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Slaughterhouse Five Analysis: Billy Pilgrim, Irony, and Symbolism

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/17/2012

Get up close and personal with the main character of Slaughterhouse Five. Find evidence that Billy Pilgrim is going insane, examples of irony and some of the most important symbols in the book.

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    Billy Pilgrim is Going Insane

    It doesn't take a time-traveling Tralfamadorian to figure out that Billy Pilgrim is going/gone insane in Slaughterhouse Five. Some of the evidence includes the following.

    1. He speaks of being kidnapped by Tralfamadorians and being kept in a zoo with actress Montana Wildhack, with whom he mates. There is no mention, however, of how he escapes or what happens to the child the two inmates produce.
    2. He checks himself into a mental hospital in 1948 because his life no longer has meaning. While attempting to find meaning in his life, Billy meets Eliot Rosewater who introduces him to a Science Fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Through Trout's Science Fiction, Billy escapes and creates stories about time travel and aliens..
    3. Billy claims he travels through time and discovers free will does not exist, a fact that gives him solace from all the death and destruction he witnesses as a soldier. The time travel stories begin after he fractures his skull in a plane crash.
    4. Billy sobs uncontrollably after the war, a sign of post traumatic stress disorder.
    5. Billy needs a vibrating bed in order to sleep at night. He falls asleep while giving eye examinations. Erratic sleep patterns is another symptom of post traumatic stress disorder.
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    Examples of Irony

    Child Soldier 

    Irony: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

    1. Of the four soldiers wandering behind enemy lines after the Battle of the Bulge, Billy Pilgrim is the least soldierly and least likely to survive. He's the only one who survives. He also survives the incineration of Dresden, not bad for an unfit prisoner of war. He is also the lone survivor of an airplane crash.
    2. Edgar Derby is tried and executed for plundering after stealing a teapot from the rubble in Dresden after the entire city and its inhabitants are destroyed.
    3. Billy Pilgrim exercises free will in an effort to preach that there is no such thing as free will.
    4. In chapter one, Vonnegut mentions that those who are most opposed to the war are those who fought in it.
    5. Billy Pilgrim has all the outward signs of a good life but is miserable inside.
    6. Billy Pilgrim uses an inconsequential Science Fiction writer as his guide in life.
    7. Billy can't sleep at night and can't stay awake at work.
    8. Billy's backwards viewing of the war movie illustrates the cause and effect relationship between events that Tralfamadorians insist does not exist.
    9. Billy's happiest moment in life occurs as he rests on a coffin shaped carriage drawn by two horses. This happy moment is interrupted after seeing the deplorable state of the horses, a sight that causes him to cry for the first time during the war.
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    Symbolism

    mustard gas 

    Understanding these symbolis will enhance your understanding of the novel.

    1. "Poo-tee-weet" - The indecipherable response to the destruction of Dresden symbolizes Vonnegut's claim that nothing sensible can be said about a massacre.
    2. The coffin-like carriage on which Billy rests symbolizes the emotional death of those who survived physical death during the war.
    3. The horses that draw the wagon symbolize the thousands of people who obey orders to their own demise, without ever knowing the reasons. These horses have no free will.
    4. Vonnegut's breath, mustard gas and roses, symbolizes the merging of death and beauty.