Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five, Chapter One

From what point of view is chapter one told, and what effect does this literary technique have on the unfolding of the story?

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Chapter One asks us to see the author's hand in the novel. This section is written earnestly and without artifice, more like a disjointed memoir than a work of fiction. Rather than detach the author from the work, Vonnegut asks us to see him in it. Nor is this the fictional framing of narrator-as-character: although Vonnegut is often flippant and amusing in specific moments, overall the tone is too earnest, the subject matter too important, for us to take this is as a mere setup for a novel. Although equating the narrator with the author is always dangerous, in this book it is safe to say that the narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. At the very least, Vonnegut wants us to think of the narrator as Vonnegut.

One of the most important themes of Slaughterhouse Five is the pairing of narrative and non-narrative or anti-narrative. Creating narrative (making stories) is a way of making sense of events, ordering them and arranging them to show cause and effect. Narratives seek to justify themselves and the events they describe. Slaughterhouse Five can be thought of as an anti-narrative. The novel is disjointed, with dozens of chronological leaps in every chapter. The statement is clear: Vonnegut prefers not to make a narrative of the Dresden massacre. His goals are sensitive to the anxieties of Mary O'Hare. This book will not be the kind of story that could be adapted as a John Wayne movie. Narratives are often used to make sense of events, and there is no way to make sense of a massacre. Nor should there be.

The struggle with creating a narrative is part of why it took the narrator so long to write the book. When he talks to Bernard O'Hare about the climax of his planned Dresden book, the idea of a novel with climax, plot, characters, and all of the other tricks of the novelist's trade seems ridiculous next to the reality of the massacre. O'Hare's cold response to Vonnegut drives home the difficulty of putting together a narrative about the event. Everything seems inadequate and incredibly detached from the actual bombing. The linear outline he makes with crayon on a roll of wallpaper drives home the same point. By juxtaposing the crayon-on-wallpaper outline with the events of the end of the war, the idea of linear narrative is made to look like child's play.