Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.

10 thoughts on “Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

  1. Schlachthaus 5 is one of my favorite books, and like you, it’s been since high school since I’d read it. Loved it. Also took it at face value. Haven’t read it since, but it’s on my radar and I keep telling myself I am gonna reread it. I LOVED the whole unstuck in time thing! I mean, how could you not?! It’s fiction (or is it?), and a really cool, if unnerving, story. And the movie had Valerie Perrine in it. Pretty damned naked. Where’s the problem? :-] Okay, that was the movie.

    But…Valerie Perrine. Naked.

    Okay, haven’t read the The Gospel from Outer Space, but it sounds interesting. You see, my beliefs aren’t too far flung from Vonnegut’s novel, so the book really resonated with me, and I thought it so cool that a Famous Author had such beliefs (don’t even get me started with Richard Bach!)—or, at the very least, WROTE about them. What if the realities we all live are nothing more than our stories we “tell” ourselves? We’re the characters to our own stories. I love these lines!: “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,”and “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.”

    Maybe, as the characters—hopefully, the HEROES—of our own stories we should better realize our roles and reshape our stories, huh?

    But, man, VALERIE PERRINE, people….

    • It’s one of my favorites. I often tell my students that it’s the perfect introduction to postmodern literature.

  2. I read this book so long ago and the only thing I remember is the concept that given the same circumstances, you would make the same mistake over and over again.
    I don’t remember the aliens! 🙂 I will have to reread it!

  3. Wow, over two years later I

    (Tralfamadorians be damned…)

    “trip” onto this blog! Funny how life works. Well, Marc, I finally got to reread Slaughterhouse Five! On my vacation last year (last year is the future of THIS post of yours…but I’m writing from the future of that vacation…peering into the past–that is still the future of this post…). Here is the link to my thoughts on the reread:

    As to the plunger’s (hey, let’s just call a “plunger” a “plunger,” shall we?) mobility…I’ve given it some thought. Since the Plungers trip-through-Time, they simply “are” or “aren’t” wherever they need be/not be. Mobility is largely a physical construction to Humans, so you have to get outside the corporeal box. Plungers (okaaay, Tralfamadorians) “get around” but just time-tripping wherever they need to be/not be.

    They just “are.”

    They want to go somewhere…they just “are”…there. To leave, they just “aren’t”…there. It’s not a physical mobility, it’s a temporal mobility. One-and-zeros in Time.

    And so it goes….

  4. Hi all 🙂 Straight to the point: towards the end of the book the author gave away possible references that Billy might have made up his Trafamaldore story:

    When he was at the library in NYC:
    1. He saw Trout’s book about the two alien abductees placed in an alien zoo 2. The missing Montana actress

    All of these, a mere coincidence? A made up story can be sewn with the points above.

    It’s very easy to categorize Billy as insane; his experience in the war, the plane crash, death of his wife – all of these are triggers to a mental breakdown.

    However, I have a question: if he’s insane and can’t time travel – how did he know the time of his death, or how he will die? Or is it a coincidence too, that Feb 13, the date of the bombing in Dresden, the same date of his death (Feb 13).

    Really puzzling book, not sure what to believe in. 🙂 I can’t say easily say that he is insane, I don’t want to be classified as a Rumfoord. Either way, if you see it as a whole (like how Trafamaldorians will do) it is just FICTION. Does it really matter if he is sane or insane?

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