Jessica Levin

Mr. Hackett
AP Literature
November 2, 2014
The Allusion of Time in Slaughterhouse Five
As the poet Henry Austin Dobson once said, “Time goes, you say? Ah no! Alas, Time
stays, we go” (Brainy Quote). Moving through time is thought to be a collective experience,
something which everyone experiences in the same manner. However, in the novel
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut writes about the life of Billy Pilgrim, a man inadvertently
moving through time, but out of the normal, sequential order. He is “unstuck in time.” There is
no order in which Billy experiences the different events in his life, and because of this, there are
no real surprises in his life. Through the teachings of the Tralfamadorians, a species of faraway
aliens which kidnap Billy, he realizes that all moments are already in existence. Past, present,
and future is all an illusion which humans live within. While knowing what will happen at every
moment in time may seem like a gloomy way to float through life, Billy‟s knowledge of everexistent time provides him with a feeling of comfort.
Throughout the novel, there is no true story arc related to the concept of time. The book
is not written in chronological order, we don‟t watch Billy grow up. However, the concept of
time is portrayed in an order of understanding. In the exposition, he realizes that he has come
unstuck in time, and is no longer living his life in sequential order. Billy is “spastic in time,”
(23) he has no control over what part of his life he will experience next. He could be in the
middle of the war, then meet his death, then become alive again on a faraway planet. While
traveling back and forth in time seems strange and impossible, it is never portrayed this way in

the novel. Billy simply realizes that this is how his life is and that there is nothing he can do
about it. It may seem as if he is schizophrenic, but this is never stated in the novel as a diagnosis
of Billy‟s supposed “time travel.” Therefore, Billy really is unstuck in time and he isn‟t just
crazy.
According to Einstein‟s theory of special relativity, the concept of all time already being
in existence really isn‟t so crazy. The overall concept of this theory is that there are four
dimensions; up/down, left/right, forwards/backwards, and the 4th dimension known as the spacetime continuum. In the 4th dimension, time is relative to how fast an object is moving through
space. Therefore, it would be true for a creature very far away from earth to be living in the
same time frame as our „“earthling”‟ past or future (76). If this theory is true, it would mean that
every moment in time is already in existence. As humans, we perceive these moments as past,
present, and future; however, according to the theory of special relativity, our human experience
of linear time is simply an illusion. In the novel, the Tralfamadorians live within the 4th
dimension, and do not believe in linear time. Therefore, if Einstein‟s theory is true, Billy and the
Tralfamadorians may not be as crazy as they seem.
On the night of his daughter‟s wedding night, Billy can not sleep, so he watches a movie
about World War II backwards, then forwards. At the end of of the backwards movie, or really
the beginning, “Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired
biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed” (75). When
Billy travels back to the beginning of humanity to see Adam and Eve, he realizes that there has
always been evil, it has been a part of human nature since Eve supposedly bit the apple picked
from the tree of knowledge. However, this is not something which Billy is sad about. He
realizes that evil is a part of life and there is nothing he can do about it. Billy surrenders to this

fact, which leaves him with feelings of content, rather than feelings of hopelessness. He knows
that if there is nothing he can do to stop the evil nature of war, he has one less thing to worry
about. He is completely helpless and is okay with it, because everyone is helpless, and therefore
war is just a part of life.
In the past, Billy has been confused by the concept of time, but after spending time
with the Tralfamadorians, he begins to understand the truth of it. On his way to Tralfamadore,
Billy asks why it is him they decided to kidnap. The Tralfamadorian replies “here we are, Mr.
Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why” (77). From this realization, Billy
understands that if we are all just trapped in our own moment of time, and all time already exists,
then the concept of free will is also an illusion. If past, present, and future already exists, then
isn‟t every moment of our life already predetermined for us? It‟s quite possible that is
true. According to biologist Anthony Cashmore, free will is an allusion, because “we are simply
conscious machines, completely controlled by a combination of our chemistry and external
environmental forces.” Also, Cashmore points out that plants and animals all have a
predetermined fate. They grow, they take in nutrients, and eventually, they die and/or get
eaten. These organisms don‟t have any choice in their life, and since we all live under the same
basic principles, are we really some sort of “higher level beings” which don't have to abide by
these rules?
While Billy has many significant revelations on Tralfamadore, one of his most important
ones is regarding death. He states “„The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was
that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is very much alive in the past, so it is very
silly for people to cry at his funeral”‟ (27). This philosophy on death is very truthful, yet
extremely hard for a typical human to grasp. As humans, we are constantly thinking about the

future. Our typical ideology is that the past has already happened, so we should always continue
to look forward to the future, for new, greater things to happen. The problem with this is that
when a person dies, and they no longer exist in the future, we have no option but to be sad about
it. However, Billy realizes that past, present, and future are all equally important. Therefore, if a
person is currently dead and “not in their best condition,” we can be content knowing that they
had many great moments in the past in which they are still very much alive. Billy is comforted
by this idea, primarily because he doesn‟t have to be sad about the death of his acquaintances,
but also because he is comfortable with the idea of accepting his own death.
Death is inevitable. Death is part of life, it is completely unavoidable. Death isn‟t some
kind of monster we can run away from. It is fate. Some people are killed, some people get sick
and die, and some just die of old age. Whatever outside force causes a person‟s death, it is
bound to happen, so there is no reason to be afraid, or be sad about it. While Billy is working in
his optometry office, he talks to a young boy patient, whose dad was killed in the Vietnam
war. He tells the boy “that his father was very much alive still in moments the boy would see
again and again” (135). The boy and his mother think Billy is crazy, but Billy thinks this is a
perfectly normal, and truthful statement. Billy knows that every moment of time is currently in
existence, and therefore death is just one specific moment of time we shouldn‟t dwell on. He
wants to comfort this boy with the fact that his father is perfectly alive and well in many other
moments in time, but for the grieving boy, this concept is not easy to grasp.
While knowing that life is completely predetermined may cause feelings of sadness and
hopelessness for some people, Vonnegut expresses that it is a comfort to Billy Pilgrim. The
concept of infinite time may seem new, but it has been around for thousands of years. More than
2,500 years ago, the Buddha realized that the past and future is an illusion. He knew that time

does not constantly move forward. Instead, every moment in time currently exists in the
present. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy‟s realization of time is similar to the teachings of the
Buddha. Billy is aware that there are many individual moments in his life which all currently
exist. With this knowledge, even when Billy is stuck in a bad moment in time, he can always
find contentment in the fact that there are other good moments to focus on.