Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Time

By Kurt Vonnegut

Time

Chapter 1, Section 20

Time obsessed [Céline]. Miss Ostrovsky reminded me of the amazing scene in Death on the Installment Plan where Céline wants to stop the bustling of a street crowd. He screams on paper, Make them stop... don't let them move anymore at all... There, make them freeze... once and for all!... So that they won't disappear anymore! (1.20.3)

We can't help but notice a striking similarity between Céline's desire to stop time to keep people from dying and Billy Pilgrim's decision that time can never change, so people never really die. How does Vonnegut use other fictional and nonfictional sources to build his novel?

Chapter 2, Section 1
Billy Pilgrim

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next. (2.1.5)

Billy has not only just lost control over the most fundamental constant we come to expect in life—time—but he also feels phony in performing his own life. This lack of conviction about who he is makes Billy a nontraditional hero for a novel. Who in the novel does have a strong sense of self? And is this necessarily a good thing to have?

Chapter 2, Section 7
The Narrator

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes." (2.7.3)

If we could live life out of order and pick and choose what to experience, could we learn anything from the past? Is Slaughterhouse-Five trying to teach anything, or is it simply an effort to represent a series of conflicting ideas?

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. (2.7.2)

Even if it's true that death is only a fleeting moment in a person's life, are human beings capable of experiencing another person's death this way? Is it possible for us not to cry at funerals? Does Billy's philosophy have any resonance or meaning for you?

Chapter 2, Section 25
The Narrator

Billy Pilgrim had stopped in the forest. He was leaning against a tree with his eyes closed. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring. He was like a poet in the Parthenon.

This was when Billy first came unstuck in time. His attention began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn't anybody else there, or anything. There was just violet light—and a hum. (2.25.1-2)

For the first time, as Billy is faced with the possibility of his own death, he sees his life literally flashing before his eyes. How does the book take the idea of traumatic flashbacks and run with it? What purpose does Billy's time-travel serve in Slaughterhouse-Five?

Chapter 4, Section 4

[Billy is watching a war movie in reverse.]

When the [American] bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals...

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed. (4.4.1-2)

Billy imagines going back to a time before the war. But to go back far enough to avoid pain and suffering, you'd have to go all the way back to Adam and Eve. Again, war seems to be part of human nature, and how do we fight that?

Chapter 4, Section 21
The Tralfamadorians

"I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber."

"You sound to me as though you don't believe in free will," said Billy Pilgrim. (4.21.5-6)

Free will depends on a progressive notion of time, in which we proceed from past to present to future. Without an infinite future in front of us, we cannot choose to change anything—we have no free will. Yet, in reality, even if we do live in time, as humans are supposed to, we still struggle against constraints on our freedom. We cannot choose to make a kajillion dollars just because we want to, for example. Thus, while free will depends on a sequential notion of time, having time in front of you does not guarantee freedom.

Chapter 10, Section 2
Billy Pilgrim

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn't much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. (10.2.1)

Darwin's idea of evolution teaches that species die out for a reason. But in a sense, it seems odd that the Tralfamadorians would appreciate this idea, because they deliberately refuse to ask the question Darwin answers: "Why?"

Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly. (8.22.1)

This scene with the barbershop quartet is one of the only moments in the book when Billy remembers the past instead of reliving it. We think this is because he is not recalling an actual barbershop quartet like the one in front of him. Instead, he associates barbershop quartets with the German guards seeing the devastation of Dresden for the first time. How does the emotional impact of Billy's memories differ from his time-travel?

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