Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608
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 at the burning cities, Vonnegut loves her for being so human. He is no longer going to look back after finishing Slaughterhouse-Five.
He then tells the reader that his book is a failure. He ends the chapter by quoting the opening and closing lines of the fictional sections of Slaughterhouse-Five.
In this preface-like first chapter, Vonnegut details the difficult process of writing about his war time experiences in Dresden. He does not say specifically what has caused him to have so much trouble writing his “Dresden book,” but he does give many clues as to why almost a quarter of a century passed before he finally produced Slaughterhouse-Five.
First, Vonnegut’s intent was not to glorify his experience. By choosing to write an anti-war book, he left himself with no strong models to follow. (Joseph Heller’s infamous Catch-22, which also dealt with the randomness and misery of war, preceded Slaughterhouse-Five by a mere eight years.) As Mary O’Hare bitterly notes, war has generally been portrayed as a noble enterprise. Yet, like the other kind veterans Vonnegut met in Schenectady, Vonnegut knows this is not so. For this reason, his attempt to portray the events which he experienced would need to be written in a new style, one which Vonnegut himself created within this book.
Second, in dealing with the events surrounding the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut has to manage the ignorance he and most other people have on the topic. This ignorance was fostered by the United States military’s decision not to release information on the bombing for a considerable time after the end of the war. While a lack of factual information may have delayed Vonnegut’s production of his own account of this event, the general lack of public awareness provided Vonnegut with the opportunity to shock his audience in a way that could not be easily done with a better-known topic.
Yet underneath all of this must lie a deeper reason for Vonnegut’s “Dresden book” paralysis. Although he does not mention it in the novel, during the time when he was supposedly working on his Dresden novel, he completed five other books and a plethora of short stories. What was it that kept driving him back to the event, like the man in the limerick Vonnegut quotes, yet kept his thoughts in an unproductive loop? Why didn’t Vonnegut just turn his back to Dresden, like Lot and his daughters did at Sodom and Gomorrah?
Vonnegut’s obsession indicates the indelibility of the horrors he witnessed in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden. The images he will describe in the rest of the book with such dispassion were so upsetting that Vonnegut could not escape them. Such circularity and paralysis seem to indicate that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A less intelligent man might have snapped mentally; instead, Kurt Vonnegut produced one of the masterpieces of modern literature.
While it might have been easier for Vonnegut to attempt to block his memories, he attempted instead to cope with them through writing. The task must have been as onerous as Vonnegut describes it in this first chapter. His humanistic sensibilities would neither let him glorify the events which he lived through, nor allow him to justify them by dehumanizing the people who burned to death in Dresden as the evil enemy. Instead, he needed to convey the message that all war is tragic.
By doing so, Vonnegut poisoned the reader with humanity as he felt all good writers should, according to Jerome Klinkowitz’s work, Kurt Vonnegut. The reader should feel, as Vonnegut wishes his own children to feel, “that the news of the massacre of enemies [does] not fill them with satisfaction or glee.” Thus, although the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five has little response to the scenes he sees, Vonnegut’s own interpretation of these events is quite clear and should inform the reader’s interpretation of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences.
Vonnegut also introduces many of the themes and motifs of the novel in this chapter. For example, the ambiguous phrase, “So it goes,” makes its first of many appearances after a mention of death. Time, the organizing (or, rather, disorganizing) principle of the novel, comes to the fore when Vonnegut waits in his Boston hotel room and the clocks behave strangely. In this book, both death and time figure strongly.
For the reader who does not have a knowledge of Latin and German, a few translations, borrowed from Monica Loeb’s monograph on Slaughterhouse Five, will assist the understanding of this chapter. First, the small Latin quote is adapted from Horace’s Odes. As Vonnegut uses it, the phrase means, “Ah, me, the fleeting years are slipping by.” Second, the paragraph of Goethe quoted in the context of Mary Endell’s Dresden, History, Stage, and Gallery, expresses Goethe’s “disgust at what the enemy has done to the Frauenkirche in particular.” According to Monica Loeb’s work, Vonnegut’s Duty-Dance with Death: Theme and Structure in Slaughterhouse-Five, the purpose of this selection is to remind the reader of the cycle of destruction. It ties in strongly with Vonnegut’s reference in the conclusion of this chapter to the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Dresden was not the first city to be utterly destroyed, with great loss of life: indeed, the firebombing of Dresden was not even the first time Dresden had been flattened by enemy forces. The question remains, of course, whether such destruction can be avoided.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support