In Slaughterhouse-Five, the primary upshot of what Billy Pilgrim learns from the plunger-shaped aliens is this: if we cannot change anything about time, there is no such thing as free will.
We suppose there are worse lessons to learn from aliens (or toilet plungers).
After all, free will means the ability to alter your own future. In fact, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy that the whole idea of free will seems to be unique to Earthlings. Everyone else in the universe knows better. Billy uses this knowledge to comfort himself about the realities of aging, death, and pain.
But we don't think Billy's resignation is necessarily a good thing. Sure, it makes him feel better, but it also lets him off the hook: if you can't improve the world, why bother?
Edgar Derby only becomes a character when he chooses to stand up against American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr. It's this decision to stand up for what he believes in that distinguishes Derby from other people in the novel.
When Billy chooses to tell the world about Tralfamadore, perhaps it's the first and last independent decision he makes. However, his effort to make his own choices gets undercut by his daughter and the general public, who all think Billy is a nutterbutter. Everyone in the novel operates under so many social and familial constraints on their freedom that the attempt to make one's own choices appears insane.
Slaughterhouse-Five ain't about officers or heroes. It's about privates, most of whom don't want to be—and shouldn't be—on the battlefield. And it's about prisoners of war, men who have been deprived of any kind of control over where they go and what they do.
There is nothing—we repeat, nothing—romantic about war in Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, the villains of the novel are the ones who continue to romanticize violence and killing, men like Bertram Copeland Rumfoord and Roland Weary.
By giving villainous characters like Roland Weary and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord a love of war (or a love of the idea of war, at least), Vonnegut conveys his strongly anti-war sentiments to the reader.
By avoiding representations of the battlefield and focusing instead on prisoners of war, Vonnegut draws the reader's attention not to war itself, but to the suffering it causes.
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.
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.
From Billy's uncomfortably-realistically-detailed crucified Christ (Chapter 2, Section 19) to the horses with shattered hooves in the rubble of Dresden (Chapter 9, Section 19), much of the suffering in Slaughterhouse-Five explicitly targets innocents. Say it with us: life ain't fair.
Billy is a foolish, inexperienced boy who is sent to the front lines of a war he does not understand. The injustice of suffering—that it should strike the people who seem least equipped to understand or deal with it—is yet another reason Billy turns to science fiction and Tralfamadore to make himself a new reality. His current, agonizing reality no longer makes any sense to Billy, so he needs another one.
By showing the thoughtless cruelty to animals of even well-meaning characters like Billy, Vonnegut demonstrates that suffering is often an unintended side-effect of war.
Billy does not use the Christian faith as a comfort for his postwar stress and misery because he associates the church with the painful sacrifice of an innocent man, of which Billy has already seen plenty.
The Tralfamadorians are pretty clear that their novels hold absolutely zero moral lessons. After all, what would be the point of a moral lesson when you can't do anything to change the future? Slaughterhouse-Five, with its stars and tiny sections, seems to be imitating a Tralfamadorian novel. So it makes sense that the narrator doesn't spend much time preaching about right or wrong: that's not the point of this book.
What Vonnegut seems to be asking his readers to do instead is to think about how much human suffering the war brought for both sides. Some of the most evil characters in the book—Bertram Copeland Rumfoord and Paul Lazzaro—are the ones who think they are absolutely right. This kind of righteous self-assurance is what leads to war in the first place.
The narrator tells his sons in Chapter 1 that they are not to participate in massacres, but Billy Pilgrim willingly sends his son Robert off to Vietnam, presumably to kill people. This difference between the narrator's and Billy's choices exposes a fundamental difference between the two men's characters: Billy is resigned to war, while the narrator is trying to prevent fighting.
By focusing on the suffering of individual human beings, such as the German refugee girls killed in the Dresden firebombing, Vonnegut shifts attention about the morality of war away from big questions of national politics and toward smaller, less justifiable instances of personal pain.
Because Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, Vonnegut sure isn't presenting us with any heroes.
And to make sure we don't wonder if the men in the novel have the self-determination or free will to make heroic choices, Slaughterhouse-Five relies a lot on absurdity. Billy Pilgrim is described repeatedly as clownish; he looks so ridiculous that a German surgeon on the streets of Dresden criticizes him for making a mockery of war. Paul Lazzaro and Roland Weary are both so self-absorbed that they don't even seem to notice that they are on a battlefield half the time. And even poor Edgar Derby, who is so idealistic and committed, can be reduced to tears by the unexpected taste of syrup in his mouth by the end of the war.
Still, the real foolishness in the book is not at the individual level. We can't help but think there must be something wrong with a system that would send poor, innocent Billy Pilgrim to war.
Edgar Derby's belief in justice may be foolish, but the narrator also expresses sympathy for his efforts to resist a system he believes is wrong
Billy Pilgrim continues to appear clownish throughout his entire wartime experience because the narrator explicitly wants to describe World War II as a Children's Crusade. Billy is the ultimate foolish innocent sent into a battle he does not understand.
Obviously, Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about prisoners of war... and it doesn't get much more confined than that. But even more, it's a book about the many, many ways people get trapped: by the army, by family, and by their own beliefs in God or glory. It isn't only the Germans or the U.S. Army who take away Billy's choices. He also finds himself caving in to the expectations of his mother, his optometry office, and even his own daughter. Billy sees very little real freedom in his life, which is perhaps why he is so eager to accept that there is no such thing as free will.
The Germans and the Tralfamadorians both take away Billy's freedom, but the Tralfamadorians go a step further by giving him the tools he needs to accept his confinement.
Even after Billy is freed from German captivity, he remains mentally a prisoner of his war experiences—until he can replace these memories with life on Tralfamadore.
In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator promises Mary O'Hare that he will write a novel about World War II that will not attract the attention of manly men like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra. One way in which Vonnegut certainly succeeds in making war seem utterly unappealing (besides, you know, the death and pain and misery) is by emphasizing the hunger and illness of the soldiers fighting it.
Paul Lazzaro's stomach is shrunken with hunger, Edgar Derby weeps at the taste of syrup, and all the American POWs spend their first night in the British compound with explosive diarrhea. The book really foregrounds the unattractive, absurd realities of male bodies under stress. The only soldiers with big muscles and washboard abs are the English officers, who have been prisoners for the whole war, and who barely fight.
Kurt Vonnegut depicts the bodies of the American POWs as weak and poorly fed to demonstrate that this is a war being fought by fools and children rather than heroic manly men.
The contrast between British and American POWs shows that maintaining a fighting man's body in captivity is one thing, but staying healthy, warm, and strong on the front lines is quite another.
As we discussed in "Genre," Slaughterhouse-Five really draws attention to the fact that it's a book and is being written by an author. This is part of what makes it a textbook "postmodern" novel—or "pomo," if you want to sound slick about it.
With a more traditional novel, you read it as though it's a direct representation of something that really happens (even though you know it's fiction). In other words, you forget that you're reading a novel. But readers of Slaughterhouse-Five can never fall into this illusion. The narrator introduces the book and pops up throughout its "fictional" sections to remind us that "Billy Pilgrim" is a product of his imagination. At the same time, the blurring between the narrator's life and Billy Pilgrim's experiences challenge our ideas of what is fiction and what is truth.
The narrator appears occasionally in the "Billy Pilgrim" portions of the novel to remind us that, while the events Billy encounters in Germany may seem farfetched or unfamiliar, they are based on the narrator's lived experience.
Vonnegut uses the fictional structure of the Tralfamadorian novel to structure Slaughterhouse-Five. This emphasizes that both the narrator's introduction to the novel and Billy Pilgrim's portion of the story arise from the same place: Vonnegut himself.