Slaughterhouse-Five: Novel Summary: Chapter 1

The novel begins with the authors assertion that the story he is going to tell is more or less true. Although he has changed the names of the participants he really did know a guy who was executed for stealing a teapot from the ruins of Dresden and he really did know a guy who threatened to have all his enemies killed after the war. Vonnegut relates that he and his war buddy, Bernard V. OHare actually did return to Dresden in 1967 and while there they met a cab driver named Gerhard Muller who had been a prisoner of the Americans during the war. Muller tells them that living under Communism was terrible at first but that things have gotten much better. He relates that his mother was killed in the Dresden firestorm and Vonnegut begins a pattern that will carry throughout the novel of including the phrase “So it goes” every time someone is killed. Muller sends a Christmas card later that expresses his hope that they will meet again in a world of peace and freedom “if the accident will”. This phrase pleases Vonnegut.
Vonnegut goes onto relate that it has taken him twenty-three years to write his book about what he experienced at Dresden. He compares the temptation and frustration he experienced in writing about Dresden to a couple of dirty limericks. He relates that a famous moviemaker once told him that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book . Vonnegut agrees with the moviemakers sentiment that there will always be wars or at least death. He relates that when he was somewhat younger he called his war buddy Bernard V. OHare who was then a district attorney in Pennsylvania. It was late at night and per his usual habit Vonnegut was up late, drinking heavily and randomly calling old friends. He tells OHare that he is working on a book about Dresden and wants to come see him. OHare claims he cant remember much about the experience but tells Vonnegut to come anyway. Vonnegut asks if OHare agrees that the execution of “poor old Edgar Derby” for stealing a teapot should be the climax of the book but OHare has no opinion.
Vonnegut describes to the reader his favorite outline of the story. He created it on the back of a roll of wallpaper using his daughters crayons. Each character was given a different color and Dresdens destruction was a vertical band of orange crosshatching. The end was a rainy beet field on the Elbe two weeks after the end of the war. There were prisoners of all nationalities being guarded by Russians on one side of the river and on the other side numerous prisoners being guarded by Americans. Following an exchange, OHare and Vonnegut climbed into an American army truck. Everyone had souvenirs. They were flown to France where they recuperated and then sent home where Vonnegut married a pretty girl and they had babies. He attended the University of Chicagos school of Anthropology where he was taught that there is no difference between anybody. Later when his dying father asked him why there are no villains in his stories Vonnegut answered that that this is what he learned in school.
While studying anthropology Vonnegut also worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. The reporters would telephone their stories to writers at the Bureau who were often tough women that had taken over the jobs when the men left for the war. One of the first stories Vonnegut covered was that of a man who had been crushed to death when his wedding ring got caught in the iron work of an old elevator. The tough woman he phones the story to tells him to call the mans widow, who doesnt know she is a widow yet, and pretend to be a policeman so he can get her reaction. When he returns to the Bureau the woman, who is eating a candy bar, wants to know if the sight of the squashed man bothered him to which Vonnegut replies “Heck no, Nancy, Ive seen lots worse in the war.”
Vonnegut became a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York and a volunteer fireman in the village of Alplaus. He characterizes everyone as being very tough after the war and his boss at GE as the toughest man he ever met. The kindest and funniest people he knew at the time were those who really fought in the war. While in Schenectady he wrote the Air Force to get details on the Dresden raid for his book but was astonished to learn that the files were top secret.
A couple of weeks after telephoning OHare, Vonnegut (with his young daughter and her friend) goes on a trip to see his old war buddy. The little girls have never been off Cape Cod before and they make him stop often to look at things theyve never seen. That evening they arrive at the OHare house and OHares wife Mary (to whom, along with Muller the taxi driver, the book is dedicated) receives the children warmly and sends them upstairs to play with her own children. Vonnegut senses that Mary doesnt like him and while he and Bernard struggle to recall useful memories of the war she flits about in consternation. Finally she blurts out that they (meaning all the soldiers) were just babies like the ones upstairs during the war. She is upset because she believes that Vonnegut will write a book that makes them look like men and the movies will choose someone like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra to play the lead. After he promises that his book will not have a part for either actor and that he will call it “The Childrens Crusade” she is his friend.
Vonnegut and Bernard give up trying to remember the war and look up information about the real Childrens Crusade. They learn that in 1213 two monks got the idea to raise an army of children purportedly to send to Palestine but to actually sell into slavery in North Africa. Half the children drowned on the ships and the rest were sold into slavery. By chance some of them wound up in Genoa and were cared for before being sent home. That night Vonnegut reads a passage from a book about Dresdens arts that was published before its destruction. The book relates the details of the Prussian siege of the city in 1760 that led to widespread destruction but accomplished nothing.
The next day Vonnegut takes the little girls to the World Fair where he ponders the past, future and present.
Vonnegut relates that he later taught creative writing at the University of Iowa where he continued to work on his book about Dresden. A man named Seymour Lawrence offered him a three book contract and Vonnegut promised that the first book would be his work about Dresden. He apologizes to Sam that the book is so short, jumbled and tangled but observes that Dresden was a massacre and there is never anything to say about a massacre except perhaps the birds that say things like “Poo-tee-weet?” He relates that he has told his sons never to take part in a massacre and never to work for a company that builds things used in massacres.
On the trip to Europe with OHare, Vonneguts plane could not leave because of bad weather and he had to spend a night in a motel near the airport. He read a book about Celine in which the author observes that the subject was desperate to make time stop. Vonnegut also looked through the Bible and found the passage about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and was particularly touched by Lots wifes disobedience because it was such a very human act to look back at destruction. Vonnegut observes that people arent supposed to look back and now that his book is finished, though he believes it to be a failure since it is written by a pillar of salt, he wont look back anymore.
Vonnegut then tells the reader what the first sentence will be and that the book ends with “Poo-tee-weet?”
This chapter serves as a sort of introduction to the novel and provides several details about the manner in which the book came into being. Right from the start the reader is given ample evidence that Vonnegut intends to include his own voice in the work. Particularly telling is the passage in which he provides several disclaimers for his publisher, namely that the novel is “short, jumbled and tangled” but makes the excuse that this is the best that can be done with work about a massacre. Vonnegut provides several clues in this opening chapter that foreshadow themes in the novel. For instance, the story of the real Childrens Crusade evoke the manner in which, through chance, a group of otherwise doomed individuals can emerge from a massacre safely as do the children who go to Genoa by mistake. Additionally, his reference to Celines desire to stop time and his own contemplation of time while at the Worlds Fair prepares the reader for the novels time-traveling protagonist. Finally, by comparing himself to Lots wife, Vonnegut couples the damaging, futile exercise of looking back at a tragedy to the absolutely human inability not to look back at tragedy. What emerges then, from this opening chapter, is an indication that the book will not be told chronologically and will be presented in short bursts. Also that the work should not necessarily be an anti-war book, which Vonnegut agrees with the moviemaker is a pointless exercise, but instead an anti-“looking back” work in which human beings are advised to enjoy the pleasant times that are afforded them.