Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Fate and Free Will

By Kurt Vonnegut

Fate and Free Will

Chapter 10, Section 10

So it goes.
(1.1.3, 1.21.2, 1.21.5, 2.2.1, 2.4.2, 2.7.3, 2.12.4, 2.16.2, 2.17.5, 2.19.16, 2.23.4, 2.27.2, 3.16.2, 3.22.1, 3.23.2, 4.3.1, 4.11.3-4, 4.14.2, 4.16.1, 4.16.4, 4.19.1, 5.5.2, 5.7.2, 5.8.2, 5.10.1, 5.10.3, 5.14.5, 5.20.8, 5.23.1, 5.24.12, 5.24.17, 5.27.12, 5.31.5, 5.38.1, 5.43.4, 5.55.10, 5.65.2, 6.5.6, 6.6.4, 6.9.3, 6.13.1, 6.16.4, 6.21.1, 7.2.4, 7.4.1, 7.7.1, 7.9.1, 8.7.2, 8.12.7, 8.24.3, 8.27.1, 9.1.6, 9.5.9, 9.6.2, 9.19.1, 9.24.4, 9.28.4, 9.29.8, 9.32.1, 10.1.1-3, 10.10.2, 10.10.4, 10.10.7)

As you can see from the page citations on this one, "So it goes" is pretty much the catchphrase of the novel. It expresses a general sense of resignation to the way things are. Your champagne goes flat? So it goes. Somebody dies? So it goes.

This is a Tralfamadorian motto, Billy Pilgrim explains, and he seems to embrace it. But we think the fact that the narrator has decided to write an anti-war book suggests that he does not find "so it goes" sufficient to explain all of the needless violence he has seen.

Chapter 2, Section 11

Billy first came unstuck while World War II was in progress. Billy was a chaplain's assistant in the war. A chaplain's assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid. (2.11.2)

Not only is Billy a pretty sad soldier to start with—since we know he is funny-looking and scrawny—but his job in the army is not even a combatant position. He ministers to men who don't believe in his religion. Billy is absolutely unsuited to be in war, and yet he's still there. Fate?

Chapter 2, Section 25

Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that. (2.25.5)

When Billy has his mental breakdown after the war, his doctors trace it back to this traumatic moment in the swimming pool. While we think Billy's breakdown probably has a little something to do with the war, we do agree that this scene represents pretty much everything that's wrong with Billy's life in miniature.

He has no choice about being tossed into the pool and he has no choice about being saved from it— much like he has no choice but to go fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and he has no choice but to keep going afterwards.

Chapter 3, Section 1

The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances, was a female German shepherd. She was shivering. Her tail was between her legs. She had been borrowed that morning from a farmer. She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played. Her name was Princess. (3.1.2)

Much like Billy himself, Princess was drafted into this war and is pretty unhappy about it. The cold, impersonal way in which both Billy and Princess get put into situations that make them uncomfortable really highlights the fact that war is about the opposite of free will. Very few people in this novel have any kind of choice in determining their own lives.

Chapter 3, Section 13

Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future. (3.13.2)

This would seem to suggest that Billy is subject to fate. He cannot change what has already happened to him, what is happening to him, or what will happen to him. This is in part because he is an enlisted man, but also because he is a fictional character—he literally has no free will. How does the narrator show more self-determination and free will than Billy?

Chapter 4, Section 6

The saucer was one hundred feet in diameter, with portholes around its rim. The light from the portholes was a pulsing purple. . . . Billy's will was paralyzed by a zap gun aimed at him from one of the portholes. It became imperative that he take hold of the bottom rung of the sinuous ladder, which he did. (4.6.1-2)

Much like the Germans, the Tralfamadorians take away all of Billy's choices. So why does Billy seem to embrace the Tralfamadorians and their point of view? And how does Billy's experience of captivity seem to differ from Montana Wildhack's? Is her range of choices the same as Billy's?

Chapter 4, Section 7
Billy Pilgrim

"Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? [...] Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why." (4.7.4-6)

What do you think of this idea that there is no need to explain anything, because it simply is? Why is Billy so pleased to give up on the whole idea of free will?

Chapter 5, Section 9

"Why me?" he asked the guard.

The guard shoved him back into ranks. "Vy you? Vy anybody?" he said. (5.9.3-4)

This exchange takes place when an American soldier says something in English that a German guard overhears and finds offensive. The German soldier punches the American, apparently out of the blue.

But this dialogue is also reminiscent of the Tralfamadorians' words to Billy Pilgrim: "Why you? Why us for that matter?" (see quote #8, above). This question of "why" seems to be one the narrator is asking the universe at large. Why do some people suffer so much and others don't? Billy's answer is the Tralfamadorian abandonment of free will. Does the novel offer any other answers? Are there any other answers to offer?

Chapter 5, Section 44
Billy Pilgrim

"If you know [that the Universe will be destroyed by a Tralfamadorian pilot who presses a button]," said Billy, "isn't there some way you can prevent it? Can't you keep the pilot from pressing the button?"

"He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way." (5.44.1-2)

What kinds of ethical problems does this Tralfamadorian perspective on fate seem to present? Are these ethical problems applicable to Billy and his own choices? If so, how?

Chapter 6, Section 1

Billy found two small sources [of animal magnetism], two lumps an inch apart and hidden in the lining [of his jacket]. One was shaped like a pea. The other was shaped like a tiny horseshoe. Billy received a message carried by the radiation. He was told not to find out what the lumps were. He was advised to be content with knowing that they could work miracles for him, provided he did not insist on learning their nature. That was all right with Billy Pilgrim. He was grateful. He was glad. (6.1.7)

This whole bit about animal magnetism is odd, to say the least, and it's one of the few moments when the narrator refuses to explain something. In fact, the two lumps are a diamond (which Billy gives to Valencia after the war) and a partial denture (which Billy keeps in a box). The source of their power remains completely obscure.

But we find it interesting that Billy is totally satisfied that "they could work miracles for him, provided he did not insist on learning their nature." Billy has no curiosity; he just wants to go along and get along. Perhaps this provides one explanation for why he is okay with the idea that he has no free will: he never, ever wants to make choices or rock the boat.

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