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Tralfamadorian Life Philosophy as an Earthling Doctrine

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Philosophy of life is an informal concept that varies in meaning among differing societies as well as the individuals within them. In Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, fictional World War II soldier Billy Pilgrim is allegedly abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where he subsequently learns about Tralfamadorian life philosophy while being held captive. This alien concept interests both Billy and Vonnegut greatly, and both men strive to incorporate it into their lives; however, significant contrasts between Tralfamadorian and Earthling abilities and societies limit their success. Although both Vonnegut and Billy attempt to apply Tralfamadorian philosophy in aspects of their lives, their inability to fully practice this alien doctrine indicates the extent to which it is unrealistic to assume humans could adopt a similar life philosophy to that of the Tralfamadorians. This analysis explores the concept of Tralfamadorian philosophy and the limiting factors that Earthlings—namely Vonnegut and Billy—face in their attempt to follow such a doctrine. Further, these ideas allow for the interpretation of Vonnegut’s objective in portraying both the attractions and limitations of Tralfamadorian philosophy and of the implications that these limitations ultimately present.

Tralfamadorian philosophy is rooted in the idea that all moments are eternal, and, therefore, no one moment—good or bad—is more significant than any other. Despite the aliens’ doubt regarding Billy’s ability to understand their higher perspective, they attempt to explain their perceptions of time and life to Billy by stating, “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.… Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (pg. 86). The Tralfamadorians’ capacity for seeing the fourth dimension—a faculty humans do not possess—allows them to view time as something that “does not change” and that “simply is”. Regardless of one’s effort to view the fourth dimension, this accomplishment is simply not possible for humans, and the Tralfamadorian perception of time as a constant and unwavering force is unachievable. This fact alone limits Billy’s—or any other human’s—ability to comprehend and practice the Tralfamadorian doctrine. Furthermore, the existence and importance of free will on Earth hinders human acceptance of such a philosophy that eliminates free will completely. Although Billy experiences moments randomly as the Tralfamadorians do, he relies on his sense of Earthling free will to make decisions within these moments. In order to wholly follow the Tralfamadorian ideology, one must surrender their sense of free will which plays a highly important role in Earthling society. The aliens recognize the depth of the value humans hold for free will and suggest that this unique characteristic limits the human race. They believe that their view of one’s position in life as “bugs in amber” is superior to that of Earthlings who long for cause and effect. Without sacrificing free will, it is impossible for a human to fully apply Tralfamadorian philosophy in their life; however, taking into consideration the aforementioned human value for free will, such a sacrifice may not reap benefits to an Earthling but, rather, lead to an uncomfortable sense of forced restriction. To a species that knowns nothing of free will, the lack of such a liberty goes unnoticed, but to humans there exists an innate desire for this freedom. Vonnegut uses Billy’s interactions with the Tralfamadorians to highlight this difference and, in such a way, implies that perhaps living as a bug trapped in amber creates more limitations for the Tralfamadorians than the alternative creates for Earthlings.

The Tralfamadorian ideology teaches that since all moments are coexistent and unavoidable, one should employ selectivity regarding the moments he chooses to focus on. When Billy questions the aliens’ apparent peacefulness, they respond by telling him, “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (pg. 117). This concept is the core of Tralfamadorian philosophy, and the Tralfamadorians believe that Earthlings have not yet grasped this idea—it is something they must still learn, and the learning process will take great effort. The Tralfamadorians advise Billy “to stare only at pretty things as eternity fail[s] to go by”, and the reader subsequently learns that “if this sort of selectivity had been possible for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sun-drenched snooze in the back of the wagon” (pg. 195). Billy attempts to practice selective attention to moments in his own life, but he struggles to do so as many of his happy moments are linked to unpleasant ones, and severing this connection proves difficult for him. Even his would-be happiest moment in the back of the wagon is shadowed by the event occurring thereafter in which Billy realizes that in his bliss, he has been wholly unaware of the near-death state of the horses tied to the wagon. Therefore, if he attempts to concentrate solely on the pleasant moment spent snoozing in the wagon, his focus is forced upon the helpless, dying horses coexisting in that moment with him. The Tralfamadorians would urge him to forget about the horses, but due to his human nature, such selectivity is impossible. This may be extrapolated beyond Billy to the human race in general as it is part of human nature to create associations between moments, and learning to abolish all such associations and focus exclusively on positive events is a highly unrealistic expectation for Earthlings to achieve. Regarding this dilemma, Vonnegut seems to adopt a mixed opinion—his repetition of this theme of Tralfamadorian philosophy indicates that he finds such a concept to be intriguing and possibly beneficial to humans; however, his inclusion of negative memories in his novel and his prevailing desire to share his war story suggest that he places certain value on all of his memories, good or bad. By promoting selective attention via Tralfamadorian philosophy while simultaneously not abiding by this practice, Vonnegut presents a sort of paradox in which the reader must adopt his own opinion.

Further understanding of the Tralfamadorian philosophy is provided through the description of Tralfamadorian books. On Tralfamadore, Billy asks the aliens if they have any books he might be able to read, to which they respond:

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Only Tralfamadorian novels, which I’m afraid you couldn’t begin to understand.… Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time (pg. 88).

Billy is unable to understand the Tralfamadorian books due to their unique format of “clump[s] of symbols” containing “brief, urgent message[s]—describing a situation, a scene”. Tralfamadorians have the ability to read all of these messages simultaneously with “no beginning, no middle, no end”, which contrasts the way in which humans read books progressing from start to finish. This reflects the Tralfamadorian capability of perceiving all moments simultaneously and the Earthling inability to do so. In their books, the Tralfamadorians value “the depth of many marvelous moments seen all at one time” which “produce[s] an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep”. Such value of pleasant moments resembles the key principle in their philosophy which states one should focus on happy moments in order to generate a pleasant image of life. The lack of moral and of cause and effect in the Tralfamadorian books is also linked to aspects of their philosophy, namely the absence of free will. This further contrasts both human novels and human society as moral and cause and effect are all prevalent concepts on Earth. Vonnegut attempts to organize his novel in random clumps similar to Tralfamadorian novels, but human perception prevents the simultaneous reading of these messages that is characteristic of a Tralfamadorian reader. Thus, the peculiar format of Tralfamadorian novels and Billy’s inability to understand them acts as a metaphor for the unfamiliarity of Tralfamadorian philosophy in the eyes of an Earthling. Through the use of this metaphor, Vonnegut is able to emphasize the great extent of human limitation by implying that Earthlings are so unadvanced in comparison to Tralfamadorians that they cannot even do something so simple as read a book. This stress on limitation seems to suggest that Vonnegut ultimately doubts humans’ ability to fully adopt a Tralfamadorian life approach, despite the fact that such an approach offers unique benefits not otherwise achievable, comparable to how the beauty of Tralfamadorian novels remains just out of reach of Earthlings.

The Tralfamadorian response to death is also somewhat of a foreign concept to the majority of humans. While writing a letter describing his time spent on Tralfamadore, Billy states that “the most important thing [he] learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral” (pg. 26-27). Tralfamadorians utilize their unique understanding of time and their ability to selectively focus on pleasant moments to explain the illusion of death, suggesting that those who die are still “alive in the past”. Therefore, there is no need for mourning of loss and no need “for people to cry at his funeral”, as is such a common occurrence on Earth. On the surface, Billy appears to grasp this concept and to accept death as it comes; however, it is clear that the extensive deaths caused by the war resonate with him. At Billy’s and his wife’s anniversary party, a barbershop quartet of optometrists perform, and the author notes that “Billy was emotionally racked…. The experience was definitely associated with those four men and not what they sang” (pg. 175-176). Vonnegut goes on to explain that this emotional association Billy makes is between the quartet and the four German guards who accompanied Billy and his fellow soldiers during and after the bombing of Dresden. Billy recalls the horrified looks on the faces of these guards when they first observed the massive amount of death caused by the bombing, and this memory disturbs Billy, causing him to feel “emotionally racked”. Although he dismisses the deaths along with the memory with the saying “so it goes”, the profound effect that the barbershop quartet and the linked memory of massacre has on him indicates that he cannot wholly accept death in such a way as the Tralfamadorians do. Vonnegut uses this juxtaposition of Billy’s acceptance and grief to suggest alternative responses to death which, in turn, acts as an implication for Vonnegut’s own emotional struggle regarding death and mourning. He seems to find the Tralfamadorian easy acceptance of death to be an attractive pathway, but his inclusion in his novel of Billy’s unavoidable negative associations with death imply a certain value for the mourning process. Thusly, the reader is again made aware of human limitation and is subsequently presented with an opportunity for personal opinion regarding benefit versus detriment of the Tralfamadorian doctrine.

Vonnegut also attempts to practice aspects of the Tralfamadorian philosophy in the writing of his book. He repeats the phrase “so it goes” following every death in his novel. This phrase suggests that Vonnegut has come to terms with the idea of the lack of justice behind death and has accepted it for something that simply is. That being said, he does not seem to be entirely at peace with the aliens’ view on death. He states that “if what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice” (pg. 211). Vonnegut explicitly states that he is “not overjoyed” with the Tralfamadorian philosophy concerning death. He goes on to say that he is grateful for “so many” pleasant moments in his life, but this statement simultaneously suggests that Vonnegut does not view his life as entirely pleasant which indicates that he is unable to completely shift his focus away from the bad moments as Tralfamadorian philosophy would have him do. Vonnegut also states that it was difficult for him to write this book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. This statement indicates that Vonnegut feels there is no insight or reasoning behind extensive death; however, despite his difficulties, the fact that he persisted in writing his novel suggests that he felt it an important mission to complete his story of the death and destruction in Dresden. Both Vonnegut and Billy have witnessed extensive death, and both men seem to be caught at a crossroads between accepting death as unavoidable and unjustifiable, and feeling negative emotions connected with such loss. This instinctual association of death with sadness is a human quality that many people experience; however, Tralfamadorian philosophy preaches against such association. In order to practice this philosophy, humans must separate this instinctual association and view death without negative emotions. Despite being the creator of these aliens and their doctrine, Vonnegut himself struggles to fully accept this concept due to his innate human limitations. He promotes the alien idea, but he does so in a way that leaves the ultimate interpretation of such a philosophy to the individual.

Several aspects of Tralfamadorian life philosophy appeal to Billy and Vonnegut, but their status as Earthlings limits their perception and ability to fully practice this philosophy. Extreme Tralfamadorian views regarding time, free will, moment selectivity, and death impede humans from effortlessly adopting this doctrine. Additionally, instinctual associations that human brains make between moments and/or emotions—for example, Billy’s link between his happiest moment and the unpleasant moment that followed—are difficult to sever and further hinder the full application of Tralfamadorian philosophy. Nevertheless, Billy’s abduction to Tralfamadore allowed Vonnegut a pathway through which to present the idea of an alternative, unfamiliar life philosophy that may lead to opened eyes concerning the concept of a broader view of how one should regard life. By promoting the appeal of Tralfamadorian philosophy, Vonnegut is able to portray an attractive alternative approach to life that advocates for a comprehensive and flexible outlook; however, by also describing the limitations humans face in attempting to fully adopt such a life doctrine, Vonnegut suggests the reason why such an outlook is not widely accepted or practiced in Earthling society. Through the character of Billy and his abnormal experiences with time travel and alien abduction, Vonnegut symbolically reveals the obstacles that impede humans from adopting a Tralfamadorian approach to life and the innate improbability of overcoming such hinderances. Ultimately, Vonnegut leaves the reader with a multifaceted dilemma and the opportunity to personally contemplate the benefits versus the detriments associated with the possibility of adopting aspects of Tralfamadorian philosophy into Earthling society.

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Tralfamadorian Life Philosophy as an Earthling Doctrine. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from
“Tralfamadorian Life Philosophy as an Earthling Doctrine.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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