Suffering out of time: Billy Pilgrim doesn’t quite float above it all in Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

March 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 15, 2018

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the great antiwar novels of all time. First published during the Vietnam War, it revolves around the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, near the end of World War II, a controversial two-day offensive that claimed more than 25,000 lives in a city some thought devoid of military or strategic significance.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a hapless chaplain’s assistant captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Along with other Americans, he’s shipped first to a prisoner-of-war camp and then to Dresden, where the detainees are pressed into involuntary servitude. They survive the bombing because their bomb shelter — a meat locker beneath the titular Slaughterhouse-Five, which is being used as a barracks in part because of livestock shortages — happened to have been dug farther down than nearly all of the city’s other refuges.

Pilgrim’s experiences before, during and after the bombing map closely to those of Vonnegut’s. The novel, published in 1969, is semi-autobiographical: Vonnegut himself makes cameos during a few of the POW scenes and dictates the first chapter, which is really a preface that happens to be presented as the book’s first chapter.

If all Slaughterhouse-Five had to offer were its accounts of Pilgrim’s abysmal war experiences, it would be a powerful document. But his war odyssey is interwoven with accounts of other parts of the character’s life, which is presented not just as a narrative choice but as a function of Pilgrim’s having become “unstuck” in time:

Billy and Weary found places for themselves, and Billy went to sleep with his head on the shoulder of an unprotesting captain. The captain was a chaplain. He was a rabbi. He had been shot through the hand. Billy traveled in time, opened his eyes, found himself staring into the glass eyes of a jade green mechanical owl. The owl was hanging upside down from a rod of stainless steel. The owl was Billy’s optometer in his office in Ilium. An optometer is an instrument for measuring refractive errors in eyes — in order that corrective lenses may be prescribed.

Billy had fallen asleep while examining a female patient who was in a chair on the other side of the owl. He had fallen asleep at work before. It had been funny at first. Now Billy was starting to get worried about it, about his mind in general. He tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t. He tried to remember what year it was. He couldn’t remember that, either.

“Doctor—” said the patient tentatively.

“Hm?” he said.

“You’re so quiet.”


“You were talking away there — and then you got so quiet.”


“You see something terrible?”


“Some disease in my eyes?”

“No, no,” said Billy, wanting to doze again. “Your eyes are fine. You just need glasses for reading.” He told her to go across the corridor — to see the wide selection of frames there.


When she was gone, Billy opened the drapes and was no wiser as to what was outside. The view was still blocked by a Venetian blind, which he hoisted clatteringly. Bright sunlight came crashing in. There were thousands of parked automobiles out there, twinkling on a vast lake of blacktop. Billy’s office was part of a suburban shopping center.

Right outside the window was Billy’s own Cadillac El Dorado Coupe de Ville. He read the stickers on the bumper. “Visit Ausable Chasm,” said one. “Support Your Police Department,” said another. There was a third. “Impeach Earl Warren,” it said. The stickers about the police and Earl Warren were gifts from Billy’s father-in-law, a member of the John Birch Society. The date on the license plate was 1967, which would make Billy Pilgrim forty-four years old. He asked himself this: “Where have all the years gone?”

Author’s note: A mild spoiler for the 2016 science-fiction movie Arrival appears in the following paragraph. MEM

Pilgrim’s time-jumping, which is never explained, exacerbates his haplessness and in a way makes him more sympathetic. It also helps him appreciate the perspective of the phlegmatic aliens who abduct Pilgrim from his comfortable middle-aged suburban life in upstate New York one night. The Tralfamadorians, a conceptual forerunner of the species in Arrival, perceive time not moment by moment, as we do, but as a static continuum. The idea of free will is meaningless to them; instead, they believe that anything and everything occurs because the universe is structured to make things happen that way.

As Pilgrim himself explains: “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.”

The book, which is full of death and of the portents of death, essentially shrugs off mortality with the phrase “So it goes,” a sort of mantra that appears after each time someone’s demise is mentioned. This lightens the emotional impact of Slaughterhouse-Five without fully dismissing the tragedy of the many people that we see being immiserated and eliminated. It’s a fine line for Vonnegut to walk, but he manages to do so without seeming monstrous.

It helps that Pilgrim isn’t entirely disconnected from the emotions or events of his life. Yes, his reaction to the suffering around him is often muted, but occasionally he’s caught up in a wave of sorrow — particularly when an a cappella group performing at his anniversary party reminds him of the expressions made by his stunned German guards when they saw how thoroughly their city had been leveled by Allied bombers, or when a pair of Dresden survivors scold Pilgrim for the vicious suffering he’s unintentionally inflicted on a team of horses.

World War II, of course, was quite likely a necessary war, fought (at least in Europe, and arguably in the Pacific) against an implacable foe with an unquenchable thirst for conquest. But Vonnegut’s novel — regardless of how the reader takes to Pilgrim’s detachment from the events around him, his time-travel or the sometimes goofy-seeming aliens — stands as a stark reminder that even necessary wars leave immense physical and emotional devastation in their wake.

It’s deeply sad that, nearly half a century after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, our species seems to have come no closer to learning that lesson.


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