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?