It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
Kurt Vonnegut, as the narrator, addresses his publisher Seymour (“Sam”) Lawrence directly in this passage from Chapter 1. He seems to apologize for delivering such a short, fragmented manuscript. The irony of this passage is that if there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, then writing a book about one, no matter how short, is a major accomplishment. Perhaps like birdsong, the book merely serves as a simple communication demonstrating that life still exists in a devastated world. The bird’s inquisitive refrain returns in the very last line of the novel, leaving us with the unanswered question of what life is like in the aftermath of war—life’s most devastating enemy.
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “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.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
This passage occurs in Chapter 3, after Billy has been kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore in 1968. There he sees the same inscription on a locket around the neck of Montana Wildhack, the actress brought to mate with Billy in the Tralfamadorian zoo. The saying brings to light the central conflict of Billy’s attempt to live a Tralfamadorian life in a human world: he subscribes to the Tralfamadorian belief that there is a fourth dimension of time and that time is cyclical, but he lives in a world in which everyone believes that time moves in a single, linear progression. Tralfamadorians would argue that humans never know the difference between the things they cannot change because there is no difference; nothing is negotiable in a universe of predefined, structured moments.
Billy answered. There was a drunk on the other end. Billy could almost smell his breath—mustard gas and roses. It was a wrong number. Billy hung up.
In Chapter 4, the night after his daughter’s wedding in 1967, Billy gets up out of bed, unable to sleep. He knows that the flying saucer will come for him soon. He wanders into his daughter’s empty bedroom, the phone rings, and on the other end is a drunk. It is unusual that Billy claims he can almost to smell the mustard gas and roses on his breath over the phone. This detail emerges through a kind of empathy that seems to connect otherwise unrelated moments in the omniscient narration. We, the readers, recognize this drunk from Chapter 1: he is the author, Kurt Vonnegut, who in his middle age has a tendency to make drunken phone calls late at night to old girlfriends, his breath stinking of mustard gas and roses. The odd combination of mustard gas, often used as a chemical weapon, and roses, a symbol of romance, highlights how deeply the war has affected Vonnegut’s life.
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “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.”
This quotation comes at the end of Chapter 4, as Billy listens to his captors describe the true nature of time. These words reveal that not only do Tralfamadorians have a completely deterministic view of the universe in which every moment is structured beyond the control of its participants, but that they also lack an awareness of the possibility of free will. The alien who talks to Billy is an exception, having encountered the peculiarly human hang-up in his travels. But he maintains that humans, alone among all beings in the universe, believe in the illusion of free will. His emphasis on the idea of “studying” humans and inhabitants of other planets makes humans (and their conception of free will) and other non--Tralfamadorians seem like bizarre exceptions to the rule of nature. He thus performs a reversal of the human tendency to think of alien life as abnormal.
There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
In this passage at the beginning of Chapter 5, one of Billy’s captors explains the Tralfamadorian novel to him. It seems that Vonnegut has taken this template as a model for Slaughterhouse-Five, down to the rows of asterisks or dots separating short clumps of text. The irony of such a strategy is that Vonnegut, like Billy, lacks the Tralfamadorian ability to pick and choose his moments. Vonnegut thus considers his book a failure of sorts, because he has achieved the Tralfamadorian structure without its accompanying depth and beauty, and because he has come up with nothing more intelligent or deep to say about a massacre than “Poo-tee-weet.” Most readers would argue, however, that Vonnegut has actually succeeded in making a thing of great beauty out of a collection of tragic moments.
Some things that are significant about this book (in my view) that were not mentioned in the SparkNote are this:
Billy Pilgrim's last name
A religious connection in the book
The colour of his feet again
As to the first, I think that since 'Billy' was obviously chosen with care, 'Pilgrim' was too. Pilgrim could refer to his otherworldly journey through time, although it's uncertain what he would be making a pilgrimage too - possibly death. Or, it could just be his journey through the war.
As to the religious impl... Read more→
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Do you know where in the book the christianity references are? The chapter might be more helpful because the pages are probably different.
I think that BIlly Pilgrim's journeys through time could instead be a social commentary on Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. Billy isn't skipping through time, instead he's an old man sitting at his home, his daughter is taking care of him, and when he closes his eyes he suffers his wartime flashbacks and delusions about traveling through space in which he lives in a dream with elements from his life, like how Montana Wildhack was the Porn Star from the book store that Billy visited to see the Kilgore Trout novels. It also explains why the boo
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