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Slaughterhouse-Five

by: Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim is the unlikeliest of antiwar heroes. An unpopular and complacent weakling even before the war (he prefers sinking to swimming), he becomes a joke as a soldier. He trains as a chaplain’s assistant, a duty that earns him disgust from his peers. With scant preparation for armed conflict, no weapons, and even an improper uniform, he is thrust abruptly into duty at the Battle of the Bulge. The farcical spectacle created by Billy’s inappropriate clothing accentuates the absurdity of such a scrawny, mild-mannered soldier. His azure toga, a leftover scrap of stage curtain, and his fur-lined overcoat, several sizes too small, throw his incongruity into relief. They underscore a central irony: such a creature could walk through war, oblivious yet unscathed, while so many others with more appropriate attire and provisions perish. It is in this shocked and physically exhausted state that Billy first comes “unstuck in time” and begins swinging to and fro through the events of his life, past and future.

Billy lives a life full of indignity and so, perhaps, has no great fear of death. He is oddly suited, therefore, to the Tralfamadorian philosophy of accepting death. This fact may point to an interpretation of the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s disturbed mind, an elaborate coping mechanism to explain the meaningless slaughter Billy has witnessed. By uttering “So it goes” after each death, the narrator, like Billy, does not diminish the gravity of death but rather lends an equalizing dignity to all death, no matter how random or ironic, how immediate or removed. Billy’s father dies in a hunting accident just as Billy is about to go off to war. So it goes. A former hobo dies in Billy’s railway car while declaring the conditions not bad at all. So it goes. One hundred thirty thousand innocent people die in Dresden. So it goes. Valencia Pilgrim accidentally kills herself with carbon monoxide after turning bright blue. So it goes. Billy Pilgrim is killed by an assassin’s bullet at exactly the time he has predicted, in the realization of a thirty-some-year-old death threat. So it goes. Billy awaits death calmly, without fear, knowing the exact hour at which it will come. In so doing, he gains a degree of control over his own dignity that he has lacked throughout most of his life.

The novel centers on Billy Pilgrim to a degree that excludes the development of the supporting characters, who exist in the text only as they relate to Billy’s experience of events.