The Children's Crusade
Explication of Chapter 1 of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five
In Chapter One of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the readers are given a background and sort of framework for the novel. Vonnegut reveals the difficulty of shaping the novel about the bombing of Dresden, which he worked on for years without getting it right. Narrating the chapter is Vonnegut himself, addressing the audience with a personal perspective. One may deduce that he chose to speak this way in order to include the readers in this personal journey, to immerse them in his own circumstance in order for them to get the most out of the remaining novel. He prepares us for the novel by touching on the events and people who influence his stylistic choices, his personal and professional life before and after the war, and frames his journey into understanding war, death, accidents and their effects. This journey and breakdown of a large traditional concept, war, marks this novel as post-modernistic. The setting of Chapter One switches between Dresden, Germany and large cities in the New England part of the US, in the mid 1960's. The novel frequently flashes back and forth between time periods and settings. Vonnegut reminisces about the war from twenty- three years before. But, he also focuses on the present. The disorientation and fragmentation of realities and stories is post-modernistic as well. He tells of the time he went to visit O'Hare, a war buddy and his wife Mary. This is significant because it steers Vonnegut into the Children's Crusade subtopic. The chapter wraps up with a few outside sources which further express Vonnegut's inner thoughts, a few classical books and a story from the bible. Vonnegut's style is marked with jumpy topics, a genuine stream of consciousness like writing, waves of fast and slow paced paragraphs which force readers to make connections and reflect on the content of his sentences, stylistic incoherence and heavy yet simple extended motifs.
Throughout this first chapter, the readers notice Vonnegut's short, dense diction. He fits a lot of information into short paragraphs. Vonnegut is fond of simple sentences and diction, natural and not lofty or difficult to unfold. The depth of his writing comes from the significance of stylistic choices and the connections and cross-connections made through different memories and anecdotes leading to higher reflection and thought from different perspectives and angles. Vonnegut juxtapositions a variety of emotions in order to manipulate a certain ambivalence or disorientation within the reader, breaking down any quick assumptions or apathy. Vonnegut incorporates a muddled humor into his writing, not necessarily dark or heavy, yet unsettling. This will be very important in the rest of the novel for it looks at war times from a more realistic human side, instead of a glorified or patriotic focus. The tone is wise, compassionate, lighthearted yet unsettling, probing and criticizing. Syntax plays a large part in developing this tone, as the short blunt sentences allow readers to flow through a story and quickly pick up on rhetorical elements such as polysyndenton, cumulative and periodic sentences. These changes in rhetorical elements highlight important motifs, themes and concepts. One may suppose that Vonnegut's novel will qualify that society and humanity are doomed with terrible affairs such as death and war, which tear lives apart and rob children of their futures, but that it is a fact and inevitable.
Expetation and Argument
Vonnegut is setting up the reader to expect a book that is true, and intentional and yet, a failure. The readers are taken through his early attempts at writing this book and the events that helped shape it. He asserts that somewhere throughout the writing of the novel, he found wisdom and newfound understanding of himself and of humanity. The book setts up for its jumpiness by immersing the reader in a flow of consciousness, choppy style of writing. Vonnegut prepares us for the discoveries on time by telling early instances in which he experienced time relativity and introduces Billy Pilgrim getting unstuck in time. The details given throughout the chapter show the significance of each small memory and detail in Vonnegut's memory and its effect on what he believes today. Vonnegut argues that humanity's take on an reaction to war is appalling, since wars are inevitable, it is the glorification of wars and soldiers that is nonsensical. Vonnegut also insists that war makes people unstuck in the rest of their lives, unable to live in or enjoy the moment, and children traumatized and unable to move on freely with their futures. Vonnegut believes that the world and time is what is, and that people are what fill it up with attributes, fond or sad.
The readers are introduced to a handful of motifs, or reoccurring phrases or imagery throughout Chapter one. These motifs each carry a meaning which Vonnegut applies to varied situations, leading the readers to think more deeply upon seemingly unweighted passages. Two that jump off the page are babies and the phrase “Poo-tee-weet?” The babies (and children) motif is seen from a the background of Vonnegut's life: his home relationships with his wife and their babies. Vonnegut mentions a newspaper story he wrote about a man that died in an elevator accident. The man had a baby. The visit to O'Hare is peppered with babies and children. O'Hare's wife, Mary, to whom the book is dedicated to, angrily expresses her frustration that Vonnegut may write the book in a way that overlooks the fact that the soldiers in the war were just babies. This prompts Vonnegut to subtitle the book “The Children's Crusade” after the 1213 crusade against Palestine. One can predict that this motif will be key for it is one of the main part of Vonnegut's argument, that children are stripped of their innocence in war. The second motif, the bird's response “Poo-tee-weet?” comments on the ridiculousness of humans for asking questions which have no sufficient answer. Vonnegut explains how the only thing to say about a massacre are the things the birds say: “Poo-tee-weet?” Talking through the birds, readers are shown how difficult it is for people in wars to find anything to say about it, and further explains how difficult it was for the book to be written. The baby/children motif will be key in every aspect of the book, and the bird motif will be part of the framework of the novel, closing the book in the only expressive way possible.