It would be fair to state that Billy Pilgrim is one of literature’s most unlikely antiwar heroes. When the reader first meets Billy before the war, he is a complacent and unpopular weakling, and as a result, becomes something of a joke among the other soldiers. Billy earns further distain from his military peers when he takes on the duty of training as a chaplain’s assistant, and he is shown to experience limited preparation for combat. He has no real talent with weapons and even sports an improper uniform. Nonetheless, Billy is thrust right into center of the action at the Battle of the Bulge.
The almost farcical image that is created by Billy’s incorrect clothing and his weak and puny frame only serves to accentuate the fact that his is very much a ‘soldier’ out is his depth. The symbol of Billy as being a fish out water becomes even more ironic and significant as time goes on, as it becomes incredibly poignant that he is managing to walk through this war completely unscathed while accomplished and talented soldiers are dying every day beside him. It is through this ironic shock and his own physical exhaustion that Billy first starts to become ‘unstuck in time’, and begins floating through events, both past, present and future, of his life.
Billy appears to live a life that is filled with indignity, and therefore has no real fear of death. This attitude thus makes him a perfect candidate for the Tralfamadorian philosophy that emphasizes death. This certainly makes a case for interpreting the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s damaged imagination, an elaborate and fanciful coping mechanism that helps him to process and explain the fruitless slaughter that he is witnessing. By writing ‘so it goes’ after each death occurs, the narrator is echoing Billy’s sentiments that death is a great equalizer, preferably void of any big emotion.
This is highlighted across the narrative many times: Billy’s father dying in a hunting accident before the war. So it goes; A hobo dying in the railway car Billy is traveling in. So it goes; Over 100,000 people dying in Dresden. So it goes; Valencia accidently killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning. So it goes; Billy himself being killed by an assassin at the precise time that he had predicted. So it goes. The repetition of this phrase just emphases the calmness of Billy in his attitude towards death, with the thought that 100,000 dead innocents having the same impact as an anonymous hobo on a train. It gives him a degree of control over his life.
The final thing to consider about Billy Pilgrim is that the novel centers around him so profusely that it makes the cast of supporting characters nothing more than footnotes, only existing in relation to his development and actions in the plot, and this perhaps is a wider metaphor for how Billy treated people during his life, with a detached and indifferent hand.
Like Vonnegut, who speaks in his own voice in several places to confirm that much of the novel is based on his wartime experiences, Billy Pilgrim lives through the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. From the beginning of the book, war is presented as both comically and horrifyingly absurd. Billy and his comrades, American and German, are ludicrously inept as soldiers. As the subtitle of the novel indicates, they are children on a gamelike crusade, manipulated by inscrutable forces.
Yet the game is deadly: The destruction of Dresden, a city of no strategic importance, populated only by Germans too old or weak to fight and prisoners of war such as Billy, is senseless but inevitable. Because of the shock of this event, Billy becomes a perpetual prisoner of war, returning again and again in his mind to this scene. Vonnegut’s message is especially powerful as he reminds the reader that the destruction of Dresden is no isolated occurrence: Slaughterhouse-Five was written during the Vietnam War era and alludes frequently to a new generation of Billy Pilgrims and Children’s Crusades.
More than simply a war novel--or, more precisely an antiwar novel--Slaughterhouse-Five is a captivating science fiction story. Scenes from World War II alternate with Billy’s life on exhibition in a kind of zoo on the distant planet Tralfamadore. What little solace or pleasure Billy experiences comes at the hands of the Tralfamadorians, whose calmly fatalistic philosophy seems wise when compared to normal human stupidity and irrationality.
Vonnegut’s style is disjointed and the novel is composed of short vignettes and fragments rather than a fully developed sequential narrative, but this style is purposely unsettling and helps Vonnegut accomplish several key objectives. Billy Pilgrim’s time traveling, his habit of jumping quickly from present to past to future as if they were all simultaneously existing moments, makes him seem odd, even crazy, at first glance. But as the novel progresses, the reader acknowledges more and more that this is the natural way the human mind works. Everyone daydreams, remembers, and fantasizes, and these activities become especially important when a person lives in a world that is highly in need of such imaginative remaking.
Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Astute reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, marking the biblical references and Vonnegut’s personal testimony. Devotes similar attention to other novels by Vonnegut.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Explains Slaughterhouse-Five as one of Vonnegut’s “personal” novels, as opposed to the earlier ones that adhere to the stricter forms of science fiction. Draws correlations among the Vonnegut novels.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A complete study of the novel. Criticism is taken from sources that reviewed Slaughterhouse-Five when it was published. Numerous passages of Slaughterhouse-Five are explained in depth, as well as Vonnegut’s philosophy as it was seen by the reviewers of his time.
Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A short book with considerable insights into Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels by Vonnegut. The wit, sarcasm, and style of Vonnegut is prominent in the writing of this text.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Explores the construction, plot, and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five and considers Vonnegut’s sense of aesthetic distance from the work. Chapters include the contribution of Slaughterhouse-Five to the genre of science fiction and the Tralfamadorian philosophy.