A Character Analysis Of Billy Pilgrim From Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

It would be fair to state that Billy Pilgrim is one of literature’s most unlikely antiwar heroes. When the reader first meets Billy before the war, he is a complacent and unpopular weakling, and as a result, becomes something of a joke among the other soldiers. Billy earns further distain from his military peers when he takes on the duty of training as a chaplain’s assistant, and he is shown to experience limited preparation for combat. He has no real talent with weapons and even sports an improper uniform. Nonetheless, Billy is thrust right into center of the action at the Battle of the Bulge.

The almost farcical image that is created by Billy’s incorrect clothing and his weak and puny frame only serves to accentuate the fact that his is very much a ‘soldier’ out is his depth. The symbol of Billy as being a fish out water becomes even more ironic and significant as time goes on, as it becomes incredibly poignant that he is managing to walk through this war completely unscathed while accomplished and talented soldiers are dying every day beside him. It is through this ironic shock and his own physical exhaustion that Billy first starts to become ‘unstuck in time’, and begins floating through events, both past, present and future, of his life.

Billy appears to live a life that is filled with indignity, and therefore has no real fear of death. This attitude thus makes him a perfect candidate for the Tralfamadorian philosophy that emphasizes death. This certainly makes a case for interpreting the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s damaged imagination, an elaborate and fanciful coping mechanism that helps him to process and explain the fruitless slaughter that he is witnessing. By writing ‘so it goes’ after each death occurs, the narrator is echoing Billy’s sentiments that death is a great equalizer, preferably void of any big emotion.

This is highlighted across the narrative many times: Billy’s father dying in a hunting accident before the war. So it goes; A hobo dying in the railway car Billy is traveling in. So it goes; Over 100,000 people dying in Dresden. So it goes; Valencia accidently killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning. So it goes; Billy himself being killed by an assassin at the precise time that he had predicted. So it goes. The repetition of this phrase just emphases the calmness of Billy in his attitude towards death, with the thought that 100,000 dead innocents having the same impact as an anonymous hobo on a train. It gives him a degree of control over his life.

The final thing to consider about Billy Pilgrim is that the novel centers around him so profusely that it makes the cast of supporting characters nothing more than footnotes, only existing in relation to his development and actions in the plot, and this perhaps is a wider metaphor for how Billy treated people during his life, with a detached and indifferent hand.