Slaughterhouse-Five

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Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science Fiction and Aliens Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Slaughterhouse-Five, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon

The first sentence of Chapter Two illustrates the importance of time in the novel: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Vonnegut attempts one form of time-travel, memory, in his conversations with O’Hare about the war. But they find their memories are incomplete. The novel’s second option, then, is actual travel through time. Billy Pilgrim can do this because he has learned of Tralfamadorian time, where the past, present, and future exist at once.

Time in the novel is subjective, or determined by those experiencing it. For example, the British POWs in Germany, captured at the beginning of the war, have established a “timeless” prison camp. For them, the monotony of daily life has insulated them from history and the war “outside.” On the other hand, Valencia and Barbara, Billy’s daughter, serve to mark “normal,” lived time. Barbara perceives life as linear and is angered by Billy’s claims of a four-dimensional universe.

Billy’s life of hospitalizations and violence present a kind of eternal recurrence: the same events occur again and again. Thus Tralfamadorian time becomes the novel’s time. Events are not presented as a direct, linear narrative but are instead jumbled, recounted partially and filled in later. Tralfamadorian novels, of which Vonnegut’s might be an imitation, are to be read “all at once,” with “no beginning, no middle, no end.” Because all time can be seen simultaneously, all events have already happened. Thus “free will” in the novel does not exist. As the Tralfamadorians say, “There is no why.” Events that will take place in the future are the same as events taking place now, and as Billy learns, it is up to human beings to enjoy life’s most pleasurable moments.

Time, Time-travel, and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time, Time-travel, and Free Will appears in each chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five

Below you will find the important quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five related to the theme of Time, Time-travel, and Free Will.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous phrases in a novel full of famous phrases. Coming "unstuck in time" means losing the narrative order of one's life. It can be a scary process - Pilgrim himself wonders how it is possible - but it can also be a liberating one. For Pilgrim, the coming unstuck happens because of his interactions with the Tralfamadorians, who tell him of their world and their perceptions, which are not limited to the three dimensions of human perception.

Vonnegut also uses "coming unstuck" as a way of moving through the novel he has created. He does not always rely on strict narrative chronology. Instead, he purposefully disrupts this chronology - he attempts to tell Pilgrim's story, and the story of the war, and his own life's story at the same time, using whatever means are necessary, and ignoring the sequential logic of some accounts. Vonnegut does this not because he wants to confuse the reader, but because he wants to break down the reader's expectations for how time, in fiction and in life, ought to function. 

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Chapter 3 Quotes

But lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is an indication of both the whimsy and the religious seriousness of Vonnegut's writing. This scene is played, in part, for laughs - as, of course, Pilgrim couldn't "actually" see Adam and Eve in the boots of the soldier standing over him. But Vonnegut is not so much concerned with the explicit possibility or impossibility of the scenes he describes. For him, the validity of what Pilgrim believes he saw is the same as what someone might have "reported" from a given scene. Perception and external reality are described on equal footing throughout the text.

The story of Adam and Eve is, of course, a commonly-referenced one - if not the most commonly-referenced in Western literature. Yet it is almost certainly the case that no author has described Adam and Eve viewed in exactly this context - amid the horrors of war, in the polish of a boot. Vonnegut's ability to make new even the most tried-and-true of tropes is another feature of his writing. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some . . . . The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. . . . Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another, very important instance of "coming unstuck in time." The planes from the film quite literally become what they were. The horrors of war, the violence into which characters are thrust, is run back, and pain, once the end position, is now the beginning. Humans and objects are allowed to escape their own destruction. The clock is wound back.

Part of Vonnegut's theory of time and free will depends on the fiction writer's ability to move quickly between situations that would unfold chronologically in life. Thus, although the violence of war is one-directional, going from completeness to destruction, the violence in this scene is allowed to run the opposite way.

The reasons for this are not stated explicitly - but the Tralfamadorians, Vonnegut's theorists of time, make clear that, once time is seen as operating in more than one direction, human suffering is understood in a vastly different light. It is seen as one part of the human condition, rather than as the necessary end-point of war and conflict. 

Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

Related Characters: Tralfamadorians (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another take on what it means to be in, and outside of, time. For the Tralfamadorians, time appears like the side of a mountain ridge - a series of peaks and valleys, which can be traversed at will. To humans, of course, time seems unidirectional and impossible to stop. But for Billy Pilgrim, who is "unstuck," time assumes the qualities of Tralfamadorian time.

Interestingly, then, Pilgrim is "trapped" in time when speaking to the Tralfamadorians - but in a manner different from normal human "entrapment" in time. Humans are trapped in time without knowing it. They are imprisoned in a present, and can view the past and speculate on the future. But they do not have the ability to traverse these moments. Pilgrim, however, in speaking to the Tralfamadorians, is able to understand just how the "present" is like an "amber" (sticky sap) in which one is stuck - and how one might move forward or backward to different moments at will. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene . . . . There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

This description of Tralfamadorian fiction is, in many ways, a manifesto for Tralfamadorian time itself, and a means of understanding how Vonnegut attempts to play with time throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. If the images of the novel can be "seen at once," then they congeal, in Tralfamadorian fiction. This relates to Pilgrim's "unstuckness" in time, his ability to move from one moment to another, forward and backward, without reference to the supposed linearity of a human life.

Vonnegut is a "postmodern" novelist to the extent that he plays with notions of self-reference - instances when a novel indicates to itself and to the reader that it is in fact a novel, not "real life." That Vonnegut includes within Slaughterhouse-Five a character named Kilgore Trout, who is a writer of science fictions, points to Vonnegut's awareness that he, too, is writing a form of science fiction. Trout also stands as a slightly satirized version of a "hack" sci-fi writer, who churns out titles regularly.

And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut makes a serious justification of the social impact of science fiction. He argues that writers like Pilgrim and Trout are invested in sci-fi not simply because it is an interesting way to think about the world and its future - although it is that, too. Vonnegut argues that science fiction can be a vehicle for social change - a way of imagining how problems might be solved, a way of constructing another universe in which humans might live.

This is another example of Vonnegut's self-reflexive commentary in Slaughterhouse-Five - his analysis of what it means to write a novel while writing a novel. Just as the novel itself is partially science fiction - and therefore concerned with creating a new world - Vonnegut's characters write novels that envision and create new worlds in which peace might be possible, in which the wars of the 20th century might be left behind. Both Vonnegut and Trout are therefore engaged in the same utopian act of writing.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Tralfamadorians, of course, saw that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut argues here that, for a human, there can be no more damning fate than to be compared to a machine. Machines, by this logic, are unthinking, unfeeling. They have no souls, they are operated by others - they are robots.

But Vonnegut argues, via the Tralfamadorians, that there is more to being a machine than this. A machine is any complex system that operates in response to the world. By this definition, of course human beings are machines, along with all other living things, plants and animals alike.

There is, by this second definition, no shame at all in being compared to a machine. Indeed, for the Tralfamadorians, machine-hood is what connects people, plants, and animals - it is the glue that binds life together in the first place, both on earth and on other planets. Thus they insist that humans are machines even when humans insist they are organic matter "opposed" to machine-hood.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds . . . It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer. So it goes.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Kilgore Trout
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the metaphors Vonnegut uses to describe human behavior. Here, Vonnegut depicts the persuasive power of human greed. Humans, in this example, will always flock to the money tree - they will always be drawn to the bills that fall from it. Even though these bills will appeal to humans, they will not be distributed equally, but will instead cause the humans to fight with one another, and eventually to kill each other. But this is okay for the money tree, because the dead bodies of humans can then be used to fertilize the tree and encourage it to grow more. This continues the cycle, producing more of the tree, and more money, and more humans who wish to take that money.

Vonnegut therefore establishes a symbolic basis for the capitalist system that, in the years after the war, sweeps across the world. It is a system that makes people (superficially) happy, but also one that causes great discord and strife - the very strife that "fertilizes" the system and allows it to continue. 

The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut takes up a very simple and tragic part of his story - that of the "dumbness" of luck, or fate. Those Germans who felt that they were putting themselves safely to bed - it was they who died in the air raid, as they could not have known that the Americans would strike in exactly the place where they felt most secure. Others, who did not have homes to go to, did wind up safe. Indeed, POWs, who were trapped in a barracks and therefore more or less protected from the Allied bombing (including Vonnegut), found themselves in the safest position of all, and survived an attack by their own army against German military and civilian populations. 

Generally, in Vonnegut's account of the war, it is precisely when a person feels most safe that that person finds himself or herself in harm's way. War is the ultimate game of change - it cannot be regulated, or even explained - and it is difficult to describe. But war can absolutely be experienced, which is why Vonnegut attempts to convey World War II from as many different vantages as he does in the novel. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut returns to the narrative to begin the summary section of the novel, in which he describes his relationship to some of the characters whose lives he has depicted. Vonnegut argues that Tralfamadorian time implies that all human life extends infinitely in all directions, that it can be accessed at this or that point - that any human being, in other words, is capable of becoming unstuck in time, just like Pilgrim. 

Indeed, Vonnegut has offered a world in the novel in which any reader can become unstuck right along with Pilgrim. The novel is a technology for accessing different moments, different memories. These are moments from Vonnegut's life, but the things Vonnegut describes are relatable to the context in which any given reader might live. The novel is therefore a kind of time machine in the Tralfamadorian model, showing us how humans behave at different points, shuttling constantly between them. 

“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” I said to him lazily, “just ask for Wild Bob.”

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Wild Bob
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This line, which Vonnegut repeats from earlier in the novel, is a bond between O'Hare and Vonnegut, of which Vonnegut is reminded on a trip back to Dresden with his friend in the 1960s. Wild Bob died of pneumonia in the prisoner train car, and in telling his fellow soldiers they could ask for him in Cody, he's saying that he will have a life again, that he will be reborn - at least in memory - among the people of Cody.

Like "so it goes," this line, repeated by characters throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, is a reminder of the human element of war, and of the cost of war. Wild Bob was by all accounts a good man, and the life he led in Cody, his "real" life, was about as distant from his in Dresden as it could possibly be. Vonnegut and O'Hare think of Wild Bob when they think of the human souls the war took away - and the resilience and humor of those, like Wild Bob, who were not lucky enough to survive. 

Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the most famous lines in the novel. Vonnegut here uses the sound of a bird chirping in the trees - played for comedic effect - as a reminder of the indifference of nature to the violence humans inflict on one another. The birds would sing in the trees whether humans were kind to one another or not. They will sing in the trees before and after atrocities are committed. They would have sung if Americans had lost the war, just as soon as they sang when the Americans won.

Vonnegut does this not to argue that these distinctions, between right and wrong, good and bad, don't matter - for him, they matter an enormous amount. But he does claim, in the indifference of nature, that good and bad occur in a world that does not necessarily arc toward the former or latter. Goodness and badness are matters of human choice in a greater world filled with arbitrariness and seeming bad luck. The choices that humans make are a small counterweight against the randomness and indifference of the events surrounding.