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Billy is the protagonist and central character on whom the whole emphasis of the book is placed. The novel is really about four sides of Billy's life: 1) his past life as a soldier in World War II; 2) his present, uneventful life as a husband, father, and optometrist in Ilium, New York; 3) his time travels that take him into the past and into the future; and 4) his life as a prisoner on the distant planet of Trafalmadore. Of the four parts of Billy's life, the greatest emphasis in the novel is placed on his life as a soldier, for it dominates both his past and his present.
Vonnegut's telling of Billy's war experiences in Germany is highly autobiographical. To make the reader totally aware of the similarities between his own experiences and those of his fictional protagonist, Vonnegut often interrupts his narrative to say that "I was there." Like Billy, Vonnegut was captured by the Nazis, was imprisoned in Dresden, was one of the few survivors of the bombing of the city, was forced to search for the dead in the rubble, and was finally released to the Americans and sent home. After returning to civilian life, both Vonnegut and Billy were haunted by the tragedy of the Dresden bombing. Unlike himself, Vonnegut intentionally creates Billy as a non-complex person with a childlike vision, making him the perfect vehicle for the author to re-examine the war and the Dresden experience in the simplest way possible. And unlike Vonnegut, Billy begins to travel through time during the war; it seems that unpleasant experiences often trigger the travel.
After the war, Billy returns to Ilium, New York, and tries to live a normal life. He studies to be an optometrist and becomes engaged to Valencia, a rather fat, unattractive, and wealthy woman. It is obvious, however, that he struggles with his war experiences; he is so haunted by the memories of fighting and the destruction of Dresden that he has a nervous breakdown and voluntarily checks himself into a mental hospital. While he is hospitalized, Billy begins to contemplate his ability to travel through time. Although he has no control over when or where he goes, he is often taken to his past and to his future; however, the most frequent trip is back to Germany and the war.
After recovering from his breakdown, Billy settles down to a mundane existence in Ilium. He marries Valencia, has a son and daughter, and becomes a successful optometrist. Nothing in life, however, seems pleasant or fun to him. In fact, Vonnegut states that "Billy didn't really like life at all." He does not enjoy his career or his family, dreads where his time travels will take him next, and feels frustration over the fact that he has no control over his existence. When he is behind enemy lines during the war, he does not care if he lives or dies. This nonchalance about life is carried forward throughout the entire novel.
The most dominant characteristic of Billy's personality is his passivity. He quietly takes whatever life hands him, without question or complaint. It never occurs to him to fight against fate or to struggle to make a situation more tolerable. When Roland Weary, a fellow soldier, mistreats him during the war, he does not resist or fight back; neither does he hate Roland. When he knows he is to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet as a prisoner, he goes out into the garden to meet the aliens and boards their flying saucer without resistance; when they imprison him in a zoo for observation, he makes no attempt to run away or escape. Although he feels he has no control over his time travels and dreads where he will be taken next, Billy never attempts to direct where, when, or if he is going.
When Billy is kidnapped and taken to Trafalmadore, he offers no resistance. He allows himself to be imprisoned and displayed naked in a zoo. He listens and absorbs the Trafalmadorian philosophies without question. When Montana Wildhack is brought from earth to be his mate, he accepts her without hesitation and has a child with her. One of the most tender moments in the novel is the time when Montana is seen nursing her infant; this maternal image is effectively juxtaposed next to a scene of total destruction in Dresden.
Because of his time travels, Billy can see into his future. He knows that he will be in a plane crash when he is traveling to an optometrist convention. He knows that he will be shot by a man hired to revenge Roland Weary's death. In spite of his knowledge, he does nothing to escape the disasters. In the plane crash, he sustains a severe head injury and has to have brain surgery. While he is in the hospital, Valencia dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. When he returns home to live alone, Billy seems to be a changed man. For the first time in his life, he wants to do something; he is determined to tell the world about being captured by aliens and to discuss what he has learned while in captivity on the planet Trafalmadore. His reason for talking is altruistic. He believes the world will benefit from knowing the philosophy of the Trafalmadorians.
When Billy is released from the hospital and taken back to Ilium by his daughter Barbara, he quickly escapes to New York City. He appears on a radio talk show to tell the world about the Trafalmadorian sense of time. They do not differentiate between the past, present, or future, but live all three simultaneously in one continuous moment. They also believe that everything that happens in life must happen and cannot be prevented by man's interference. As a result, war, hunger, plane crashes, and murders cannot be prevented in Trafalmadorian philosophy. Man's responsibility is to dwell in the pleasant moments and ignore the unpleasant ones; unfortunately, since humans do not live simultaneously in the past, present, and future, they are forced to live each moment as it comes. Billy has learned to handle this by adopting his nonchalant attitude about living.
When Billy first talks about time travelling and Trafalmadorians, people think he is crazy, even his daughter. But the more he talks, the more people seem to listen. By travelling into his future, Billy knows that people will eventually see the truth of what he is telling. Unfortunately, he does not live long enough to really experience his acceptance. While speaking about his adventures and philosophies in a public forum, he is killed. Paul Lazzaro, a fellow soldier in the war, had hired a man to shoot Billy in revenge for Roland Weary's death.
Many literary critics have analyzed the character of Billy Pilgrim. Some see him as an "everyman," for there is something of Billy in all of us. He is also like a participant in a Children's Crusade, for at the end of the novel he is a simple mind with a complex goal, to tell the world about Trafalmadorian philosophy. Others see Billy as a Christ figure, a silently suffering victim. Above all, Billy is an interesting, multi-leveled personality whose experiences are not easily forgotten by the reader.