Mustard Gas and Roses

An Explication of the First Chapter of Slaughterhouse Five

The First Chapter in Summary

Kurt Vonnegut opens his famous and witty novel, “Slaughterhouse Five”, from a perspective other than the main character, Billy Pilgrim – he opens from his own perspective. Vonnegut comes across as a straightforward and “no holds barred” individual, as he assures that audience numerous times that, He explains in length his connection with Dresden, how long it has been since World War II, where the novel will take place, and what it really took for him to complete the novel: he was a POW kept in a Slaughterhouse, 23 years, Germany during the war and “Ilium” which seems to be based off of Schenectady, New York, and, being human, he looked back. As Vonnegut assures, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true,” he hits the Post Modernism nail on the head as this description is very much a prototype for the particularly time and prose (1). With a blunt and detached style, he gives the novel a unique introduction that is better explained by Vonnegut, himself, than Billy Pilgrim. By including this narrative chapter as part of his story as a whole, it is clear that Vonnegut feels that the journey he took to write the story is just as important as the story itself.

Vonnegut's Style

Vonnegut’s detached tone is created through the blend of polysyndeton sentences and sequences of short and choppy sentences. He openly confesses his struggles with revisiting the past, and references traumatic circumstances with a manner that nonchalantly understates the truth to protect his own sanity. The tone conveyed within the first paragraph is blunt to a degree where emotion does not seem to exist. His repetitive use of the phrases “so it goes” and “and so on” aid in the establishment of the lack of emotion. Vonnegut purposefully overuses the conjunction “and” when sharing an anecdote; the abundant use of the conjunction allows him to share large and effective amount of details without having to diverge from one main idea. Vonnegut chooses a creative approach to the introduction of his argument. His main argument is initialized by the promise he makes to a companion’s wife: a promise to use the book as means to make the readers lose support of war and display the fact that it is merely children who fight. The opening chapter provides the reader with clear insight to Vonnegut’s antiwar and emotionless beliefs.

"And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death" (Vonnegut 4).

First Chapter Foreshadows

In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut gives the reader insight of his heroic experience during the bombing of Dresden by giving brief descriptions of the upcoming events in the novel. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is in search of verified facts about Dresden and the prison camps in which he had previously survived as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut introduces the novel with a spin-off in medias res; his foreshadows are sporadic, which resemble the dynamics of the rest of the novel. This creative opening rods the reader of the anticipation of the progression of the story and therefore places emphasis on minor details instead of the sequence of events. Vonnegut even shares his drafting of the novel and informs the reader that at "the end, where all the lines stopped, was a beetfield on the Elbe, outside of Halle" (5). Vonnegut strategically wrote the first chapter with intentions to remove the usual separation of power between the author and the reader; here the reader is empowered because he or she knows in advance where the story is heading. The dynamics and writing style of the first chapter serve as a good representation of the chapters to follow.

Mustard Gas and Roses... So it goes.

Vonnegut’s writing style is intriguing due to its peculiar phrases and references. He noticeably introduces two motifs in the first chapter: the phrase “so it goes” and the trait of mustard gas and roses. The “so it goes” phrase occurs at the least expected times throughout the first chapter. After each tragedy mentioned, Vonnegut includes the phrase to casually dismiss the trauma of death and understate its significance. His overuse of the phrase demonstrates how often death occurred in his life and in the world; it’s like a different approach to saying “death happens.” The motif of mustard gas and roses is introduced although its deeper meaning is not clearly defined. He uses the phrase when referencing people’s feelings towards him, the mustard gas and roses represent his history with war that have not yet left him. Vonnegut will use these motifs throughout the story to help advance the plot and create his emotionless, war-struck tone.

Lyndsay Hampton, Sara Heard, and Hannah Whaley