Sunday, October 17, 2010

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut tells a story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time. The book follows him through his jumps in time, so it is not in chronological order, but, for ease of explanation, I will tell the story in chronological order.

Billy Pilgrim is born in Illium, New York in 1922. He has a normal life, gets decent grades in high school and takes night classes to become an optometrist (eye doctor) until he is drafted into the Army during World War II. After being thrown behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge as a chaplain's assistant, Billy starts to shift through time. Vonnegut explains, "This was when Billy first came unstuck in time. His attention began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn't anybody else there, or any thing. There was just violet light—and a hum" (54-55).

Soon after, he gets captured by Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Here, Billy has a breakdown and is given morphine to calm him down. The morphine causes him to shift through time again. When he comes back to the present, he gets moved to another camp in Dresden, a city untouched by the war. Here he works with other P.O.W.s until Allied forces firebomb Dresden. He and other prisoners take refuge in an airtight slaughterhouse, where they're safe from the asphyxiating fire. After the fire dies down, Billy and the other prisoners are forced to look for bodies in the rubble of the town until Russian forces send him home.

Billy finishes optometry school and gets engaged to the daughter of the founder of the optometry school he attended. He suffers a nervous breakdown, but recovers through shock treatments in a veterans' hospital. He gets married and gets started up in the optometry business by his father-in-law. Billy feels he is back to normal until he suffers a breakdown after seeing a barbershop quartet, reminding him of Dresden, at his 18th wedding anniversary party. In 1968 he takes a flight with other optometrists to a convention. The plane crashes in a mountain, killing all but him. His wife dies soon after from carbon monoxide poisoning after crashing her car.

Billy starts talking of the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore that can see all moments of time at once, on a radio talk show in New York and in a series of letters to the Ilium News Leader that get published. He explains how they kidnapped him in 1967 and took him back to Tralfamadore to be displayed in a zoo and forced to make with a former movie star, Montana Wildhack. In his second letter he writes, "When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorian say about dead people, which is 'So it goes'" (34).

Billy, having traveled through time so many times, knows that the public will eventually come to understand his and the Tralfamadorians' view. He also knows how he will die, and when it will happen. Having seen it many times, he knows that he will experience that violet hum again, and shift back to another time.

Discussion Questions:
-Every time Billy shifts through time, he is in a stressful situation. Do you think that Vonnegut meant that Billy is truely shifting through time, or is this "shifting" just a sign of insanity?

-What about the Tralfamadorians? Was Billy actually abducted, or was this story another product of his possible insanity?


Garret Edward Patrick Graehling 1/2 said...

I believe that Billy was just insane and that his iew of life is just crazy babble.

Nathan S. 7-8 said...

Eloquently put. Though, if he was insane, how could he have led a happy and productive life as an optometrist as he does for a big part of his life?

Nathan S. 7-8 said...

Personally, I feel that Billy is just trying to cope with the world around him; his wife died, he saw a whole city burn, and he has survivor's guilt from the plain crash. He probably has post-traumatic stress disorder from the war and side effects from shock treatment. I would be surprised if he wasn't crazy after all of that.

Natesa W. 7-8 said...

I agree with Nathan's viewpoint. As much as I would like to believe that there are aliens that are able to shrug off life and death, it is highly unlikely. The fact that Billy has lost almost everyone in his life by very traumatic ways leads the reader into thinking that he is just crazy.

If he did in fact have post-traumatic stress disorder then the Tralfamadorians were probably a figment of his imagination. They may have been a very vivid dream that appeared to him often. When people are insane they often think up unreal situations and blow them out of proportion. Remembering things as actually happening very often, when in fact it was a dream that he had one time.