Breaking Down Vonnegut
An Explication of Chapter One of Slaughterhouse Five
In a time following one of the deadliest wars, World War II, many Americans wanted the innovations of the time, such as the electric refrigerator, while also returning to the ways of pre-war America. Writers in this post-modern age were torn between two worlds while also recuperating from the scars of WWII (both emotional and physical) and from the Great Depression directly preceding America’s involvement in WWII. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five who struggled with the emotional repercussions of being a POW in Dresden, was certainly one of these authors. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut mainly relives the experience of writing his novel, focusing on his trip to meet an old war friend, Bernard V. O’Hare in order to relive their experience as prisoners of war which he wants to tell in his book. While the majority of this chapter takes place in Vonnegut’s mind, it centers around his time with O’Hare in his sterile yet welcoming home, as well as their Guggenheim Foundation funded trip back to Dresden. Ultimately, Vonnegut’s style is marked by a strong usage of parataxis which eventually evokes an understanding of his emotional trauma that was inflicted by the war. Overall, in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut defines the effects of war through the introduction of his personal experience and reflection on such experience.
Kurt Vonnegut writes a memoir of his time in Dresden with an overwhelming sense of
hollowness and detachment. He exposes a bitterly difficult journey by revealing the horrific experience piece by piece, with empty reminiscing. Vonnegut writes simple sentences that unravel his discoveries due to being imprisoned in the meat locker. Asyndeton, the short clauses, follow one another as Vonnegut probes the corrupting effects of time on humans. Through the use of polysyndeton, Vonnegut weaves an intricate feeling of emptiness and loneliness by endlessly listing facts that add to the detached nature of his retelling. Vonnegut sees his experience through the eyes of a bystander, looking yet untouched by the horrors of his memories. Vonnegut was drafted into World War II, yet he did not leave completely whole. Time, in the war, memories after the war changed him, matured him, turned him as a man. Slaughterhouse Five was written to recall his time at Dresden. Through convoluted imagination, it retells his story of survival.
In perhaps the most telling chapter in the book, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five allows Vonnegut to begin to reveal how exactly he his going to achieve his central claim. Through his direct and indirect references to war, such as,“big as atomic submarines” (15), Vonnegut reveals that his central claim will emerge out of telling his war story. Furthermore,Vonnegut uses his conversation with O’Hare’s wife, Mary, to talk to his audience directly. It is in this conversation that his central claim that time is a transitory substance that can be stolen and corrupted is made. Through Mary’s protest that Vonnegut and her husband were only children at the time of the war, Vonnegut reveals that war is one of these corruptors. Additionally, Vonnegut introduces numerous motifs that will carry throughout his book, such as his utilization of “so it goes”, to indicate that time moves on even after death and that death is inescapable. Overall, Vonnegut’s first chapter artfully incorporates the war and motif elements that will continue through the novel and that will contribute to his claim of time’s transitory nature.