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Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter 1

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Chapter 2

Summary

It is so short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Vonnegut writes in his own voice, introducing his experience of the firebombing of Dresden, in eastern Germany, during World War II while he was a prisoner of war and his attempt for many years to complete a book on the subject. He begins with the claim that most of what follows is true, particularly the parts about war.

With funding from the Guggenheim Foundation, Vonnegut and his wartime friend Bernhard V. O’Hare return to Dresden in 1967. In a taxi on the way to the Dresden slaughterhouse that served as their prison, Vonnegut and O’Hare strike up a conversation with the cab driver about life under communism. It is to this man, Gerhard Müller, as well as to O’Hare’s wife, Mary, that Vonnegut dedicates Slaughterhouse-Five. Müller later sends O’Hare a Christmas card with wishes for world peace.

Vonnegut relates his unsuccessful attempts to write about Dresden in the twenty-three years since he was there during the war. He is very proud of the outline of the story that he draws in crayon on the back of a roll of wallpaper. The wallpaper outline represents each character in a different color of crayon, with a line for each progressing through the story’s chronology. Eventually the lines enter a zone of orange cross-hatching, which represents the firebombing, and those who survive the attack emerge and finally stop at the point when the POWs are returned. However, the outline does not help Vonnegut’s writing. He initially expected to craft a masterpiece about this grave and immense subject, but, while the horrific destruction he witnessed occupies his mind over the years, it defies his attempts to capture it in writing. Vonnegut’s antiwar stance only adds to the difficulty, since, as a filmmaker acquaintance remarks to him, writing a book against war would prevent war as effectively as writing a book against glaciers would prevent their motion.

Vonnegut recounts the events of his postwar life, including a stints as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago, a police reporter, and a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. In the years following the war, Vonnegut encounters ignorance about the magnitude of Dresden’s destruction, and when he contacts the U.S. Air Force for information, he discovers that the event is still classified as top secret.

Around 1964, Vonnegut takes his young daughter and her friend with him to visit Bernhard V. O’Hare in Pennsylvania. He meets Mary O’Hare, who is disgusted by the likelihood that Vonnegut will portray himself and his fellow soldiers as manly heroes rather than the “babies” they were. With his right hand raised, Vonnegut vows not to glorify war and promises to call his book The Children’s Crusade. Later that night he reads about the Children’s Crusade and the earlier bombing of Dresden in 1760.

While teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Vonnegut lands a contract to write three books, of which Slaughterhouse-Five is to be the first. It is so short and jumbled, he explains, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.

On the way to Dresden, Vonnegut spends a night in a Boston hotel, where his perception of passing time becomes distorted, as if someone were playing with the clocks. He reads about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the bedside Gideon Bible and likens himself to Lot’s wife, who against God’s will looked back at the burning cities and was turned into a pillar of salt. Vonnegut muses on the book he has just written as an inevitable failure, and he resolves not to look back anymore.

Analysis

The content of Chapter 1 in Slaughterhouse-Five makes it seem more like a preface to the novel than part of the novel itself. It is clearly autobiographical, and it exists on a plane different from that on which the bulk of the rest of the novel exists. In this chapter, Vonnegut forthrightly discusses his plan for the novel that we are about to read, and his statement of how the novel begins and how it ends would seem to indicate that he wrote Chapter 1 after writing the rest of the novel. His decision to make this contextual content part of the story rather than an introduction reflects how deeply entrenched his life is in the story that the novel relates, and perhaps how deeply entrenched the story that the novel relates is in his life.

By describing the process of writing Slaughterhouse-Five and the events surrounding its conception, Vonnegut makes himself a character in his own narrative. As he embeds an actual, external authorial presence within his text, he begins weaving the first of many threads into the story of Billy Pilgrim. In this chapter, Vonnegut says the words “So it goes” after relating that the mother of Gerhard Müller, the taxi driver, was incinerated in the Dresden attack. The phrase “So it goes” recurs throughout the novel, repeated after each report of a death. It becomes a mantra of resignation and acceptance. Because the phrase is first uttered by Vonnegut himself, each “So it goes” seems to come directly from the author and from the world outside the fiction of the text. When the narrator uses this phrase later on within the story, we can associate fact with fiction and also history with fantasy, as the sense of resignation and complacency experienced by Billy and other characters finds support in what seems like actual authority.

Vonnegut’s narrative conception is intricate, as evidenced by his description of the wallpaper roll on which he outlines it, and the story does not come to light until Vonnegut decides he can sacrifice the pleasant, organized outline for the true confusion entrenched in his war story. While Vonnegut finds his initial outline aesthetically pleasing—it constitutes a neat visual map of the structure that he will use to support his message of war’s tragic, pointless irony—it is exactly this sort of structuring that has prevented Vonnegut from faithfully representing his subject matter through all his years of fruitless hard work. To convey the horror of his experience, he adopts a writing method that mirrors the circularity, confusion, and fatalism of his own feelings about the war. This fragmented structure persists throughout the novel, as protagonist Billy Pilgrim drifts back and forth in time.

Several passages in Chapter 1 suggest that aberrations of time play a pivotal role in Vonnegut’s story. A lumberjack song whose last line also serves as its first, creating an endless loop, is an example of the circularity of time. Additionally, as Vonnegut waits in a Boston hotel room to leave for Dresden, time refuses to pass—it seems to him as though years drag by between twitches of his watch’s second hand. Finally, the curious revelation, at the end of Chapter 1, of the novel’s closing words invokes the idea of time as cyclical rather than linear—an idea that proves crucial to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim.

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A few observations on Slaughterhouse Five

by Akumeoi, November 04, 2012

Some things that are significant about this book (in my view) that were not mentioned in the SparkNote are this:
Billy Pilgrim's last name
A religious connection in the book
The colour of his feet again
As to the first, I think that since 'Billy' was obviously chosen with care, 'Pilgrim' was too. Pilgrim could refer to his otherworldly journey through time, although it's uncertain what he would be making a pilgrimage too - possibly death. Or, it could just be his journey through the war.
As to the religious impl... Read more

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Where in the book is that

by mackeller, April 04, 2013

Do you know where in the book the christianity references are? The chapter might be more helpful because the pages are probably different.

An alternative explanation for Billy's "travels"

by almostpassingenglish, August 18, 2013

I think that BIlly Pilgrim's journeys through time could instead be a social commentary on Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. Billy isn't skipping through time, instead he's an old man sitting at his home, his daughter is taking care of him, and when he closes his eyes he suffers his wartime flashbacks and delusions about traveling through space in which he lives in a dream with elements from his life, like how Montana Wildhack was the Porn Star from the book store that Billy visited to see the Kilgore Trout novels. It also explains why the boo

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