In week 1 we looked at the theme of WAR. Slaughterhouse-Five is about a very particular experience of war. This book isn't about officers or heroes. It's about privates, most of whom don't want to be – and shouldn't be – on the battlefield. And it's about prisoners of war, men who have been deprived of any kind of control over where they go and what they do.
In week 2 we will look at the theme of FATE and FREE WILL. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the primary upshot of what Billy Pilgrim learns from the plunger-shaped aliens is: if we cannot change anything about time, there is no such thing as free will. After all, free will means the ability to alter your own future. In fact, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy that the whole idea of free will seems to be unique to Earthlings. Everyone else in the universe knows better. Billy uses this knowledge to comfort himself about the realities of aging, death, and pain. Even if human beings have to suffer, at least there is nothing to be done about it.
(1) Write down how you would define "free will".
(2) Does Billy Pilgrim, in your opinion, exercise his own will at any point in chapters 1-4? If so, when?
Wikipedia states the following:
Free will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long been debated in philosophy. Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism. Two prominent opposing positions within that debate are metaphysical libertarianism, the claim that determinism is false and thus that free will exists (or is at least possible); and hard determinism, the claim that determinism is true and thus that free will does not exist.
(3) What is meant by determinism? What is meant by fatalism?
(4) Choose: The danger of hard determinism is that, if you follow this philosophy to the letter, you, as an individual, ARE/ARE NOT responsible for your own actions.
(5) In Slaughterhouse-five the Tralfamadorians have a concept of time very different to that of humans. Explain the difference.
(6) Why is the Tralfamadorian idea of time incompatible with free will?
(7) So it goes is pretty much the signature stock phrase of this novel. How does So it goes represent the idea of determinism?
Watch the following interview:
During the interview Jon Stewart says: "When I first read your books they opened up a whole new school of thought of humanism."
(8) Define humanism.
(9) At first glance the concepts determinism and humanism seem irreconcilable. Explain why (or why not).
Read the following articles:
(10) Explain how in Slaughterhouse-five Vonnegut expresses his humanist ideas and how these are linked to the absence of villains in any of the novels Vonnegut wrote.
Reading plan >