Tuesday, March 29, 2016


The Color Purple is filled with disturbing realities from the very first page. By following the lives of Celie and all those she associates with, we are able to grasp the sort of difficulties that are a part of every day life for the poor black people, especially in her area. We are exposed to the constant violence, oppression, physical and emotional abuse, and confinement that were accepted and, seemingly encouraged, that pervades Celie’s live and the lives of many like her at this point in history. Yet, I don’t find the primary issue to be of race. I find it to be a problem in the education of the people. This life style is contrasted with one that suggests a more modern and free way of thinking as the story goes on, as people experience and learn more. This is done by starting with Celie in her naïve passivity and introducing strong, independant characters who challenge what she knows as the status quo as she begins to grow in this moving buildungsroman.
Celie, we know from the very first page, is uneducated and most likely poor. We can tell this by the voice Alice Walker uses when Celie is speaking. Similar to Huck Finn, Celie cannot use proper English, does not know how to spell, and does not know the right words for things. I believe this is extremely indicative of many people at the time that this was written and Celie is being used as a representative of the oppressed lot in society. We learn in the beginning that Celie was taken out of school by her father and not allowed to be educated, unlike her sister. This uneducated way of life is also carried over in the way Celie thinks about the world and the things she seems to accept. From the beginning, we know that she is abused by her “father” and that she is traumatized by it, yet she never speaks out and she never fights back. This pattern seems to continue on when she is forced to marry Mr. ______ and she allows him to beat her. Due to her uneducated status and her low sense of self worth after years of various types of abuse, she accepts this as the norm and she never challenges. She even encourages Harpo to beat Sophia. Sophia is one of the first character we meet that could be called a progressive woman. Sophia does what Celie does not, she fights back. She respects herself. She was raised in way that allowed her to do so. It is through Sophia that Celie starts to see that the way she is living is not the way that things have to be. This is a theme that is repeated when she meets Shug. Though initially described as mean, Shug grows to be a very important and influential figure in Celie’s live, teaching her about love and religion and about being independent. Finally, we have Nettie. Nettie is the force that really brings Celie around to seeing that there could be a new life for her and she does this through the powerful use of education.
 I think that one of the most important points that the book is the importance of knowledge and the importance of learning. As the story goes on, we see changes and growth in Celie and they are changes that are common to a buildungsroman because they are changes found through learning. Though Celie doesn’t have a formal education like her sister, we watch as she learns lessons that her life throws at her. Once people start to talk to her and treat her like a human, people like Sophia and Shug, she begins the steps toward a modern life of an independent woman. We see this much clearer when she begins to read Nettie’s letters. Nettie’s letters serve to educate Celie in the ways of the world, they show her what things are like outside of her small town. This is fitting because Nettie is in fact a teacher. Celie is able to learn about what life is like in Harlem, England, and Africa. She learns about religion and other cultures through Nettie’s letters. I think it isn’t a coincidence that Celie’s self motivation to change and to become independent happens after she gets these informative and emotional letters from her sister. I think that Walker is making a comment on the detriment of ignorance and the important role of education in Society.

I found myself wondering a lot while I was reading about whether or not things today were very different and I found myself answering yes and no. It is obvious that the terrible things that happen to Celie and the other blacks are no longer accepted (rightfully so) however, the problem of the uneducated is still a very large issue. I think that it is one of the biggest issues in the country, that people don’t learn they don’t take advantage of all the resources around them. This limits the possibility for social mobility and leaves people stuck in unfavorable situations. I found myself, not so much worried about the left over sentiments of racism (though I am not saying that they are not still a very present and real issue) but what I got the most out of it was the need for education. If you give people words, they don’t need violence. If you give them education, you give them the ability to move and create a better life for themselves. You give them an escape.

Dear God: Celie's Faith Renewed

My reaction to Alice Walker’s famous epistolary novel, The Color Purple, can be summed up in Celie’s own words: “Dear God!” In this very disturbing, very grace-filled story about rape, racism, self-deprecation, and love, despite all the sufferings Celie goes through, these two words, “Dear God,” outlines the kind of journey Celie goes through as she experiences the many trials and tribulations that occur within the span of the narrative. It is a journey of self-discovery, but, perhaps more to the point, a journey of rediscovered faith that enables Celie to grow. The two words, “Dear God,” indicates two things about Celie’s life journey: 1) it enables Celie to “persevere” through life to discover herself and her faith, and 2) its appearance and absence shows the progression, or regression, of Celie’s growth occur.

For well over the first half of the novel, Celie’s letters are exclusively addressed to God, perhaps responding to her “father’s” warning about “not never telling nobody but God” (1). Telling “nobody but God” does two things for Celie in these letters: it shuts Celie up more within herself, consequently losing her sense of her own dignity and love, but also allows her to be more honest with herself, though her limited education sometimes hinders her efforts at full transparency. Introspection and honesty are two very important qualities a character must have to fit into the framework of a self-discovery narrative. Therefore, addressing only God in such a way enables Celie to embark on this journey of self-discovery and rekindled faith. Addressing God gave Celie the hope to endure and persevere through her pain and misery, to obediently bare her cross. However, her innocent faith could not last very long in the loveless, friendless, and self-loathing environment she was in, and so she had to learn to love herself and others to really know God.

As with many strong people of faith, Celie had to question and leave God, stylistically, to rediscover, learn, and return to Him. She had never really questioned her faith until the second half of the novel, and began addressing her letters to her sister, Nettie. Stylistically, this suggests that Celie no longer finds comfort in addressing God and is slowly losing her faith. She even questions, “What God do for me?” and says, “the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all other mens I know, Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown” (192). Of course, Celie’s description of God is wrong, but what she is questioning is very intelligible. At this point in the narrative, this change from a very introverted, abstract (though I believe God is much more than abstract) style of communication to a concrete, immediately living person indicates that Celie does have the confidence to speak her mind now to someone else. It also indicates that she has grown more free within herself to actually fight for herself rather than only to persevere through life. She needed the love and support from physical beings, who could talk and return her communications, while in turn growing to love herself. God, in a way, was a means of distraction for Celie’s own growth, and so she had to move away from Him for a little while, to live her life, to return to Him in the end. In the end, she does return to God, with gratitude, with love, and a wider, deeper understanding of Him.

At its core, Walker’s novel holds this to be true, that “we run from that chases us” (Preface), only to return to it when we better understand it. For people of faith, God always chases us with loving arms, silent but inevitably there, and we can decide whether to let Him catch us or run away from it. We almost always run away from it, but let it catch us when we know it is not a threat anymore. In a way, it is similar to Celie and her abusers, like her husband, Albert, and her stepfather; once she gains understanding of herself and of them, she returned to them without fear anymore. Love is really the underlying element of faith in God, and, as the story depicts, in God’s love can we truly find ourselves.


One of the instances of which The Color Purple was banned was by the author, Alice Walker, was in Israel, as recent as 2012. Walker apparently argued that Israel was, and likely still is, engaging in separatist and conflicting actions against the Palestinian people, and thus prevent the publication of the novel in the country. Walker is associated with the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement", an organization striving to put pressure on the Israeli government and people to respect the rights and property of the Palestinians. This is an instance in which the author herself is preventing a book from being published in a certain country, effectively banning it to a certain extent, for a political and social cause.

This decision seem unlike any that this class has examined, as most instances of banning do not come from the author, but rather disgruntled citizens and critics. In this case, the author seems to want to bring about change by preventing access to material, rather than using the material as a means of change. Such a decision calls into question the overall intended impact of the novel, as if the author prevents it from even being accessed by those citizens the author believes stands in contrast to the arguments of the novel.

It could be that Walker simply seeks to prevent Israel publishers from financially benefiting from the book's success, rather than trying to prevent the Israeli people from reading the book. But one must consider the implications of preventing publication, as it must nonetheless restrict access for a large portion of the population who may not have the means to purchase it from international distributors.

It is clear that Walker's novel is meant to argue in favor of a more equal society, doing so through the depiction of characters who overturn traditional beliefs about their status in their respective societies and communities, but one must question how effective such an argument can be when it is denied to those whom the author believe reject it's ideas the most. A novel that champions a belief, any belief, and is then denied to those who dissent from it, is not really acting as an argument, but merely a celebration. In such a circumstance, apparently only those who already agree with the positions of the book would be able to read it, and thus the author is, in some cases literally, preaching to the choir. Such a work would serve to consolidate a base, a group of people who strongly support the notions of the book, but would do little to bring in new supporters from other areas.

Once again, the decision may have been financial rather than ideological, but this form of self-censorship calls into question what Walker's intent for the book is. Is she trying to argue in favor of an equal society, in the interest of convincing those who may have an opposing viewpoint to be more open to her ideas? Or is she merely writing a novel which celebrates ideas already championed by its viewers, which ultimately has little impact on society?

Monday, March 28, 2016

Prayer in the Color Purple

Prayer in The Color Purple
Celie’s relationship with God in the novel fascinated me because the work opens with Celie writing, “Dear God.” The letter that follows is horrifying because discusses her experiences with sexual assault but it also reveals her expectations and view of God; she wants a God who will give her a sign and comfort her because she is forbidden from telling anyone else. These early letters show a desire for a God who interacts directly for Celie and who is all of the people she needs but doesn’t have. She writes to God in lieu of telling her mammy about sexual assault; she writes to God instead of her sister when Nettie must leave, and she writes to God in lieu of any friends. Her letters treat God as both a friend and an all-powerful God who should be able to show a sign of his existence.
Later in the first half of the novel, Celie continues to write to God but her letters become wrapped up in her day-to-day life and her survival. The letters stop appealing to God’s grace and mercy. They suggest that she now feels God is passive, not a god that shows signs or gives mercy but a God who is simply there. The God she writes to becomes a friend and confidante. During this time, Celie’s letters don’t express religious sentiment but instead are more of a diary. Ultimately, this diary-style writing culminates her renouncement of God to Shug. She tells her that God “is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown” (Walker 164).  At this point, Shug introduces another image of God. She suggests that God isn’t a white man listening to a black woman’s problems; God is the creator who likes creation to be admired and for humanity to love everything God has created. This possibility surprises Celie who doesn’t dismiss it but doesn’t immediately accept it either.
As the novel continues her ideas and Nettie’s, in the letters, support the belief in a natural God who is “in everything” as Shug says and can be worshipped in the color purple and the roundleaf (Walker 165). This belief seems deeper than a naïve belief in a God who refuses to answer Celie at the start of the novel and doesn’t seem to care about her problems. Instead, Celie begins finding God everywhere and celebrating this new spirituality. Celie’s final greeting in her letter reflects the new understanding of God: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (Walker 242). The opening is personal and genuine; it demonstrates a personal relationship for God that Celie desires throughout the novel. The end of the novel shows a complex but fulfilling relationship with God that did not require traditional religious trappings.
Celie’s relationship with God is complicated by her relationship with men and with white people. This was fascinating for me because it spoke to the intersectionality of all of our identities; Celie isn’t just black, or just a woman, or just a sexual assault survivor, or just a lesbian, or just a Christian; all of these identities affect her. The God she was introduced to however, did not look like her and couldn’t understand or respond to her problems.  By changing how she believed in God, Celie changed the relationship she had with God. God became personal because she became able to see it. When God became the tress, the stars, and her family, God became the good in the world and something she could relate to more deeply than a white man in the sky.  

In the novel, Walker addresses this reality directly in terms of how religion and spirituality interact with other identities. In particular, Walker looks at how Celie’s identity as a black woman is affected by her religion. The novel doesn’t answer the question of religion but follows Celie’s journey into a deeper understanding of her own faith that acknowledges the role that society and societal identities play in spirituality. 

Religion and The Color Purple

          The theme of religion is prominent in The Color Purple. Both Celie and Nettie's lives throughout the novel are driven and surrounded by the church and their faith. Celie begins the novel with a very naive view of religion and God. She is a loyal church goer and she addresses all of her letters to God because "as long as I can spell G-o-d, I got someone along". Celie used her religion and counted on God to be her support throughout her difficult life, especially because she receives little support at first from the other churchgoers. Her initial view of God is as a white man with a beard which is eventually rejected as she comes into her own as a black woman. Her view of religion changes throughout the novel as she grows and becomes more independent and stands up for herself. God becomes more of an ambiguous being, with no race or gender. Through her growth and her relationship with Shug, Celie begins to see God as a universal being. She embraces the idea that God isn't just there to help her weather the storm of her life, but that God wants her to enjoy her life and embrace "the color purple". As Shug tells her, God would rather she "lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy". This revelation about God and her spirituality comes alongside her breakthrough as an independent woman. By enjoying the things around her and finding the good in her life, she is expressing her love for God and by enjoying the beautiful things around her, she becomes more happy and improves her life.
           Nettie goes on a very different faith journey by becoming a missionary and devoting her life to spreading religion and her faith. She too begins her religious journey in a very structured and strict place but learns through her missionary work that a structured, organizing religion isn't always the best and forcing religion on people isn't as freeing as she thought. Both women go through a sort of crisis of religion towards the end of the novel but find their "color purple" in their reunion.

Deus Ex in The Color Purple?

Celie made her family. She finally learned to love herself; she learned to love Albert (Mr.____) even if it was only a platonic relationship. She found love in Shug and accepted her back into the house despite her infidelity. She became a well-rounded individual after learning to see God in everything instead of seeing him as the big, judgmental, white man. She grieves for her lost sister and the relationship they never had, but sees that Nettie will continue to live on in and continue to talk to her “in a different way” (260). Then, out of nowhere, Nettie reappears in Celie’s life much like a god being lowered by a crane in Greek and Roman drama in an effort to resolve and untangle the plot—a classic case of deus ex machina.
Celie, in her long talks with Mr.___ learns why he thinks people were put here on the Earth. They are here, he thinks, “To wonder. To ast” (283). The more he wonders, the more he learns to love. And in that love, as Celie also discovers, is a contentment with the hard life they have been given. The most moving part of the novel is when Celie learns the lesson she “was suppose to learn” (283). She learns that if what she wants to happen happens, she will be happy. If it doesn’t, she will be content. The lesson she learns contentment. She has spent the entirety of the novel writing to God and Nettie searching for a sense of belonging, and just when she learns to be content with herself, Nettie comes back.
A counter argument to the idea that Nettie’s reappearance is a deus ex machina could be that God is rewarding Celie for learning this lesson after so many years of struggling with her own self-worth and relationship with Him. This argument does not hold much water, however, if one considers Albert’s idea that people are put on Earth to ask about “the big things” and in asking about the unanswerable questions of the universe learn something about “the little ones” (283). God does not play a particularly active roll in the rest of the novel, so it would seem odd for him to suddenly act in the novel’s last few pages.

Once Nettie comes back into Celie’s life, the reflective women she has become fades away into one focused on her present state of happiness. Instead of the novel ending with Celie feeling whole and content with herself and the relationships she has with those around her, it ends with her feeling the “youngest [she’s] ever felt.” This idea that feeling happy and young is the most important thing in life after overcoming hardships takes away from Walker’s idea stated in the novel’s Preface that people should realize the “Oneness” that is present in the universe in an effort to accept themselves and rise above unjust treatment.

Racism, Sexism, and Religion in Walker

Let me begin by saying that this novel actually moved me to tears. It has been a long time since I have not been able to put a book down for hours, but Alice Walker's brilliant and moving work completely captivated me. I wanted to start by discussing racism and sexism, as they play major roles in the novel. Obviously, Celie, Nettie, Shug, and all of the other characters are treated poorly because they are black and living in the American South. Additionally, they have the disadvantage of being born women, and are treated horribly by the men in their respective lives. Sofia's story in particular broke my heart because she chose to fight back when Harpo took it upon himself to start beating her into submission. She never took any slack from any man or woman throughout the novel, including Squeak and the Mayor's wife, Miss Millie. It made me so incredibly sad when the police beat Sofia so brutally after she insulted the Mayor's wife that I had to put the book down for a moment before I could continue. Sofia, and also Shug, act as Celie's foils; they say what they want, fight back when talked down to, and "behave like men." Celie is always obedient, and though she is miserable, we see that she has a fire in her when she eventually befriends Shug and Sofia and starts to admire Shug for her independence and unwillingness to accept things as they are. I heard a quote once that reminded me of Shug, and I cannot recall where it came from but is basically said that just because things are, doesn't mean they should be. I believe that this quote epitomizes Shug in every way. She fights physically and never allows a man to control her. Celie fights, too, but in a different way. Celie fights by being kind and remaining faithful to her friends, even if it means sometimes defying Albert. Celie puts all of her faith in God, and this helps her survive. Her letters and outpouring of feelings to someone she believes is listening help her survive her brutal situation.

On the topic of religion, is it interesting to note that both Celie and Nettie begin to lose faith towards the end of the novel. It almost angered me that Celie constantly turned to God for advice because, as a non-religious person, I wanted her to stand up for herself and fight. I wanted her to fight Alphonso, Albert, and every man or woman who pushed her around or made her feel weak and stupid. I also found it fascinating that, despite being a faithful missionary sent to Africa, Nettie encounters almost the exact same kind of sexism she thought she left behind in America. Even in the village, the women are treated poorly: "The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something" (155). This passage absolutely blew me away because it was like no matter where these women went, they would always be treated as second-class subjects, and more for the fact that they are women as opposed to the fact that they are black.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Is there a silver lining within destruction?

Novels that are banned tend to have one major thing in common and that is that people fear what they don’t understand. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five does just that. It is uncomfortable to comprehend because of its unconventional style and plot. It presents to the us the ugliness of war and of the ability that American’s have “to sweep things under the rug” during tough and challenging times. This novel raises a lot of questions about war and the corruption involved. Including the experiences of some soldiers both before and after the war.
            When the novel begins we are introduced to Vonnegut and he, still after many years being out of the war, has difficulty dealing with his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War II. When we meet the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim we immediately connect him to Vonnegut himself and catch a glimpse of the life of an American soldier both during war and after. As we travel through Billy’s life, paragraph by paragraph, we begin to understand the effects of war on a person. Constantly faced with death and difficult decisions, Billy’s life in Dresden is not a particularly pleasant one. When we get chapter 10 Vonnegut’s voice comes back and we hear of what is presently going on during the time of publication of the novel. The entire novel is setup as a commentary to illustrate the wrongdoings of politics, capitalism, war, and religion.
            The different times throughout Billy’s life correlate in an interesting way. We jump from an event in Dresden, back home with his wife, back to Dresden, back to his childhood, on Tralfmadore, back to Dresden again. Readers are encouraged to take a step back and look at life and death carefully. If we had the ability to travel through our own lives, we would probably do it, and we would know how we would die but as Vonnegut would say it’s inevitable and “so it goes”. Even if you leave war unharmed you still witness death and know that one day we all die regardless. It is a challenging concept which probably scares a lot of individuals which explains why such a novel would be banned.
            Vonnegut also is very much an atheist. This novel brings out those atheist ideals: “On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadore mind he says, is Charles Darwin who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. So it goes, (269.)” Religion is not a part of Tralfamadore mainly because of their ideals on death. There is no such thing as an afterlife, which goes against certain religious values making this novel potentially a threat to those values held dearly by many.

            At the end of the novel we get this sense of hope with regards to death. Maybe a way Vonnegut perhaps dealt with the death and destruction he saw throughout his life. “If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamordians is true, that we all live forever, no matter how dead we sometimes seem to be I am not overjoyed. Still-if I’m going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of these moments are nice, (269).” This is promising for the end of the novel. It leaves readers with a sense of hope that regardless of all the destruction and corruption, there are nice moments in between, but it’s how we choose to interpret those moments and what we decide to focus on in life that make living worthwhile. By banning this novel many people, especially students may not fully understand that message. Ironically, this is a moral even if Vonnegut does not improve of finding the moral in the story. Perhaps reading this novel we can choose to take what we want from it and gain a better understanding of how war can affect people in so many different ways throughout all stages of life, and to also remember that although there is war and violence there are lot of pleasant moments shared every day between individuals. 

Death, War, Time: "So It Goes"

Slaughterhouse Five is perhaps most famous for its repetitive catch-phrase, “And so it goes.” This phrase appears in the book 106 times (I counted and confirmed with another internet source), usually after describing someone’s death or some kind of devastation. The amount of times it appeared was annoying at first, but upon further analysis, its repetition, diction, and its nonchalant tone seems deliberately placed by the author to convey two things about death, time, and war: 1) that death does not matter in the face of time, and 2) that war is only an inevitable, but somehow inconsequential act humans do to pass the time.

Kurt Vannegut’s treatment of death in his strange novel is quite curious, because he conveys it through the lenses of time — more specifically, through time-seeing alien creatures called the Tralfamadorians and through the time-seeing-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Time for us humans is a linear chronology of cause-effect events, but time for Vannegut’s alien creatures and protagonist is as fluid and not as defined as us: past, present, future are all clumped together in an ever-present present. Their ideas of death are not as defined either. As the Trafamadorians put it, “There is no beginning, no middle, no end…” (109). It seems the Trafamadorians act as the moral center of the novel. So, in that way, the phrase, “So it goes,” seems at once sarcastic and literal. Sarcastic because its choice of wording implies a linear progression, like time “going” through time, or a spaceship “going” through space. However, it is literal because its nonchalance of death, since the moral center implies death does not exist, convey an everlasting continuation of life through time. This double nature of the phrase “so it goes,” in addition to its placement at every mention of death or implied death, degrade death as an insignificant matter, which gives off a tone of uncomfortable apathy.

In light of war, Vannegut’s treatment of death in such a way conveys war as an equally insignificant matter in the face of time. Though Billy is baffled at the Tralfamadorian’s apathy to human warfare, the Tralfamadorians rationalized that the Universe will disappear one day, but not by human beings, and that there is nothing anyone can do because “the moment is [always] structured that way” (117). This apathy seems to carry into the tone and attitude of not only Billy Pilgrim, but also the narrator throughout the novel. The moral dilemma of war revolves mostly around the death of our loved ones, our fellow countrymen, and, in general, our fellow human brothers and sisters. If death is treated thus lightly, as implied by one phrase, “so it goes,” then war gets degraded to the same level of moral importance as death. The very tone of the phrase “so it goes” is by nature apathetic, as though it was just another detail with no weight and no intrinsic meaning. Death and war, then, is just another detail in this thing we call life, functioning on this plane we view as time, that means nothing in comparison.

Some people, like Mary Rose O’Reilley, may read Vannegut’s novel as an anti-war novel, but I do not agree. In the very beginning of the story, the narrator details how he came up with such a story and says that it was impossible to write an anti-war book because “there would always be wars” and death (3). Though the author might not have written it literally, the implication of its literalness can be seen through the novel’s treatment of war and death implied by its apathetic catch-phrase, “so it goes.” However, it does not promote warfare either: it is simply in the middle, almost agnostic, when it comes to these greater moral dilemmas. And instead of promoting better living, it degrades life even more by degrading death. The significance of life and death are two sides of the same coin: lower the value of one, the other becomes just as low in value. One my be indifferent to a flavor of cheese or a style of clothing, but when one is indifferent to life and death, then therein lies the true danger. But, so it goes.

Live your truths, regardless of others'

Despite the obvious satire and making fun of the elements and institutions that make up our everyday life, Billy’s experience as a soldier who doesn’t want to be there is all too true. The most substantial part of his war experience is when he fades into Tralfamadorian life and travels through the passage of time. Billy is constantly surrounded by people who don’t understand him, so naturally, no one takes his claims about the Tralfamadorians seriously, and he is instead dismissed. Vonnegut tells us that Billy suffered a “mild nervous collapse” following his engagement, re-enrollment in optometry school, and most importantly, his service in the war (captured, held prisoner, and honorably discharged) (24). This supposedly “mild” mental breakdown is treated with shock treatments and Billy is released shortly thereafter.
Almost twenty years after his discharge, Billy sustains some sort of injury from a serious plane crash that killed everyone else on board. It is this incident that is said to be responsible for Billy’s wild claims of Tralfamadore and his newfound extraterrestrial friends. However, I feel that this is another facet of Vonnegut’s satire. Based on his obvious anti-war sentiments, I think he is suggesting that Billy’s recruitment as a soldier (the effects of physical violence, but also his capture as a prisoner) contributed greatly to his psychological impairment. Furthermore, I believe he is commenting on the way in which we go about treating war veterans for issues like PTSD – we “shock” them back to life and expect them to continue living unaffected by their traumatic pasts. Therefore, I see Tralfamadore as a manifestation of Billy’s psyche to further protect himself from being a victim, a perpetrator or a witness to gruesome violence while in a war setting. He dissociates from his surroundings as a result of trauma – and furthermore, from the people who recommend he ‘man up’ (i.e. Weary) and just deal with it. Vonnegut implies that Billy views the Tralfamadorians as a more reliable source of guidance than “Earthling souls” who have become “lost and wretched” (29).
We are also told that these extraterrestrials provide “insights into what was really going on” (30). But the Tralfamadorians really represent a source of hope for Billy whose foolishness often leaves him stunted. For example, the Tralfamadorian theory of time – “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” as well as the idea of death as a temporary condition provide some level of reassurance for Billy that there is some optimism both in this life and in the next (27). We see proof of this conviction later in his speech about his own death when he says, “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said” and again in the last chapter when Vonnegut claims that, according to Billy, Tralfamadorians do not honor Jesus Christ, but rather are intrigued by Charles Darwin who has taught that we are all meant to die and that “corpses are improvements” (210).
Vonnegut even comments on Billy’s faith in Tralfamadorian philosophy, that “we will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be,” and responds that he is not overjoyed (so Vonnegut of him!), but “if [he is] going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that,” he is “grateful that so many of those moments are nice” (211). This is a really pleasant way to end a book based almost entirely on satire – Vonnegut doesn’t right off or even judge the foolishness of Billy’s assertions about an imaginary planet, but rather, takes them with a grain of salt, indulging in the idea, and reacting to it positively. This small bit of commentary seems to be representative of Vonnegut’s thoughts on others’ seemingly crazy ideas or beliefs or values – that you don’t have to choose to agree with them, but they should likewise not be forced upon you. We are all human beings, which means we all learn through experience. You should not necessarily take someone else’s truth and live it as your own, particularly if you don’t believe it deep down. Follow your passions, explore your imagination, and as my father always says, “don’t let the bastards get you down!!” (I wish I could share this last sentiment with Billy). I just love this book all around and its many subtle satires of political correctness. You get a chance to see something different every time. Long live Vonnegut!

An Alien's Philosophy

            The Tralfamadorians are undoubtedly one of the most bizarre aspects of the already-bizzare novel, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I can handle time traveling and war massacres in literature but I usually draw the line-of-ridiculousness at Aliens. However, I found the role of the Tralfamadorains in this novel to be of extreme importance, not just in understanding the mind set of protagonist Billy Pilgrim but, also, in understanding what Vonnegut was trying to say with this novel. Out of the many things that he was telling us, the idea I connected with most ardently was Vonnegut/Pilgrim/The Tralfamadorians’ way of perceiving time and the resulting philosophy that they have developed for looking at life as a whole.
            From the very beginning of the Billy’s story—not necessarily the narrator’s—we know that “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time (29).” This concept of unstuckness is explained both by the narrator and by the disjointed and sporadic changes in scene regarding time, location, age, and even worlds. Billy is constantly traveling throughout various places and times in his life, from the time he was born to the day that he dies. He lives in a state of constantly knowing what is going to happen to him and what has happened already. This is obvious often in his description of other characters. For example, he says from the very beginning that he knows that Edgar Derby’s body would be “filled with holes by a firing squad in Dresden in sixty-eight days (105)” and that “he knew [his plane] was going to crash, but he didn’t want to make a fool of himself by saying so (196).”
Billy’s blasé attitude regarding death and life is one of the results of the philosophy he gained from his time with the Tralfamadorians and it is in this that we can see the large influence that the Tralfamdorians have had on the protagonist. In his time with the Tralfamadorians, Billy learns that they see time in a different way (mainly because they have a different way of viewing that lets them see a fourth dimension where Humans only see three). The Tralfamadorians see time as we “might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time as all time. It does not change (108).” Being unstuck in time allows Billy to view time in the same different way as they do. He explains that this is the cause of this unemotional reactions regarding death and the accepting way in which he goes about his life. “When a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral…It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another…and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever (34).” This sentence explains perfectly the reason behind Billy’s attitude toward the events of his live. He knows how he is going to die; he has lived it over and over again. He knows the fates of the thousands in Dresden; he has lived it many times. He knows that his plane is going to crash, that his wife will die, that his will be abducted by aliens. He knows all of these things and, yet, no matter how terrible these events are, he never once tries to change them. Why doesn’t he try to do something? This is another example of Pilgrim abiding by the Tralfamadorians’ philosophy. They say that time does not change and a moment is the way it is because it always has been and it was structured that way. They talk about this when they say that they know exactly how the universe will end and yet choose to do nothing about it. In fact, this part is the only part in the book in which Billy asks the question that we’ve all been asking the whole time, “if you know this, isn’t there some way you can prevent it?” To which they reply, “he has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way (149).” He takes this philosophy and applies it to his own life and his own death, “I, Billy Pilgrim…will die, have died, and always will die on Feburary thirteenth, 1976 (180).”
This, what I have been calling, philosophy of Billy and the Tralfamadorains leads inevitable to a question of free will. This is a very tricky idea in the novel because Vonnegut never really seems to provide us with his opinion on whether free will exists or not. It is only briefly spoken about when Billy says to the Tralfamadorian, “You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will” to which the alien answers “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’…Only on Earth is there any talk of free will (109).”

            All the instances of Billy knowing what would happen never spurred him to try to change the outcome. Whether it was because he believed that he couldn’t or shouldn’t, is for all intents and purposes, irrelevant for the point of this blog post. As I stated earlier, I truly do not know what message Vonnegut was trying to send regarding free will. However, this aspect of this book did flash me back to the beginning of the semester and what Smiley had to say about Huck. She said that he failed in his purpose because he did not act upon the many chances he had to help Jim and all the other slaves. Does this mean that Billy too has failed? Or does this mean that Huck had no choice to do anything but what he did?

Why me?

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (19). This is what Vonnegut tells us in the first pages of the book, a sort of apology for the chaotic, messy story to come. Like in Lysistrata, there is no good way to talk about the violent and senseless vulgarity of war, and any attempt to results in the upending of established norms. This violence is even more uncomfortable when read in context of the Tralfamadorians concept of time. If everything is predestined, then what justification does war have? This “paradox of free will” is a problem that many Christians face when attempting to explain an omniscient, omnipotent, and yet benevolent, God. When Billy is abducted by the Tralfamadorians, he asks them why they have picked him. The aliens respond, “That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. […] we are […] trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why” (76-77).

The idea of predestination leads me to question many things, most recently the socioeconomic status of the children I’ve met volunteering in the library at Tunbridge. If there is a grand plan, one that is predetermined and cannot be changed, why is one child confined to a small library with books that are falling apart, while I had access to a library maybe three times the size of the one at Tunbridge when I was in elementary and middle school? It hurts me to think that some of these children will never make it out of the neighborhoods they were born in, simply because they don’t have enough time to read the books they so energetically picked out, because they have to help out their families after school or don’t have a safe place to sit down and read. If these children aren’t on a high enough level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it would be understandably difficult to do well in school. How can you focus on reading when your family can’t pay the rent, when your cousin got shot two streets down from you? It’s situations like these that make me question why I have the life I do. If the Tralfamadorians are right and there is no timeline, all moments exist at the same time, and there is no control over them, then how did I get lucky enough to be an American upper middle class white girl with a loving family that has enough money to send me to a private college? Just like Billy Pilgrim, I am forced to ask the question, “Why me?”. What happens if we all accept the idea of predestination, as Billy eventually does, and surrender ourselves to the seemingly inevitable course of life?