The existence of free will has been a popular and long-debated topic. Many have pondered whether humans have the ability to control the outcome of future events in their lives or if one’s destiny is fixed and predetermined. For example, some followers of Christianity believe that because God is sovereign and decides everything that will happen, the will of man is insignificant. Contrary to this opinion, libertarians (in a philosophical sense) believe in the presence of free will as opposed to the philosophy of determinism. In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, author Kurt Vonnegut presents the Tralfamadorians, an alien race whose population has the ability to see things in not just three, but rather four dimensions. Their knowledge of this fourth dimension allows them to have a unique perception of the universe. The Tralfamadorians witness all moments in time, occurring and recurring endlessly and simultaneously. Because they believe that all moments of time have already happened, they possess an attitude of acceptance about their fates, figuring that they are powerless to change them. Several events in the main character Billy Pilgrim’s life also touch upon the topic of free will as he drifts in and out of different parts of his life. Destruction caused by warfare is another prominent theme in the novel. Ever since the beginning of mankind, war has been a constant part of history. During these conflicts, lives are taken from the people affected, cities are destroyed, and countries crumble under the superior power of others. The events in Slaughterhouse-Five revolve around Billy’s experience during World War II primarily in the German city of Dresden, where he spent most of his time in the war. The city of Dresden suffered severe damage to its infrastructure and a massive amount of civilian casualties during the war, and as a prisoner of war being kept there, Billy Pilgrim witnessed the city’s destruction firsthand. His experiences from the war left him unharmed physically, but his exposure to the death and mayhem caused by it damaged him deep down and affected the rest of his life. In his book Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut explores the topics of the illusion of free will and the destructiveness of war through the experiences of protagonist Billy Pilgrim and the alien race of the Tralfamadorians.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim experiences many events throughout his life in which outside forces go against his free will. In fact, he is forced into uncomfortable surroundings for most of his life. In one part of the story, his father attempts to teach Billy, then a child, how to swim by throwing him into the deep end of a pool. Much to the disappointment of Mr. Pilgrim, Billy decides that he would rather drown than learn to swim. However, Billy’s dad rescues him before he reaches the bottom of the pool, going against Billy’s free will to be there. Later in his life, Billy gets drafted into the army during World War II, again against his will, hindering his goal in pursuing a career in optometry. In one scene during the war, Billy finds himself lost in the confusion after the historic Battle of the Bulge. He is stuck deep behind enemy lines with three other soldiers. The soldiers, who are more well-trained and adequately equipped than Billy, allow him to tag along, but it becomes evident that Billy is a burden for the group. Although Billy wishes to stay behind so the others can travel more quickly, the other soldiers force him to keep moving against his will. In the army, Billy is a chaplain’s assistant, which is essentially a joke of a rank. Billy has no friends, no weapons, and lacks decent equipment. As Vonnegut puts it, “He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends.” However, while the three experienced and well-equipped soldiers all end up dying sometime during the war, Billy, unfit for war, somehow survives. Vonnegut implements this into the story to emphasize the illusion of fate. Most importantly, when Billy Pilgrim is abducted by the aliens and stays on their planet of Tralfamadore, he learns one thing from his captors: there is no such thing as free will. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions, the fourth of which is time. Therefore, they can see everything that happens in the history of time, and to them, their lives and everything else in history has already been predetermined. As one Tralfamadorian said to Billy, “If I hadn't spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn't have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” The Tralfamadorians’ beliefs and the events in Billy Pilgrim's life exemplify author Kurt Vonnegut’s view on free will as an illusion and ultimately nonexistent.
The destructiveness of war is also prominent in the novel as it presents itself in both the demolishing of physical property as well as the crushing of the human spirit and the destruction of the millions of people who lost their lives in World War II. Slaughterhouse-Five primarily revolves around the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden above all other events, as Billy Pilgrim randomly travels through different parts of his life. In the novel, Vonnegut writes that about 135,000 people in the city died during this scene in the war, describing it as “the greatest massacre in European history.” Billy, who was a prisoner of war during the bombing, was held at a slaughterhouse nearby. He, along with several other American prisoners and their German guards, managed to survive the air raid by seeking shelter in a meat locker. When they finally emerged from their place of refuge, the obliterated and smoking Dresden was described as “like the moon now - nothing but minerals.” Billy and the other prisoners of war were then put to work in the ruins, digging out countless previously living humans in “corpse mines.” Billy’s experiences from the war later affect him as he develops post-traumatic stress disorder several months after and is put into psychiatric care. He also breaks down at different parts of his post-war life, most notably when a quartet plays a song at his wedding that causes him to become unexpectedly upset. Billy Pilgrim’s mental deterioration from his war experiences are also evident when he tells war stories to Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore and when he is recovering from injuries sustained from his plane crash in Vermont. In the latter scene, Billy goes slightly insane when the patient neighboring him mentions Dresden. In a more radical interpretation, the whole idea of the Tralfamadorians may have been a hallucination procured by Billy as he tries to solve his problems with a war-torn mind. In the end, Dresden’s annihilation, its population’s extermination, and the protagonist’s mental deterioration from his exposure to the horrors of World War II all demonstrate Vonnegut’s perception of the destructiveness of war.
The illusion of free will and the destructiveness of war are both topics clearly reflected upon through Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in which outside factors cause things to go against his will and the beliefs of the Tralfamadorians both illustrate the author’s opinion that free will is a fantasy. The fire-bombing and ravaging of Dresden and the tragic number of casualties it caused emphasized the destructiveness of war, along with the portrayal of Billy Pilgrim’s mental deterioration shown in several cases after he returns from duty on the European front. In the last line of the novel, a bird says to Billy, “Poo-tee-weet?”, illustrating the lack of words to describe the horrors of war and providing a final example of its destructiveness.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, the primary upshot of what Billy Pilgrim learns from the plunger-shaped aliens is this: if we cannot change anything about time, there is no such thing as free will.
We suppose there are worse lessons to learn from aliens (or toilet plungers).
After all, free will means the ability to alter your own future. In fact, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy that the whole idea of free will seems to be unique to Earthlings. Everyone else in the universe knows better. Billy uses this knowledge to comfort himself about the realities of aging, death, and pain.
But we don't think Billy's resignation is necessarily a good thing. Sure, it makes him feel better, but it also lets him off the hook: if you can't improve the world, why bother?
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Edgar Derby only becomes a character when he chooses to stand up against American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr. It's this decision to stand up for what he believes in that distinguishes Derby from other people in the novel.
When Billy chooses to tell the world about Tralfamadore, perhaps it's the first and last independent decision he makes. However, his effort to make his own choices gets undercut by his daughter and the general public, who all think Billy is a nutterbutter. Everyone in the novel operates under so many social and familial constraints on their freedom that the attempt to make one's own choices appears insane.