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Slaughterhouse-Five

Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

The Importance of Sight

True sight is an important concept that is difficult to define for Slaughterhouse-Five. As an optometrist in Ilium, Billy has the professional duty of correcting the vision of his patients. If we extend the idea of seeing beyond the literal scope of Billy’s profession, we can see that Vonnegut sets Billy up with several different lenses with which to correct the world’s nearsightedness. One of the ways Billy can contribute to this true sight is through his knowledge of the fourth dimension, which he gains from the aliens at Tralfamadore. He believes in the Tralfamadorians’ view of time—that all moments of time exist simultaneously and repeat themselves endlessly. He thus believes that he knows what will happen in the future (because everything has already happened and will continue to happen in the same way).

One can also argue, however, that Billy lacks sight completely. He goes to war, witnesses horrific events, and becomes mentally unstable as a result. He has a shaky grip on reality and at random moments experiences overpowering flashbacks to other parts of his life. His sense that aliens have captured him and kept him in a zoo before sending him back to Earth may be the product of an overactive imagination. Given all that Billy has been through, it is logical to believe that he has gone insane, and it makes sense to interpret these bizarre alien encounters as hallucinatory incidents triggered by mundane events that somehow create an association with past traumas. Looking at Billy this way, we can see him as someone who has lost true sight and lives in a cloud of hallucinations and self-doubt. Such a view creates the irony that one employed to correct the myopic view of others is actually himself quite blind.

The Inevitability of Death

Death pervades Slaughterhouse-Five, and Vonnegut uses a consistently matter-of-fact tone to describe each of Billy’s encounters with death, whether it be the catastrophic bombing of Dresden or the candles made from the fat of slain prisoners. After every mention of death and mortality, Vonnegut explores the mystery and inevitability of death with his “so it goes” refrain. While the repetition of this phrase comes across as cold and irreverent, it more likely reflects Billy Pilgrim’s adoption of Tralfamadorian philosophy. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy that time is not a linear event, and therefore Billy’s death has already happened and he cannot control the circumstances surrounding his death. Billy finds comfort in this idea that a corpse is simply a person “in bad condition in that particular moment,” but that same person is “just fine” in other moments. Therefore, death is nothing to spend too much time commenting on and obsessing over.

Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, death is depicted as more of an inevitable experience than as an end to one’s life. For example, Billy “has seen his own death many times” throughout his time-travels, so when his day of death finally arrives, Billy remains serene and good-humored. After Paul Lazzaro shoots Billy, the narrator says Billy “experiences” death instead of describing him as actually dying, and then Billy “swings back into life again.” Billy’s complete acceptance of death may indicate that the Tralfamadorians are a figment of his imagination, an intricate coping mechanism to explain the prolific deaths he witnessed throughout the war. In believing that death is merely an experience, Billy can trust that everyone who died during the Dresden bombing is still alive and well somewhere.