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Slaughterhouse-Five | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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What do the Tralfamadorians mean when they say we are "bugs in amber" in Chapter 4 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Tralfamadorians believe moments are what they are. They don't subscribe to Earthling notions about cause and effect, nor do they believe in the uniquely Earthling notion of free will. For Tralfamadorians moments are simply constructed in particular ways and the individual has no control over that construction: it is as though at all moments, not just after people die, they are like bugs fossilized in amber—stuck, powerless to move or direct our lives. Like fossil insects individuals are insignificant in the scheme of the Universe. Explanations—understanding why a moment is constructed as it is—hold no interest for Tralfamadorians. They don't believe it's worth their effort to understand how or why moments might be changed because they don't believe changes are possible. This philosophy affords Billy some comfort because he can relinquish any anguish or guilt he may have about his own role in the events that make up his life.

What evidence in Chapters 4 and 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five suggests the Tralfamadorians are figments of Billy Pilgrim's imagination?

Billy knows in advance the flying saucer is coming for him; his foreknowledge indicates he has invented the Tralfamadorians, perhaps as a way of coping with the anxiety he experiences when he stays up watching war movies on the night of his daughter's wedding. In addition Billy's vision of Tralfamadore appears to have parallels in the books he reads in the psychiatric ward in 1948, where his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, shares the works of Kilgore Trout with Billy, and the two of them read science fiction because "they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe." The Tralfamadorians take a form similar to that of the alien race depicted in one of Kilgore Trout's books. Billy also reads a book in which mental illnesses exist only in the fourth dimension and defy treatment from Earthling doctors, a condition that sounds similar to his being "unstuck in time."

What does Billy Pilgrim's family vacation tell the reader about him in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

When he is 12 years old Billy takes a trip through the American Southwest with his family. They visit the Grand Canyon, and Billy is overwhelmed and terrified at the sight; he imagines himself falling over the edge into the canyon. He is so anxious about this possibility he pees on himself when his mother touches him. When the family visits Carlsbad Caverns, Billy prays to get out of the cave before the ceiling collapses and does not know if he is still alive when the lights are turned out, immersing him in total darkness. Both of these locations are among the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. People visit them expecting to have fun, which was the likely intent for Billy's parents. At such a young age Billy's anxiety appears to be instinctive for him: even as a kid he is unable to let go of his fears and enjoy the moment. Furthermore, his anxiety is extreme. He does not just fear falling into the Grand Canyon; he fears it so much he loses control of his bodily functions. He does not just fear the darkness in the cavern and wish the lights would come on; he questions whether he is even alive or dead.

How is the Tralfamadorian novel structure, described in Chapter 5, similar to the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Tralfamadorian novels are assembled from a series of moments, meant to be taken in all at once to provide the reader with an idea or vision that is thought provoking and beautiful. The moments are carefully chosen, and they follow no clear plot. Slaughterhouse-Five follows a similar pattern. Most of the major events—including who lives and who dies—are presented in the early chapters, so there is no suspense, though more detail is provided about each of these events later in the book. The plot does not progress in an entirely linear way, and the narrative jumps from moment to moment. Just as Tralfamadorian novels are meant to be taken in all at once, Slaughterhouse-Five is best understood only after reading is complete and the reader can think about the book as a whole. Although Tralfamadorian time and its consolations explain the structure of Tralfamadorian novels (perhaps they are like static friezes of always-still-living characters), Slaughterhouse-Five employs a nonlinear structure to a different, bitterer end. It is as though the bombing of Dresden had no temporal bounds; its terrors seep backward into Billy's anxious childhood and forward into his death at the hands of an assassin.

How is Billy Pilgrim's life in the zoo on Tralfamadore in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five superior to his life on Earth?

For much of his time on Earth Billy is criticized and attacked. The other soldiers in the war don't accept him. He is humiliated and mocked for his manner of dressing and his body shape in the prison camp. After the war he marries a woman he doesn't love and lives a relatively anonymous life in Ilium. In the zoo on Tralfamadore however, Billy is a celebrity. He's special. The Tralfamadorians don't know he is funny looking, and the crowds that come to see him are enthralled by his daily activities. They watch him exercise and go about his daily routine; they go wild with cheering when he pees. This encouragement allows the naked Billy to feel confident in his body for the first time in his life. Later the Tralfamadorians give him young and beautiful Montana Wildhack to be his mate. She is the physical opposite of Valencia, and Billy has to earn her trust and love in a way that he did not with Valencia, which gives Montana's affection value. He has all the material comforts of home without the anxieties about earning a living or monitoring investments. The bubble he occupies in the zoo confines him, but it also makes Billy feel safe.

Why does Billy Pilgrim go through with marrying Valencia Pilgrim even after his mental illness has been treated in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Billy thinks proposing to Valencia is a symptom of his mental illness, but once he is engaged to her he commits. Billy's mother is focused on Valencia's wealth, and it certainly makes it easy for Billy to establish his business and make investments to grow his own fortune. For a passive personality such as Billy's, earning a good living with ease is likely appealing. Similarly Valencia herself requires very little effort on Billy's part. Her appearance makes her grateful a man is willing to marry her, so Billy does not have to actively court her or win her affections. He just has to show up, which aligns with Billy's passivity as well. Although he is not madly in love with Valencia—her devotion to him is far greater than his to her—he has also seen the future and knows the entire marriage will be "at least bearable." While this seems to be a low bar for marriage, it also makes Valencia a safe and steady choice for Billy.

In what ways is Howard W. Campbell correct in his critique of American life as it is portrayed in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

In Chapter 1 the narrator mentions none of his novels have a villain, but if Slaughterhouse-Five had a villain, Howard W. Campbell, the American who joins the Nazis in Germany and becomes a propagandist for them, might be it. He is prosecuted as a war criminal after the war, but his propaganda is not entirely without basis in reality. One of the things he criticizes about America is its treatment of the poor. According to him in America the poor are treated terribly, blamed for their own condition, and punished for it because the prevailing belief is that it is easy to make money. The scene in Chapter 3 in which Billy drives his Cadillac through the destroyed ghetto provides some evidence that America does treat its poor people terribly. Billy has made money easily in his postwar career, but this is largely because his marriage to Valencia gave him money to start with. Billy did not have to build his wealth from scratch, and one reason he married Valencia was so he could make a living easily. Campbell may sell the American soldiers short when he says they show no camaraderie or brotherly love for one another, but the soldiers' treatment of one another in the camp, ordering Billy Pilgrim, Paul Lazzaro, and Edgar Derby to find their own beds and blankets, shows even this statement is true some of the time. Furthermore, Campbell's description of the American soldier as "a sulky child who often wishes he were dead" could be describing Billy Pilgrim himself.

In what way can Paul Lazzaro be characterized as a poor soldier in Chapter 6 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Paul Lazzaro's physical unfitness for war is well documented in Chapter 4, but his psychological unfitness comes to the forefront in Chapter 6. Within hours of arriving at the prison camp, Lazzaro gets his arm broken in a fight with an English officer. The circumstances of the fight are never revealed, but Lazzaro's temper and the threats he flings at the officer hint that the confrontational, vengeful Lazzaro may have started the conflict. His propensity for violent and elaborate revenge becomes clear when Lazzaro describes feeding a dog a steak laced with metal blades because the dog bit him. Lazzaro enjoys inflicting pain for the fun of it, which is more the description of a war criminal than a soldier. He also shows no particular loyalty to his fellow soldiers or country, with the exception of Roland Weary, who was nearly as sadistic as Lazzaro. Lazzaro says he has nothing against the Germans because they've never done anything to him. He is not interested in fighting for a greater cause, only for revenge against people he believes have wronged him or his friends.

What kind of response does Edgar Derby receive from the American prisoners when he is named their leader in Chapter 6 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Edgar Derby is a natural choice as leader of the group because of his age and experience, and he displays a high level of integrity. He gets along with everyone and is generally respectable. He is also the only member of the group to be nominated, a nomination that comes from the head Englishman. The other soldiers have no interest in putting anyone forward for a leadership position, presumably because they are so exhausted, hungry, sick, and apathetic. Only two or three can muster the enthusiasm necessary to vote for Edgar Derby. Some, like Paul Lazzaro, are openly hostile to the entire proceeding. Lazzaro responds to the voting by inviting Derby to "take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut," even though Derby has been friendly with Lazzaro throughout their interactions. Although Lazzaro is abnormally angry about everything, his attitude here, mumbling obscenities during the vote, reflects the frustration and exhaustion felt by many of the men around him.

What points might Vonnegut have been making with the future changes to the United States envisioned by Billy Pilgrim in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five?

As envisioned by Billy Pilgrim the 1976 trip from Ilium to Chicago (where he will be killed by Paul Lazzaro's hit man) involves crossing three international borders. The United States has been divided into 20 small countries to keep it from being a threat to world peace. This vision of the future paints the United States as a major threat to peace because of its size, population, and power. Billy thinks dividing the country will eliminate the threat, even though countries smaller than the United States have started wars in the past. Billy's view of the United States as a threat likely comes from the fact that he has seen firsthand the level of damage Americans can inflict in war. Toward the end of his life Vonnegut came to question the superpower status of the United States, its dominating presence on the world stage, and its tacit approval of the manufacture and sale of arms. Central to his concerns was the idea that the United States was simply too large, both geographically and demographically; this gave it a status in world affairs that it did not deserve. The author's fictional division of the United States into multiple countries reflects a "solution" to his concerns.

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