Slaughterhouse-Five and the Psychological Consequences of War

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“How nice- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive” (Vonnegut 181).

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five the main character Billy Pilgrim experiences few emotions during his time in World War II. His responses to people and events lack intensity or passion. Throughout the novel Billy describes his time travel to different moments in his life, including his experience with the creatures of Tralfamadore and the bombing of Dresden. He wishes to die during most of the novel and is unable to connect with almost anyone on Earth. The fictional planet Tralfamadore appears to be Billy’s only way of escaping the horrors of war, and acts as coping mechanism. Billy seems to be a soldier with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as he struggles to express feelings and live in his reality. At the beginning of the novel the narrator proposes his reason for writing the book is to explain what happened in the Dresden fire bombing, yet he focuses on Billy’s psyche more than the bombing itself. PTSD prevents Billy from living a healthy life, which shows readers that the war does not stop after the fighting is over and the aftermath is ongoing. Billy Pilgrim’s story portrays the bombing and war in a negative light to readers, as Vonnegut shows the damaging effects of war on an individual, such as misperception of time, disconnect from peers, and inability to feel strong emotions, to overall create a stronger message.

Billy Pilgrim time travels to various moments in his life at random, which suggests he has no power over his mind and the memories that haunt him. He “is spastic in time, (and) has no control over where he is going next” (Vonnegut 43), as he struggles to make sense of his past. Billy’s ability to remember events in an erratic sequence, mirrors the happenings of war. War is sudden, fast paced, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. Billy cannot forget what he experienced during his time as a soldier, and in turn his mind subconsciously imitates this hectic quality of war. This behavior proves that although the war is over, “psychologically, Billy has never fully left” (Vees-Gulani). For many soldiers, especially those who were prisoners of war (POW), it is inevitable that their mind will not be like it once was (Vees-Gulani).

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