Slaughterhouse Five: An Explication of Chapter One
Kurt Vonnegut begins the novel Slaughterhouse Five with a series of events and details recounting on his experiences in Germany as a prisoner of war. During his time in Germany, Vonnegut endured the many consequences resulting from the conflicts of World War II. Among the many cruelties witnessed, the most impactful event Vonnegut encountered was the relentless bombing of Dresden. Dresden was bombed for nearly two days through a series of four raids and ultimately resulted in approximately 25,000 fatalities. Vonnegut creates the implications that he frequently reflects on the events that occurred during the bombing of Dresden and eventually comes to the decision of writing a novel based on the harsh realities he had previously faced. Upon the fruition of the idea for his war novel, Vonnegut comes in contact with his old war accomplice Bernard V. O’Hare, and reunites with O’Hare after planning to meet at his house. Upon their reunion, Mary, the wife of O’Hare, becomes increasingly irritable as the war conversation begins to thrive. She then proceeds to accuse Vonnegut of writing a novel solely based on the idea of glorifying the war. Vonnegut responds by reassuring Mary that the Novel will be no such thing; his novel would stand to expose the cruelties and malpractices that occur during war, and would be named the Children’s Crusade. Throughout chapter one, Vonnegut is quick to expose readers to the harsh realities due to the Dresden bombing and creates a lingering sense of skepticism concerning the moral compass of humanity. In doing so, Vonnegut enables readers to delve into the mindset of an established post modernist writer. Additionally, Vonnegut employs a dry and noticeably abrupt writhing style throughout Slaughterhouse Five. This is accomplished through the use of short, straightforward, and almost fragmented sentences. Furthermore, within chapter one, unlike the majority of chapters within the novel, Kurt Vonnegut narrates the story through his own personal voice as opposed the narration of Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut’s decision to personally narrate the first chapter creates the idea that chapter one may have been intended to act as somewhat of a preface for the novel. The narration not only greatly serves to establish Vonnegut’s credibility, but also serves to establish the foreground and a sense of understanding before introducing readers to the narrative of Billy Pilgrim.
As Vonnegut progresses into chapter one of Slaughterhouse Five, his overall tone can be described as blunt, stark, detached, and possibly sullen. Vonnegut successfully accomplishes combining these unique tones through a series of condensed and fragmented sentences which can easily be distinguished by the frequent use of polysyndenton. This use of polysyndenton clearly outlines Vonnegut’s underlying emotions of isolation and detachment from others. Throughout the first chapter, Vonnegut illustrates the cruelties he had endured while simultaneously depicting his disconnected emotions. “And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on.” (Vonnegut 5). This quote portrays Vonnegut’s view on life as a map of predetermined events. Additionally, the quote depicts Vonnegut’s mental process of depersonalizing people and viewing them as objects. Vonnegut’s continuous use of polysyndenton remains abundant throughout the novel and ultimately serves to greatly enforce Vonnegut’s overall argument. While the novel is first and foremost an antiwar novel, Vonnegut intertwines the concept of an inevitable fate within the novel. This concept of an inevitable fate displays Vonnegut’s beliefs that despite whatever actions may occur, the final results will remain the same regardless. Furthermore, these beliefs strongly support Vonnegut’s antiwar mindset by creating the implications that any actions carried out towards a war effort, whether they are violent or nonviolent, prove to be useless as the outcome cannot be changed.
Vonnegut’s unique style of writing displays his ability to define a certain object or theme within a single word or phrase. This ability greatly contributes to the process in which Vonnegut was able to compose a book on massacre while only employing such a simplistic tone. The enforcement of such a minimally simplistic tone illustrates the concept that there are no words to be said upon the fruition of a massacre. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut exposes readers to his newly gained sense of skepticism and views on life. As he begins to adapt and embrace this new perspective on his own mortality, he also provides slight glimpses into what the novel may contain in future chapters. The subtle foreshadowing within chapter one can be observed during the portion in which Vonnegut is reminiscing with his old war companion, Bernard O’Hare. " I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor Edgar Derby....the irony is so great." (Vonnegut 6). The quote pulled from the discussion between Vonnegut and O’Hare leaves vague indications as to what the audience should be expecting upon the completion of the Slaughterhouse Five. Ultimately, the quote depicts that throughout the novel, the reader will be exposed to the deaths, suffering, and relentless violence experienced by many innocent victims during the bombing of Dresden. Additionally, the quote serves to portray the ironic series of events that will proceed to occur within future chapters.
The novel Slaughterhouse Five serves to create an insightful and lasting impact on the reader. The novel’s ability to do so is due to Vonnegut’s undeniable ability to employ subtle, yet powerful themes and motifs within his writing. Among the many distinguishable motifs, the two motifs that rise above the others would be the phrase “poo-tee-weet” and the phrase “mustard gas and roses”. Throughout Kurt Vonnegut’s novel he frequently refers to the iconic phrases, though each phrase stands to portray nearly contradicting ideals. The phrase “poo-tee-weet“ captures the sincere innocence of the victims involved in wars and serves to portray the concept that any actions directed towards violent situations are nothing more than meaningless efforts. Within chapter one of the novel, Vonnegut states, “And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘poo-tee-weet’?” (Vonnegut 19). Ultimately, this quote puts a great deal of emphasis on the useless efforts driving a war. Additionally, in regards to a massacre, the passage portrays the idea that with such a monumental amount of innocent people killed there are no words to be said. On the contrary, the phrase “mustard gas and roses” symbolizes the idea that with all death comes beauty. In the majority of cases, mustard gas is typically associated with the concept of death due to the type of outcome it usually creates. However, on the other hand, roses usually symbolize the concepts of love, peace, or even serenity. In contrasting these two opposing objects, Vonnegut therefore allows the motif of “mustard gas and roses” to create the idea that upon the arrival of death or suffering, it will ultimately result in a somewhat desirable or pleasant outcome. Furthermore, the motif of “mustard gas and roses” may also serve to impose the belief that despite the most harrowing experiences, one will always have the ability to move on and progress through life.