Billy Pilgrim and Existentialism – Hugo, Grade 8

Billy Pilgrim and Existentialism – Hugo, Grade 8

This literary essay is written by one of my grade 8 students. He has analyzed the main character, Billy Pilgrim, from an existentialist point of view. In his essay, he shows a thorough understanding of the existentialist view of life and aptly refers to Billy Pilgrim’s thoughts, words, and actions to prove that his views of life conform to those of an existentialist.  



Billy Pilgrim and Existentialism

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut can be considered as an anti-war novel; however, at a deeper level, the novel can be seen to convey existentialist ideology through the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who is the embodiment of existentialism. He claims that he is “unstuck in time,” apparently able to move through events in his life without a particular order. Billy Pilgrim’s views on life and death, his absurd interpretation of war, and his lack of morality all reveal his existentialist nihilist ideology, which goes along with the existentialist nihilist principles of absurdity and meaninglessness of existence.

Firstly, Billy Pilgrim’s views on life and death are typical of those of the existentialists. Existentialism views life as an inherently meaningless phenomenon, without any intrinsic value other than the one attached to it by the liver. In other words, according to existentialism, existence precedes essence; that is, one exists before one searches for a purpose and determines one’s morality. This description matches Billy Pilgrim as he does not see any meaning in his existence or his death. A great example to show that Billy Pilgrim does not have a purpose in life is when he marries Valencia. Even though Billy admits that she is ugly, he still marries her: “She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life” (Vonnegut, 137). This quote demonstrates Billy does not want to marry Valencia as she is ugly; however, since he only views marriage as part of life, he simply marries her. Billy does not give Valencia or his family meaning or value, so to him, they are mostly nothing but some part of his life. Such an attitude towards marriage in particular and life in general goes with existentialism since for him neither possesses any intrinsic value. Furthermore, to Billy, death comes across as a normal part of life. People worry about their deaths because they believe that their lives have a meaning, and dying means losing one’s power to fulfil their purpose. However, for Billy, who has always thought that life has no meaning, death is just an incident as it is merely the end of a meaningless existence. Billy Pilgrim’s view of death is most evident in his imaginations. His imaginary creatures, Tralfamadorians, tell him that that past, present, and future can all be viewed at the same time: “I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. 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” (Vonnegut, 108). This implies that people never die; instead,  they just jump to another time when they are alive since “[w]hen a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments” (Vonnegut, 33-34). Besides, as past, present, and future are simultaneous, then fate ultimately guides all beings, for when one lives in the present, the future happens at the same time. In other words, when one exists in the present, the future has already been determined. All these reasons persuade Billy to forget about life and death because he knows that his future has been established by fate, so whatever he does, there is no point in trying to stop the inevitable, especially death.

Secondly, Billy’s reactions to the events that occur in Slaughterhouse-Five clearly show his belief in the absurdity of events. Many times in the story, Billy, seeing comrades, civilians, and enemies die next to him, is confused about what the point of war is. However, he shows no pity for even the most unexpected and tragic event as he believes in the absurdity of events and outcomes. Every time a character in Slaughterhouse-Five dies, Billy says “so it goes.” This, down to simple terms, shows that even a tragic event, such as death, does not mean much, as people die every day. For Billy trying to attach any significance to any of these events is absurd as no event is supposed to have a meaningful explanation. An example of this can be Edgar Derby, who dies for stealing a teapot. The narrator talks about Edgar Derby as a buff, educated, patriotic American who goes to war for his country. He shows leadership and is very similar to the ideal American. Edgar, like Billy, survives the bombing of Dresden. All this wonderful image of Edgar creates the common fictional image that he will survive the war and return to his home country, receive medals, and describe his wartime experiences to others. However, what happens is that after the bombing, Edgar is executed by the Germans after swiping an insignificant teapot. Billy does not show any pity, and just expresses his common sentence “so it goes.” Billy’s lack of empathy shows that he does not think that there has to be any significance in Edgar’s death as he believes in the absurdity of events, one of the pillars of existentialism.

Finally, Billy Pilgrim’s lack of morality, as a set of constant core values, proves that he cherishes existentialism. Throughout the story, Billy is shown to be nonchalant about the deaths of people, even people whom he should care about. According to Tralfamadorians, past, present, and future are simultaneous; thus, no matter what actions one may commit, everything is already determined. Such an attitude defies the idea of free will, which then leads to the rejection of morality. The Tralfamadorians, then, allow Billy Pilgrim to create his own set of morals as they tell him that in a world where fate guides the outcomes of actions, there is no moral code. This puts a twist on morality, as in Billy’s mind morality is not existent. Billy believes regardless of what he does to find his essence, it would all be part of fate. In addition, the Tralfamadorian books that Billy reads during his time aboard the saucer show no morality just like The Slaughterhouse Five. The Tralfamadorian books have no particular order, but every symbol is a quick and urgent message from the author. Thus, as the future, past and present are all mixed up, the books have zero moral lessons, giving no moral reason why an event happens. This means that Billy feels detached from issues, such as death and life. All of this is related to existential nihilism because this is the way that Billy feels about himself and the world. Being persuaded that everything he does has been predetermined, he does whatever he likes to do because it would be justified by his Tralfamadorian philosophy of fate.

In conclusion, Billy Pilgrim can be best described as an existentialist because of his view of life and death, his belief in absurdity, and his lack of morality. All of these are evident in the book and are parallel with the existentialists’ concepts of existence, death, purpose, value, and time, which proves that Billy Pilgrim is an existentialist.