The concepts of freedom, free will and fate in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel «Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade» | Статья в журнале «Молодой ученый»

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Рубрика: Филология, лингвистика

Опубликовано в Молодой учёный №42 (332) октябрь 2020 г.

Дата публикации: 13.10.2020

Статья просмотрена: 30 раз

Библиографическое описание:

Переведенцева, В. О. The concepts of freedom, free will and fate in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel «Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade» / В. О. Переведенцева. — Текст : непосредственный // Молодой ученый. — 2020. — № 42 (332). — С. 305-308. — URL: (дата обращения: 09.03.2021).

Arthur Schopenhauer once said: «A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills». His statement accurately reflects the controversy and ambiguity of free will, freedom and determinism. This issue has always caused heated debates in society, especially among scholars, philosophers and writers. This article aims to analyze the three above-mentioned concepts in a famous science fiction-infused anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut «Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade».

Keywords: freedom, free will, fate, Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

В данной статье представлен анализ понятий свободы, свободы воли и судьбы на материале романа Курта Воннегута «Бойня номер пять, или Крестовый поход детей». Сначала автор приводит толкования данных концептов, затем рассматривает, как они раскрываются непосредственно в произведении и предлагает объяснение того, как они соотносятся друг с другом.

Ключевые слова : свобода, свобода воли, судьба, Курт Воннегут, Бойня номер пять.

The issue of freedom, fate, and free will seems to be predominant in the novel «Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade». Before taking a closer look at how exactly these concepts interact and are revealed, let’s consider in more detail the lexical meanings of all three words mentioned above. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freedom is «the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited» [2], fate is «a power that some people believe causes and controls all events, so that you cannot change or control the way things will happen» [2] and lastly, free will is «the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence». [2]

Now let’s briefly examine how these concepts work in the “Slaughterhouse-Five”. First, it should be noted that the twofold aspect of freedom as it is presented in the book results in the need for analyzing this phenomenon from two perspectives: as the state of not being imprisoned and as the ability of a person to act freely, to do or to think without being controlled by others. Fate is apparently linked to the concept of time, which is explained by the author through the Tralfamadorians’ perception. Living in four dimensions, these creatures take a strong stance that time is something that doesn’t change. Thus, there is no past, no present, and no future because they exist simultaneously, they are a single whole. Free will is, in a sense, an opposite side of fate, which is clearly demonstrated in the novel. The interrelations between the three concepts under consideration are extremely strong.

It seems logical to start by looking at the concept of free will and to demonstrate how it’s presented in the novel and how it’s connected with freedom and fate. The main idea of the story is that there is no free will at all because time is permanent and all people are just the bugs «trapped in the amber of this moment» [1, c. 35]. A person cannot decide himself or herself how to act as every step you make is preordained. Thus, nobody can modify anything in life and change not only the present moment but even the future, which seems bizarre. This concept is most clearly expressed when one of the Tralfamadorians brings it home to Billy that they cannot prevent their test pilot (technically from the future) from pushing the button which will destroy the whole Universe and says: ''He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.'' [1, c. 53] This phrase proves that everything in the world (according to the aliens) is arranged in such a way that you cannot have any impact on different events that take place even in your own life. The reason is that everything that is destined to happen will occur in any case, no matter how hard you try to change it.

The author develops this idea throughout the whole novel and the life of the main character is good evidence for the absence of free will. Billy Pilgrim is ''unstuck in time'' [1, c.10] and has a unique ability to travel to the past and to the future. As a result, he is aware of every single event which takes place in a particular moment. But even then, he cannot alter reality. For example, when he enters Dresden with other American prisoners, he knows for sure that the city will be soon destroyed and practically all citizens will be slaughtered, but he is impotent to stop it. It seems to be extremely difficult to live with all this knowledge and go through the same feelings again and again, especially when they are negative.

Taking into consideration the fact that free will does not exist and actually ''listless playthings of enormous forces'' [1, c. 77] have the most significance, there cannot be real characters in the novel (it is emphasized by the author) because, as a rule, they are the people who fight the circumstances, who try to change the fate. We see that Billy is a kind of observer, he is involved in a situation, but he is passive and just goes with the flow, perhaps like other soldiers in the war. It seems that he is not able to make any decisions independently and that someone does it in his stead.

Let’s proceed to the concept of fate and then determine the link between it and free will. It follows from what has been said above that the only thing which clearly exists and which guides the life of a person is fate. The first point to be mentioned is that the idea of fatalism is identified not only in the plot, but even in the way the author describes events in the course of the story, in other words in its structure. The plots of most of the books are designed in such a way that we may see how characters are developing and facing new circumstances. Technically it presumes that they still have some chance to change various aspects of their life. If we do not know what is going to happen with them in the future, it means, in a certain way, that they still can make a choice independently. Breaking all the rules, Kurt Vonnegut gives the bird’s eye view of Billy’s life at the very start. Thus, we are already aware that he will be imprisoned during the war and later treated for mental disease in a hospital, we know when he will marry, and finally when he will die. It seems weird, but the actions and even decisions of the protagonist are limited from the beginning. Consequently, he lacks the opportunity of developing. Furthermore, apart from the major events, the author familiarizes us with some minor ones, especially with certain coincidences, before they take place. For example, a reader is aware of Billy’s acquaintance with a science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout and of the survival of Paul Lazzaro (who is bound to kill Pilgrim) before it occurs in reality. Once more it proves that all the deeds and accidents are ''preplanned'' by some higher powers.

After analyzing the text, it becomes clear that the concept of fatalism is foregrounded not only in the structure of the story but is also closely related to the life of the protagonist. Actually, though he travels in time, he returns to the past or goes in the future mostly unwillingly and cannot control these temporal shifts. Very often he finds himself in the same moment of his life, and the period which prevails in these trips is the most challenging one — WWII. Indeed, it is one more manifestation of the fact that there is no free will and that a person cannot affect the course of events and be the master of his or her own life.

Throughout the whole story, the idea that everything is preordained is emphasized by numerous repetitions. These phrases have the same meaning (though the words and their order may alter insignificantly) and occur quite regularly. Thus, several times we encounter the phrase ''poor old Edgar Derby'' and often it is accompanied by some information about his death like ''was shot in Dresden'' or ''who would be shot to death in Dresden. '' Similarly, the famous words of Billy ''You guys go on without me'' appear in the novel about five times, even when the character is in hospital after the war. Another phrase to be pointed out is ''So it goes'', which clearly demonstrates that the whole story is imbued with quite a fatalistic atmosphere. In fact, it may be frequently found in each chapter and it always accompanies the information about the death of characters as if to convince a reader that these events are imminent. There are some other expressions (or to be more precise, several questions) that are mentioned together twice in different parts of the story. ''Why me? '' asks Billy Pilgrim; ''Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? '' say the Tralfamadorians. A bit later the situation repeats itself when an American prisoner asks a German guard: ''Why me'', and the latter responds: ''Vy you? Vy anybody? ''. The only answer we receive is that ''because this moment simply is. '' [1, c. 35] One more proof that the destiny shapes the life of people and does not leave them any choice may be found in the words: ''It was Fate, of course, which had costumed him—Fate, and a feeble will to survive. '' [1, c.71]

Let’s turn to the consideration of the concept of freedom and look at it from two different perspectives. The most part of the story Billy is displayed in war-time, which doesn’t suppose much liberty. In the beginning, the main character and his fellows become hostages to circumstances while trying to find American troops. Technically, they are not free as they are still on the territory of the enemy and they are soldiers who are not allowed to act as they please. Then they are captured by the Germans and made prisoners of war, thus becoming deprived even of the tiny piece of freedom they had before. Actually, there is a second period of Billy’s life when he is captured which should not be ignored — it is the time when he is brought by the Tralfamadorians to their planet. He is supplied with everything necessary, but his housing is located in a zoo and there are no walls at all, therefore he is practically always on display as a representative of Earthlings. Again he is not free because he cannot leave this place, he depends on aliens and has to live in conditions that undermine human dignity. Though Billy does not suffer while living in the zoo, his actions and movements are limited and he has to do what others want him to.

Last but not least, if we take a closer look at the story, it becomes clear that the protagonist has never been free. At first, we see that as a boy he was thrown by his father into a swimming pool and later was taken to the Grand Canyon, as a young man he had to serve in the army and take part in the Second World War and after his return, he had to marry a woman he did not love. Obviously, these things occurred against his will. Furthermore, the truth is that after the war during which he got the first experience of travelling in time, he became the hostage of his memories and was not able to recover from the psychological trauma caused by the brutality of events and by the cruelty of people. Throughout the novel, he goes into the past or future spontaneously. Besides, it seems that he has no will at all like some other characters of the story, and he cannot fight the circumstances. The only time when some free will is manifested in the novel is the moment when '' poor old Derby, the doomed high school teacher'' [1, c. 77] becomes a real character and tries to confront the vices of war expressed in the person of Campbell who intends to recruit American soldiers to fight for the German side.

After the consideration of all three aspects of the topic, it is necessary to draw conclusions from what has been said above. The first thing that worth noting is that the concepts of freedom, free will and fatalism are closely linked. The reason that the existence of the first two of them is denied in the novel owes to the fact that every moment of life (according to the Tralfamadorians’ point of view and apparently to the message conveyed by Kurt Vonnegut) is predestined by fate. This idea is reflected in the structure of the story: it is shaped in such a way that from the very start we know the main events which are bound to take place in Billy’s life, thus there is no hope that something can be changed. Moreover, a reader virtually always knows that some characters are sure to die or to be killed before the moment comes and several phrases like ''so it goes'' reinforce the idea of fatalism. Yet, though the existence of free will is rejected and people have to accept the circumstances, there is one brilliant idea in the novel that I would like to quote in conclusion: ''That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones. '' [1, c. 54]


  1. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1970
Основные термины (генерируются автоматически): WWII, свобода воли.

Ключевые слова

freedom, free will, fate, Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
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