Chapter 1 Explication

an analysis of Chapter 1 of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five

Summary

In Chapter One of Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses first person to narrate the process of writing the novel, which takes place in Dresden in WWII. It took him 23 years to create it, and he required the assistance of other people and veterans - such as his old friend and fellow POV Bernard V. O'Hare - in order to put into words what he needed to say. He chose to narrate in first person because it gives the reader a sense of connection with the author before we are whisked into the whimsical world of his fictional alter ego. His style is marked by a multitude of pithy sentences that seem almost childish to prove a point: the events that took place in Dresden really happened, and there is no easy way to put it.

Analysis of Language

Vonnegut’s rather blunt descriptions of the events in Dresden in Chapter 1 give us the whole idea of what happens in the bombing, as opposed to sugarcoating everything. His use of short, choppy, asyndetic sentences give a visual idea of how disjointed Vonnegut’s recollection of the bombing is. In the first chapter Vonnegut refers back to the war though his written thoughts and words, making jarring, dismal connections between everyday sightings and war-time objects; an example is his comparison between the size of carp and that of atomic submarines on page 12: "There were carp in there and we saw them. They were as big as atomic submarines." Such allusions provide a despondent tone to the otherwise entrancing ramblings of an old war veteran.

Predictions

From the doleful tone of Chapter 1, we expect that the events will be fairly unfathomable: “Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance” (10). Hiroshima is widely publicized, and we learn all about it in school, but it is still difficult to grasp the full magnitude of the destruction the atomic bombs wrought. With that in mind, the fire-bombing of Dresden can only be even further beyond our grasps. Considering the number of people that died in Hiroshima, we believe most of Billy's war friends will be killed, and he will go back to America a broken veteran. As he says in the first chapter with his conversation with Harrison Starr on page 3, his book is antiwar, he supposes. However, a deeper argument will be that of explaining how things actually happen in the war. Maybe not everything is bad, and maybe some things in the war change his life for the better.

Motifs

As Vonnegut repeats over and over again as people are killed the phrase "so it goes," there is a reverential air to his prose. Although he does not lament over their lives or all the people they left behind, or even his feelings on the matter of death, he seems to feel for them. It is similar to saying “R.I.P.” or “God bless” after speaking of a death. Vonnegut knows he cannot change the events in Dresden, and he knows there is no use bemoaning the characters' deaths. This motif is going to be something he repeats after every mention of death or dying, whether it be a flower or a thousand people. Another motif seems to stand out is mustard gas and roses. It seems like it will be a foul smell, but with sweet undertones. On page 4, Vonnegut says "I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses." We can imagine the foul odor of a drunk man's breath, but the smell of some alcohol can be sweet as well. The roses can also be metaphorical for the way he talks to his wife: sweetly. Assuming this is true, the mustard gas and roses will be foul things with sugary suggestions.
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