Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
Freedom and Confinement
[Roland Weary] had been saving Billy's life for days, cursing him, kicking him, slapping him, making him move. It was absolutely necessary that cruelty be used, because Billy wouldn't do anything to save himself. Billy wanted to quit. He was cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent. He could scarcely distinguish between sleep and wakefulness now, on the third day, found no important differences, either, between walking and standing still. (2.15.1)
The definition of freedom in this book goes beyond freedom from POW camps. Here, Billy is completely under the power of Roland Weary, who insists on saving his life even though Billy wants to die. The problem with being under someone's power like that, even someone who is saving your life, is that you have no choice if he suddenly changes his mind. When Weary turns on Billy, Billy has absolutely no defense against him.
The [German] photographer wanted something more lively, though, a picture of an actual capture. So the guards staged one for him. They threw Billy into shrubbery. When Billy came out of the shrubbery, his face wreathed in goofy good will, they menaced him with their machine pistols, as though they were capturing him then. (3.7.3)
Again, Billy has no idea what he is in the middle of. He goes along with the Germans throwing him into a bush the same way he goes along with Weary in the preceding passages. Billy seems to have a gift for submission: he's just looking for people to tell him what to do.
The [Americans] came to a shed where a corporal with only one arm and one eye wrote the name and serial number of each prisoner in a big, red ledger. Everybody was legally alive now. Before they got their names and numbers in that book, they were missing in action and probably dead. (5.8.1)
There's a level of bureaucracy to this whole life, death, and freedom question that keeps coming up throughout the novel. Billy's squad is reported killed before they are even sent to Europe, and the British compound of the POW camp is kept amazingly well-stocked with supplies thanks to bureaucratic mix-ups. Billy only comes to back to "life" after going missing in action when the Germans log him as an official prisoner of war.
Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward—always got much sicker until she went away...
She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn't really like life at all. (5.23.3-4)
Another form of confinement we find in the book involves Billy's complicated relationship with family. He seems to view family as another duty he has to fulfill: he makes money to improve the Pilgrim family name and he marries Valencia because he seems to feel he has no choice. But we get very little insight into how he feels about his family. When he's in the hospital trying to escape from life, his family just seems like yet another prison he has to deal with.
So the Americans put their weapons down, and they came out of the woods with their hands on top of their heads, because they wanted to go on living if they possibly could. (5.27.14)
This line appears in an account of Edgar Derby's capture by the Germans. Even though much of the book seems to be about the possibility of escaping various literal and metaphoric prisons, life is still usually more appealing than death.
Billy didn't want to marry ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her, when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life. (5.28.4)
Marriage is just another layer of confinement in Billy's life. And yet, he never considers not marrying Valencia despite his family's wishes. How much responsibility should Billy bear for his own loss of freedom? What would Billy do with real freedom if he had it?
Billy was displayed [on Tralfamadore] in the zoo in a simulated Earthling habitat. Most of the furnishings had been stolen from the Sears Roebuck warehouse in Iowa City, Iowa. (5.38.1)
Billy is happier in captivity on Tralfamadore than he is back on Earth, even though he is naked and exposed to the gazes of aliens who want him to perform for their amusement. What's to like about this situation? How does Billy describe his confinement? How does his confinement sound to you—like good times?
"Did you hear what I said?" Barbara inquired. It was 1968 again.
"Of course." [Billy] had been dozing.
"If you're going to act like a child, maybe we'll just have to treat you like a child." (5.59.1-3)
Barbara is really getting off on this power trip over her old man, we'd say. In what sense does aging seem like another kind of confinement? Billy has various encounters with aging people: his dying mother (2.26) and an old man in a doctor's waiting room (9.19). How does Vonnegut represent aging?
You lads are leaving this afternoon for Dresden—a beautiful city, I'm told. You won't be cooped up like us. You'll be out where the life is, and the food is certain to be more plentiful than here. If I may inject a personal note: It has been five years now since I have seen a tree or flower or woman or child—or a dog or a cat or a place of entertainment, or a human being doing useful work of any kind. (6.14.5)
Note how the British colonel represents his own feelings of confinement. He is perfectly comfortable and warm in the compound, but he misses activity and social community. In fact, Billy's postwar life seems a little like this, except that his captivity isn't quite as obvious. Billy, too, is physically comfortable and well provided for, but he doesn't get to make choices about where to go or what to do with his life. All those choices are made by his family and social circumstances.
Poor old Derby, the doomed high school teacher, lumbered to his feet for what was probably the finest moment in his life. There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. But old Derby was a character now...
Derby raised his head, called Campbell a snake. He corrected that. He said that snakes couldn't help being snakes, and that Campbell, who could help being what he was, was something much lower than a snake or a rat—or even a blood-filled tick. (8.4.1-2)
Derby is one of the very few characters in the novel, with the possible exception of post-Tralfamadore Billy, who actually takes some initiative. He is in captivity, just like all the other men in this POW camp, but his mind is still actively considering right and wrong. It is this taking of initiative that makes Derby seem like a real person, or a "character."
Join today and never see them again.