And so on
an explication of the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five
In Chapter One of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut explains that he has had a very difficult time writing his "famous Dresden book" (4) because it is at its core, an anti-war book. The problem with an anti-war book is, as Harrison Starr says, that "there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers" (3). In the Post-Modernistic style, Vonnegut attempts to use the novel to make sense of war, and explain that there are no men in war, only children. Having witnessed the destruction and horrific massacre that was the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut attempts to reconnect with an old war friend named Bernard O'Hare. He goes to O'Hare's home to drink and discuss the war, but neither of them are able to say anything. In this second encounter, Vonnegut again brings up his “famous Dresden book” (7) to O'Hare, and to his wife Mary. Mary reminds Vonnegut that he and O'Hare “were just babies in the war” (14). It was after this meeting that Vonnegut decided to call his Dresden book “The Children's Crusade” (15). Vonnegut ends the chapter with a reminder that people should not look back, and he is not going to do so anymore; he considered his book a failure because “it was written by a pillar of salt” (22), someone who looked back rather than moving forward. It's interesting that Vonnegut chooses to speak in his own personal voice rather than as the detached narrator he is throughout the rest of the novel. Vonnegut could have made this choice to show his audience that he truly had experienced war, and that entitled him to write an anti-war book such asSlaughterhouse-Five. The writer may also have made the choice to speak personally because he wanted to prove to readers that he was like them, only human.
Throughout the first chapter, Vonnegut uses a disjointed style to describe his past experiences and his difficulties in writing Slaughterhouse-Five. In an almost schizophrenic way, he lists things that have happened to him and things has seen. Especially in chapter one, these lists are shown using two rhetorical structures, polysyndeton and asyndeton.
From the start, Vonnegut states that “all of this happened, more or less” (1). Before we even read the second sentence, we can assume that all that will follow is more or less autobiographical. Kurt Vonnegut may not have traveled through time, but he has certainly experienced the war, including the bombing of Dresden. Simply by counting the number of “so it goes” there are in those first few pages, we can also infer that the novel will contain a large amount of death. We can also infer, based on the closing phrase of the chapter “it ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?” (22) that the bombing of Dresden will be the final event of the novel. Also, through the mention of several events post World War II, we begin to understand Vonnegut's underlying argument. When Vonnegut is speaking to his war buddy O'Hare's wife about the war, she reminds him that they “were just babies in the war” (14). Though Slaughterhouse-Five is an antiwar book, Vonnegut is focusing more on the fact the during World War II, children were throw into fighting something they did not yet understand.
Every time someone dies, Vonnegut adds the phrase "So it goes." This statement has the effect of drawing attention to death, while at the same time not allowing the reader to care about the death. The fact that he consistently uses this phrase throughout the first chapter implies that the following will most likely contain a large amount of death. Why Vonnegut is so quick to move on from a death using the phrase “so it goes” is somewhat unclear. Following each death with “so it goes” seems to compress all the deaths described in the chapter into one. Regardless of how each death occurred, they are all deaths; the phrase “so it goes” seems to make the deaths equal, the same. Also, this phrase serves as a reminder that while they are dead now, they lived a life well, and if we consider time travel, they are still technically living in the past and will live on in the past for eternity. Another motif Vonnegut uses heavily in chapter one is “And so on.” This phrase succeeds anything from a poem that repeats itself to infinity, to an illustration drawn on the back of a piece wallpaper that “outlined the Dresden story” (5). The use of this phrase emphasizes how infinite some lists can be, and that each piece of a list, no matter how important, is still just a drop of water among others in a bucket.