Alike millions of vets, WW2 doyen, protagonist Billy Pilgrim is damaged by the effects of PTSD. At a time when PTSD hadn’t officially become a diagnosis, Khurt Vonnegut wrote his satirical novel Slaughterhouse-five. The central character to his narrative, Billy Pilgrim, displayed multiple traits leading to the indication of his sickness. Vonnegut uses Billy Pilgrim’s distorted timeline as a symbol to demonstrate his theme of the devastation caused during and after war.Because of his disease, Billy suffers with certain experiences.
Yet his turmoil manifest itself as time travel, and Billy’s time travel through those experiences is a symbol for his inability to cope. Billy has his first experience with time travel while he is being shot at. Up until this point of the novel the time line had been linear so in order to cope Billy imagines the first time he was ever truly terrified, but instead of recognizing it as just a memory Billy attributes it to time travel (Vonnegut 43). He is never described as being mentally unsound prior to being in the war, yet coming out of it he begins to time travel frequently and is admitted into a mental institution. The war transformed a simple man from Ilium, New York into a passive participant of his life. His life after his initial encounter with time travel is devoid of any real stability, and while the novel focuses on him, a sense of instability and a lack of certainty is a widespread sentiment to anyone who encounters a war. The war doesn’t simply disappear after a treaty is signed. It’s legacy remains’ well after the war is over, and in Billy’s case the war never ends.
He is forced to relive it and while externally he’s living moment by moment, he relives his entire existence, and it reflects in his “day to day” life. Even when he’s not time travelling he’s still plagued by his past because he doesn’t really have one, he lives in a constant present, and certain triggers cause him to relive them. Vonnegut uses certain “linking devices” that constantly reappear in the novel as an indicator to the subconscious thoughts of war in Billy’s mind (Vees-Gulani 178).
Singing men appear multiple times within the novel, but instead of simply being singing men they represent something direr to Billy. For example, a simple barbershop quartet made him physically ill, because it reminded him of for guards he saw after the Dresden bombing (Vonnegut 178). Blue and ivory feet are also a reoccurring sign for death that Billy note’s long after the war is over. Life and death are relative to him, so symbols of death are present even in his most mundane activities. Yet Billy’s flashbacks and events wouldn’t have occurred if it were not for the experience of the narrator, Kurt Vonnegut.Post-war hysteria was rightfully present, but Vonnegut’s presence as a narrator symbolizes the instructive and rational approach to a tragedy. Vonnegut comments that his war experience was “considerably exaggerated,” and Billy’s experiences in extension would be even more exaggerated, but Vonnegut’s experience still worthy recognition (Reed).
The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the Dresden, and as a narrator Vonnegut provides reliable context as to what occurred. Vonnegut came back to a nation that knew very little about the tragedy he had witnessed and like many other portions of the war, the bombing of Dresden was overshadowed (Vonnegut 22). Billy had the same experience upon his return. No one was else was talking about Dresden, so neither did he. The Dresden bombing became a topic of conversation largely because of this novel. Without it men like Billy potentially could have been overlooked and his experience would have been dismissed.
As well as being a contributor of context, Vonnegut provided a basis of comparison as to what a more favorable future for a veteran could be, but it only intensified the magnitude of Billy’s delirious thoughts. Vonnegut offered a logical approach to a man who was sentenced to an illogical existence, so that the reader could understand the severity of the situation, instead of sorting through the mind of a man who is constantly reliving traumatic experiences. While Vonnegut did help open a dialogue for the Dresden bombing, only so much can really be said about such a huge tragedy.To a sufferer of PTSD even the simplest things hold great significance, and for Billy the sound of a birds chirping is a symbol of war, but within the novel they also symbolize the inane things that can be said about war. Wars can be debated over and analyzed as to what caused it and what ended it, but it does not reduce the remains left in its wake. The first chapter specifically states that the novel ends in “poo-tee-weet?”, but in the context of the novel the sound is made right after the bombing which is the catalyst of Billy’s trauma (Vonnegut 7). Bill doesn’t respond to the bird’s question, because there is no answer.
He does not have one immediately after or even after he is given time to reflect on it in a hospital. Words do not reduce what happened, so Vonnegut never attempts within the novel. Every experience that Billy lives through is weighted based on how he felt after it, not what he said or what he did, but what he felt. This novel was made as an anti-war novel and intentionally does not glorify any parts of the war, even the heroic ones, because nothing should be said about it at all because it should not have happened (Vonnegut 10). No one should have to describe why a city was firebombed or why a simple man from Ilium, New York has to be asked about it by the most humble of creatures.
No one should have live in fear because of a sight or sound that was a product of something that cannot be coherently described. Billy knows the consequences of war and is forced to relive them, and while he is unstuck time due to a group of aliens, many others have become unstuck in time due to a group of politicians.