Free will is defined as being able to make decisions that will impact or change one’s future. The theme of free will is evident in the novels Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim believes the future is predetermined, therefore the idea of free will does not exist. In Catch-22, Yossarian is not able to escape the confines of the military because of catch-22. The rule catch-22 states that to leave the military an individual must be deemed insane, but to be deemed insane the individual must admit themselves. However admitting to insanity is a sane action.
Both novels are set in the second World War and both characters are reluctant soldiers, either trying to escape through the system or being a lifeless scarecrow accepting their fate. The lack of free will creates a hopeless cycle for the characters that breeds insanity in the stories. In both novels the characters are robbed of free will because of Billy Pilgrim’s belief that everything is predetermined, Yossarian’s inescapable battle with Catch-22, and the anti-war sentiment from both characters due to having to fight regardless of their beliefs. Clearly war creates a destiny that is filled with chaos and destruction, which ultimately breeds insanity.Throughout both novels, the characters are insane because superior powers take their free will. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim’s circumstances force him to turn to an imaginary world to escape his dire experience of being a prisoner of war in Dresden and being forced to clean out the tombs that were caused by the fire-bombing. He creates an imaginary world where he is comfortably imprisoned by an advanced race called the Tralfamadorians. Because of what Pilgrim is forced to do in Dresden, he becomes insane.
Pilgrim creates these creatures to help explain why things happen. The Tralfamadorians explain that free will does not exist, because they know that the future is predetermined. “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 60). The author shows that Billy Pilgrim is resigns himself to destiny. He believes he cannot do anything to change his current or future situation.
This causes his insanity. His whole life is predetermined proves to be more than Pilgrim can handle. Similarly, in Catch-22 many characters attempt to take control of their futures and leave the military by completing the assigned number of missions. To complete the missions they must fly into battle and return alive. However, they know that the release orders will never come because of the superior officers adding more missions to the maximum, which reinforces that the soldiers cannot escape service. But there was no enthusiasm in Yossarian’s group. In Yossarian’s group there was only a mounting number of enlisted men and officers who found their way solemnly to Sergeant Towser several times a day to ask if the orders sending them home had come in. They were men who had finished their fifty missions.
There were more of them now than when Yossarian had gone into the hospital, and they were still waiting. They worried and bit their nails. They were grotesque, like useless young men in a depression..
.They were in a race and knew it, because they knew from bitter experience that Colonel Cathcart might raise the number of missions again at any time. They had nothing better to do than wait. (Heller 26)The men in Yossarian’s group wait anxiously for the release from Colonel Cathcart. They are anxious because they know that they will not get the forms for their release papers before more missions are added. This causes an endless cycle which drives the soldiers insane. Their free will is taken by a superior which drives them to insanity.
Jean E. Kennard says, “Conscripted military life in Catch-22 is composed of rules which apparently operate to make it impossible for a man to find a reasonable escape from them. They do not exactly contradict each other, but are continually inadequate to the occasion and always disregard the individual human life” (Kennard, para. 6). Kennard describes the impossible circumstances that Yossarian and his men face, this connects to Pilgrim’s circumstances because he cannot escape his superior officers either. Both character’s superior officers have no regard for the lives of the soldiers, this leaves the men on edge all the time.
Because of the disregard shown by the superiors, the characters are left to fall into despair and insanity.In both novels, the anti-war sentiment is evident in the main characters. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim expresses all the undesirable qualities in a soldier. Pilgrim is described as disillusioned, pitiful, and a mockery of a man. Pilgrim is the complete opposite of what a soldier should be because he represents the anti-war sentiment in that time period. Soldiers in support of the war were represented as being ambitious, and respected. Pilgrim is disillusioned because of the Tralfamadorians.
Because he believes in an imaginary species, he appears mentally weak. He is pitiful because of his slender and sickly form. Pilgrim is six feet and three inches and the width of a matchstick. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots. On his feet were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father’s funeral. Billy had lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down-up-and-down. The involuntary dancing, up-and-down, up-and-down, made his hip joints sore.
(Vonnegut 33)This quote shows that Pilgrim is completely unprepared for war, however he must go and fight because it is mandatory to please the men in charge. Also, in the quote it references the involuntary dance. This means that no matter how much Pilgrim disagrees with his involvement in the war he must do the dance with death. In Catch-22, Yossarian gives the reader vivid descriptions of the effects of war on the mind and physical toll of the war on a soldier’s body. Yossarian expresses his anti-war feelings by describing events that result from the war. One example of this is, “Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out”(Heller 439). This quote shows the mortality of the man and the insanity that is required to fight in the war.
Only deranged people would relish the idea of war when it causes absolute destruction. Also Yossarian is astounded that men lay their lives down to fight for vague ideas like country, honor, and patriotism, when they gain nothing of personal value. “By this point many of the characters are dead.
.These men are dying throughout the novel, but no one is encouraged to reflect upon the grim implications of this fact” (Merrill, para. 6). In this quote, Merrill reflects that throughout the novel, many of Yossarians “pals” are slowly withering away because of the war. This increases Yossarians feelings against the war. Because the soldiers are forced to fight in something they do not believe in, many of them despise the war and lose their lives.
Because of circumstances, Pilgrim and Yossarian are led to a destiny of chaos that ultimately breeds insanity and destruction.