Critical Essays The Anti-Hero and Billy Pilgrim


An anti-hero is defined as a fictional character occupying a pivotal role in a story and possessing traits contrasted with those of a traditional hero. The anti-hero, who usually appears absurdly foolish, is often the embodiment of ineptitude or bad luck. First used to describe such post-World War II characters as Yossarian in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), earlier examples of the anti-hero can be discovered in novels as far back as Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605–15) or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, a century later. Whether found in seventeenth-century picaresque tales of chivalry or in the nose of a World War II bomber, the anti-hero manifests the same characteristics: He is weak, unskilled, uncultured, and lacking in both valor and dignity.

Billy Pilgrim is a classic anti-hero: He is a child of comical appearance who becomes a funny-looking youth. Throughout the novel, he is always referred to as "Billy," a diminutive form of "William," which suggests that he remains child-like and never matures to adulthood. Even Ilium, the town he lives in his entire life, implies his anti-heroic stature. Ilium is the ancient name for Troy a city of defiant, courageous warriors who lost the Trojan War; ironically, Billy is anything but a warrior.

During his stint in the army, he is lost behind enemy lines with no weapon, no coat, no helmet, and no boots, a wretched figure stumbling through the snow and the cold. With a heel missing from one of his shoes, he bobs up and down as he tries to keep up with his three fellow wanderers. A spindly scarecrow over six feet in height, with a torso that Vonnegut likens to a box of kitchen matches, Billy has no resemblance to the rugged, steel-eyed soldier traditionally depicted in films and novels as heroic, manly, and unquestioningly devoted to victory.

Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy is again and again the fool who is taken advantage of. Lacking the free will to make his own choices, he is foisted into roles that highlight his anti-heroic status. Shortly after Billy is captured in Luxembourg, a German war correspondent responsible for war propaganda takes photographs of him because he looks so outrageously inept. The pictures of his feet will be used as propaganda to show how poorly equipped the American army is. The photographer also wants pictures of Billy being taken prisoner, so the guards throw him in some bushes; with the guards wielding their weapons, a picture is snapped as he emerges. For the Germans, the picture makes a wonderful tool of propaganda because Billy presents the American soldier as a pathetic oaf.

But the Germans are not alone in relegating Billy to a lowly status. Onboard a boxcar headed for the first POW camp, Billy finds a niche next to a ventilator. For two days the train does not move. Inside the boxcars, the prisoners excrete into their steel helmets, which are then passed to those standing at the ventilators, who dump them outside. Billy, lacking dignity and grace, is defined as a dumper. Arriving at the POW camp, he is once again cast as the fool. Instead of receiving a soldier's overcoat like those provided to all of his fellow prisoners, he is given a woman's coat with a fur collar. His farcical appearance especially draws the attention of the English colonel, who first asks Billy if the coat is a joke. Discovering that the Germans gave Billy the coat, the colonel exclaims that the coat is an insult, a deliberate attempt on the Germans' part to humiliate Billy. Later on, Billy acquires a pair of silver-painted boots and an azure-blue curtain that he dons like a toga. Combining these with the civilian coat, which he now wears like a muff, he becomes the definitive clown of World War II. When the POWs arrive in Dresden and climb down from the train, the German guards laugh uproariously at him. Even Dresden civilians smirk at his clownish garb. When a kitchen worker in the slaughterhouse sees his blue toga, silver boots, and furry muff, she asks him why he's dressed so ridiculously. He tells her that he is only trying to stay warm, yet his naiveté of how foolish he looks prompts her to compare him to other soldiers: She concludes that all of the heroic soldiers must be dead.

The casting of a clown-figure-as-hero is an old technique often used in literature to raise doubts about the reasoning of a protagonist such as a king or a prince, or, in the case of Slaughterhouse-Five, to question our assumptions not only about the right to wage war, but about the people who fight in war and the authorities who sanction the fighting. For instance, the fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, despite his verbal play, reveals a message taut with anxiety and perplexity, with distress and bitterness. Masquerading as song or witty poetry, the fool's message allows him to expose certain truths. But only the fool has that privilege: If others in the court dared to suggest such things, Lear would have them executed. The gravediggers in Shakespeare's Hamlet serve much the same purpose. These seemingly coarse and insignificant personalities do much more than provide comic relief in the midst of tragic action. Their conversation is fraught with profound musings on theological issues, and their dialogue contains Latin terms dealing with legal questions. But the incongruity of their lowly position contrasted with their profundity supplies the humor.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the image of Billy as the clown, both pathetic and absurd, raises questions about the difference between illusion and reality. His anti-heroic status undermines our assumptions about soldiers who fight in war. Because we see Billy as an inept soldier, we therefore question the validity of the war in which he is fighting. In addition, remembering that Billy's son, Robert, is fighting in Vietnam, and that Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969, during the Vietnam War, the validity of that war is called into question as well. The authority figures responsible for the war, be they Bertram Copeland Rumfoord or Howard W Campbell, Jr., are more likely to earn our condemnation when we see what kind of soldiers they send into action. The illusion of the heroic soldier icons (John Wayne, Frank Sinatra) depicted in films and in war propaganda is replaced in Slaughterhouse-Five by the reality of Billy Pilgrim.