Kurt Vonnegut, the author and narrator, begins by stating that the story he is about to tell is true, “more or less.” On a Guggenheim grant in 1967, Vonnegut traveled back to Dresden with a wartime friend, Bernard O’Hare, and asked a cab driver how the city has fared since the firebombing of 1944. The cab driver says the city is in good shape, mostly, and conditions under Communism have improved. The cab driver later mails O’Hare a letter expressing a desire to meet Vonnegut and O’Hare again “in a world of peace and freedom.”
The novel’s “frame story,” or story that introduces another story, involves Vonnegut trying to recollect, with O’Hare, exactly what happened in Dresden during the war. This opening section also introduces in important element in the novel: its irony, or the distance between what the characters desire and what actually takes place. Here, the cab driver’s wish for peace is undercut by the Vietnam War, which rages even as Vonnegut writes the book.
Since returning from Europe in 1945, Vonnegut has spent 23 years attempting to write a book about the firebombing of Dresden, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war (POW). When people ask what he is writing, he replies, often, that it is a book about Dresden. One friend says that he ought to write an anti-glacier book, instead of an anti-war book, since glaciers and wars are equally unstoppable.
This comparison of war and glaciers—that both are unstoppable—is a first instance of “fate” in the novel. One cannot stop something that is fated to happen. Later, the Tralfamadorians agree that war is a part of life, and it is impossible to thwart war—it will come despite all man’s efforts.
Vonnegut flashes back to his first attempt, earlier in the composition of Slaughterhouse-Five, at contacting O’Hare, who is now a district attorney living in Pennsylvania. Vonnegut says he wishes to catch up with O’Hare and hear his memories about the war, for use in the book. O’Hare claims to remember little. Vonnegut plans to use the death of Edgar Derby, a character introduced later, as the book’s climax: Derby was executed immediately following the firebombing for stealing a teapot amid the city’s ruins.
This “climax” is never actually detailed in the novel. Instead we are given a fragmentary look at Derby’s fate: we are told he is executed, and at the end of the novel we learn his body has been incinerated. Vonnegut plays with ideas of dramatic tension and climax throughout the book, since these are aspects of stories but not necessarily aspects of “real life,” or non-fiction.
Vonnegut details an attempt to map the plot of his novel, which is becoming complex and unwieldy. He draws the map in crayon on the back of a strip of wallpaper. The end of the novel, in this version, is a field near Halle, where American and West European prisoners, including Vonnegut and O’Hare, are exchanged for Russians in a POW swap. After the swap, Vonnegut is sent to France and then to the US.
The map of the novel within the novel itself is an instance of “meta-fiction,” or writing about writing. Vonnegut does this throughout as a means of getting at “the truth” of his topic. Vonnegut wishes to depict war as accurately as possible, but this means he cannot use a straightforward, linear narrative, since war is not experienced in a linear fashion.
Vonnegut describes his life since the war. He was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago and a police reporter for the Chicago City New Bureau. Once, while reporting on the accidental death of a man in an elevator, he tells a colleague that, as grisly as this death was, he saw “lots worse than that in the war.” Vonnegut later works in public relations for General Electric in New York State, and writes to the Air Force for information about the Dresden bombings, only to be told those files remain top secret.
Vonnegut’s response here, that he has seen worse, echoes what the hobo will later say on the railcar to the POW camp: that things could be even less comfortable, even more awful. This kind of resignation, like the novel’s refrain “So it goes” when someone dies an untimely death, acknowledges the power of fate. If war is a necessary part of our world, then violence, too, is necessary, and one must become accustomed to its horrors, and realize that those horrors could always be more horrible.
Vonnegut returns to the story of his meeting with O’Hare, at O’Hare’s house in Pennsylvania, in 1964. He and O’Hare are seated while their children play together. Mary O’Hare, Bernard’s wife, appears upset as she prepares drinks for the men. Mary interrupts as they talk, saying Bernard and Vonnegut were “just babies” during the war. She asks Vonnegut not to make it seem, in his novel, that wars are fought by heroic men like John Wayne. Vonnegut promises to keep this in mind and vows to subtitle the work “The Children’s Crusade.”
Another refrain in the novel: the idea that the soldiers on both sides, Allied and German, are only “just children.” If war is fought by young people but still planned by “adults,” then young people themselves appear to have little control of their fates—the soldiers are pawns acted upon by larger forces. For instance Billy, in his confusion before being captured, later does not even know where the battle is taking place.
Vonnegut and O’Hare pick up a book on the crusades and read about the actual Children’s Crusade, which began in 1213. Monks sent French and German children to North Africa and sold them into slavery, rather then shipping them to fight in Palestine, although some children sent to Genoa were aided by the locals and returned to their homes. The Crusades generally were quite bloody, but military gains by Europeans over generations were small.
When children are forced into battle by “adults,” then the children are typically confused as to what the battle means. Vonnegut’s historical reference, here, shows that war has been fought by children throughout history, and that Billy’s confusion about battle is shared by many who have been told to fight.
Vonnegut reads passages from a book on Dresden in the O’Hare’s guest bedroom. Dresden was under siege by the Prussians in 1760, and its partial destruction at the time was observed and described by many, including a young Goethe, who later became a famous German author.
Another instance of the history of destruction. Vonnegut uses Goethe, a writer of global stature, to reiterate that war cannot be stopped. Even Dresden, which is understood as a beautiful city, a jewel of Europe, has been wracked by violence and destruction previously.
Vonnegut and his daughters leave the O’Hares and visit the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where Vonnegut wonders at the future and the present: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” Vonnegut writes his novel, this novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, largely in Iowa City, where he is a teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He tells his editor that the book is “so short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Vonnegut orders his sons not to participate in massacres or work for companies that make weapons for massacres.
The act of writing of the novel is again detailed. Vonnegut hopes that the novel, which he feels cannot be an “intelligent” critique of war, will nevertheless feel real to those who read it. He also hopes that the book will be judged a “masterpiece.” The reference to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Vonnegut really did teach, further underscores his concern that the book be received positively. He feels under pressure at Iowa to produce “great literature.”
En route to Germany, where he is to meet O’Hare in 1967, Vonnegut’s plane is delayed and he feels that time has slowed to a stop. Vonnegut describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt because she looked back at the destruction against God’s wishes. Vonnegut says that people aren’t supposed to look back, and that he is finished doing so. His next book will be “fun,” and this one is a “failure.” He closes the chapter by stating the first sentence of Chapter 2 and the last sentence of Chapter 10.
Ideas of success and failure return. Vonnegut believes that Slaughterhouse-Five is a failure but sees this failure as a necessary part of its mission—to describe the indescribability of war. At the same time he and O’Hare are financially secure in middle age; they have families. In this sense they are successful—more so than they could have ever imagined while avoiding the firebombing in Dresden.