Is Billy Pilgrim a Prisoner of War?

“Mr. Pilgrim trapped in the amber of this moment” (Vonnegut 68), A Tralfamdorian said.  Is Billy Pilgrim a prisoner of the war? Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about prisoners of war, and obviously, Billy Pilgrim is one of them. To define the term prisoner, prisoner means people who physically and mentally lose freedom due to external impact and forces. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim is a prisoner of war both physically and mentally. In the following essay, I would separately explain why Billy is a prisoner both physically and mentally.

To begin with, physically Billy Pilgrim is a prisoner of war because he was captured by the Germans scouts during the Battle of the Bulge (Vonnegut 33) and sent to Slaughterhouse-Five as a prisoner. From that on, until he is released from prison, Billy loses his personal freedom (“freedom of the person is going and coming, equality before the courts, the security of private property, freedom of opinion and its expression, and freedom of conscience subject to the rights of others and the public (Merriam-Webster)). Billy is forced to do work assigned by Germans and cooperates with the German to do what he may not want to do (Vonnegut 53). For instance, shortly after Billy is captured in Luxembourg, a photographer, “a German war correspondent with a Leica”, wants to take pictures of a real capture, so the German guards throw Billy into shrubbery (Vonnegut 53). After Billy came out of the shrubbery, “the German soldiers menaced him with their machine pistols, as though they were capturing him them” (Vonnegut 53).  For the Germans, the picture of Billy makes a wonderful tool of propaganda because Billy presents the American soldier as a fool in war.

Obviously, Billy’s movement has been limited and he has no freedom in “going and coming”. Besides, after the war, Billy is still a physical prisoner of war, losing his personal freedom. His daughter Barbara Pilgrim takes Billy’s responsibility for his own life away from him. In 1968, when Billy returns to Ilium from war, he becomes irrational and a little crazy. Although his daughter is trying to take care of him, she has taken away Billy’s freedom “in the name of love” like what she said to her father, “[if ]you’re going to act like a child, maybe we’ll just have to treat you like a child” (Vonnegut 111). Being treated as a child means that he will be disciplined and restricted. Indeed, she reproaches Billy for writing ridiculous letters to the newspapers and “makes him to promises to stay under the electric blanket at the highest notch” (Vonnegut 111). 

What is more, Billy Pilgrim remains mentally a prisoner of his war experiences even after he returns home at the end of the war. There is plenty of evidence throughout the novel that Billy is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The signs of PTSD include flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares, and a persistent feeling of fear” (Family Safety & Health). This probably explains why Billy Pilgrim “comes unstuck in time” ever since he was turned into a prisoner. For example, at the end of the novel, Billy Pilgrim travels back to Dresden in 1945, two days after the city is destroyed by the terrifying bombardment (Vonnegut 176). Billy and the rest were being marched into the ruins by German guards. He was forced to dig and clean the dead bodies. “The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work” (Vonnegut 177). Vonnegut did not directly describe the reaction of Billy when he experiencing the firebombing of Dresden. However, we can postulate that Billy Pilgrim, a veteran who is powerless to harm the enemy or protect himself. (Vonnegut 31), would normally be frightened and even be drove into crazy by the drastic war experiences. Billy is likely to have flashbacks of parts of his life due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Furthermore, the war experience also sets up Billy Pilgrim’s illusion of his trips to the planet Tralfamadore since he only starts to travel to Tralfamadore after he has been through into prison. On Tralfamadore the Billy learns the aliens’ philosophy that there is no such thing as free will, because “every moment is structured” (Vonnegut 100). Thus, the Tralfamadorians only spend eternity looking at pleasant moments and ignore the awful times (Vonnegut 100). Although this philosophy seems subverted to Billy’s cognition at first, he embraces this idea later, which helps him to feel better about war and death.

The story between Billy and the Tralfamadorians tends to indicate that Billy is insane due to the war. It is his illusion that creates the world of Tralfamadore, which provides him a space to escape from the war. Ironically, even in his illusion, Billy is still a prisoner who was kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians and was displayed naked in a zoo (Vonnegut 27). Therefore, the memories of war trap Billy even after the war is ended, which causes him to suffer from his memories of war. Moreover, after the war, Billy sometimes finds himself weeping without control, which suggests he is suffering from the persistent feeling of fear and pain. For instance, one night, when “[Billy] closed the venetian blinds and then the drapes and lay down on the outside of the coverlet” (Vonnegut 56). “But sleep would not come. Tears came instead”. 

Granted, some people may argue that Billy Pilgrim may recover from PTSD, and eventually free from the war memories. It is true that Billy lives in a decent life after the war. He married his fiancée, finished his education, had two children, and was set up in business in Ilium by his father-in-law (Vonnegut 26). “Billy became rich. He had two children, Barbara and Robert” (Vonnegut 26). The good life may smooth out Billy’s pain. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look, the good life seems to be a superficial illusion.  

First, Billy does not love his wife, Valencia. When Valencia died accidentally of carbon-monoxide poisoning (Vonnegut 26), Billy was not particularly sad; instead, he works on his letter to the Ilium News-Leader, which describes the creatures from Tralfamafore (Vonnegut 27). Secondly, after Billy’s wife passes away, his daughter Barbara does not treat him well. She takes her father’s dignity away in the name of love (Vonnegut 111). Third, becoming a rich optometrist may not be Billy’s choice (maybe it is not what Billy passionate about). Although the novel does not mention the reasons that Billy becomes an optometrist in detail, we know that graduates from optometry school, and Ilium, the town where Billy lives, is a particularly good city for optometrists (Vonnegut 26). In this way, Billy becomes an optometrist tends to because of the influence and pressure of his family and the environment. 

All in all, Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, is both physically and mentally a prisoner of war. During the war, his personal freedom is deprived by Germans after he was through into a prison. After the war, due to his eccentric behaviors, Billy is physically constrained by his daughter, and mentally he keeps suffer from PTSD. Billy Pilgrim is like a bug who is trapped in amber and suffers from struggling, but he may never get rid of it. “So it goes.”

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