Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Foolishness and Folly

By Kurt Vonnegut

Foolishness and Folly

Chapter 2, Section 13
The Narrator

Billy was preposterous—six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots. On his feet were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father's funeral. Billy had lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down-up-and-down. The involuntary dancing, up-and-down, up-and-down, made his hip joints sore. (2.13.4)

Oh, hey, check it out—a reference to the title! Or anyway, the subtitle ("A Duty-Dance With Death"). Billy Pilgrim is completely, totally unprepared for war, with his poor physique, lack of gear, and messed-up shoes. But still, he is going because he has to: his dance with death has begun. And this dance is involuntary. As a soldier, Billy has no choice but to follow his orders, no matter how utterly ill-equipped he is for the battlefield. Billy may look like an idiot—or "preposterous," as the narrator calls him—but the real idiots are the guys back home who deployed him to the front lines of a war.

Chapter 2, Section 14

Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance. It was his addled understanding of the rules of warfare that the marksman should be given a second chance. The next shot missed Billy's kneecaps by inches, going end-on-end, from the sound of it. (2.14.2)

Again, we cannot say enough about what a complete idiot Billy is. He is so naive that he doesn't know better than to get out of the way of a bullet coming in his direction. Billy wants to do the right thing, but he is so utterly turned around that he has completely lost track of what that "right thing" might be.

Chapter 2, Section 18

Weary told Billy about neat tortures he'd read about or seen in the movies or heard on the radio—about other neat tortures he himself had invented. (2.18.3)

Behind enemy lines, trying to escape German soldiers, Weary spends his energy telling Billy about torture. While Billy may be terribly naive, he at least is aware of his own vulnerability to the war going on around him.

Chapter 5, Section 7

Billy Pilgrim dressed himself. He put on the little overcoat, too. It split up the back, and, at the shoulders, the sleeves came entirely free. So the coat became a fur-collared vest. It was meant to flare at its owner's waist, but the flaring took place at Billy's armpits. The Germans found him to be one of the most screamingly funny things they had seen in all of World War II. They laughed and laughed. (5.7.3)

One thing you can say about Billy is that he is completely unselfconscious. He spends much of the war looking like a fool, in a too-small coat, a blue curtain, and silver boots. But he keeps on going. Billy goes on looking like an idiot and surviving where other, self-consciously idealistic men die. We can compare him with men like Weary, who is so well-equipped that he overestimates his own strength against the Germans, and Edgar Derby, who keeps up his physique and is relatively wise, but still manages to get shot at the end of the war.

Chapter 6, Section 21

There at the corner, in the front rank of pedestrians, was a surgeon who had been operating all day. He was a civilian, but his posture was military. He had served in two world wars. The sight of Billy offended him, especially after he learned from the guards that Billy was an American. It seemed to him that Billy was in abominable taste, supposed that Billy had gone to a lot of silly trouble to costume himself just so.

The surgeon spoke English, and he said to Billy, "I take it you find war a very comical thing." (6.21.1-2)

No one can believe that Billy could look the way he does unintentionally. But pretty much nothing he does is intentional. He has no idea what to do or even where he is half the time. Is there ever a moment in the novel in which Billy seems to care about his appearance? When and why?

Chapter 7, Section 1
The Narrator

Billy Pilgrim got onto a chartered airplane in Ilium twenty-five years after [going to Slaughterhouse-Five]. He knew it was going to crash, but he didn't want to make a fool of himself by saying so. (7.1.1)

Billy claims to know his plane is going to crash, but he doesn't want to look like a fool by saying so. If he really did know, Billy could have saved a lot of lives, including his father-in-law's, by being willing to look like a fool. Billy survives the war by being lucky (and unselfconscious). When does he suddenly start to feel embarrassed or ashamed of himself?

Chapter 9, Section 27
The Narrator

[The stock tickers and telephones] were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo—to make them jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear their hair, to be scared s***less or to feel contented as babies in their mothers' arms. (9.27.2)

This is a passing description of one of Kilgore Trout's novels, about a man and a woman in an alien zoo who are made to perform for the amusement of the aliens thanks to a bunch of fake stock information. When they think they have made money, they celebrate; when they think they have lost money, they get depressed. But there is no real money.

This seems comparable to the deluded dreams of Roland Weary, who firmly believes he is fighting a winning battle even as he is running around behind enemy lines just waiting to become a prisoner of war. The human ability to believe something against all evidence to the contrary seems pretty foolish to us.