We all wish we could travel through time, going back to correct our stupid mistakes or zooming ahead to see the future. In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, however, time travel does not seem so helpful. Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut's main character, has come unstuck in time. He bounces back and forth between his past, present, and future lives in a roller coaster time trip that proves both senseless and numbing. Examining Billy's time traveling, his life on Tralfamadore, and the novel's schizophrenic structure shows that time travel is actually a metaphor for our human tendency to avoid facing the unpleasant reality of death.
Because he cannot control time travel, Billy is forced to relive again and again some of the most painful parts of his life. For example, Edgar Derby, his wartime father-figure, is senselessly executed by the Germans for stealing a teapot, while Valencia Pilgrim, his own wife, dies accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning after her car's exhaust system is damaged in an accident. Barbara Greeley has observed that the effect of having to witness these events over and over is that "Billy becomes emotionally desensitized to human suffering and death, and is thus robbed of compassion" (3). Her point is well taken, for without this human emotion Billy is reduced to the level of an unfeeling machine. On the planet Tralfamadore where Billy is taken after he is kidnapped by extraterrestrials, his machine-like response to suffering and death grows only worse.
Like Billy, the Tralfamadorians have no sense of chronological order; they see time as an earthling might "see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains" (85-86), with...
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...ound by time, which includes the ultimate reality of death. Although death limits us by limiting our experiences, our lives are made more meaningful precisely because they are so short. Unlike Tralfamadorians, who cannot change history, we can look back in time and learn from the mistakes of the past. Only in this sense can we truly be time travelers: that we reflect on the past and incorporate its lessons into our present lives so that the future will be more productive.
Greeley, Barbara. "New Insights into Vonnegut's Thinking: Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan." Psychology Today June 1990: 1+.
Marten, Stephen Edward. "Why We Read Vonnegut Today." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Kurt Vonnegut. Ed Russell Baker. New York: Norton, 1988. 8-25.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1988.
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