The Passive Time Traveler in Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Passive Time Traveler in Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a novel about Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who claims that he has “ come unstuck in time. ” ( Slaughterhouse Five 23 ). Billy Pilgrim also seems to remember a trip to an alien planet; he spoke of it at a radio show and wrote of it to a newspaper. But most likely, his vivid recollections of extraterrestrial experiences and disposition to passive time travel are simply delusions stemming from a post-traumatic stress disorder. A post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder caused by recent trauma, or the resurfacing of trauma in one’s child hood. Its symptoms include constant painful memories, reoccurring nightmares and sleep disturbances, among others.

            In the prime of his life, his mental stability was tested with a series of potentially damaging events. As a child, his father threw him into the deep end of a pool, in an attempt to make him learn to swim – Billy nearly drowned and had to be rescued and revived. Later in his adolescence he showed signs of a mental disorder when he drastically intensified the risk of death in relatively safe environments, such as visits to a cavern or the Grand Canyon.

During the Second World War, Billy was a war prisoner and witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden – the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. While imprisoned, he attempted to sleep in close quarters with other soldiers, but many complaints arose about Billy’s whimpering and violent spasms during sleep, two examples of sleeping disturbances common to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. After having to dig through the rubble of Dreseden, in search of corpses, he was rescued, only to be honorably released due to his father’s death.

After a short break from traumatic occurrences, Billy had the honor of being the sole survivor of a plane crash; his brain was slightly damaged and while he was recuperating, his wife died, of carbon monoxide poisoning. While he was in the hospital, Billy read science-fiction novels, specifically about aliens and time travel. When he was released, he began working as an optometrist again, but experienced sleep deprivation, which, his doctor hypothesized, was the cause of his random weeping. And most recently, his daughter has been stripping him of his dignity, justifying her actions with claims that her father suffers from dementia and senility.

            For many veterans, their participation in a war is enough to cause mental instability, and warrant treatment.

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Many people whose loved ones die seek counseling to cope with the loss. A large percentage of accident survivors develop phobias or experience other mental disorders. So logically: if Billy Pilgrim was not traumatized by his experiences in battle, then surely the steady succession of deaths, a plane crash and his daughter’s accusations of incompetence would catalyze some kind of a mental disorder. Also, the similarity between the manifestation of this disorder and the sci-fi novels he read earlier had to be less than a coincidence; it is not far-fetched to consider that Billy’s fantasies about time-travel and aliens were the basis of his hallucinations.

The only recognition of his mental instability was one made by Billy himself, when he committed himself to a hospital based on what he thought was a “ mild nervous collapse ”( 24 ) – which  he was treated for with shock treatment and promptly released. The doctors administrating his treatment “ Didn’t think it ( Billy’s mental instability ) had anything to do with the war. They were sure Billy was going to pieces because his father had thrown him into the deep end of the YMCA swimming pool when he was a little boy, and had then take him to the rim of the Grand Canyon. ” ( 100 ). I believe this diagnosis is incorrect, due to the sleep deprivation and emotional outbursts Billy exhibited after his treatment, suggesting that it was not successful. I also feel that Billy would not have experienced delusions of aliens if he had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, dealing with the trauma he encountered in the war.






Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt, Slaughterhouse Five. New York, Dell Publishing: 1968.

Kirst-Ashman, Karen K.; Hull, Grafton H., Understanding Generalist Practice. Chicago,

Nelson-Hall Publishing: 1994.

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