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
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming,” I said to him lazily, “just ask for Wild Bob.”