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Unstuck: Resisting Indifference in
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (Vonnegut 23).
Starting from his very first introductory sentence in Slaughterhouse-Five, it is clear Billy Pilgrim is powerless. He is unstuck. Billy Pilgrim cannot control where his life takes him as he is unpredictably snatched from one random point in his lifespan to another. He does not travel through time; he is shoved around in it.
We feel Billy Pilgrim’s perpetual state of helplessness. We are disoriented as we read from a shuffled deck of cards, with absolutely no idea where we will end up next, and we can only imagine how much more dizzying it must be to live it.
Of course, he probably isn’t actually living it. It seems awfully convenient that Pilgrim never mentions any of the bizarre science-fiction elements of his life until after a rattling airplane crash (30). But the practical side of Pilgrim’s story is irrelevant. What’s important is that Pilgrim feels powerless over the events in his life. He is unable to control his own past, present, or future, and thereby definitely unable to change any goings-on around him, which have been set in stone as firm as a mountain range (60). Pilgrim is yanked through his own existence by unseen winds; winds of what was, is, and will always be; and there is absolutely nothing he can do to stop them.
This parallels impeccably with the book itself. As Vonnegut confesses in his very first chapter, he does not believe Slaughterhouse-Five will change anything in the world. It is an “anti-glacier” book (3), a book that speaks out against war; against an unseen, unstoppable wind; against a force that chugs along, hindered by no one, marching as constant as time.
Naturally, Pilgrim’s passivity towards time and willingness to be yanked around in it is identical to his approach towards war. Pilgrim begs for his fellow soldiers to leave him behind, to let him die, again and again and again (34). Pilgrim does not take action as the glamorized soldier does. Pilgrim allows himself to be hit and pushed and shot at by the people around him. For an environment built around fighting and fighting back, Pilgrim sure doesn’t fight. And he doesn’t fight in war for the same reasons he doesn’t fight for control over his life and the way it progresses: Because he can’t. Just as there’s no higher power for Pilgrim to utilize in gaining control over the shape of his life, there’s no discussion to be had in changing the progression of the war. As Bertram Rumfoord, a professor of history (i.e. a professor of time), insists, the butchery at Dresden, and many mass killings like it, “had to be done” (198).
And yet, it seems Vonnegut still seems to support the notion of taking action. This is an insane contradiction. Why would Vonnegut write a book which cost him “money and anxiety and time” (2) if he believed it would not accomplish a thing? The closest answer we get is that it is the human thing to do. Perhaps we can control nothing with an action, and perhaps we only stand to lose something valuable in such an action. But some things must be done, because they are the human thing to do. When Lot’s wife turned back to the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, it was not to save its citizens. She knew there was no saving them. She knew the situation was not in any way under her control. She knew turning back would kill her, and accomplish nothing else. But she did anyway. She had to, because she had to, because she had to (22). Similarly, when Billy finally thinks about the Dresden bombing, it is his choice. He isn’t being yanked back in time by the unseen winds. He chooses to remember it. He chooses to turn back to the burning city of Dresden (177).
Interestingly enough, this truly human moment is also Billy’s most powerful one. It is one of the few moments in the novel that Billy chooses something for himself. He isn’t being commanded to fight and kill and march, he isn’t going along with a marriage he doesn’t really want (107), he isn’t being forced under the wing of Roland Weary (35), he isn’t boarding a plane he knows will crash (154). He is alone. For once, nobody is influencing him, and for once, time is not forcing him somewhere new. For once, the world is within Billy Pilgrim’s control.
Does he accomplish anything external with it? Though Billy has changed from his confrontation, has he accomplished anything tangible in the world around him? No more than when he made a passionate appeal for peace to the Tralfamadorians only to be chastised for his stupidity, or when Edgar Derby “spoke movingly of the American form of government” only to be interrupted by the Dresden sirens (164). And yet, it doesn’t matter that nothing changed. Even though all their shouts and cries exist within a desolate void, even though they’re lost in an environment that pushes them from place to place, even though time will keep on chugging no matter what they say and do, they still acted. That’s the important part.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
New York: Dial Press, 2005. Print.