There was a drunk on the other end. Billy could almost smell his breath—mustard gas and roses.
On the night of his daughter’s wedding day, Billy cannot sleep. Because he has traveled in time already, he knows he will be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians’ flying saucer in an hour. Billy gets out of bed by the light of a full moon and wanders down the hallway and into his daughter’s empty bedroom. The phone rings, and Billy hears the voice of a drunk who has dialed the wrong number. He can almost catch the scent of mustard gas and roses on the man’s breath.
Downstairs, Billy picks up a half-empty bottle of champagne from a table. He watches a late-night documentary on American bombers and their gallant pilots in World War II. Slightly unstuck in time, Billy watches the movie forward and backward. Planes fly backward, magically quelling flames, drawing their fragmented bombs into steel containers, and sucking them back up into their bellies. Guns on the ground suck metal fragments from the pilots, crew, and planes. Weapons are shipped backed to factories, where they are carefully disassembled and broken down into their constituent minerals. The minerals are shipped to specialists all over the world who “hide them cleverly” in the ground, “so they never hurt anybody ever.” In Billy’s mind, Hitler becomes a baby and all of humanity works toward creating two perfect people named Adam and Eve.
Billy heads out to the backyard to meet the saucer that will arrive soon. A sound like a melodious owl heralds the arrival of the spacecraft, which is 100 feet in diameter. Once on board, Billy is asked if he has any questions. He asks, “Why me?”—a question that his captors think very typical of earthlings to ask. They tell him that there is no why, since the moment simply is and since all of them are trapped in the moment, like bugs in amber.
Billy is then anesthetized. The crush of the spaceship’s acceleration sends him hurtling through time. He is back on a boxcar traveling across Germany. The men take turns sleeping and standing. No one wants to let Billy sleep beside him because Billy yells and kicks in his sleep. He thus sleeps standing up.
By the ninth day of the boxcar journey, people are dying. Roland Weary, who is in another car, dies after making sure that everyone in the car knows who is responsible for his death: Billy Pilgrim. A car thief from Cicero, Illinois, named Paul Lazzaro swears he will make Billy pay for causing Weary’s death.
On the tenth night, the train reaches its destination: a prison camp. The prisoners are issued coats, their clothes are deloused, and they are led to a mass shower. Among the prisoners is Edgar Derby, a forty-four-year-old teacher from Indianapolis. When the water begins to flow in the shower, Billy time-travels to his infancy. His mother has just given him a bath. He is then a middle-aged optometrist playing golf with three other optometrists. He sinks a putt, bends down to pick it up, and is back on the flying saucer. He asks where he is and how he got there. A voice reiterates that he is trapped in a blob of amber. He is where he is because the moment is structured that way, because time in general is structured that way—because it could not be otherwise. The voice, which is Tralfamadorian, comments that only on Earth is there talk of free will.
Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.
The Tralfamadorian concept of time emphasizes the role of fate in shaping existence and completely rejects free will. When Billy is kidnapped, he understands that all people and things are trapped in life’s collection of moments like bugs trapped in amber. Billy is locked into his fate; any resistance to this notion is futile. Billy’s question “Why me?” reveals the limits of human consciousness; the Tralfamadorians would never think to ask such a question, since they know that the structure of time is beyond anyone’s control. What is important, then, is how one interprets the events in one’s life, which certainly changes for Billy after he returns from the war.
The fact that Billy’s death is determined years before it happens is further support for the Tralfamadorian argument that we are locked into our fate. Roland Weary dies blaming Billy and making sure everyone in his boxcar knows the name of Billy Pilgrim. Though Billy is starved, sick, and half-dead, we know that he will not die in the boxcar, the prison camp, or even in the city of Dresden. He will die because one deluded and solitary human being, Paul Lazzaro, keeps a promise over the course of thirty years to avenge the death of Roland Weary. In the novel’s moral hierarchy, revenge ranks almost as high as war as a justification for propagating absurd and pointless death. Billy’s death, as we come to see it, is a result of nothing but sheer stupidity and pride on the part of a single human being. This description, on a larger scale, can easily be adapted to describe war: the mass mortality of war results from large-scale ignorance and stupidity coupled with an unrelenting, shameless sense of pride.
One of the novel’s many quiet, understated mockeries of war occurs early in this chapter, when Billy sits down to watch a war movie, and, as a result of his time perception, watches it backward. The events portrayed in the movie, when viewed in a different order, take on a different meaning. By rewinding the war, Billy transforms warmongering motives into peace-loving ones. This reversal demonstrates that chronological order is significant; it resurrects the idea of cause-and-effect relationships in a challenge to the Tralfamadorian denial that time is linear. Billy’s backward viewing of the movie contradicts the idea that moments are structured a certain way no matter the order in which you perceive them. This notion lends weight to Vonnegut’s decision to manipulate the conception of time in Slaughterhouse-Five, which can be seen as a story in which the meaning changes according to the order of events.
by Akumeoi, November 04, 2012
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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