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Billy Pilgrim's PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five'

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During times of hot gun shells soldiers experience terrifying activities that are mentally and physically harming to the body. Most cannot begin to comprehend the extreme events that happen due to their lack of military experience. In Kurt Vonnegut's ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, Billy Pilgrim the main character, serving as a solider of the United States in World War II. Billy is a chaplain's assistant and who doesn’t engage in any activity, allowing him to oversee the war instead of actually fighting. Billy’s position in the war isn’t to fight but to spectate still leads to tragedy sights and memories that Billy gains throughout the novel. While in Germany he was held as the prisoner of war in a concentration camp in Dresden Germany, where he witnesses the total destruction of the town. Watching it all Billy experiences created a lifetime of trauma and lead him to physical deterioration and eventual death. Although Billy found the bad events traumatizing, he turned them around into good coping mechanisms for his pain. Witnessing the firsthand devastation of war, many soldiers Billy included, camouflaging the trauma eventually destroying every solider mentally and physically. A effect that every solider will have for the rest of their life’s.

‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is a historical, sociological, psychological, science-fiction, and biographical elements of Vonnegut’s moments in the war of World war II. Vonnegut chooses this style of unique writing to show his traumatic events the war had that impacted him. Writing not only about his life but also the ins and outs of Billy’s story throughout the war. Vonnegut believes the war is an uncalled for violent way to solve a problem, once the war starts it’s all on the heat of every bullet shot and every bit of debris that fly’s in the air from explosions. Unfortunately, these soldiers representing and fighting for their country don’t have as much control as they believe they do. “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big. But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then-not” (Vonnegut, 1969, p.2).

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With war being completely out of anyone’s control and having death involved, death just one of the most occurring events in war. Highest leading cause to trauma occurs very often for every solider and Billy sees quite a lot while in Germany. “Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design' (Vonnegut 230). Nothing more in this book has been truer, death was everywhere and that’s the motive of war. Destruction from the bombing on Dresden is such a terrifying event that it is viewed throughout the world as one of the most destructive wars in history and everyone should be dead. Billy watching all of the bodies fall throughout the war feels guilty for surviving. Billy’s trauma comes from his survival of the war, after all the noises and smoke calmed down, he watched men, woman and children die who were all innocent. From Billy’s past, he was involved in a plane crash and he was the only one who survived. “The people who first got to the crash scene were young Austrian ski instructors from the famous ski resort below. They spoke to each other in German as they went from body to body. They wore black wind masks with two holes for their eyes and a red topknot. They looked like golliwogs, like white people pretending to be black for the laughs they could get. Billy had a fractured skull, but he was still conscious. He didn’t know where he was. His lips were working, and one of the golliwogs put his ear close to them to hear what might be his dying words. Billy thought golliwogs had something to do with World War Two, and he whispered to him his address: “Schlachthof-funf”” (Vonnegut 199). Being in the war this created a lot more trauma for him knowing he’s the only one who survived this one. The address, ‘Schlachthof-funf’ is German for 'slaughterhouse-five' not only the name of the concentration camp but also where he lived. Billy’s trauma from World War II has had so much of an impact on him during the plane crash, he has no idea where he is and believes the golliwogs are German guards. Through distressing images, perceptions and thought he continuously experiences the traumatic events that is completely out of his hands.

Combat soldiers, veterans like Billy himself find ways to camouflage their trauma and hide from it rather than finding ways to cope with it. Vonnegut introduces the time traveling ability that Billy has being able to jump from one event in his life to another. 'Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant stage of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next' (Vonnegut 29). The time traveling method that Billy uses is a way for him to cope with his PTSD although he isn’t in control of where he is going to go, he just hopes that it’s a happy place. One method that he uses is imagining that whatever event it is happening right there in his mind now isn’t ever as awful as death itself. Coping perspective taking into account the context and severity of each violent exposure itself. A comprehensive assessment map was developed to plot and visually reveal participants' (N = 12) overall contextualized coping responses. Overall 'coping zone' scores were generated to index perceived threat and coping responses associated with each violent incident described. These scores were then correlated with indicators of PTSD (Sloan “Coping Zone Construction and Mapping: An Exploratory Study of Contextual Coping, PTSD, and Childhood Violence Exposure in Urban Areas').

All soldiers including Billy himself acquired a pain that is unforgettable and trying to hid the paid makes it even worse. Although there are a lot of method of coping with the trauma, not all are beneficial. Billy’s memory of Tralfamaforians abducting him isn’t a great way to cope with it all, Billy being there made him feel like there was no free will at all. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is 'unstuck in time', having been abducted by the travelers from Tralfamadore who can see in four dimensions. These aliens have taught Billy how to perceive time as they do, to 'look at all the different moments just the way [humans] can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. An example of their philosophy: 'Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why!' Death is not final because, to a Tralfamadorian, a dead person 'is just fine in plenty of other moments'. So, when Tralfamadorians or Billy or the author/narrator respond to death with 'So it goes', that phrase seems a little less glum than it might.Billy repeatedly jumps through time and space, finding himself back in Dresden, in a Vermont hospital, in a doctors waiting room at the age of sixteen, at his wife's funeral in Ilium, New York, with porn actress Montana Wildhack in an alien zoo, or in a Chicago ballpark telling tens of thousands of people about Tralfamadore on the night of his death. Billy compromises on inviting different things to his fantasy such as Montana Wildhack the camouflage on his trauma turns into ways of coping with it all. With no past, present or future in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ there is no telling what part of Billy’s life is being spoken from. The reflection of the trauma that was in Billy’s everyday life doesn’t matter, anguishing “pain will always exist'.

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Billy Pilgrim’s PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
“Billy Pilgrim’s PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
Billy Pilgrim’s PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Dec. 2023].
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