Billy Pilgrim is the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel opens with a description of Billy becoming “unstuck in time,” and the rest of the story follows him as he time-travels through different moments in his life and struggles to make sense of the tragic aftermath of war. Billy first time-travels while serving as a chaplain’s assistant in World War II, a time in which he lacks proper military attire, lugs around a gaudy altar and organ, and has no weapons or friends. As Billy continues serving in the war, his lack of military know-how and inability to endure hardship become further apparent, making his survival even more confounding. While everyone around him dies throughout the novel—Billy’s father, Roland Weary, the people of Dresden, his wife, fellow passengers in the plane crash—Billy survives, indicating that death does not discriminate between the strong and weak.
Billy struggles not with death, but with his memories of war, which he can only escape by accepting the Tralfamadorian idea that time is simply an illusion, and the line between life and death is not as clear as “Earthlings” believe. After surviving an airplane crash, Billy decides to publicly share this philosophy, and discuss how he was captured by the Tralfamadorians and brought to their planet. While Billy’s family grows concerned about his welfare after he shares these insights, the novel centers on Billy more than on these supporting characters, and Vonnegut chooses not to define whether Billy’s mental state is one of insanity or of enlightenment, further illustrating how war blurs the lines between right and wrong.