"Slaughterhouse-Five": Main Character Analysis

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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim is not time traveling nor going to an alien planet. Time-traveling and going to an alien planet becomes coping mechanisms through which he can deal with traumatic events that he experiences during his lifetime. Billy is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is a mental condition that is triggered by terrifying events. This condition is mainly experienced by individuals who have witnessed or even experienced traumatic events such as war, violence and child abuse among others. The veterans often suffer from PTSD due to some of the experiences they witness during wars. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include; flashbacks, anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about traumatic events that happened in the past. Billy suffers from PTSD due to traumatic events that happened in his childhood and as a soldier in World War II.

PTSD is a psychological disorder that an individual may develop due to an extremely traumatic event that threatens the life or safety of a person. According to Vasterling et al, individuals suffering from PTSD tend to repeatedly re-experience the traumatic events vividly in their thoughts, perceptions, and even dreams. Some people re-experiencing such occurrences are sometimes aware that they are recollecting such experiences. Others hallucinate, are deluded, or may have flashbacks that may make them feel as if the trauma is recurring in the present. Other symptoms of PTSD include avoiding people, situations events, and objects that are associated with such events. The emotional well-being of individuals suffering from PTSD tends to be affected to the extent they are not able to express certain feelings which include affection and intimacy.

In Slaughterhouse-Five Billy Pilgrim repeatedly re-experiences traumatic events that had happened to him in the past. Although the concept of traveling in is time introduced in the book, Billy is not physically traveling through time but rather, Billy is re-experiencing some traumatic events that happened to him in the past. Billy does not have much control over his thoughts and cannot decide when to relive the experiences. He is described as “spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun” PTSD is evident from the fact that all the events that he reexperiences are mostly tragic events that affect his mental and emotional well-being. The events in the Slaughterhouse-Five took place in the past and Billy is forced to relive the events due to his PTSD. His time travel and going to planet Tralfamodre are not physical but rather it is psychological.

Billy suffers from PTSD due to some of the events that happened during his childhood which due to a poor relationship with his parents. Some scenes in the story give decide insights into Billy’s childhood and that suggests that Billy had a tragic childhood due to a dysfunctional relationship with his parents. In one of the scenes, Billy is a young child with his father at a swimming pool. Billy feels terrified since he knows that his father will throw him into the deep end of the swimming pool to teach him to swim. Billy feels numb, helpless, and fearful as he is carried by the father from the shower room to the swimming pool where he ends up at the bottom. This implies that Billy was terrified for his life as a child and his father may have been very aggressive and abusive towards him. Child abuse events sometimes have lasting effects on the children and Billy reliving such events as an adult shows that he indeed has an abusive childhood which affects him up to today. When Billy went to the hospital, the doctors imply that he is suffering from PTSD due to the abuse he suffered as a child, according to the doctors 'Billy was going to pieces because his father had thrown him into the deep end of the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool when he was a little boy and had then taken him to the rim of the Grand Canyon.

During the Second World War, Billy witnessed and experienced many traumatic events which have contributed to the PTSD that he is suffering from. As a soldier, Billy, for example, was held a prisoner by the Germans and he also witnessed one of the biggest massacres in the history of Europe “which was the firebombing of Dresen. During the tragedy, one hundred and thirty-five thousand people were killed with the use of conventional weapons. In addition to the war, Billy experienced trauma due to a plane crash that happened on top of Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont where everyone died apart from Billy. While he was recovering in the hospital his wife died accidentally due to poisoning by carbon monoxide.

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Due to PTSD, Billy refuses to talk and care about the things that happened during the war. His wife Valencia tries to talk to him about the war. She, for example, says 'You must have secrets about the war. Or, not secrets, I guess, but things you don't want to talk about, and Billy simply replies 'No'. His wife also asks whether the war was awful to which he simply responds 'sometimes'. Billy realizes that the truth about the war frightens him. He is always in a mental state of wanting to block the period of war from his mind and he feels like talking about it will cause him not to function properly. When his wife starts asking questions, Billy is frightened since he realizes how startling the war was and this shows that he tries to block the memories to avoid emotional pain. He has tried to develop an apathetic personality to help him function properly. Billy is mentally disturbed and although he lives with the memories of the tragedies that he experienced during the war, it is on a subconscious level and not on the conscious one. When his wife brings up the war, Billy does not want to talk about it since this would make him conscious of the tragedies that he witnessed and experienced and he avoids it to be able to function properly in the outside world.

Billy does not go to the aliens’ planet and his encounters with aliens can be seen as delusions and hallucinations that emanate from his poor mental state due to PTSD. Billy for example talks of the planet Tralfamadore which in an actual sense does not exist. Billy's daughter tells him that the talk about planet Tralfamodre is crazy. According to her “There is no such planet as Tralfamadore”. The consistent talk of planet Tralfamadore that is non-existent indicates that Billy is losing touch with reality. According to Foa et al (2016), delusions are false beliefs that an individual holds that are contradicted by reality. Billy is stubborn in his beliefs about aliens and he does not realize that the idea is illogical and unbelievable to reasonable people. When his daughter tries to reason with him that it’s illogical, he justifies his delusions by arguing that people do not know about it since it cannot be detected from earth.

Tralfamadorians are not real but rather a coping mechanism for Billy due to his PTSD. When in the hospital, Billy meets Rosewater who is a former infantry captain who just like Billy seems to be suffering from PTSD. Rose water introduces Billy to science fiction novels and particularly the writings of Kilgore Trout. “Kilgore Trout became Billy's favorite living author, and science fiction became the only sort of tale he could read”. It is through one of Kilgore Trout’s books and specifically The Big Board, that Billy comes up with the delusions of Tralfamadorians. In the novel, there is a man and woman who are abducted by extraterrestrials and put in a zoo for display on an alien planet. This is very similar to what Billy experiences whereby he is captured and put on display in a zoo on planet Tralfamadore. Billy’s delusions of aliens also seem to come from other science fiction novels by Kilgore Trout. The Tralfamadorians, for example, are shaped like an alien described in the novel The Gospel from Outer Space.

Through the science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout, Billy and Rosewater try to deal and cope with the PTSD that they were left with due to events their experiences in the war. The narrator, for example, says 'So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe, science fiction was a big help”. This describes what Billy and Rosewater were doing in the hospital to deal with their mental trauma. Through science and fiction, Billy tries to re-invent the universe in his mind and he incorporates the planet Tralfamadore into his reality. Through this, Billy can escape from the reality of his past traumatic experiences. Rosewater, for example, tells the psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living”. Planet Tralfamadore and the Tralfamadorians are not real but they are a coping mechanism that helps Billy to cope with his mental state. Billy creates the idea of Tralfamadorians purely as an escape mechanism through which he completely divorces from reality.

Billy develops various ideas to support the Tralfamadorians’ philosophy. According to Billy, the Tralfamadorians, for example, tend to view life and death differently. Billy says that one of the most important things that he has learned from the Tralfamadorians is that “when a person dies he only appears to die”. They also hold the view that “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” and therefore it is stupid to cry at people’s funerals since they are still living in the past. According to them, people’s lives do not follow the timeline of birth to death. They argue that even though a person dies, he/she is living at another point in time. Due to this perspective, Billy sees no reason for grieving over people’s deaths.

Billy seems to have suffered emotional numbing due to PTSD that he suffers from as a result of world war two. In the novel, the phrase “so it goes” is used throughout the novel. The narrator uses the phrase every time a person dies and it illustrates Billy’s point of view. This shows that he has witnessed the deaths of many people until he takes death as a very common occurrence that does not have to be dwelled upon. Throughout the novel, Billy hardly gets upset or emotional while dealing with the tragedies and even deaths of the other characters. Billy shows very few emotions apart from weeping “Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping”. Emotionally, Billy is distanced from the real world which is evident from his lack of empathy and emotionless relations to tragedies. When for example his daughter convinces him that planet Tralfamadore is non-existent, Billy becomes frustrated with the daughter but he does not get angry at her “Bill's anger was not going to rise with hers. He never got mad at anything. He was wonderful that way”. This shows that Billy had shut down emotionally and he had lost the ability to express feelings which is a symptom of PTSD.

The Tralfamadorians’ view of life forms the foundation of the phrase “so it goes” and it is what the Tralfamadorians say when a person dies. Through these beliefs, Billy can live with the events that he has experienced and he has suffered throughout his life. The Tralfamadorians’ philosophy does not try to make any sense out of the events that have happened and it thus helps Billy in dealing with traumatic events that have happened in the past through re-interpreting the events. For example, instead of trying to interpret and understand traumatic events such as the Dresden bombing and why it had to happen, the Tralfamadorians’ view shows Billy that there is no reason for such occurrences. Therefore instead of trying to process that the bombing was a traumatic and horrible event that ended the lives of many innocent people, the philosophy shows Billy that death is not inconsequential. This helps Billy in dealing with the memories in a way that he can function. Adoption of the Tralfamadorians’ view thus helps Billy in escaping his PTSD and in living an outwardly normal life in which his emotions are suppressed. This causes him to live a resigned life whereby he is indifferent and apathetic which affects how he relates with other people. 

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