Death and Time in Slaughterhouse-Five
We all wish we could travel through time, going back to correct our stupid mistakes or zooming ahead to see the future. In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, however, time travel does not seem so helpful. Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut's main character, has come unstuck in time. He bounces back and forth between his past, present, and future lives in a roller coaster time trip that proves both senseless and numbing. Examining Billy's time traveling, his life on Tralfamadore, and the novel's schizophrenic structure shows that time travel is actually a metaphor for our human tendency to avoid facing the unpleasant reality of death.
Because he cannot control time travel, Billy is forced to relive again and again some of the most painful parts of his life. For example, Edgar Derby, his wartime father-figure, is senselessly executed by the Germans for stealing a teapot, while Valencia Pilgrim, his own wife, dies accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning after her car's exhaust system is damaged in an accident. Barbara Greeley has observed that the effect of having to witness these events over and over is that "Billy becomes emotionally desensitized to human suffering and death, and is thus robbed of compassion" (3). Her point is well taken, for without this human emotion Billy is reduced to the level of an unfeeling machine. On the planet Tralfamadore where Billy is taken after he is kidnapped by extraterrestrials, his machine-like response to suffering and death grows only worse.
Like Billy, the Tralfamadorians have no sense of chronological order; they see time as an earthling might "see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains" (85-86), with all its infinite moments stretched out before them. Because Tralfamadorians can see all of time at a glance, they do not worry about death, which to them is only a person at a bad moment of time. There are plenty of other moments of time, they reason, when that person is alive. Therefore, death can be overlooked as a chronological inconvenience.
This philosophy of life and death they instill in Billy himself, speaking to him in a disembodied voice which floats down into the zoo cage which serves as his home:
"We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments--like today at the zoo. Isn't this a nice moment? "Yes." [Billy answered] "That's the one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones." (117)
But ignoring death and its...