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Kurt Vonnegut and the Concept of Free Will

Kurt Vonnegut and the Concept of Free Will

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Published by: gracestainback on Feb 10, 2010
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05/13/2013

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Vonnegut and the Concept of Free Will: an Anti-Tralfamadorian Way of Life 
by Grace Stainback
“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” 
Yes, that does sound nice, doesn
ʼ
t it? Yes, it does, Billy Pilgrim might think tohimself. He coins the phrase in reference to death; it occurs to him that “everythingwas beautiful, and nothing hurt” would be a fitting epitaph for his tombstone (Vonnegut155). But Billy need not be buried under a tombstone to identify with this mantra; hespends his entire life turning an apathetic cheek to pain, rationalizing destruction, andneutralizing terror.
Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut
ʼ
s desensitized hero in Slaughterhouse-Five, comesto terms with a lot of terrible things in the course of his life. To do so, he adopts anexplanation which would help anybody deal with terrible things: there is simply nothingwe can do about it. And such is the complex dilemma underlying Slaughterhouse-Five:How do we deal with tragedy? How do we explain it? Can we prevent it? Are there anylaws to life, and if so, do humans have any say in what these are?
Does free will even exist 
?
Kurt Vonnegut spins us a tale of Billy Pilgrim and his friends from outer space,who assure him that free will is a mirage and death hardly anything to shed a tearover. But the discernibly pacifistic nature of Slaughterhouse-Five shows the readerthat for Vonnegut,
not 
everything is beautiful. A lot of things
do 
hurt. And we, as moralhumans, have a responsibility to acknowledge that pain and create meaning of it.Using Billy as an antithesis for his own convictions, Kurt Vonnegut tackles the issue of
 
free will and confronts the reader with the same difficult questions about human naturethat he grappled with himself in the creation of the book.
People have been asking questions about unsolicited tragedy since thebeginning of time. Most just want to know
Why?: why me? why not me? why him? Why her? 
In the Hebrew Bible, for example, the Book of Job is dedicated to thesequestions. It tells the story of Job, a moral, God-fearing man who suffers irrevocablelosses---the destruction of all his possessions, the death of his entire family, the onsetof a painful ailment---all at the hands of Satan. The catch: Job suffers at the hands ofSatan, but it is God from whom Satan receives permission to inflict horrors on aninnocent man (
NIV Bible 
).
“Does it please you to oppress me,” asks Job of God, “while you smile on theschemes of the wicked?” (
NIV Bible 
, Job 10.3)
Why me? 
Job wants to know.
Where is  justice? 
The ultimate response Job receives from God, and one which he eventuallycomes to terms with, is that no man
ʼ
s goodness exempts him from the forces of evil.Ultimately, it is the choice of God, and not man, whether one should suffer or oneshould prevail. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to goodpeople.
That
ʼ
s just the way it is.
Vonnegut, a man who once wrote in his collection of essays A Man Without aCountry, “If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist,” would most likelyhave trouble swallowing the notion that one solitary “God” figure was choreographingour fates like a master of string puppets. But, following his experience in World War II,
2
 
he was faced with similar Joban questions. Why did Vonnegut survive the bombing ofDresden while tens of thousands perished? Why do terrible things happen to innocentpeople?
Why not me? Why them? 
Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut
ʼ
s attempt to, like Job, answer these questionsor, at least, to come to terms with them:Vonnegut, as a rational atheist, derives no such consolation from theanswers of traditional faith. He can and does, however, find someconsolation in accepting an imperfect world . . . Pointing to this humanpenchant for self-destruction through war and brutality becomes part ofVonnegut
ʼ
s role as a latter-day Joban messenger who brings the news ofthe commonness of death (Morse 83).
As a converse to the story of Job, Vonnegut asserts that there is no “just andfair” God figure behind the scenes, doling out a portion of heartache here and a rationof glory there. Rather, the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five are subject only to thewhims of human cruelty and of a catastrophic, inexplicable fate. Returning home fromWorld War II, Vonnegut found the tragic events in Dresden truly beyondcomprehension, and that “although he could share interesting stories about the warand the comradery he experienced, that he failed again and again to find the rightwords with which to describe the massacre, its aftermath, and its meaning--ifany” (Morse 80).
However, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim does succeed in finding the rightwords to describe Dresden (and most other undesirable outcomes for that matter):
So it goes 
.
So it goes 
. The novel
ʼ
s flagrant phrase is the Tralfamadorian mantra meant toanswer all of humanity
ʼ
s tough questions. The fictitious extraterrestrials, who teach
3

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