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The human mind is a part of the body which current science knows little about. Trigger mechanisms, and other factors within the brain are relatively unknown to current humanity. Therefore, in order to produce a diagnostic on why Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck” in time, the reader of Slaughterhouse Five must come to terms with situations concerning the experiences described in the novel. Billy Pilgrim starts out, chronologically, as a fairly basic infantryman in the United States Army during the last Nazi offensive of the war, also known as the Battle of the Bulge (Vonnegut, 32). That battle resulted in fierce fighting, and also in massacres (such as the one that occurred near Malmedy, France), and the reader may be sure that there were men who became mentally unsound due to the effects of what they experienced there. Pilgrim is taken in by a group of soldiers who have found themselves behind the Nazi lines and are required to travel, by foot, back to friendly lines (Vonnegut, 32).
According to what research exists, severe hardship such as would exist on that journey could be enough to bring about a case of Acute Stress Disorder, but this combined with what followed afterward is certainly enough to bring about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health, Symptoms of PTSD). Again, look towards the following: during the trek Billy Pilgrim doesn’t move as quickly as the other soldiers desire to move, and so he is often lagging behind, and often the subject of scorn.
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Yet it gets even worse for Billy Pilgrim. The haunting he already has due to the trek and its circumstances is increased by two events. Firstly, Billy Pilgrim becomes acquainted with, and a friend to a fellow POW, a colonel who lost his entire regiment throughout the course of the fighting of the Battle of the Bulge (Vonnegut, 66, 67). The second is the death of a fellow enlisted soldier, Roland Weary, who looked after Pilgrim on the trek with the other soldiers; Weary stayed behind with Pilgrim when the break occurred and thus Weary blames Billy Pilgrim for his death (Vonnegut, 79, 80). The first experience shows him what Acute Stress Disorder can do to the mind, what it can do to a person on the last legs of their life. The second is an occurrence that passes by unknown to Billy Pilgrim, but it affects his life, and his mental capacity, just as effectively as the death of the Colonel does in his memories. What this reveals to the reader is that another man had been “given charge” to kill Billy Pilgrim after the war. This man, who was the sole comforter of Roland Weary during the latter’s final minutes on the train ride, promises to avenge Weary’s death by killing Pilgrim (Vonnegut, 84). But Vonnegut goes even further in his writing. Not only does this confidant, a Paul Lazzaro by name, promise (and proclaims that promise to Billy Pilgrim) but he ends up working in the same Slaughterhouse as Billy Pilgrim resides in during their days as POWs while in Dresden.
All of this brings the reader to the understanding that Billy Pilgrim has been morphed by what he has seen thus far of hatred, and of humanity’s injustices to humanity during times of war. He becomes even more morphed, even more the clay in the potter’s hands. The final turns of the potter’s wheel is Billy’s walking out onto the city streets after the destruction of Dresden. To encompass what he saw there, to understand what Kurt Vonnegut is trying to show the reader, some research about the circumstances surrounding the attack on Dresden must be understood.
The Firestorm of Dresden, Germany, was created over the course of three days by the bombers of the Royal Air Force and those of the U.S.’ Eighth Air Force. The bombing is not a bombing as we know them, where one bomb, dropping from the sky, can pinpoint an exact building, but the bombing of Dresden was a massed concentration of bombs. In reality, enough bombs were dropped that eleven square miles of the city were consumed during the raging fires (British National Archives). Counting the bodies of those who died during the bombing is not an easy task to carry out; there are reports of bodies being found up until the Nineteen-Sixties, during reconstruction of the city. The damage, in this sense, is fairly imaginable to the human mind. But the damage to the mindsets of the people on the ground is something else entirely. More than likely there was a great deal of mass chaos, for the bombings started during the night, and more than likely people were being burnt left and right in their rush to avoid those burns their carelessness was bringing to them.
Cleaning up after such destruction would be beyond many people, but to one already in the grip of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, more than likely that one’s case of PTSD would be enhanced greatly due to what he experienced. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) establishes PTSD as: “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.” (National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD) NIMH further describes the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as lasting anywhere upwards of a month –less than that is called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) (National Institute of Mental Health, Symptoms). Due to the events described above, it is safe to say that Billy Pilgrim was repeatedly in situations where his person’s well being was threatened by the actions of other individuals, or by other people such as those flying the bombers who leveled the city. Though not much is known about the processes of the human brain, it would be fairly safe to say that a character with a disposition like Billy’s – kind, not harsh in manner or thought, taught to be kind to those he dealt with- would be likely to develop either PTSD or ASD during the period of time immediately after, and perhaps during, the attacks on their person as described by Kurt Vonnegut.
In addition to the above, Billy Pilgrim shows several of the symptoms of PTSD, as described, by both NIMH and by Dr. Frank Ochberg. NIMH divides the symptoms into three categories: Re-experiencing symptoms; Avoidance symptoms; and Hyperarousal symptoms (National Institute of Mental Health, Symptoms). Of these three, considering the “jumping through time” aspect of Billy’s persona, the reader must assume that he suffers from the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD. According to NIMH, these symptoms include: “Flashbacks –reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating; Bad Dreams; Frightening Thoughts.” As seen by the jumping around in his mindset, it can be assumed that Billy Pilgrim relives his war-time experiences on a near daily basis.
The conclusion of this analysis must therefore be that Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck” in time due to the events of which he witnessed and/or participated in during World War II. Due to the horror of what was occurring around him, and due to the confusion he felt during these events, his mental state degraded to the point where he became locked in viewing the past indefinitely, and degraded into helping him believe his delusion that he was taken from the earth, at the speed of light, and returned simultaneously. Therefore, in reference to NIMH, Billy Pilgrim developed PTSD due to the terrifying events common throughout the Battle of the Bulge that threatened his own person.
1. “Bombing of Dresden: Who’s to blame?” British National Archives. 15 December 2009.
2. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” National Institute of Mental Health.
14 December 2009.
3. “What are the Symptoms of PTSD”. National Institute of Mental Health. 14 December
4. Ochberg, Frank. “PTSD”. PTSD Info. 15 December 2009.
5. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.