in the end.

Vonnegut’s main idea of the nature of reality is best illustrated by the way he constructs his story. In the first and last chapters of the novel, readers are given a first person account of an autobiographical nature. The author speaks of his challenges in writing Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel that began as a request for a war novel about Dresden. His first words are “All this happened, more or less” (1). The historical context of the events in the novel is real. Vonnegut even admits that some of his story elements came from real things that happened to him and others he knew in the war. Readers may then go into this novel thinking of it as primarily reality, a sort of historical fiction. Perhaps it would be that if not for the time travel and the aliens. He continues to keep his readers guessing, especially with his narrative style. There are several moments throughout the novel where he is telling the story of Billy Pilgrim and suddenly inserts himself into the story. They will usually be subtle mentions, so quick that the reader could miss them if he wasn’t paying enough attention, a simple “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (160). Just as quickly as he has done this he jumps back to the story in a way that is almost as disorienting as the time travel. He also challenges perception with Billy’s daydreams and fantasies. The fact that Billy Pilgrim will pretend to be ice skating when he is in shock, but claims he knows the difference between his fantasies and time travel, makes the reader question all the more what moments are really happening and which are just in Billy’s head. Maybe all of them are imaginary. Vonnegut leaves this completely up to the reader to decide.

So It Goes in Tralfamadore

The protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five subscribes to the Tralfamadorian concept of all time existing at once. Everything has always happened, always will happen, and is always constantly still happening. The residents of this alien planet explain to Billy that, based on this logic, it is most important to focus on the good parts of life. By this standard, no one character in the novel can be judged as especially ideal or ridiculous. The Tralfamadorians would believe that every person is destined to behave the way that they are, that the idea of changing them in some way is completely nonexistant. If a person behaves undesirably at one point in his life, there is an equal moment happening elsewhere in which he is a perfect prince. These people never villainize wars or even the individual destined to destroy the universe (149). The motto of “So it goes” means that they have no concept of a person being of more worth than any other, because they are all meant to play the parts they do. This concept is reminiscent of the Shakespeare quote, “All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” Vonnegut even reinforces this idea in his final chapter. He mentions the deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the thousands of people killed in Vietnam, but he also mentions the death of his father. He gives all of these passings equal weight in his description, always ending with “So it goes.”

Inevitable Deaths

Vonnegut doesn’t even set up any of the characters to be idealized. All characters commit major faults at some point in their stories. The only character whose end can possibly be sympathized with is Edgar Derby, the man who is shot for taking a teapot from the wreckage of Dresden (274). He is perhaps the character with the least negative aspects, but even he doesn’t make it all the way through the novel alive. Readers may feel sorry over his death, though, because its reasoning seems so trivial. Hundreds of people die in bombings. Billy is shot in a revenge killing. Edgar Derby is killed for stealing a teapot, executed by a firing squad. These things just don’t seem to have equal weight, which is why his death is sad. Though he seems to be set up as one of the most (if not the very most) admirable characters of the story, but in the end he still dies for nothing. The Tralfamadorians would like that, much in the same way they like Charles Darwin.

The main social problem that the author does judge, however, is the idea of the soldiers, how most of them were entirely unfit to be there. In the first chapter, when he is speaking to Mary O’Hare, she says, “You were just babies in the war” (18). Vonnegut agrees with this statement and it seems to quite inform his character of Billy Pilgrim. For most of the time Billy is in the war, he doesn’t seem to have any idea what he is supposed to be doing. He simply lets himself be led around. The majority of Billy’s war experience, as it is portrayed to readers, is not in fighting, but instead taken up with riding around in boxcars, laying in the infirmary, and watching some of the other soldiers put on plays. Vonnegut’s point seems to be that most soldiers are fighting in these wars with no real idea of their purpose, that most of the time spent in the war is spent on doing basically nothing. They still know that they’re supposed to be there anyway. Enlistment by trained and qualified men and women will never equal up to the vast numbers the military needs. This is why the draft was instated in the first place. Inevitably children would be taken, sometimes right out of their schools if their birthdays fell early enough in the year. This is why the alternate title of this book is The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Vonnegut is illustrating the way that wars mostly end up collecting a large amount of a country’s children and sending them off to die. Billy is so unaware of himself at times that it is shocking he actually survives through the war.

“We Always Let Him and We Always Will Let Him. The Moment is Structured That Way.”

Though Billy claims he had time traveled once or twice before he was abducted by aliens, most of his experiences of being unstuck in time seem to have started (chronologically, if it can be trusted) after he meets the Tralfamadorians. Their explanation of their way of seeing time is like a key that unlocks Billy from his own linear knowledge of time. Vonnegut constructs a world in which destiny just is, just exists regardless of what the people within the world do. This is, in fact, the very definition of destiny; an event will happen and cannot be formed, as that would negate destiny. As the Tralfamadorians say, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (109). Therefore, every moment of Billy Pilgrim’s life seems to be put up to chance. His career as an optometrist, for example, takes off so well because he manages to marry a girl with just the right father. Later in Billy’s life he is so entrenched in this Tralfamadorian idea that he allows “destined” events to happen that he actually could have conceivably changed.

An example of this is when he is shot by Paul Lazarro at the end of his life. He knows that this event will happen and even tells the others around him that he expects it. The people around him want to shuffle him off somewhere for his own protection, which could have possibly changed the course of the event entirely. Billy refuses this, however, because he is supposed to be shot by Paul Lazarro. Again, this parallels the way Billy behaved in the war, though instead of being led around by other soldiers he is led by this so-called “destiny.” Whether intentional or not (though probably it is), Vonnegut opens up questions about whether the event could have been changed. This would, of course, rely on Billy having an entirely different world view, which would in turn completely change the event anyway. The other people could have chosen not to listen to him, but they do. “We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way” (149).

This exact internal conflict is what Vonnegut raises in his readers, because no matter how they argue that events could turn out differently, the fact is that that they happen the way they happen. They will not change. No being is in charge of these moments, no creature who can be appealed to. Vonnegut never mentions any type of God or other figure who sets the destiny of the world, just that this destiny exists. “Everybody has to do exactly what he does” (254).

Some readers may see Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as an exercise in the futility of man to change his circumstances, but that doesn’t seem to be what the author intended. As Vonnegut points out, “If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever…I am not overjoyed. Still…I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice” (269). Perhaps he is saying that the point of life is not to spend so much time sitting around and contemplating it. Worrying about why things happen the way they do, in Vonnegut’s viewpoint, might really be a waste of time. This, of course, conflicts with his job as a writer, but that doesn’t make the idea any less true. Then again, as Slaughterhouse-Five leads its readers to question: “What is truth anyway?” Maybe people are just meant to enjoy the nice moments.

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