In Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, suffers from PTSD caused by the mental trauma of having been in the war. He deals with this by imagining that he has come unstuck in time and can relive various moments of his life in whatever order he pleases. In the novel, because of this ability, Billy knows the exact manner and time of his death.

...Billy Pilgrim says now that this really is the way he is going to die, too. As a time- traveler, he has seen his own death many times, has described it to a tape recorder. The tape is locked up with his will and some other valuables in his safe-deposit box at the Ilium Merchants National Bank and Trust, he says...

And just before his assassination,

'No, no,' says Billy serenely. 'It is time for you to go home to your wives and children, and it is time for me to be dead for a little while-and then live again.' At that moment, Billy's high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at him from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes. So Billy experiences death for a while.

How is this possible if Billy's time-traveling abilities were just hallucinations caused by PTSD?

  • It's been a long time since I read this great work, but as I recall, absolutely Billy knew the time of his death. As to the reality/unreality, uncertainty is intended--the experience of reality is subjective in that it is based on perception. (This was a major theme in almost all of Phillip K. Dick's novels.)
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 15, 2017 at 17:16

1 Answer 1


Oh this is super late. I'm actually seeing this to see if there are any answers I can link for my students but this is like the 5th google result so maybe not.

My take: He doesn't die. It's Vonnegut's depiction of Billy considering that he has no ability to influence his destiny -- only on Earth is there any talk of free will. Since Billy can't control his free will, he invites the opportunity for this to happen.

But really, this is all just a manifestation of guilt. He feels guilty about being responsible for the Germans capturing he and Weary, that Weary later dies, that all these people die in Dresden, and on the plane, and that Valencia dies.

It can be argued whether it actually happens or not, but if it does happen, it's because Billy invites the situation by going public, calling attention to himself, so as to make his destiny happen. And as the tralfamdorians say, the moment is structured that way.

But also, it doesn't matter, as they say at the beginning of chapter 5: There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author (Vonnegut) has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end....(112)

  • Thank you very much for submitting an answer. However, the first paragraph isn't strictly about the book, so you don't need to keep it. (Stack Exchange is not a forum, so the rules are a bit different here. What counts here is the extent to which an answer actually "solves" the question.)
    – Tsundoku
    May 2, 2020 at 10:04

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