Social Responsibility in Slaughterhouse-Five

Essay by andy.clemensHigh School, 11th gradeB+, December 2008

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Failure to take responsibility for one's actions is universally seen as a self-inflicted wound with fateful consequences. However in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the very nature of social responsibility and free will is challenged. The Tralfamadorians, an alien race from a distant planet, capture protagonist Billy Pilgrim, and introduces him to the fourth dimension. As Billy travels through time and learns that events in time are structured to be inevitable and irreversible, he accepts his fate and is no longer frightened by it–he even accurately forecasts his death to a crowd hours before dying. Through Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut argues that we are not, by ourselves, responsible for our fate and if we accept future events as if they have already happened, we lose our human perspective on life, much like Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut criticizes social responsibility using motif in the words “so it goes”, irony in the bombing of Dresden, and foreshadowing in the boxcar when Ronald Weary dies, and asks Lazzaro, a fellow soldier to avenge him.

“So is goes” and the Tralfamadorian concept of time is a motif used by Vonnegut that acts as a commentary on social responsibility. The Tralfamadorians can see events in time like a traveler can see the peaks on a stretch of the Rocky Mountains; they can see their birth, death, and anything in between at will. However, they are helpless to change moments in time. For example, since the Tralfamadorians can see all events in time, they know that they destroy the universe searching for new fuels, although there is nothing they can do to prevent it. “'He has always pressed (the button), and he always will. We always let him, and we will always let him. The moment is structured that way'” (117). This leads the reader to question whether or not one is responsible for his or her actions-as events in time are unchangeable and the events in the future have already happened.

The irony of the Dresden bombing builds Vonnegut's argument about social responsibility by providing a case where Billy is not responsible for his fate. The Englishmen at the prison speak highly of Dresden because there is no reason for it to be bombed. “'Dresden is an open city. It is undefended and contains no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance'”(146). Though Billy should have been safer in Dresden more so than any other German city, his surroundings were still destroyed and left in ruins. One can say that Billy may have been destined to see more war and destruction; as Billy should have been safest in Dresden when Dresden was one of the most terribly bombed cities in the war. “American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them” (180). The bombing of Dresden scarred Billy to the point that he would break down and cry at random intervals. Through irony, Vonnegut provides a case where Billy is not directly responsible for his fate because destruction seems to follow Billy regardless of setting, and one could argue that Vonnegut is saying that we are not completely responsible for our fates.

When Vonnegut uses foreshadowing by announcing Billy Pilgrim's death, he is making an argument that one is not responsible for his fate. When Billy and Ronald were stranded behind German lines, Ronald dragged Billy forward with him many times when Billy asked to be left behind. Though, when the two were captured, Weary blamed his capture and eventual death on Billy. On the train ride to the prison camp, as he is going insane before his death, Weary asks fellow soldier Lazzaro to avenge his death. “Lazzaro... had given his word of honor to Weary that he would find some way to make Billy Pilgrim pay for Weary's death” (84). Billy does die, although many years later, on account of Lazzaro. This account of foreshadowing shows just how irresponsible for his fate Billy was. In fact, one can argue that Weary had lived instead of died with the others because he stayed behind the others to beat Billy. However, Billy dies because Weary is not able to survive the train ride to the prison camp. In this instance, Vonnegut uses foreshadowing to question the responsibility of Billy's role in his fate.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut argues that one is not responsible for his or her own fate. This theme is explored in other literature, most famously in Romeo and Juliet where one is to wonder if the lovers are ultimately responsible for their deaths. The significance of one not being in control of his or her destiny could be seen as a loss of free will. As stated by one Tralfamadorian, the only place it had heard the phrase “free will” suggested was on Earth. However, as loss of free will is compensated by the ability to visit moments in time at will in the fourth dimension. However, a being that only sees three dimensions can only dream about dimensions other than our own, and if one does not know his future, he or she can effectively direct, to a certain extent, his or her life in a somewhat abstract direction. By losing both ignorance and control of the direction of one's life, one can say that he loses what would make him human, much like Billy Pilgrim who becomes a bitter shell of a man after he comes to terms with the fact that he cannot change events in his life because they have already happened. Vonnegut argues that we are not responsible for our fate and by accepting this, like Billy Pilgrim, we lose what makes us human.

Bibliography:Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five : Or the Children's Crusade, a Duty Dance with Death. New York: Broadway Books, 1994.