In the novel, The Great Gatsby, written in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the character Nick Carraway has a view of reality as many people in today’s society. Nick is the type of person who is both unrealistic and realistic at the same time. The realistic part of Nick shows the reader the character flaws of Jordan, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom while his unrealistic nature shows how he opinionated himself to be better and more honest than the rest.
Nick Carraway’s reality is that he thinks he is better then the other character’s in the novel because he reserves judgment and is honest, but it is apparent throughout the novel, he is one and the same. Therefore F. Scott Fitzgerald shows the reader that Nick’s reality is consequently representing the universal experience of man.
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary defines reality as
1. The fact, state, or quality of being real or genuine.
2. That which is real; an actual thing, situation, or event. One cannot know what someone else’s reality is until you know that person very well or you read about their life story somewhere. The reality in The Great Gatsby was to fulfill “The American Dream” by one thinking they are better than the others; with the concept of having fame, wealth, and being good looking. Reality is that you cannot be happy without being happy with yourself.
In the novel, the characters were not happy with themselves. Eg. Gatsby who was a mysterious man, did everything to impress one woman who was Daisy, with his nice house, expensive clothes, and big parties. Gatsby wasn’t happy with himself, everything was an act to show off to Daisy that he had money. People universally are just content with themselves because they are afraid to accept the truth. Nick realized that he had a problem with humankind by realizing what humans are really like, especially through Gatsby.
Nick’s reality in the novel The Great Gatsby is that he thinks he is not like the other character’s because he is educated, not involved with a married woman like Gatsby, he earned his money the honest way and not by bootlegging, but in reality, the truth is that he really is like the other character’s. Nick is swept into love affairs, corruption, and even murder because everyone confides and places trust in him.
Nick says that he is one of the few honest people he knows and that his character appears very pure amidst all the corrupt people in the novel. ” ‘The rumor is that that’s Tom’s girl on the telephone’… ‘No, he’s not, I assured her. It’s a bonafide deal. I happen to know about it’ “(pg.111). Nick sees bad, acknowledges it, but he doesn’t understand why. He doesn’t tell Daisy the truth that Tom is cheating on her, so, therefore, he is like the other character’s, he is corrupt.
Nick cannot face the truth that he too is shallow. Nick doesn’t care what he sees as long as it’s not involving him. He was taught not to criticize others but the duality in the novel is that he does it anyway. Nick also sees what he wants to see, but he still sees the flaws in the other characters and tries to make it so it’s ok. He looks at the other character’s faults to make himself look good.
Nick says it is easier to look at life from one point of view, but its easier to live in an illusion than to face reality. “This isn’t just an epigram – life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.” (pg10). Nick’s illusion is that he is good compared to the other characters in the novel.
Through reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the character Nick shows the reader that we as humans tend to see what we want to see and ignore any problems there may be. This allows humans to focus on the good and ignore the problems surrounding them even if they are apparent. Eg. If a female loves a male who is abusive towards her, she will tend to cover up the truth and make excuses and believe ‘he will not do it again’.
Like the character Nick Carraway, people tend to distort reality to suit them, whereas the problem or issue is obvious. By reading the novel we see what Nick went through by noticing different character conflicts throughout the novel, like Tom cheating on Daisy, Myrtle’s death, Gatsby and Daisy’s love affair, and Jordan being a cheat.
Nick was portrayed as a nice person that listened to everyone’s problems. Everyone in the novel was materialistic, except Nick. He thinks he is an honest person among the other characters in the novel. Nick shies away from everything, he is very observant. He thinks he is not like the rest, but he really is. Nick thought West and East Eggs were no different, both corrupt. Nick is like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes, he sees things but doesn’t do anything.
He never tells Daisy that Tom is cheating on her. Nick acknowledges everything, but he can’t apply it to himself. Nick looks at everyone else and judges them to feel good, like Daisy who looks at money to feel better and Tom who looks at domination to get his way. By reading the novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald allows the reader to understand that we too are similar to the character of Nick Carraway who is corrupt and misunderstanding in life.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was written as a general statement against all wars. The novel can be divided into several distinct stories all combined to convey one theme. The major theme focuses on the central character of Billy Pilgrim before, during, and after the war. Vonnegut himself plays a major role in the novel as narrator and witness of World War II. The difficulties in the writing of the actual novel itself are also examined in the novel. All of these issues revolve around the main theme of the novel– the shock and outrage over the havoc and destruction man is capable of wreaking in the name of what he labels a worthy cause ( Schatt 84).
The novel also deals with learning to understand and accept these horrors and ones’ feelings about them. Vonnegut had tremendous difficulty writing this novel. He says I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen (2). He did not count on his emotions interfering with his attempts at a factual and logical report of such atrocities. It took Vonnegut twenty years to directly face his private demon of the firebombing of Dresden in the form of this novel (Lundquist 48).
He had trouble recalling any memories of substance about his time in Dresden. It could be said that he was blinded by the fire-bombs of Dresden. It was not until Vonnegut returned to the sight of the bombing twenty years later, along with one of his war buddies, that he was able to recall the humorous and horrific incidents in Dresden.
The novel served as a form of therapy for Vonnegut. It enabled him to examine the events of the past that impacted his life and to come to terms with them. Slaughterhouse-Five takes place during World War II. Vonnegut chooses to focus the novel on events surrounding the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. As James Lundquist explains: The bombing of Dresden was a surprise raid. It wasn’t expected because the city was militarily unimportant.
The population of the city had been doubled by prisoners-of-war and refugees. On February thirteenth, 1944, American bombers dropped high-explosive bombs followed by incendiaries which caused a firestorm that could be seen more than two-hundred miles away. On February fourteenth, the Americans carried out a second raid that completed the destruction of the city. More than two-hundred thousand people were killed outright, burned to death, or died after. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were herded with other prisoners-of-war into the storage area of a slaughterhouse and later emerged to find the once beautiful city looking like the surface of the moon. (47)
As Vonnegut reexamines the bombing of Dresden, he relates the event in a way that shows the reader his personal view of the incident. He confronts the Dresden experience with compassion and sorrow rather than anger, bitterness, or pain.
He sees the madness and cruelty of the world epitomized in the blasting of the city (Reed 503). Vonnegut feels special anguish over the bombing because of his situation of being under attack by his own forces and sharing the sufferings of his enemies (Reed 494). Billy Pilgrim s character is also greatly affected by the war and by Dresden.
Vonnegut tells the story of the bombing with a day in the life format. He relays most of the emotionally difficult facts through Billy, the innocent babe thrust into violent and chaotic times. In this manner, Vonnegut does not have to directly confront his own emotions on these issues but can portray his own feelings through the facade of Billy.
Vonnegut describes Billy as becoming unstuck in time (Vonnegut 23). Billy blurs fact and fiction because he suspects that his vision of reality is hardly reliable. He cannot accept that human nature would allow such an occurrence as Dresden to take place and therefore concludes that his perception of reality must be totally wrong.
He sees himself drifting from dream to reality and back again. In this way, he is able to pass off any bad experiences in his life, including Dresden, like a terrible nightmare and not a part of reality. Billy refuses to accept the traditional concept of time (Lundquist 19). Vonnegut also has difficulty accepting the constraints of time and often lives in the past, calling up old girlfriends and remembering the good old days. Vonnegut writes, . . . my wife asks me what time it is. She always has to know the time. Sometimes I don t know, and I say, Search me (Vonnegut 7).
After witnessing the war and Dresden, both Billy and Vonnegut try to rationalize and understand what they have been through. Billy does this through his time-traveling and visits to the planet Tralfamadore. Billy imagines the planet Tralfamadore where he is whisked off to by aliens. Billy is trying to make sense out of what he has witnessed at Dresden and give order to the disorder of the universe.
He wants life to make sense (Lundquist 17). On Tralfamadore, he is exposed to the Tralfamadorian philosophy on life. Their philosophy states that all time is all time. It does not change. It simply is. All moments exist in time simultaneously and forever. One cannot change the past or the future because they already and always exist. (Lundquist 51-52) Billy learns that the best philosophy is to enjoy the good moments and ignore the bad ones.
The Tralfamadorians do not understand Billy s concern about finding a cure for the wars on Earth that result in the bombing of Dresden. They know that it is all inevitable and unchangeable. Free will is a uniquely human concept (Schatt 82). The Tralfamadorians know that it does not truly exist. Billy s trip to Tralfamadore allows him to examine the human race as a whole from afar.
The Tralfamadorians see the futility in trying to overcome human depravity because it is the only constant available in this chaotic universe (Boyce 7018). Billy comes to adopt Tralfamadorian philosophy. He continues on his time-travels and manages to rescue himself and his personal sanity through the works of his own imagination. His time-travels and trips to Tralfamadore serve as a rationalizing fantasy.
He reinvents himself and his universe so that he can go on living. He is so unhinged by what happens to him in the war. He invents the Tralfamadorians to blame his madness on them and make his time-travels agree with their version of reality. At least it is some version of reality (Lundquist 53-54). In this way, Billy rationalizes his strange mind games and forms this timelessness which enables him to look upon time as a whole and criticize the universe in one timeless moment (Boyce 7017).
Vonnegut also tries to rationalize and come to terms with the horrors that he has been a witness to. He, like Billy, is torn between the desire to forget Dresden and his obsession with finding a way to reconcile the human suffering he observed there (Schatt 86). In an introduction to the novel, Vonnegut makes a comparison of the burning of Dresden to the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He describes a scene where he looks through a Gideon Bible in his motel room for tales of great destruction and he comes to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. G-d rained fire and brimstone on the two cities:
Lot s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt . . . People aren’t supposed to look back. I m certainly not going to do it anymore . . .
This [novel] is a failure and had to be since it was written by a pillar of salt. (Vonnegut 21-22)Vonnegut claims that he too was turned into a pillar of salt looking back at Dresden, because of his mistake of trying to account for what had happened. He, as a participant, can never gain the cosmic view that would enable him to understand (Lundquist 75).
Nonetheless, Vonnegut tries to find order and logic in what he has experienced. On his revisiting of Dresden, a cab driver who took him back to the slaughterhouse relays holiday wishes to Vonnegut . . . to meet again in a world of peace . . . if the accident will (Vonnegut 2). Vonnegut would like to find rational and significance in what happened in Dresden, but after all, it all comes down to a series of accidents (Lundquist 49). Throughout the novel, Vonnegut follows all accounts of tragic events with So it goes.
When Vonnegut writes about Dresden school girls boiled alive in a water tower, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Vietnam War, all are followed by the phrase So it goes (Vonnegut 210). In accordance with Tralfamadorian philosophy, Vonnegut tries to gloss over unpleasant times and concentrate on good ones.
This is part of the reason why he had so much difficulty recalling events of significance that could be put into his novel. He chose to forget the unpleasant events of the war and could only remember humorous anecdotes. He explains his experiences by making light of them.
The novel cannot help but draw the attention of the reader to the underlying theme of man’s cruelty. Vonnegut writes:I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby…The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot.
And he s given a regular trial, and then he s shot by a firing squad. (4-5)Vonnegut finds it very difficult to understand how a world can exist where a massacre of human life can go by unpunished while the same world will find a man guilty and deserving of death for plundering a mere teapot. The second title of the novel indicates Vonnegut s purpose for his writing. He intended Slaughterhouse-Five to be an anti-war novel.
The title The Children s Crusade shows how Vonnegut feels that all wars are fought by the young – usually for causes that they are incapable of comprehending (Schatt 82). Vonnegut commented on how most of the men involved in the war were little more than children, foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood (14). He writes this novel so that war does not look wonderful, and so we do not have many more of them, and they will not be fought by babies such as they were back in Dresden (Vonnegut 15).
Throughout the course of the novel, Vonnegut attempts to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life that would make it painless for him to describe the fire-bombing of Dresden and Billy s suffering in a cold, detached, objective manner ( Schatt 85). In the final chapter of the novel, Vonnegut speculates on whether or not he can accept such a view of life.
Vonnegut comments: If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, [that events in time exist simultaneously and forever], I am not overjoyed. Still- if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I m grateful that so many of those moments are nice. (211)Vonnegut is being totally sarcastic as he has just completed writing about one of the worst events in his life – the bombing of Dresden (Lundquist 51-52). If we live forever, so too will the fire-bombing of Dresden go on forever Ultimately, Vonnegut does not agree that his and Billy s attempts to forget the terrible moments in their lives are the correct way to face what they’ve been through. He states, I honestly believe, though, that we are wrong to think that moments go away never to be seen again. This moment and every moment lasts forever (Lundquist 53).
Vonnegut knows that he cannot avoid events in his life simply because they are disagreeable to him, yet he still does not say whether or not people can control life or if as the Tralfamadorians believe, there is no such thing as free will. Vonnegut debates this concept from the outset of the novel when he tells a friend that he is writing an anti-war book. His friend asks You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books… I say, Why don t you write an anti-glacier book instead?
Vonnegut responds, What he meant, of course, was to say that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too. And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death (3-4). Vonnegut toys with the idea that war is inevitable, but he still leaves the possibility that wars can be stopped.
He still knows that death is unavoidable. Vonnegut ultimately rejects the Tralfamadorian theory of life that is so prevalent throughout the novel. He knows that he will never understand man’s cruelty, but he does know that it is not inevitable. He knows that it can be stopped. He knows that one day the world will stop sending its babies off to fight and that constant war is not the fate of the universe.
A prayer in the novel that is stated both in Billy s Tralfamadorian world, as well as in his real-world goes as follows: G-d 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. (60, 209)This prayer epitomizes Vonnegut s message to his readers.
Parts of life are inevitable and must be accepted, but many parts of life can and must be changed. As human beings, we do have free will. We have control of our lives and what we want to make of them. We must learn to see what is beyond our abilities to change and also what we must have the strength and perseverance to alter. The fate of the universe is in our hands.
Boyce, Daniel F. Slaughterhouse-Five. Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederich Ungar Publishing Co., 1977. Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. University of Minnesota, 1977. Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1976. Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968.
Example #3 – Determinism Versus Free Will in Slaughterhouse-Five
Is the life of each individual already planned? Is each turn their life takes just in the path that has already been laid out for them? Or does each person have the power to choose the path in which they will follow every day? In Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut leads the reader to believe in determinism or fate as the essences of life.
Billy Pilgrim is a veteran of World War II and of the bombing of Dresden. This experience has greatly affected who he is. After the war, Billy moved back to his hometown, got married, had some kids, and had a very successful career as an optometrist.
Billy may sound like an ordinary guy, but there is one characteristic that Billy has that sets him apart from most other people; he can travel in time to different points in his life. He does nothing to try and change his course of action. Billy does not believe in free will. Which is why he does not try to change his paths of life. Does each person really have complete control over the paths they will follow in life?
In reading Slaughterhouse-Five the reader begins to see that maybe they do not have the option of free will in their life. Their life was planned for them before they were born. This is Billy Pilgrim’s belief and it plays a major significance in his life throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.
Throughout the entire novel, Billy Pilgrim allows fate to control his life. He has already seen his whole life and continually travels in time to different points in his past, present, and future. Billy was a creation of Kurt Vonnegut, and therefore the beliefs and questions that Vonnegut has about life come through in his character of Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut asked himself about the present: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep” (page 18). This was a question about determinism; maybe he could change his life. Maybe there was not a path in which he had to follow.
We see this through Billy. There were times in which he had the opportunity to change the sequence of his life. Although he never actually did anything about it, he still had thoughts of free will and controlling his own life. Throughout Billy’s life he endured many hardships, and even knowing that they were coming, he did nothing to stop or change them. There was nothing he could do, his life was already predetermined by fate; at least that was his belief by then. The Tralfamadorians taught Billy about his belief in determinism.
The Tralfamadorians thought that humans were crazy for believing in free will. “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the Universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (page 86). This was the response the Tralfamadorians gave Billy when he spoke of free will. “You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will”, said Billy Pilgrim (page 86). The Tralfamadorians had complete faith indeterminism.
It is the only way in which they would think. There is no way an individual could determine the course of actions in which they will take in life. The Tralfamadorians belief is that “time simply is” (page 86). So therefore life “simply is”. Each individual shall follow the life that has already been determined for them. Spending time with the Tralfamadorians is what led Billy to have this belief about life. There is no way to avoid in life what has happened, is happening, and will happen, according to the Tralfamadorians. This is because of fate, a leading role in the life of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Billy Pilgrim was such a strong believer indeterminism that even seeing his own death many times did not stop him from going to different places at a different time. He was giving a speech and told the audience that it was “high time I was dead” (page 142). He knows that he was going to be killed by Paul Lazzaro, ” enjoy life while you can. Nothing’s going to happen for maybe five, ten, fifteen, twenty years.
But lemme give you a piece of advice: Whenever the doorbell rings, have somebody else answer the door.” (page 141) He followed through with this promise. On that fateful day, knowing well that Lazzaro would be there to kill him, Billy kept his date with death.
Billy did nothing to change his situation. He knew that this was how he was going to die, and stayed there waiting for it to happen. He could have made the choice to be in a different place but did nothing. His belief in determinism was held strong, so therefore he would never do anything to change his life. He accepted whatever fate had to offer him without any complaints or criticism. He tried to make the best out of his situation. That is all that can be done when life is predetermined.
The Tralfamadorians led Billy to believe in the determination in his life. Billy knew every twist and turn that he would experience during his time on earth, and did nothing to change it in any way. Even knowing about his own death did not lead him to change or do anything different. This was a perfect example of Billy’s complete faith indeterminism. Slaughterhouse-Five was a book all about determinism. Free will was not shown in the characters throughout the novel. Vonnegut must not believe that each individual can make a choice about their life. Billy Pilgrim truly did not, and he was a creation of Vonnegut’s. Why should each person believe in free will? Is it even possible?
Critics often suggest that Kurt Vonnegut s novels represent a man s desperate, yet, futile search for meaning in a senseless existence. Vonnegut s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, displays this theme. Kurt Vonnegut uses a narrator, which is different from the main character. He uses this technique for several reasons.
Kurt Vonnegut introduces Slaughterhouse Five in the first person. In the second chapter, however, this narrator changes to a mere bystander. Vonnegut does this for a specific reason. He wants the reader to realize that the narrator and Billy Pilgrim, the main character, are two different people. In order to do this, Vonnegut places the narrator in the text, on several occasions.
An American near Billy wailed that [Billy] had excreted everything but his brains…That was I. That was me. This statement clearly illustrates that the narrator and Billy are not the same people. The narrator was the
Americans disgusted by Billy. Vonnegut places the narrator in the novel in subtle ways. While describing the German prisoner trains, he merely states, I was there. By not referring to Billy as I, Billy is immediately an individual person. I am the narrator, while Billy is Billy. Their single connection is that they were both in the war.
Kurt Vonnegut places his experiences and his views in the text. He begins the book by stating, All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true…I’ve changed all of the names. Viewing war as a senseless act, Slaughterhouse-Five allows Vonnegut to express his feelings on the matter. Through Billy Pilgrim, he is able to indicate his views. Many things which he viewed as senseless acts were very violent. [The two scouts] had been lying in ambush for the Germans. They had been discovered and shot from behind. Now they were dying in the snow, feeling nothing, turning the snow the color of raspberry sherbet. So it goes.
The narrator describes what happened and how it occurred. The imagery is very strong. The reader can imagine the snow slowly being dyed with the color of blood. Therefore, readers can picture a slow agonizing death. By ending with the statement, So it goes, the reader is enticed. The narrator states this when he finds that there is no need to continue describing the horrific brutality. The imagery used in the preceding sentence was strong enough.
Kurt Vonnegut does not want to glorify war. The narrator made a vow to O Hare s wife, in chapter one, that the story would not do this. …I give my word of honor. I’ll call it the children s crusade. In order to do this, Vonnegut makes the main character a simple man. His name is Billy Pilgrim. His mission is to avoid anything that requires action or responsibility. This causes him to avoid finding meaning in his life; he regards the world as chaotic.
The senseless act of war causes Billy to begin his search. Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next. Time-traveling symbolizes Billy s search for meaning. When an event is too difficult for him to handle, he travels in order to escape his fears. In chapter five, he is not only abducted by aliens, but he is also a prisoner of war. The two transpired at different times, but there is an obvious connection between the two. In both cases, he is taken against his will.
Since being captured by aliens is only a fantasy, it makes the fact that he was abducted by the Germans only more traumatizing. Time-traveling hurts Billy. He always avoids his fears, and never confronts them. His fantasy life causes his real-life to be more terrifying. Billy s will was paralyzed by a zap gun. He was hauled into an airlock. At this point, Billy had been captured by the denizens of Tralfamadore. This experience can be related to the
Germans capturing him, during the war. Billy Pilgrim was packed into a boxcar with many other privates…Germans were securing the hasps on the car doors. In both cases, he is a person taken against his will. The Tralfamadore experience was peaceful. He knew it was going to take place, and therefore, he could handle it with ease. On the other hand, when the Germans captured him, he was not ready for it. When this unexpected occurred, he was terrified. His fantasy had made the real experience only worse.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim does find meaning. This occurs when he is abducted by the Tralfamadores. The aliens tell him that there is no such thing as free will. All-time is all time. It does not change….Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber. As the alien stated this, Billy felt inspired because now he knew that things were beyond his control. He could not change the past or the future. With this information, Billy begins to learn about the future. I,
Billy Pilgrim will die, have died, and will always die on February thirteenth, 1976. Billy is in fact right with this prediction. Realizing everything is planned out, Billy ends his search for meaning. He understands that he can do nothing to stop the senseless acts, which take place. Like the Tralfamadores, he must try to concentrate on the good moments and not on the bad ones. He could do nothing to stop them or to change them.
Kurt Vonnegut s Slaughterhouse-Five suggests that a man can not change his fate. Any attempts to change the past or the future are meaningless. Therefore, there is nothing to search for, and the search for meaning is futile.
When one begins to analyze a military novel it is important to first look at the historical context in which the book was written. On the nights of February 13-14 in 1944 the city of Dresden, Germany was subjected to one of the worst air attacks in the history of man. By the end of the bombing 135,000 to 250,000 people had been killed by the combined forces of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Dresden was different then Berlin or many of the other military targets which were attacked during World War II because it was never fortified or used for strategic purposes and, therefore, was not considered a military target.
Because of it?s apparent safety, thousands of refugees from all over Europe converged on Dresden for protection (Klinkowitz 2-3). Dresden?s neutrality was broken and the resulting attacks laid waste, what Vonnegut called, “the Florence of the Elbe.” Kurt Vonnegut was a witness to this event and because of fate, had been spared. He wrote Slaughterhouse-Five to answer the question that resounded through his head long after the bombs could no longer be heard. “Why me?”- a frequent question asked by survivors of war.
Vonnegut was tormented by this question and through Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five, he attempts to reconcile the guilt which one feels when one is randomly saved from death, while one?s friends and loved ones perish. Billy Pilgrim?s own life was spared but was never able to live with himself knowing that so many others had died.
The feelings of guilt which emerged from his having survived the bombing of Dresden and from Billy’s fortunate escape from death under the shelter of the fifth Slaughterhouse haunted Billy through much of his life. Billy Pilgrim did not consider his survival a blessing, but a curse. A curse to be forced to live on with the guilt of survival. Billy Pilgrim faced such tremendous guilt, that he spent his entire life after Dresden trying to alleviate himself of it.
His guilt is in many ways comparable to the guilt felt by the survivors of the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors had to face their own “Why me?” question. However, many Holocaust survivors were able to reconcile their feelings of guilt or put it out of their minds. This solution was never viable for Billy Pilgrim. Billy’s guilt made life so unbearable that he could no longer live with himself and he rejected the life that had been granted to him.
There was no answer to Billy’s question because war is not logical, nor is it just. Never could one give a justification for the fortuitous slaughtering of the innocent, which claimed the lives of Dresden’s inhabitants. This idea is exemplified in the secondary title Slaughterhouse-Five is known by, The Children’s Crusade. The Children’s Crusade was one of the many Christian “Holy” Wars which aimed on destroying the Muslim people. The Children’s Crusade was really a ploy by entrepreneurs to sell Christian children into slavery. Thousands of children were killed on ships en-route to the slave market and many others were sold, never to be seen again.
Does Vonnegut give the Children’s “Crusade” as an example of the atrocities and inhumane acts that transpire under the auspices of War? That is why Billy Pilgrim invents a world where justification can be given, where life and death are meaningless and feelings of guilt disappear. The only way Billy Pilgrim can confront this guilt is to excuse his survival and trivialize the gift of life and the cruelty of death. He creates a new world where he can be free from his guilt. That world is called Tralfamador.
The Traflamadorian world provided Billy Pilgrim with the escape that he needed from his guilt. The Traflamadorian people are not locked in a three-dimensional realm. They are not locked in the frames of time to which the human world is forced to live in. Traflamadorians can “shift” through time as seamlessly as humans can walk towards a point. This ability allows them to focus on the pleasant moments in the history of the Universe and ignore the aspects of time they dislike.
Thus, the fire-bombing of Dresden is just a tiny frame in the vast space-time continuum. The guilt of Billy’s being saved is reconciled by eliminating the existence of a past, present, and future. Since any fraction of time is accessible in the Tralfamadorian world death is just a tiny part of existence that is ignored like the fire-bombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim reinvents himself and his universe to gain purpose in his guilt-ridden life (Lundquist 82).
The Tralfamadorians are real to Billy because without them he cannot live with himself (Lundquist 82). Billy believes that he was taken by a Tralfamdorian ship to be an exhibit of a human being in a Tralfamdorian Zoo. On Tralfamador, Billy is exposed to an entirely new way of thinking which neutralizes the “Why me?” question. In the Tralfamdorian view of the Universe, guilt does not exist because in their view one is not responsible for one?s actions. Whatever will, or has happened will always happen and did always happen. There is no way to change the course of events. Everything is predetermined. Billy is told by the Tralfamadores (regarding Tralfamador) that:
Today we do (have peace). 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 (Vonnegut 101).
The Tralfamadorians even now when and who will destroy the Universe, yet they make no attempt to stop it because in their eyes it cannot be stopped. Billy, by accepting the Tralfamadorian view, frees himself from the guilt which one feels when one is locked in time and responsible for one?s actions. Billy Pilgrim grasps the Tralfamadorian philosophy and insists the Tralfamadorian world exists because it eliminates the “Why me?” question. Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime wrong;a feeling of culpability.
For example, if one steals a hundred dollars, one would feel remorse over that action and wish one had not done it. Under the Tralfamadorian outlook, Billy Pilgrim does not have to feel remorse for being saved because that is how it was and always will happen. He does not have to feel guilt or remorse because there is no reason to. There is nothing that can be done about war and death, “they are as easy to stop as glaciers.” (Vonnegut 3) The death of all those innocent people could not be stopped, it was predetermined by some unknown force just as the destruction of the Universe, by a Tralfamadorian testing a new fuel, is also predetermined and unstoppable.
Vonnegut uses irony by having Billy Pilgrim an Optometrist, whose job it is to help others see the world more clearly with greater acuity and sensitivity. Billy believes it his job to “prescribe corrective lenses for Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamdore.” (Vonnegut 25) This is in essence what the Tralfamadorians teach him that the Human view of time is erroneous (Tanner 198). The Tralfamdorians give Billy an analogy of how humans perceive time:
Human vision is something so narrow and restricted…to convey to themselves what it must be like they have to imagine a creature with a metal sphere around his head who looks down a long, thin pipe seeing only a tiny speck at the end. He cannot turn his head around and he is strapped to a flatcar on rails which goes in one direction (Vonnegut).
Billy by accepting the Tralfamadorian view of the world frees himself from the metal sphere and from his guilt. Much of Billy’s guilt rested on his view of time and nature. Before he was introduced to the Tralfamadorian viewpoint he believed in crusading against war and the death of the innocent and felt guilty and upset when another human’s life was blindly taken. After coming to newly understand the limits of human vision and the naivete? of human-kind, namely that one can change what will happen and guide one?s actions Billy felt no sympathy for death and made no attempt to right injustice and stop the atrocities of war.
Although Billy finds peace in the many positive aspects of the Tralfamadorian mind-set, there also exist many negatives to his new vision. The many aspects of Billy’s life in which his new vision touch are clearly outlined in Slaughterhouse-Five. For example, whenever there is a tragic death or an entire city is destroyed Billy says what all Tralfamdorians say “so it goes.” Billy does not feel remorse or anger when he hears of the war in Vietnam because it is just a frame in time, which has, is, and always will happen. Just as the universe will be destroyed by the Tralfamdorians but no attempt is made to stop it. At one point in the novel Billy sees a war movie in reverse, he describes it as follows:
The formation flew over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored in neatly racks..When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were shipped to factories where operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents…so they would never hurt anybody again. (Vonnegut 64)
Vonnegut uses this imagery to dramatize effectively the cruelty of bombing. Billy?s Tralfamadorian view of this war film is an obvious improvement over the forward version. However, with the Tralfamdorian view also comes a heavy price.
The cost of this new vision is the human conscience and the concern for life (Tanner 198). The Tralfamdorian view extracts the human conscience, which separates humans from the rest of the animal world. The price for a “guilt-free” life is the most precious part of human life, emotions. (Tanner 198)
With the Tralfamdorian view comes another steep price, free will. Billy is told by the Tralfamadorians that free will is a uniquely human belief. (Schatt 82) He is told that war, disease, and even the end of the universe is all pre-determined and that nothing he does can change what will happen. The notion of free will is what gives human life meaning. Part of the “spice” of life is the feeling of accomplishment one has when he succeeds or the feeling of sorrow when he fails.
These feelings cannot exist when one?s actions are not of one?s own choice but pre-determined. When all that happens, is decided by an unknown force, failure, triumph and sorrow cannot exist because one is not responsible any longer for bringing about those emotions. This can easily explain why Billy?s life is so dreary and depressing. His acceptance of the Tralfamdorian world has freed him from his guilt, but it has also freed him from “living.”. On his tombstone, it is written “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Although this message on the surface would seem perfect, it in reality points to the short-comings of Billy’s life.
One cannot enjoy life and happiness if he has no feelings and lacks all remorse. At the end of his life, Billy is “unenthusiastic about living, while stoically enduring it, which may be a sign of the accidie which settles on a man with an atrophied conscience.” (Tanner 199) Billy pilgrim has full knowledge, of who, when, and where he will be murdered, yet he does nothing about it. While this could be looked at as an acceptance of the Tralfamdorian way of life, it also points to the fact that Billy does not want to stop it because life offers him nothing. The price of Billy’s release from guilt was Billy’s release from humanity.
Slaughterhouse-Five clearly expresses Vonengut’s terrible outrage at the catastrophic fire-bombing of Dresden. But it does more than that. It?s underlying theme is not just against the atrocities of Dresden but against all War. Vonnegut’s unorthodox stylistic approach which lacks any sequential path draws the reader deeper into the Tralfamadorian world. Although Vonnegut’s character was able to reconcile his life to some extent, Vonnegut was not. Vonnegut was never able to answer his own “Why me?” but in truth, a broader question exists “Why any of us?”
In this first chapter, we see that the book is based on real events. Vonnegut, like the narrator, is a veteran of World War II, an earlier prisoner of war, and a witness to a great massacre.
Vonnegut shares with us that he can t write about the horror of Dresden. There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, but he feels that he has to say something. The book shows the author’s struggle to find a way to write about what he saw so that it neither makes it seem good or bad. We keep this in the back of our minds as we read about Billy Pilgrim’s life.
The author is a character in the narrative. He is Kurt Vonnegut, the former POW, and he speaks of the many times he has tried and failed to write this book. It is Kurt Vonnegut, too, who says the first, “So it goes” after relating that the mother of his taxi driver during his visit to Dresden in 1967 was incinerated in the Dresden attack. “So it goes” is repeated after every death. It becomes a slogan. ralfamadorian philosophy (something you will find out about later). But because the phrase is first uttered by Vonnegut, writing as Vonnegut, each “So it goes” seems to come directly from the author.
Chapter One also hints that time will be an important thing to follow. The author was going around and around in circles trying to create a timeline. He felt like he was stuck inside a children’s song that repeats itself again, and again, and again The children s song s last line is also the first. Only when the author begins to think about time, about returning over and over to the events of someone s life, about moments existing for eternity in no particular order, is he able to break through twenty years of writer s block, and write Slaughterhouse-Five.
The constant skipping around in time can be confusing to the reader because we are used to linear narrative. The way you feel reading the narrative is like the way Billy Pilgrim feels as he skips uncontrollably throughout his life. There is little suspense in the novel. The outline of Billy’s life is given right off the bat. What is more important is the fact and experience of Billy’s, of his dazed wandering through the events of his life.
How are we to understand Billy’s time travel? Should we believe it? Is this science fiction? Or a true story? Should we trust his sensible daughter, who thinks that her father is losing his marbles? After all, Billy first comes unstuck at a moment when he is ready to die. He is exhausted, clueless, and lost behind enemy lines. He has no idea what is happening or what has happened. People keep shooting at him, pushing him around. Under these conditions, his understanding of time is permanently altered and his mind becomes (temporally) unhinged.
Human dignity in a life marked by death and mass murder is important to Slaughterhouse Five. In the first stages of his war experience, Billy Pilgrim is a man without dignity.
Chapter Four introduces the Tralfamadorian concept of time, a concept that will be explained in Chapter Five. This is what Billy Pilgrim is given to understand: that people, Tralfamadorians, and everything else is like bugs in amber. They are locked into their fate. Why me? is a useless question.
The fact that we are locked into our fate: Billy’s death is determined years before it happens when Roland Weary meets Paul Lazzaro. Though Billy is starved, sick, and half-dead, we know that he will not die in the boxcar, the prison camp, or even in the city of Dresden; where nearly everyone else is killed. He will in fact die because one pathetic, and friendless human being, Paul Lazzaro, who feels like avenging the death of another pathetic, and friendless human being, Roland Weary.
One of the books many jokes about war occurs early in this chapter. Billy sits down to watch a war movie, and due to his time difficulties, watches it backward. Planes fly backward, magically quelling flames, drawing their bombs into steel containers, and sucking them back up into their bellies. Guns on the ground suck metal from the pilots, crew, and planes. Weapons are shipped backed to factories, where they are carefully disassembled down into their minerals.
The minerals are shipped to specialists all over the world who “hide them cleverly” in the ground, “so they never hurt anybody ever.” And in Billy’s mind, Hitler becomes a baby and all of humanity works toward creating two perfect people named Adam and Eve.
The Tralfamadorian concept of time is a revelation to someone who has come unstuck from his own lifeline. Billy realizes that he has access to a new perspective on life, pain, suffering, death, and joy. If there is no free will, if each moment is planned so that it can only happen the way they are supposed to happen, then, it makes sense to accept things as they come.
The “so it goes” attitude, comes from visiting all the moments of one’s life countless times. Death is no longer as permanent as any other moment. Billy finds some comfort in this and takes the Tralfamadorian advice to look at the nice moments as much as possible.
The Tralfamadorian novel discussed at the beginning of the chapter is a model for Slaughterhouse Five. A Tralfamadorian novel contains brief messages that describe events, scenes, and situations. The only thing the same about the messages is that the author has carefully chosen them so that, when seen simultaneously, they form an image of life. There is no linear narrative, no beginning, middle, climax, or end, no suspense, no moral, no reason.
The Tralfmadorian book makes us question Billy’s experiences on the strange planet. Tralfmadore could be something Billy imagines. While at the veterans’ sanitarium, Billy reads Kilgore Trout so much that he feels he is losing his grip on reality. He’s already unable to live in the present and he is unable to control his movements backward and forwards through time.
Science fiction helps him, and helps Rosewater (his new friend), too. The narrator says that the two were trying to “reinvent themselves and reinvent their universe.” The Tralfamadorians explain how the whole thing works, and act as a model for coping in a four-dimensional universe. But people who invent new understandings of time are not always sane. In his own mind, Billy is at rest.
In Einstein’s physics, an object is described by four coordinates: the three spatial and one time. If you want to say where something is, you have to also say when it is. The same is true if you want to say what something is. Things change over time. To really describe an object, you would have to describe it at every moment. The kinds of descriptions we give are just snapshots that describe an object as it looks at only one point in time. An object is actually all of the snapshots through the object s history and its future.
You could also say the same thing about a person. The Tralfamadorians, (who see in four dimensions), look at all of an object and all of a person. We cannot. But Billy Pilgrim’s time-tripping lets him see what they are like.
The author doesn’t really give any character description. Instead, we get small descriptions of Billy Pilgrims from different moments in time. You try to see what he looks like by putting all of the little pieces of descriptions of him from the past, present, and future.
Billy’s future is a little unrealistic. The author describes things more than usual when talking about Billy in 1976. You don t really trust the details about Billy’s assassination. Slaughterhouse Five is, after all, an Earthling’s version of a Tralfamadorian tale, and it is therefore guided by limits of the human point of view and human doubt.
Before describing Derby’s rejection of the American Nazi’s persuasion, the narrator says that there are almost no characters in this story. Most of the people are sick and weak or controlled by other forces. The narrator reminds us that this is one of the products of war: that people cease to be individuals capable of asserting themselves.
For most of his life, Billy is a human who is controlled by greater forces. But things change on Tralfamadore and after the plane crash. On Tralfamadore, Billy gains the ability to understand time. He changes his whole way of understanding the universe. This causes him to save his sanity and a positive look on life. And after the crash, he realizes that he has a mission to spread his knowledge about time.
He sees himself as a messenger, who has learned the truth about time and gained the ability to show tragedy, catastrophe, and death. He has also found dignity in the Tralfamadorians. If things happen the way they do just because that moment is structured that way, then people should never have anything to be embarrassed about.
The bird asks a question. And there is no answer. Just like the narrator warned us in the first chapter: there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Bird talk probably makes as much sense as anyone’s talk. But, the author has tried to say something intelligent. He has also tried to make something beautiful from a massacre.
The problem of dignity returns. Dignity is something everyone wants. Vonnegut wants to know if there will ever again be enough to go around. Billy Pilgrim has finally got it, but it has come at a high price. He has had to travel to Tralfamadore to get it, and he has had to change his whole understanding of the world.
The book ends in Dresden. This is the place where Billy and Vonnegut keep returning. The story ends describing springtime green: green shoots and new leaves and birds, but there is also a green wagon shaped like a coffin. Spring shows life, but the coffin does not go away.
In Chapter 8, at the time of his anniversary party, Billy has lived a boring life in Ilium. He feels he has no secrets from himself, but the sight of the barbershop quartet proves this feeling as an illusion. The expressions on the en’s faces make him sick. He has powerful secrets, they have to do with the horror of Dresden, and the moment when the four guards stood screaming at the moonscape but no sound came from their mouths. The Tralfamadorians only show the good moments of one’s life.
But Billy Pilgrim has no control over his time traveling. Just like we don t always have control over our memories. Billy’s message is not comforting. If good moments last forever, so does the firebombing of Dresden.
Somewhere, Billy Pilgrim’s moment of joy, dozing in the green cart beneath the spring sun, still exists. But somewhere, 130,000 civilians are still being burned. And somewhere, war prisoners will be opening new ‘corpse mines’ and removing the bodies forever. These events are not erased by time.