by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five Theme of Time
Billy Pilgrim and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five both spend a fair amount of their time reliving their experiences in World War II... and not because they just had so much fun.
The narrator recalls the war through personal memories, historical research, and a trip with his war buddy to Dresden, the site of his most painful experiences. Billy travels to the past a little more literally: he never knows when he's going to be sent from his optometry practice or his home right back to the POW compound or the slaughterhouse in Dresden where he spent part of the war.
Billy has so little control over his own life that he doesn't even know when he will be, let alone where, from one moment to the next. His only cure is to take refuge in the beliefs of the Tralfamadorians: that death, free will, and time itself are all illusions.
Questions About Time
- How does the Tralfamadorian idea of time appear to affect the very structure of Slaughterhouse-Five?
- Why does the narrator distinguish between Billy's memories of the barbershop quartet in Chapter 8, Section 14, and Billy's time-travel? Can Billy remember things without moving through time?
- The one moment in the book when Billy flashes forward to a time beyond Tralfamadore is his vision of his own death in Chapter 6, Section 7. Is this scene described any differently from his usual time-travel back to the various points of life he has already lived? Are there any indications in the text that we are not supposed to take Billy's predictions for 1976 seriously?
Chew on This
Slaughterhouse-Five uses the Tralfamadorian idea of time as an organizing principle to blur the lines between the novel's form and content.
Billy's death scene, in which he is surrounded by adoring crowds and goes bravely to his death at the hands of Paul Lazzaro, reads like a fantasy. On the other hand, his flashbacks to his early history show how fundamentally powerless he is and has always been.