There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages. . . . There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral. . . .
In his zoo enclosure, Billy reads the novel Valley of the Dolls, the only earthling book available. He learns that Tralfamadorian books are composed of short telegram-like clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy skips back to two childhood scenes during a family tour of the American West, then to the prison camp in Germany. After the prisoners are showered and their clothes are deloused, their names are entered in a ledger, and they are officially alive again.
The Americans are housed with a group of British officers who have accidentally received extra provisions. The Brits welcome the Americans with a cheerful banquet but quickly become disgusted with the sorry state of the enlisted men. During a performance of Cinderella, Billy laughs uncontrollably and is taken to the camp’s “hospital.” He is drugged and wakes up in 1948, in the mental ward of a veterans’ hospital in New York.
Billy has committed himself to the mental ward in his last year of optometry school. In the aftermath of war, he finds life meaningless. In the bed next to him lies an ex-captain named Eliot Rosewater. Eliot introduces Billy to the clever but poorly written science-fiction novels of a writer named Kilgore Trout. Billy’s mother visits him, and he covers his head with a blanket.
Back in Germany, Edgar Derby keeps watch over Billy’s sickbed. Billy remembers Derby’s death by firing squad, which happens in the near future. Billy travels back to the veterans’ hospital. His -fiancée, Valencia Merble, is visiting. They discuss Kilgore Trout with Rosewater.
Billy time-travels to his geodesic dome in the zoo on Tralfamadore, outfitted with Sears Roebuck furniture and appliances. The Tralfamadorians tell Billy that there are actually seven sexes among humans, all of which are necessary for reproduction. Since five of these sexes are active only in the fourth dimension, Billy cannot perceive them. When Billy praises the peacefulness of Tralfamadore, the aliens inform him that Tralfamadorians are at war sometimes and at peace at others. They add that they know how the universe will end: one of their pilots will accidentally blow it up. It always happens the same way and that is how the moment is structured. They state that war cannot be prevented on Tralfamadore any more than it can on Earth.
Billy skips back to his wedding night with Valencia in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. After they make love, Valencia asks Billy about the war. He gets up and goes to the bathroom and finds himself back in his hospital bed in the prison camp. Billy wanders to the latrine, where the American soldiers are violently sick. One of them is Kurt Vonnegut.
The next morning, Paul Lazzaro appears at the hospital, knocked unconscious after trying to steal from an Englishman. A German major reads aloud a monograph on the pathetic state of American soldiers by Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American playwright turned Nazi propagandist.
Billy falls asleep and wakes up in 1968, back at work on his letter -to the paper. His daughter, Barbara, scolds him, notices that it is cold in the house, and leaves to call the oil-burner man after putting Billy to bed. Lying under his electric blanket, Billy travels to Tralfamadore, just as an actress named Montana Wildhack arrives and goes into hysterics. She has been brought to Tralfamadore to be Billy’s mate. Eventually she grows to trust him, and soon they are sleeping together.
Billy wakes up in 1968, having just had a wet dream about Montana Wildhack. The next day, Billy examines a boy whose father has been killed in Vietnam. He shares Tralfamadorian insights with the boy, whose mother realizes that Billy is insane. Billy’s daughter is called to take him home.
As he begins his stay with the Tralfamadorians, Billy learns about their concept of time and their philosophy of acceptance. If there is no free will, and if each moment is structured so that it can only occur the way it occurs, then it makes sense to accept things as they come. Reconciliation to the world, or the “So it goes” attitude, comes from visiting all the moments of one’s life innumerable times. The moment of death is no more permanent than any other moment. This realization comes as a great comfort to Billy, given the horrible killing he has witnessed. Since it offers him immediate comfort, he makes a willed decision to share his insights with the world when the time is ripe. By offering the Tralfamadorian theories to the public, Billy figuratively extends his optometry practice beyond typical lenses and spectacles, correcting humankind’s understanding of death and will. Billy’s desire to share his story with the public, however, is a matter of personal will. Ironically, Billy concertedly exercises his free will in order to teach others that free will is futile.
Despite this irony, Billy is yet unaware that there is danger in a world without free will, especially when no one claims responsibility for his or her actions. When a German guard knocks down an American prisoner and the baffled man asks, “Why me?” the German shoots back, “Vy you? Vy anybody?” This reply echoes the Tralfamadorian answer to the same question from Billy when he is abducted. In the veterans’ hospital, Rosewater and Billy brood fatalistically about the state of their universe, and Kilgore Trout’s science fiction provides a welcome escape.
The lighthearted Tralfamadorian touches in Slaughterhouse-Five, such as the aliens’ resemblance to toilet plungers or the ridiculous showroom in which they house Billy, temper the devastation of the war scenes. But by putting the aliens’ philosophy in the mouth of the brutal German soldier, Vonnegut also uses science fiction to caution us about the consequences of escapism.
Billy accepts the Tralfamadorian advice to look at life’s nice moments as much as possible. He still does not control his time travel, but he takes comfort in the foreknowledge he gains from it. For example, when Valencia declares that she will lose weight for Billy, he assures her that he likes her the way she is. Billy actually thinks Valencia is ugly, but he knows from his time travels that his marriage to her will be comfortable.
Billy’s revelations about Tralfamadore lead us to question his sanity. It seems possible that Tralfamadore is something that he merely imagines, especially since he begins reading Kilgore Trout’s science fiction at a stage in which he feels he is losing whatever grip he has on reality. He is already unable to live fully in the present and unable to control his movements backward and forward through time. Science fiction helps him and Rosewater as they attempt to “reinvent themselves and reinvent their universe.” Perhaps Billy, unable to change the fact that he cannot live his life normally after the war, salvages his sanity by inventing a new understanding of the nature of time. The Tralfamadorians, who are strongly reminiscent of some of Trout’s creations, conveniently explain how the whole thing works and serve as a model for coping in a four-dimensional universe. People who invent new understandings of the nature of time are seldom considered sane, but in his own mind, Billy is at peace. Billy probably suffers from both disillusionment from the war and delusions. While the delusions may outweigh his disillusionment in terms of his mental well-being, they perhaps allow him to function, at least part of the time, in the normal working world.
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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