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Slaughterhouse-Five | Themes

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War

Set during World War II, arguably the best modern example of a war fought for a moral cause, the novel shows how war brutalizes the weak and innocent. Young men who are unprepared and, in Billy Pilgrim's case, underequipped, are expected to both accept and inflict the brutality of war, and they are asked to participate in these actions by people who have lost touch with the realities of the battlefield. Billy's experience pits a romanticized vision of war held by characters such as Bertram Copeland Rumfoord and Roland Weary against the reality of war experienced by the privates and POWs.

In many ways the war, which connects all the experiences of Billy Pilgrim's life, disrupts Billy's psychological development and therefore his human development. He remains Billy, the boy, rather than becoming William, the man. Despite the seeming material success of Billy's life following the war, his job stems from a family connection rather than passion or genuine interest, and Billy is disconnected from his family and most importantly his legacy or his son. Instead of gaining the maturity of manhood, Billy becomes the zoo-bound curiosity of an alien race.

Materialism

After he returns from the war Billy Pilgrim achieves the American Dream. He is wealthy and respected in his community, working as an optometrist and serving as the president of the Lion's Club; he has a nice modern home and family with a wife and two children; he drives an expensive car. Yet he remains disconnected from his life and the people in it. These material possessions and wealth do little to soothe the trauma he has sustained. Billy's material success is surface level only. It masks the deep psychological wounds of the war and his struggles to make meaning of a violent world.

It is even more challenging for Billy to make meaning in the materialistic world to which he returns after the war, where many Americans are trying to construct meaning "from things ... found in gift shops." The narrator warns his sons not "to work for companies which make massacre machinery" because the United States has become a rich country filled with poor people—people who are poor in spirit and compassion.

Time and Free Will

Billy Pilgrim's movements through time show how the events of his life connect. He moves fluidly between the present and past—from work or his home to a POW camp or the slaughterhouse—through memory, research, or a trip to Dresden. This movement through time happens to Billy rather than through his own control, illustrating his lack of free will.

The most formative events of Billy's life, from his experience learning to swim as a child to his participation in the war, have been orchestrated by other parties: his parents and the U.S. government. While Billy prefers to sink rather than to swim after being thrown in the deep end of the pool, his will is thwarted by a rescue. Billy is drafted into and survives the war despite his inadequacies; he lacks training, supplies, and gear. Yet even if he had been well trained and well equipped, he might still have died.

As a result Billy loses any sense that his own decisions matter, and he abandons the idea he has the ability to exercise free will, even going so far as to use the philosophy of an alien culture to reinforce this belief. The novel's narrative structure mirrors Billy's movement through time and his confused psyche, which finds refuge in the Tralfamadorian view of death, free will, and time. The Tralfamadorians believe all moments of time repeat and recur endlessly in a fourth dimension. If this is the case then fate is predetermined and free will is an illusion. Humans mistakenly believe in free will because they mistakenly believe time is linear. Billy finds comfort in this philosophy because it means he is not responsible for any of the destruction or death he has witnessed.

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