Essay on Billy Pilgrim’s Diagnosis



Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop at the onset of an extremely devastating event that alters one’s life. PTSD is a form of anxiety that disturbs many aspects of everyday life. Some of the most common symptoms are flashbacks, intense mental or physical reactions, nightmares, irritability, guilt, and difficultly sleeping. The book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut dives into the life of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who was required to partake in World War II. The brutal reality of the war completely altered Billy’s way of living. Billy had been captured by German forces and was forced to become a prisoner of war. From here on, Billy talks about his experiences with alien abductions and time travel alongside the Tralfamadorians; an alien race. Billy Pilgrim portrays numerous symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the war. 

We can see one symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder early in the book in chapter two. In a conversation with his daughter, Billy portrayed little to no emotion despite his daughter’s clear frustration. Billy’s daughter Barbara was showing a rising annoyance due to a letter Billy wrote in which he talks about his encounters with the Tralfamadorians. As Barbara tries to reason with her father by saying that the planet Tralfamadore is not real, Billy remains completely unphased. It is then noted that “Billy’s anger was not going to rise with hers. He never got mad at anything. He was wonderful that way” (Vonnegut 27). By nature, we as humans match our energy with others. If a person is giving off certain energy or attitude, it is typically reciprocated in the same way so it would make sense for him to get fired up and defensive about the topic. This conversation is also an example of Billy’s flat affect. His little emotion in this scene shows how deeply the war affected him and changed his way of responding. As the book progresses, Billy experiences more severe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Another major PTSD symptom portrayed by Billy was his heightened sense of alertness and caution. It is known that war is a very ruinous time and can leave people permanently altered. While being away at war, one experiences many events such as a hand on combat, yelling, and quick fires of gunshots. Because of this, one must learn to adapt and accommodate themselves to the situation they are now in. However, once it is time to return to civilian life, it can be difficult to transition again. We see this being true with Billy in Chapter three. Before the onset of his episode, a certain sound-triggered Billy’s fight or flight response.  “ A siren went off, scared the hell out of him. He was expecting World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon” (Vonnegut 73). The siren that went off was something so minuscule in everyday life. However, we can see that even the smallest occurrences such as this siren can be significant enough to trigger Billy’s PTSD. The sound enough caused him to instantly be put into a state of shock since he was expecting World War Three.  It is possible that the ringing of the siren closely resembles a similar sound in war such as other sirens, loud booms, and alarms. These noises can trigger Billy’s fight or flight mode. It is a regression to his war days that prohibits him from fully functioning in daily life. The rest of the chapter goes on to explain Billy’s flashback to the war that was caused by the siren. Even though this symptom is very inhibiting for Billy, he experiences even more detrimental symptoms throughout the book. 

One of the most notable pieces of information in this book is the mention of Tralfamadore. As briefly mentioned before, Tralfamadore is a planet created in Billy’s imagination in which aliens exist at all times. While it is never directly said that Tralfamadore is an imaginary planet, many signs give away that it is a figment of Billy’s imagination due to his intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder episodes. For people with PTSD, it is common for them to develop different forms of coping mechanisms to cope with their experiences. During one of his episodes when he became “stuck” Billy asked a Tralfamadorian “‘Why me?’ ‘That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?’” (Vonnegut 97). Keeping note that this is one of Billy’s coping mechanisms, it is important to note the dialogue his mind created. The Tralfamadorian explains that there really is no rhyme or reason behind this all. The universe in itself is nothing. This quote shares a parallel between this mentality in their universe and war. War itself is a powerful destructive force that ultimately conquers any path it crosses. However, if one looks at the bigger picture, it is truly insignificant while looking at the world as a whole. Devastation rings loudly but nothing truly matters in the face of destruction. The Tralfamadorians speak truth to Billy’s suppressed emotions from World War II.

Billy Pilgrim’s character displays many clear signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from World War II. His symptoms range from little to no emotion along with a flat affect, intense physical or emotional reactions and flashbacks, and lastly fabricated realities. We see constant patterns throughout the book including mentions of a fictional universe created by Billy’s imagination to help cope with the drastic effects of the war. Being involved in war can permanently destroy a person’s innocence and well-being. Billy is a prime example of what dangers the war can pose to an individual.