Summary and Analysis
The narrator begins Slaughterhouse-Five by explaining a number of details about the novel, primarily how he came to write it. He maintains, by and large, that the parts about the war are true, although he admits that he has changed people's names. The narrator tells his old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare, that he is writing a book about the bombing of Dresden, Germany, and that he would like O'Hare's help. Although O'Hare is doubtful about remembering much about the war, he tells the narrator to come for a visit. Eventually, we are told, the two men revisit Dresden, destroyed by British and American planes in the last days of World War II.
The narrator explains how his aspirations to write a book about the bombing were received negatively by people who asked what he was working on — he is advised that the work is no more than just another inventory of military atrocities. Contacting the air force to obtain information about the Dresden air raids, he discovers that the operation is still classified as top secret: After his experiences in Dresden during the war, he is astonished to think that these events are not common knowledge.
At O'Hare's home, the narrator detects resentment and hostility seething within O'Hare's wife, Mary. Despite her attempts to disrupt their war-story conversation, the two old buddies recall a number of incidents they experienced together. Mary's irritation overwhelms her: She accuses the narrator of planning to write a novel that glorifies war. Giving his word that he will not write such a book — combat cinema heroes like Frank Sinatra and John Wayne will have no part in the tale — the narrator promises that he will call his novel The Children's Crusade.
In his bedroom that night, the narrator reads from a book about Dresden's history that O'Hare placed on his bedside table. The book recounts how in 1760, Dresden underwent a siege by the Prussians. He reads of the contrast between the fate of two churches: The first one was destroyed in flames; the other survived because the curves of its dome repulsed the Prussian bombs like rain. The book also relates that when young Goethe, a famous German writer, visited Dresden many years after the war, he found the city still greatly in ruin.
While waiting in a motel room for a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, from where he will travel with O'Hare to Dresden, the narrator reads from two books. From Words for the Wind, he quotes four lines of a Theodore Roethke poem that question the reality of wakefulness and make a statement about forging ahead as duty dictates. Next he refers to a work by Erika Ostrovsky about a French writer who was a soldier in World War I. Finally Vonnegut turns to a copy of the Bible. He quotes from the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conceding that the people in both cities were contemptible, and that the world was better off without them, he empathizes with Lot's wife, who, failing to heed God's edict and glancing back on the destruction, was turned into a pillar of salt. He identifies with her because her last deed was so human. He concludes the first chapter by apologizing that his "war book," Slaughterhouse-Five, is a failure because it was written by a pillar of salt.
The first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five serves more as an introduction or a preamble than as a typical first chapter in a novel. More biographical than fictional, it not only relates a good deal of Kurt Vonnegut's biography, it explains how the novel came to be written.
Chapter One prepares us to understand the characteristics of this nontraditional novel. Vonnegut explains that his early intention was to write in the traditional form of linear plot progression. There would be a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the novel's climax would occur with the destruction of Dresden. However, we soon realize that Vonnegut does not write the novel using this traditional form, perhaps because Billy Pilgrim's life will not be a typical story that we expect.
How Billy will experience time in Slaughterhouse-Five is indirectly presented in Chapter One through the use of limericks, nonsensical verses that have no ending. Just as limericks endlessly repeat themselves, so too will Billy's life. Opposed to the cyclical nature of limericks is the flowing water of the Hudson River, which the narrator crosses on his way to Bernard V. O'Hare's house. Vonnegut creates the image of the river as long and narrow, an analogy to demonstrate the nature of chronological time. The narrator's visiting the World's Fair causes him to ponder the nature of time: While the Walt Disney Company's and the Ford Motor Company's exhibitions depict the past, the General Motors' exhibition renders a vision of the future. He again raises the Hudson River analogy, asking himself how wide and deep the present is.
In addition to preparing us for a trip into psychological time, Chapter One introduces the expression So it goes. This expression will appear time and time again throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. What does the phrase mean? It has been suggested that Vonnegut uses the phrase whenever he chooses to avoid the repetition of brutality. Rather than elaborate the details of a brutal scene or act, he simply elects to say So it goes. Also, the phrase is likely a signal calling attention to the concept of predestination. There is no such thing as free will, Vonnegut explains; humankind has no control over its destiny. So it goes, he announces. Whatever will be, will be.
The concept of predestination, introduced both by Vonnegut's use of cyclical time and by the expression So it goes, furthers our understanding of the meaning behind the two books that the narrator takes with him on his and O'Hare's trip to Dresden. From a book of Theodore Roethke's poems, Words for the Wind, Vonnegut quotes from "The Waking":
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
These lines reinforce the narrator's notion of predetermination. Following the first line's suggestion of a sleep/wakefulness dilemma, the questioning persists. Which is real? Which is illusion? The solution appears in the next two lines. The answer is provided by fate, not free will: The speaker goes, and learns by going where fate's edict directs.
By referring to Ostrovsky's Celine and His Visions, Vonnegut makes connections that permeate Slaughterhouse-Five. Celine cannot sleep at night because he hears voices in his head, voices that drive him to write bizarre novels. He contends that an artist must suffer to produce art: No art is possible without a dance with death. It is here that the significance of Slaughterhouse-Five's second subtitle, A Duty-Dance with Death, is introduced. Billy's pilgrimage is charged with instances of death-dancing. Ever the victim of predestination, Billy's dance, like Celine's emanates from a noise in his head: the voice of fate.
Guggenheim money money from a fund set up in 1925 by Simon Guggenheim and his wife to further the development of scholars and artists by monetarily assisting them in their research endeavors.
mustard gas an oily liquid used in warfare, it blisters the lungs once it is inhaled.
Mutt and Jeff comic strip characters, introduced in 1904, who were especially popular in the 1940s; Mutt was short and plump, and Jeff was tall and thin.
Luftwaffe saber the ceremonial sword carried by members of the German air force, known as the Luftwaffe before and during World War II.
Hiroshima the Japanese city destroyed on August 6, 1945, during World War II, when U.S. forces dropped the first atomic bomb in warfare. Nagasaki, another Japanese city, was destroyed three days later by a second atomic bomb.
the Dutch Reformed Church a religious organization originating in the Netherlands and known for its belief in predestination.
Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni Latin, meaning "Alas, the years slip by"; one of the mature observations of the Roman poet Horace (65–8 B.C.).
Frank Sinatra An American singer and actor born in 1915, he was idolized for his striking good looks and his smooth baritone voice; "ole Blue Eyes" won an Academy Award for his role in From Here to Eternity, a war movie.
John Wayne (1907–79) American actor known for his ruggedness as a self-styled individualist in Western films; he also starred as the hero in numerous World War II films, including The Sands of Iwo Jima.
Palestine often called "the Holy Land"; a historical region between the eastern Mediterranean shore and the Jordan River.
Pope Innocent the Third pope from 1198 to 1216.
Marseilles a city in southeast France on an arm of the Mediterranean.
Genoa a city in northwest Italy on an arm of the Ligurian Sea.
Prussians citizens of a member-state of republican Germany; Prussia was established in 1918 and formally abolished after World War II.
Konigstein a castle in Dresden in which art treasures were stored during the Allied bombing; also served as a POW camp for important prisoners.
Kreuzkirche a church in Dresden destroyed during the Allied bombing on February 13, 1945, but since rebuilt.
Frauenkirche a church in Dresden designed by George Bahr between 1726 and 1743; the church was destroyed during the Allied bombing, but its ruins have been kept as a memorial.
Silesia a region of central Europe primarily in southwestern Poland and the northern Czech Republic.
Goethe Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832); German writer renowned for his two-part dramatic poem Faust, published in 1808 and 1832.
Von der Kuppel . . . Das hat der Feind gethan! German, meaning "From the cupola of the Church of Our Lady, I saw the sad ruins among the beautiful city buildings; the church sexton praised the architect for having built the bombproof church and cupola. Then the sacristan, musing about the ruins that lay all around us, said critically, using few words: 'The devil has done this!' "
Lufthansa a German airline company formed in 1926.
Theodore Roethke An American poet (1908–63), his lyrical verse is characterized by introspection; he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems The Waking: Poems 1933–1953 (1953).
Celine Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894–1961); French writer known for his tortured, angry novels portraying a world without values, beauty, or decency.
Gideon Bible the bible used by members of an interdenominational and international society known for placing bibles in hotel rooms.