Slaughterhouse-Five | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator explains the basis for his novel in his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, which include witnessing the bombing of Dresden. At first he thinks writing about Dresden will be easy, just straight reporting. Yet the work becomes complicated, and he creates numerous outlines, including an intricate plot and character diagram on a roll of wallpaper.

After his release from captivity in a prisoner exchange, the narrator and his fellow prisoners return with their souvenirs of war. He and the other men are sent to a rest camp, fed well, and sent home to the United States to marry and have children.

The narrator attends the University of Chicago and works as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Later he moves to Schenectady, New York, where he works in public relations and, with his wife, socializes with other veterans and their families.

So he can visit his war buddy Bernard V. O'Hare, the narrator takes his young daughter and her friend on a road trip from their home on Cape Cod to Pennsylvania. During his visit to O'Hare the narrator discovers O'Hare's wife, Mary, is angry because she thinks the novel will glorify the war and cause more wars, and these wars will be fought by young people like her children. To reassure her the narrator promises to call the book The Children's Crusade. Later Bernard O'Hare and the narrator fly to Dresden, and a taxi driver named Gerhard Muller takes them to sites relevant to their time there.

The narrator also offers an apology to his publisher, Sam, who gave him a three-book contract during his time teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He concludes the chapter by calling the novel a failure because it was written by a pillar of salt—a man immobilized by always looking back.

Analysis

Chapter 1 functions more as an introduction than as a traditional first chapter. Although the abundance of accurate biographical details makes the narrator essentially equivalent to Kurt Vonnegut—Bernard V. O'Hare, the wartime experiences, the newspaper story in Chicago, and the job in public relations are all real—Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of fiction and the narrator is a modified, stylized version of Vonnegut himself. For example, the narrator's apology to Vonnegut's real publisher, Seymour Lawrence, claims the novel is "jumbled and jangled ... because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." However, as jumbled as Billy Pilgrim's travels through time seem at first glance, patterns emerge and connections form among Billy's leaps through time. Vonnegut weaves themes through the text in a deliberate manner, in direct contradiction to the narrator's claims of failure. This chapter also sets up a distinction between the narrator and Billy Pilgrim: while the narrator, Vonnegut, and Billy have similar life experiences, the remaining chapters focus on Billy, and it is clear the narrator is telling Billy's fictional story.

The narrator reveals, in this reflection on his process, the difficulty of writing about a deeply personal experience and about criticizing war in a culture that makes war central to its cultural identity. One of the narrator's friends says writing an antiwar novel is as productive as writing an antiglacier novel: in this society war is equally inevitable and unstoppable. For much of the 20th century the United States has been involved in a war or conflict somewhere in the world, lending credence to the antiglacier argument. In addition the narrator's conversation with Mary O'Hare reveals how the glorification of war is deeply entrenched in our entertainment; she mentions two of the biggest film stars of the post–World War II era, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne, saying these are the types of men the public imagines when they think of soldiers going to war, not the teenagers and 20-somethings who actually fight battles. She dismisses the narrator's book as yet another in a long line of entertainments that encourage war; she relents only when she understands the narrator's true intentions.

Possibly the greatest obstacle for the narrator, though, is his closeness to the subject matter. He is unable to organize his thoughts about Dresden and his other experiences, though not for lack of trying. He attempts to impose the structures inherent to novel writing, such as plot and characters, onto a situation and time that had no clear rhyme or reason. This is why he says there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre: the damage is too overwhelming to lend itself to structured storytelling. As he compares himself to Lot's wife in the Bible—a woman turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—the narrator reveals how he has spent so many years swimming in his own memories of damage and destruction they have caused a kind of paralysis in his thinking. This paralysis and inability to act become the defining characteristics of Billy Pilgrim.

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