Slaughterhouse-Five: Part 2

Chapters 3&4 (52–86)

Slaughterhouse-Five’s third and fourth chapters start to introduce readers to some of the novel’s central themes. There is, of course, the sense of inevitability discussed in my previous reflection. This is expanded upon in chapters 3&4, morphing into a commentary on the complete lack of free will and individualism experienced by Billy Pilgrim. This theme is communicated rather directly by the Tralfamadorians, who tell Pilgrim outright that “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will”. But Pilgrim’s entire existence — both on Earth and off of it — seems to exemplify this very theme. For instance, Vonnegut frequently refers to Pilgrim and his fellow POW’s as “water, [flowing] downhill all the time” (64), completely at the mercy of their German captors and thoroughly lacking control over their own movements. This metaphor implies that the POW’s have no ability to choose for themselves how they act or where they go and strips all emotion from their captivity. It implies that they march with the Germans for the same reason that water obeys the laws of gravity — there simply is no other option. Even at home, safe from the interference of his German foes, Pilgrim seems completely out of control of his own life. He is described as passionless and passive, as he finds himself weeping uncontrollably at times and seems to drift through his own life with no clear direction. When the Tralfamadorians came to abduct Pilgrim, he offered no protest — he simply waited for them to come, approached the spacecraft, and allowed himself to be taken aboard. I am very interested to see how Vonnegut further develops this theme as he begins to describe Pilgrim’s service during the war in more depth. The Tralfamadorians seem to support a concept of time that rejects chronology, as they view each moment as that of “bugs in amber” (86). They seem to imply that all moments exist independently and that to seek explanations for a given moment is futile. As a human being who can only see in three dimensions, this is a somewhat depressing concept (although it hasn’t seemed to bother Pilgrim yet): it implies that there are no actions I can take that will have any affect on my future.

Luckily, Vonnegut’s non-linear storytelling offers a counter to the idea that moments exist independently. When discussing Pilgrim’s journey through time, it is revealed that he is given the opportunity to watch a war movie in reverse. Watching the movie in this fashion turns its story on its head: the movie’s subject shifts from the tragic destruction of a German city to a heroic tale wherein the city is saved and the minerals used in bombs are put back “into the ground…so they would never hurt anybody again” (75). Tralfamadorians would look at these moments and see several different scenes: factory workers assembling bombs, a flaming city, and wounded planes. But as a human, Pilgrim was able to apply meaning to the reversed movie: he saw the salvation of thousands of people and the neutralization of dangerous compounds. This anecdote implies that the order in which events occur does matter, that moments cannot be viewed independently, and that we are not all simply “bugs in amber” (86).

I’m very interested to see how Vonnegut develops this battle between free will and fate. It seems as if Pilgrim has accepted the Tralfamadorian’s philosophy on time, and I am intrigued to see if Vonnegut will continue this apparent battle between determinism and free will.

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