He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says.
Here, readers learn of Billy Pilgrim’s unfortunate condition: He travels through time at random, experiencing the events of his life out of sequence. However, from Billy’s first introduction, Vonnegut follows many of Billy’s observations with the phrase “He says.” These two words cast doubt on Billy’s reliability as a narrator for the remainder of the story. The ambiguity of Billy’s experience will come to represent the ambiguity of human life and memory as a whole.
Last came Billy Pilgrim, empty-handed, bleakly ready for death. Billy was preposterous—six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots.
The narrator describes the scene in which Billy wanders through the battlefield with a few wayward comrades. Readers note how woefully unprepared Billy is for war. He has no equipment, he learned almost nothing from his training, and he seems far from physically fit. The fact that Billy survives the war while so many of his fellows do not illustrates a depiction of the universe as senseless and governed by chance.
When he opened his eyes, he was on the bottom of the pool, and there was beautiful music everywhere. He lost consciousness, but the music went on. He dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.
Here, Billy time-travels to a memory where his father drops him into a deep pool to teach him to swim. Billy, terrified of the water, sinks rather than swims. However, he soon finds he prefers the womblike solitude at the bottom of the pool. This memory is emblematic of Billy’s desire to escape life and do absolutely nothing. Despite the fact that he is actively drowning, he doesn’t wish to return to the surface.
He had fallen asleep at work before. It had been funny at first. Now Billy was starting to get worried about it, about his mind in general. He tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t. He tried to remember what year it was. He couldn’t remember that, either.
The narrator describes when Billy time-trips to a moment where he fell asleep in the middle of an eye exam, with the confused patient asking why he’s been so quiet. Billy hasn’t yet assumed the big-picture perspective of the Tralfamadorians and feels frightened by this jumbled experience of time. He remains trapped in a distinctly human point of view, his instincts alerted by this rupture of the norm. Soon, he will become so numb to the time-tripping that he barely remains human.
“If other planets aren’t now in danger from Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?” Billy felt that he had spoken soaringly. He was baffled when he saw the Tralfamadorians close their little hands on their eyes. He knew from past experience what this meant: He was being stupid.
Here, Billy swells with heroism, believing the aliens can help save Earth. The aliens, however, recoil from Billy’s Earthling-like thoughts. Billy believes he can change the future, but they know all events are set in amber for eternity. Of course, as humans, readers can identify with Billy. Accepting that future events can’t be changed feels wrong, and, despite feelings of futility, insisting on the ability to change the future may be humanity’s most important quality to preserve.
While he examined the boy’s eyes, Billy told him matter-of-factly about his adventures on Tralfamadore, assured the fatherless boy that his father was very much alive still in moments the boy would see again and again. “Isn’t that comforting?” Billy asked.
Billy casually mentions his alien encounters to a young patient, unaware of how the story sounds to an outsider. The boy reacts with fear and confusion, as many readers likely would. Billy’s new perspective on time completely isolates him from other people—in ceasing to care, to feel, to believe in the meaning of his actions, Billy ceases to be human.
“If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.” Now he closes his speech as he closes every speech—with these words: “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”
Here, Billy time-trips to a moment of vindication, giving a speech to a huge crowd about his time-tripping life. This moment feels less like a relived memory than a fantasy. After a jumbled lifetime of disconnection from everyone, Billy dreams of some measure of validation—just a simple acknowledgement of his experiences would be enough. Sadly, as Vonnegut later informs us, events like the Dresden bombing were concealed for years after the war.
What the Englishman said about survival was this: “If you stop taking pride in your appearance, you will very soon die.” He said that he had seen several men die in the following way: “They ceased to stand up straight, then ceased to shave or wash, then ceased to get out of bed, then ceased to talk, then died. There is much to be said for it: it is evidently a very easy and painless way to go.”
Billy and the other soldiers listen to a speech about how, without fulfilling human basic actions, such as caring for one’s appearance, a person eventually fades away to nothingness. While the Englishman’s connecting shaving and brushing one’s teeth to life-saving actions seems ridiculous, readers note that Billy has stopped doing much of anything and, in turn, has separated from human life. The Englishman’s speech emphasizes how essential small elements of discipline and routine can be.
Billy Pilgrim got onto a chartered airplane in Ilium twenty-five years after that. He knew it was going to crash, but he didn’t want to make a fool of himself by saying so.
The narrator describes when Billy time-trips to the moment of a horrific plane crash and chooses not to warn anybody. This scene speaks to the difficulty of living with a mental condition—the sense that one understands something that others do not, but the knowledge from past experience that even if one tries to explain, one will not be believed. Such a truth explains why Billy feels so passive and apathetic about his life.
[T]hey got up to discover the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over. Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”
Here, Billy wanders through Dresden’s decimated streets in the wake of the war. World War Two ends with no fanfare. One moment, Billy hides for his life, and in the next moment, he freely walks the streets. At the end of everything, Billy is left with no answers or closure regarding the horrors he’s seen. After a massacre, only silence and the soft tweeting of birds remain.