Slaughterhouse-Five Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Kurt Vonnegut: the author and occasional narrator

Bernard V. O’Hare: Vonnegut’s fellow American prisoner of war

Mary O’ Hare: Bernard’s pacifist wife

Vonnegut begins what is otherwise a work of fiction with some straightforward commentary from the author. Before the fiction begins in Chapter Two, Vonnegut announces that most of Slaughterhouse-Five is based in truth. He was a prisoner of war in Dresden near the end of World War II, and while he was there he witnessed its firebombing by the Allied Forces. He returned to Dresden in 1967, with his friend, Bernard O’Hare, in preparation for writing this book.

Vonnegut says that it has been very difficult for him to write about the destruction of Dresden. He worked on his Dresden book for years, coming back to it again and again. He was told that there was no purpose in his writing a book that would essentially be anti-war, since wars were about as inevitable as glaciers.

Vonnegut initially contacted his friend, Bernard O’Hare, to ask for help in remembering the war. O’Hare said he didn’t remember much and was generally unenthusiastic. Vonnegut told him that he thought the climax of his book would be when Edgar Derby was shot for stealing a teapot, a situation which Vonnegut found tremendously ironic.

In his attempts to write this book, Vonnegut had attempted to outline its plot. His favorite outline was one done in crayon on the back of a roll of wallpaper. The end of this outline was the exchange of soldiers between the American and the Russian forces. At this point, O’Hare and Vonnegut, and the American who inspired the character Paul Lazarro, were all sent back to a rest camp in France before their return to the States.

Vonnegut then talks about his life after the war. He studied anthropology for a while at the University of Chicago, during which time he worked as a police reporter. In those days, neither Vonnegut nor most other Americans knew that the air raid on Dresden had been more destructive than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. When Vonnegut described his planned book to a professor, the professor reminded Vonnegut of the German atrocities against the Jews. Vonnegut could only inadequately respond that he was aware.

Vonnegut then went to Schenectady, New York, where he worked in public relations for General Electric. Vonnegut describes this period in his life as the scrawny years. He and his wives were friends with many other veterans in Schenectady. Vonnegut notes that the kindest of the veterans they knew there were the ones who had really fought during World War II. These men were also the ones who truly hated war. Vonnegut attempted to do some research on Dresden while in Schenectady, but the Air Force refused to release the information he asked for on the grounds that it was secret.

Around 1964, Vonnegut finally went to visit Bernard O’Hare. Although they sat around for a while, they were unable to recall any good stories about the war. Meanwhile, Vonnegut was disconcerted by the unexplained hostility of Bernard’s wife, Mary. Finally, Mary accused Vonnegut of planning to write a book which would glorify war, thereby promoting death. Vonnegut promised her he wouldn’t, adding that he would call his book “The Children’s Crusade.”

Vonnegut went on to teach at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. During this time, he was given a contract to write three books. Slaughterhouse-Five is the first of these books. Vonnegut apologizes to the man who gave him the contract for the shortness and disorganization of his book. He explains that there simply isn’t much intelligent to say about a massacre.

Vonnegut then remembers the night he spent in a hotel before he left for Dresden. He had two books with him: one, a book of poetry, and the other a biography of the French writer Celine. Vonnegut picks up the Gideon Bible and reads of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even though Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt for looking back...

(The entire section is 1,608 words.)