Kurt Vonnegut’s writing is considerably unusual because of the use of characters that are commonly regarded as outcast or interesting in a negative sense. However, Vonnegut’s main characters in “Slaughterhouse Five” as well as in “Timequake” can be considered as positive depictions of reality. In spite of the easy negative response that readers may harbor regarding Vonnegut’s characters, it is still arguable that these characters are representative of the reality that is observable in Vonnegut’s time as well as at present, and can be considered as “heroes” who ultimately lay down realistic perspectives through which people can see how life can be improved. The following discusses Vonnegut’s characters, particularly Billy Pilgrim (“Slaughterhouse Five”) and Kilgore Trout (“Timequake”), and how such characters can be considered as representations of reality and as “heroes” for being such.
Billy Pilgrim is the main character in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which deals with time (or the absence of it) and the troubles of human life. Billy can be considered as a representation of one of Vonnegut’s points of view. However, he does not represent Vonnegut as a whole. Billy’s name (Pilgrim) is symbolic of how his life goes in the novel. The term “pilgrim” can be equated to a journey toward a certain goal. However, this journey would seem non-existent in the novel because of the way Billy goes back and forth to different periods of his life at random. The absence of limits and sense of time would make it impossible to go on a journey, there would be no goal since all things would be happening simultaneously. Nonetheless, it is shown that time does exist in Billy’s life – – it is just that Billy jumbles up the events in his life, thereby creating a sense of the lack of time.
It should be noted that Vonnegut emphasizes in the novel that free will is a major characteristic of earth life. This means that Billy’s being a “pilgrim” is symbolic of the how he uses free will to reach his goals or the end-state of his life, regardless of what this goal or end state is. Billy is therefore a pilgrim on a journey called life. However, it is arguable that Billy’s end state or the ultimate goal of his pilgrimage is death, as he already knows how his death would be. Thus, Billy’s name is implicative of his journey through life towards the inevitable.
Billy Pilgrim is also shown as a Chaplain’s assistant. This even furthers the idea of life as a journey and death as the end state. Being a Chaplain’s assistant establishes a link between Billy and a religious institution (or a church). This somehow points out the notion of free will and associates it to religious principles. It is notable that the concepts of free will and fate (or destiny) are important aspect of theology and religion. Billy’s being an assistant to a chaplain therefore implies how these concepts ties together with the concept of time and death. Billy’s character emphasizes how free will can be used throughout life for one to arrive at an end state that is determined by destiny.
Billy is also an optometrist. His prescription of corrective lenses symbolizes how his life, as a point of view, serves as an important means through which people could view and understand life. These people are Americans, as implied in Billy’s address – – Ilium, NY. It should be noted that Ilium is a fictional representation of Troy, a real place from which the concept (or character) of Uncle Sam originated. Thus, it can be argued that Billy prescribes corrective lenses for Uncle Sam – – he prescribes corrective lenses for Americans. Vonnegut points out that, perhaps, Americans have become askew in their perspectives, and that they are already in need of some corrective action. And this corrective action is suggested through Billy’s character – – considerate of such concepts as life and death, and free will and destiny, as well as religion and spirituality.
Ultimately, Billy’s character is a symbol of life and death as well as the journey of life and the significance of free will in such a journey towards the inevitable. Billy’s character is a symbol of how Vonnegut’s piercing perspective sees through American society as well as the world, and determines how people have become unrealistic or too idealistic. Billy’s character points out the need to deal with reality, even when it means confronting sad or horrible pasts. In effect, Billy’s character functions as a venue through which reality can be confronted. He emphasizes the need to face one’s reality and be sufficiently keen to determine ills that need to be eliminated as well as whatever good on which improvement can be founded.
Kilgore Trout’s character can be considered as representative of what many people do in reality – – a depiction of apparent lack of the positive of use of free will. In “Timequake”, his character establishes, for the reader, a perspective through which the use of free will can be examined. His character functions as a means through which Vonnegut’s aims at establishing an improved perspective on the beneficial use of such human agency.
Even though it is indicated that Trout is Vonnegut’s “alter ego in several of [his] other novels” (Vonnegut “Timequake” xv) and is thus non-existent or surreal, his character still serves as a realistic depiction of life. For instance, Trout’s character is illustrated to be of the realistic attributes of common people – – people who are well aware of their need to suffer considerably through hard work to ensure some degree of financial capacity, and people who, in their haste and busy-ness, have becomes somewhat disabled in terms of their free agency. He is depicted as a writer who, just like writers in reality (i.e. the reality of the reader of Vonnegut’s story), is keen in observing and replicating reality in his writing but nonetheless suffers considerably as part of a society that refuses to become more sensible in with use of free will and in the way through which life is actually lived.
An important consideration in “Timequake” is the strange yet interesting and somewhat scientific reversal of the universe. This is considerably strange because of the consequences it has on life, interesting because of the manner in which people react and the manner in which they allow themselves to be influenced by the reversal, and scientific because of the accepted notion of expansion-reversal cycle that scientists happen to consider possible. When everything was reversed, Trout as well as everybody else is compelled to re-live life as it has already been, including every joy and every pain. With this, Trout’s character illustrates his helpless nature and, as is applicable, the helpless nature of everyone with respect to “universal” forces.
During the 10-year period, in spite of the consciousness and awareness of the repetition of every detail of life at it has already occurred, Trout and everybody experience powerlessness and are compelled, with the absence of free agency, to simply redo whatever they have already done while lacking to implement any change. In addition, when the “rerun” is completed, it is indicated that practically everybody suffers what is referred to as the “Post Timequake Apathy”, the inability to go back to that state in which free will is properly utilized.
Such powerlessness and the intentional lack of action after the “rerun” are illustrated through Trout’s perspective. Thus, in effect, Trout’s character serves as a camera through which people could see how reality (of society and life) has become. Trout’s character is also subjected to the same “universal” forces of reversal. This is implicative of the severity and gravity of the situation, and how Trout himself has become somewhat afflicted, in such regard, through society’s/humanity’s collective lack of the positive use of free will. In effect, Trout’s character serves as a positive reminder of the negative attributes that people have become accustomed to – – the misuse of free will.
Vonnegut’s characters are an important look into reality. In particular, Billy Pilgrim’s depiction of life and the proper and productive use of free agency as he goes towards the inevitable are implicative of Billy’s positive role in pointing out to society (and the reader) the importance distinguishing reality from the unreal, as well as the importance of dealing with one’s problematic past. In a similar fashion, Trout’s character, serves as a depiction of the importance of recognizing one’s free will and the ability to use it for positive ends.
In this regard, it is important to note that both characters (Billy and Trout) are depictive of criticality of good use of free agency with respect to reality. They serve as important reminders of the human ability to address the horrors or issues of reality and make adjustments for the better. They are heroes in that they serve as examples of how mankind can, through free will, act so society can be improved.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Slaughterhouse – Five or The Children’s Crusade, 1969.” <http://www.sfreviews.net/vonnegut_slaughterhouse_5.html>
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Timequake.” <http://www.scribd.com/doc/41458/Kurt-Vonnegut-Timequake>
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Slaughterhouse Five.” <http://www.scribd.com/doc/41464/Kurt-Vonnegut-Slaughterhouse-Five>
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse – Five. N.Y.: Dell Publishing, 1969.