The following was shortened from an English class essay I wrote. Enjoy!
One of the greatest conflicts
facing humanity is the issue of free will
. Are we free to control our lives and our destinies, or is everything prewritten and prearranged, leaving us to act only as the unwitting pawns of fate
? Kurt Vonnegut
deals with this question in the books Slaughterhouse Five
, and Breakfast of Champions
, where he propagates the view that free will is nonexistent.
Breakfast of Champions has free will – or the lack thereof – as an underlying motif. Vonnegut creates the presence of this theme through both the style and the actual content of the book. He begins the novel with an interesting method that demonstrates in full the idea of predetermination – he reveals the entire plot of the book in the first paragraph. This makes the reader immediately aware of exactly what is going to happen to the characters. Their destinies are not in question, and the illusion that comes with every book – that the characters have decisions to make that can influence the outcome of the book – is gone. A similar device comes in later on, when Vonnegut himself appears as a character in the novel. He arrives at the end to "watch the confrontation between two human beings I had created."(192.) His presence again reminds the reader that this is only a book. There is also an important distinction to be made in the phrasing of the events in the book when Vonnegut is present. For instance, instead of saying "Beatrice Keedsler said to Rabo...", he makes sure to phrase it as "So I had Beatrice Keedsler say to Rabo..."(209.) This makes it clear that the characters are governed by him, and thus have no free will whatsoever.
These are all only stylistic demonstrations of predetermination, and the novel has free will as a major concern in its content as well. The most important idea of the book with respect to free will is that humans are nothing but machines. This view is expressed by Dwayne Hoover, who goes insane after reading a book written by Kilgore Trout, which states that the reader is the only person with free will and that all the other humans are machines. Vonnegut also believes this, and states it: “I had come to the conclusion … that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.” (219) At one point, for example, he refers to a woman in the novel as "a defective child-bearing machine"(46), and to himself as a "writing machine"(220). He explains World War II as being staged by robots, whom he says are “controlled by bad chemicals”(133.) Bad chemicals and faulty wiring are, in fact, his explanation for many of the people in the book and the reasons they act the way they do. They do not have free will, but are controlled by chemicals. Vonnegut pursues the idea of humans as machinery further when he begins describing every female’s body measurements and every male’s penis size. This has the effect of reducing every human to numbers, like those of a machine, and thus showing that the ability to think and make decisions that would affect our destiny is not present – how could it be, if one is just a machine with certain characteristics? At the end of the book, Vonnegut sets Trout free (“Arise, Mr. Trout, you are free!” (294)), but he does not become truly free – because in the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut charts out his entire life, until his death, and Trout is thus destined to follow this story.
Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s most celebrated work. In this novel, he tells the autobiographical story of the bombing of Dresden, during which he was a prisoner of war in that city. Much like in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut uses style as well as content to contribute to this theme. In this book as well, he reveals the entire plot in the first few pages, and he appears as a character in the novel. Another device Vonnegut uses is saying the words "So it goes" every time there is a mention of death in the novel. This highlights his resignation to the fact that death and war are inevitable. He says this phrase because there is no way to stop it from happening, which shows that we are predestined to die at a certain point and have no free will. He also uses a completely new mechanism which makes this novel very nonstandard. Using the excuse that Billy Pilgrim, the main character of the novel, becomes “unstuck in time”(23), Vonnegut arranges this novel in a non-linear way, so that the events are not described in a chronological order. Billy’s predicament shows exactly how little free will Billy has; he has seen his birth and death and all the moments in between, which implies that everything he has or will do is already predetermined. As Vonnegut puts it, "Billy could not change … the past, the present, and the future."(60) As well, since Billy is unstuck in time, he "has no control over where he’s going next"(23), which also showcases his lack of free will, since, unlike a free-willed person, he cannot control any aspect of his life. Stylistically, Vonnegut’s non-chronological organization of the novel has a similar effect on the reader as on Billy. Just like Billy, the reader is forced to experience the events without order. He or she cannot expect a familiar story line like the ones that appear in normal novels. Thus, since the reader has no idea where they’re going to wind up next in the novel, he or she also has no control over the novel. This lack of control also implies a lack of free will. In the case of Slaughterhouse Five, the medium is indeed the message.
The theme of predetermination is emphasized in the novel through the fact that it is based around World War II. In a war, a soldier’s free will is taken away – they have to obey commands from their officers and cannot decide on their fate, and they are also the playthings of forces of politics that are beyond their understanding. This is why in Slaughterhouse Five all the characters are weak, broken men – especially Billy himself, who is constantly dragged around by other soldiers and often wishes he could give up life completely. They lack control over their lives, and thus they also lack free will. Billy knows the exact moment when he is going to die and does not try to do anything to avoid it. Billy gets this resigned attitude towards life from the one event which probably altered his the most. This occurs when he is kidnapped by aliens from Trafalmadore, who tell him that unlike Billy they can see through both space and time. They are, so to speak, perpetually unstuck in time. Thus, unlike humans, they have no conception of free will at all. The Trafalmadorians say that we are all "bugs trapped in the amber of the moment."(77) They believe that there is no why, no cause-and-effect explanations of events. Instead, things happen because that is the way the "moment is structured"(117). It’s therefore obvious that they believe free will does not exist; one cannot change the future if it has already been seen and it already exists. They actually know the way that the universe will end and do not try to prevent it, since they can’t. Slaughterhouse Five drives the point home: according to Vonnegut, there is no free will anywhere in the universe.
The question of the existence of free will is intimately tied to all human endeavours. In the books Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five, the author Kurt Vonnegut confronts the issue by stating simply and firmly that free will does not exist. Vonnegut voices this opinion through both the content and the style of these two books. And while the idea that no matter what we do, we will come to a certain prewritten end is certainly depressing, Vonnegut gives us something to cheer us up. He says that although we cannot change our destinies, we are still aware of our life and can enjoy it while we’re here. So while Vonnegut may cast our skies over with gloomy clouds, he also provides a beam of sunlight to lead the way. We are stuck in the passenger seat in the car of our life, but we should never forget to enjoy the ride.