Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

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Weary and Billy’s captors, a small group of German irregulars, take their valuables and discover an obscene photograph in Weary’s pocket. As Billy lies in the snow, he sees an image of Adam and Eve in the polished boots of the commander. Weary must surrender his boots to a young German soldier, whose wooden clogs he receives in exchange. The two Americans are brought to a house full of other captives. Billy falls asleep and wakes up in 1967, in the middle of administering an eye examination. We learn that he has been falling asleep at work lately. He finishes with the patient and tries unsuccessfully to interest himself in an optometry article.

Billy closes his eyes and is once more a prisoner. He is roused and ordered to move. He joins a steady stream of POWs marching in the road outside. A German war photographer stages a capture scene of Billy emerging from a bush, surrendering to armed Germans. Billy slips back into 1967. He is driving on his way to a Lions Club luncheon through Ilium’s black ghetto, still smoldering from recent riots, and then through a section gutted for urban renewal. The destruction he sees outside the car reminds him of the scene after the firebombing of Dresden. He drives a Cadillac with John Birch Society bumper stickers. His son, Robert, is a Green Beret in Vietnam. His daughter, Barbara, is about to get married. He is quite wealthy.

At the Lions Club meeting, a marine major speaks about bombing in North Vietnam. Billy has no opinion on this subject. He has a plaque on his office wall that helps guide him through such listlessness. It reads: “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.”

After the luncheon, Billy returns to his stately home. He lies down for a nap and finds himself weeping. A bed vibrator called “Magic Fingers,” purchased to help Billy fall asleep, jiggles him while he weeps. He closes his eyes and is back in Luxembourg, marching. The wind makes his eyes water. Weary marches ahead of him, his feet raw and bloody from his ill-fitting clogs. The prisoners march into Germany and are taken to a railroad yard. A mentally unstable colonel who has lost his whole regiment asks if Billy is one of his men. The colonel, who likes to be called “Wild Bob,” tells Billy, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The soldiers are sorted by rank and placed in crowded boxcars. They must take turns sleeping and standing, and they pass a helmet as a chamber pot. Billy is separated from Weary. His train does not move for two days. When the train begins to roll toward the interior, Billy travels to the night he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians.


Although the Serenity Prayer, inscribed on the plaque in Billy’s optometry office, is an optimistic statement, it is undermined by the text’s comment that “[a]mong the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.” Such a comment plays up Slaughterhouse-Five’s suggestion that any attempt to change life is futile—that prayers and the invocation of supposed higher beings cannot alter Billy’s immutable past, present, and future. Though Billy enjoys the illusion of free will, since his existence is characterized by all the components seemingly necessary for happiness—a family, a comfortable home, and a successful business—life is still meaningless for him. What he does not understand until his abduction by aliens in 1967 is that he has no more chosen a wife or a career in optometry than he has chosen to be born a weakling. Vonnegut wryly lists the past, the present, and the future as if they were small and inconsequential items on a long laundry list detailing everything that neither Billy nor God can change.

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At this point in the novel, Billy shows signs of the strain that comes from the hopelessness of war. He lacks the ability to control his time-tripping, and he is often overcome by quiet bouts of spontaneous and unexplainable weeping. Additionally, he suffers from severe sleep disorders: he falls asleep in the middle of examining patients, but once he is in bed he needs the help of a Magic Fingers vibrator to fall asleep. Historically speaking, the trauma of war frequently causes mental disorders in soldiers who return from the front. This was true of soldiers who participated in World War II as well as in other conflicts. Their symptoms, evidence of mental illness, are typically characterized as post-traumatic stress disorder. The mental problems that Billy manifests thus lend an undercurrent of unreliability to his perspective.

Read more about the theme of war and its destructive effects.

But the prospect that Billy is mentally ill should not compel us to dismiss the events and stories in the novel as the ramblings of a madman. Insanity extends beyond Billy himself, infiltrating the world in which he lives. For instance, Vonnegut appears intermittently as a character, not only in Billy’s war experiences but also on the night of Billy’s abduction by aliens. Billy’s hallucination of the image of Adam and Eve in the boots of his commander does not spring wholly from his brain; earlier, the commander himself invokes Adam and Eve as he holds up his boots to demonstrate their high polish. It becomes clear, then, that characters’ psychologies and mental states overlap in a realm of dementia. It is impossible to ridicule Billy’s thoughts or words as insane ramblings, since his world contains such illogical and unexplainable events. Furthermore, the anonymous narrator, who at times sounds like Vonnegut himself, may be a participant in this frenzy of insanity, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Read more about how Vonnegut’s technique of time-shifting affects our understanding of the novel.