Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time“
-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
“Here there is no why
The world is going to start making sense…
– Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
Wayne C. Booth, in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, defines his metaphor of friendship by discussing three major types of relationships: ones that are “of pleasure; of profit or gain; and of a kind of company that is not only pleasant or profitable, in some immediate way, but also good for me, good for its own sake” (173). Booth continues that “authors of all stories … purport to offer one or another of these friendships” (174). Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five offers, according to the ethical evaluation of the reader, a sense of escape from some horrible event experienced by the protagonist, which inherently is the holocaust. The narrative technique of toying with time in this novel gives rise to the protagonist’s escapism, a need to invent or cope with the cataclysmic events of their respective realities. Slaughterhouse-Five deals with the delinearization of time in order to provide the readers a profitable reading: the gain of the knowledge speaking to the true horror that plagues those who have seen the devastation and erasure entire generations.
Martha Nussbaum posits that “Human beings want to be immortal and ageless. And, perhaps even more clearly, they want the human beings they love never to age, never to die” (368). Along this notion of human desire for immortality, Billy Pilgrim creates a world where eternal life is possible: the theory of the fourth dimension. The notion of time in Slaughterhouse-Five allows anything to reside simultaneously in history, where at one moment a person is dead, at another moment concurrently, the person is alive and well. Billy, at the mention of death of anyone or anything, remarks “So it goes.” Billy fully believes in the Tralfamadorian reality that the entirety of all beings’ life exists all at once, allowing one with the ability to see the entire moment view the being as both living and dead. Often coming “unstuck in time,” Billy travels to different points in his existence, including his own death, which he preserved on a tape recorder for future use. However, whether Billy is really “unstuck in time” or coping with the horrors he observed while held prisoner is a decision that is difficult to make. On one of his Tralfamadorian he received a bit of knowledge that may give some insight into the reality of his shifting in time. Discussing how Tralfamadorian wars and Earthling wars differ, a Tralfamadorian offers that they do not look at their horrible moments, “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (117). Billy’s shifting is an attempt to take this advice and put it into practice. In order to avoid the horrors of his experience, Billy blanked out, which came to the attention those around him. While on the rail cars to the camps, when Billy laid down to sleep, everyone complained that he thrashed and made noise. He was forced “to sleep standing up, or not sleep at all” (78-9). He was unaware of his actions when he becomes “unstuck,” and never realizes that his time travel may actually be blackouts.
Vonnegut holds a sense of admiration in chapter one of the novel for Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He says that “she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.” Also, Vonnegut states that “people aren’t supposed to look back,” however he does in writing his novel (22). Billy has the rare chance to not only look back, but to also relive the past. Billy is trying to find “the self,” and as Booth describes,
much modern thought about the ‘individual,’ the un-dividable center, has stressed the search inward for the core of the real ‘me,’ the authentic self. In that search, one tends to peel off the inauthentic, insincere, alien influences that might deflect the self from it s unique, individual destiny. (237)
Billy wants to discover his destiny after being stripped of his humanity during the war. His mistreatment quiets him and he barely speaks to the British officers at the camp before his breakdown during the innovative Cinderella play. In fact, Billy invents his destiny as he skips through time, his death from assassin laser fire. His sense of identity, as he sees it, comes through his invention of the Tralfamadorians, which seem to have been invented during his breakdown while in optometry school. Billy’s roommate Eliot Rosewater was a great fan of Kilgore Trout, a science fiction novelist. Many of the novels that Rosewater read contained much of Billy’s perceptions of his abduction by the Tralfamadorians. One novel by Trout, The Maniacs of the Fourth Dimension, describes fourth dimension diseases that cannot be seen or treated by three-dimensional Earthlings. This sounds similar to the Tralfamadorian observation that human beings have seven sexes necessary for reproduction, but only two of them function in a three-dimensional setting. Billy couldn’t understand how those other five sexes were utilized in the act of reproduction, but this should be no surprise since the novel confines the human perception to three dimensions. In addition, the Trout novel The Gospel from Outer Space contained creatures that similarly resembled the Tralfamadorians. Through these inventions, Billy finds his individual and indeed creates his destiny. Through his stories he will most likely be placed into a home or put into the hospital again due to its unbelievable nature.
Billy’s understanding of the Tralfamadorian theory of time is not wholly developed or understood. Although he believes that he knows how it works, he himself cannot see the fourth dimension. As Levinas posits, “the true union or true togetherness is not a togetherness of synthesis, but a togetherness of face to face” (77). Indeed, Billy’s shifting in time is not one of togetherness, and still unrelated to the Tralfamadorian notion that all moments occur simultaneously. Billy relives certain moments in a linear fashion, he does not however, re-experience all the moments at once, nor can he take still frames of different moments and view them at once. It seems that his stories and his ability to become “unstuck in time” are a device created to aid him in not looking necessarily back, which proved extremely dangerous for Lot’s wife, but to look at each moment of his life equally, as if it was his present. This reaction helped him survive the trek through the winter and the camps. His escape into his past allowed him to avoid coming to terms with the situations he was in. Billy was able to cope with the horror of Nazi Germany through delusion. He also continued this in his life after the war where he could easily forget the terrible years of war through stories and theories of time and displacement.
Niall Lucy theorizes in Postmodern Literary Theory that “micro-forms, because they are so unhindered by rules and contexts and therefore so open to o many indefinite interconnections, are superior to supposedly totalizing macro-forms” (69). This may give some insight into Vonnegut’s choice of narrative technique. He inserts smaller micro-narratives concerning Billy’s life into the macro-narrative which is the text itself. These micro-texts supply background and emotional information, aiding the reader in determining whether or not Billy is a trustworthy character. However, in postmodern texts, it is difficult to decide whether or not a character is ethically sound because a moral center does not necessarily exist. Vonnegut’s selection of the micro-narratives, therefore, aid in the flow of the narrative, as well as demonstrate how Billy Pilgrim coped with the horrors of the holocaust.
Amis, Martin. Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense. New York: Crown, 1991.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P,
Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A.
Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985.
Lucy, Niall. Postmodern Literary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York:
Oxford UP, 1990.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death.
New York: Dell, 1968.