Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television.
Here, having witnessed his life events multiple times, Billy wastes time by drinking and watching TV. This moment exemplifies the story’s concept of free will as a human illusion. Readers understand the fact that no one has ever waited for a moment previously seen through time-travel, but they replace the saucer arrival with some other certainty of life—heartbreak, death, confusion—and Billy’s feeling becomes acutely recognizable. The exercise of free will is ostensibly crucial to being human, but when chance and circumstance hold such sway over life, the feeling of free will weakens.
Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided.
One of the Tralfamadorian aliens explains its view of humans to Billy, describing humans as busily appending names and meaning to things they don’t actually understand. For the Tralfamadorian, who can see everything happening in the past, present, and future simultaneously, the idea that events could be achieved or avoided seems ridiculous. Readers may not sense a hint of pity in the alien’s description. Soon, Billy will come to share the aliens’ view that free will exists as nothing more than wishful thinking, though he dives into this view mostly to escape his own trauma.
Billy didn’t want to read about the same ups and downs over and over again. He asked if there wasn’t, please, some other reading matter around. “Only Tralfamadorian novels, which I’m afraid you couldn’t begin to understand,” said the speaker on the wall. “Let me look at one anyway.” So they sent him several.
Seeking to pass the time on his trip to an alien planet, Billy asks if he can read the aliens’ books, even though he won’t understand them. This choice reflects a very human impulse: to resist when told we cannot do something, to make use of free will even when our will accomplishes nothing. The story often paints this determination as both a strength and a weakness. Use of free will may often be futile, but without free will, humans would have nothing to do with their time. In addition, without free will, humans would no longer be humans, but something alien and unknown.
“But you do have a peaceful planet here.” “Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments—like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?” “Yes.” “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.” “Um,” said Billy Pilgrim.
As a Tralfamadorian explains that ignoring everything bad seems like a better, less painful way to live, the reader likely shares Billy’s hesitation. Earthlings may be powerless to stop certain things in the scope of the universe, but mindless escapism and ignorance cannot be the best response. Later, Billy will try desperately to communicate that he witnessed the bombing at Dresden—not to accomplish any particular goal, but simply so someone will know he was there. However, eventually he takes the aliens’ advice and descends into zoo-gazing apathy, unable to face his memories.
He was told not to find out what the lumps were. He was advised to be content with knowing that they could work miracles for him, provided he did not insist on learning their nature. That was all right with Billy Pilgrim. He was grateful. He was glad.
Having discovered some unknown objects exuding a strange force in the lining of his overcoat, Billy succumbs to the comfort of ignorance. He believes the lumps are telling him not to worry about them, and so he obliges. After the confusion and terror of his experiences, the idea of giving up control comes as a relief. For Billy, exercising his free will has only felt pointless and exhausting.