Billy Pilgrim´s Two Characters
War can destroy. War can teach. In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five, the central character, Billy Pilgrim, is the outcome of a test. In creating and developing Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s intention is to show the effect of modern war on a sensitive person who tries to play the game the way society expects. This, along with family influence, shapes how Billy acts in his two different lives: life in the military and life alone.
Torn inside and out, Billy Pilgrim was forced to make a choice. He had to choose the way he would live his life. Learning from his father, Billy could respond by taking his father’s drive toward dominance over people and environment. Billy could also follow his mother, confusing him with her excessive demands for gratitude. Forced to decide, Billy chooses neither, which to him, is the easiest way to survive. He yields to his father’s attitude without adopting it as a model, while withdrawing from his mother without complaint, without hurting her. He believes that sharing the guilt of aggression is more complicated than simply turning the other cheek, which shines through in moments under pressure.
Denial is also
crucial to Billy Pilgrim’s character. The Dresden bombing intensifies the
damage to his personality. He can survive only by denying his experiences
at Dresden and he divides himself into two halves: a social half that says,
"Yes," and a private half that says, "No." His conflicts
force his "surrender to the world," first with a mental breakdown,
then with an escape into fantasy. Publicly, he agrees with the Marine
major who wants more bombing, more Green Berets, while internally, he sees a
war-film backwards, in which he wishes to undo the ravaging effects of war.
Looking for an outlet, Billy discovers science fiction, which gives him
perspective and consolation. This perspective forces him to teach others, to
improve not people’s physical sight but their spiritual vision, which
eventually leads to his commitment.
Billy Pilgrim is two characters, two lives, which consist of a life in the military, the outer, public life, and his life alone, the inner, internal life. In the Army, Billy is numb and confused, but in civilian life, he is more expansive, more exploratory, even showing a quiet love of dramatic irony. In whole, Billy stands for pacifism and tolerance. In such a world, in this environment, Billy Pilgrim can only appear as a clown.
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