Perhaps I’m particularly unperceptive, but it took me until about half way through Slaughterhouse-Five to realize that Vonnegut always places the phrase “So it goes” immediately following any mention of death. Where originally I was frustrated by the constant repetition, once I established the connection, I couldn’t stop pondering its effect. It seems to me that the frequent repetition of “So it goes” is similar in kind to Twain’s frequent use of the n-word in Huck Finn. In Huck the reader becomes so accustomed to the word that he or she often forgets – or, at the very least, is forced to suspend – his or her aversion to it. Because the phrase “So it goes” implies normalcy, the reader is similarly forced to become comfortable with another uncomfortable topic: death.
Obviously the parallel isn’t perfect. Twain repeats a word that is inherently unjust and offensive. Death, on the other hand, is a fact of life. There is nothing necessarily offensive about it. Yet by repeating “So it goes” after each death, Vonnegut equalizes them all, from something as natural as “There used to be a dog named Spot, but he died. So it goes” (62) to something as gruesome as “There was so much to see – dragon’s teeth, killing machines, corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory. So it goes” (65). That which makes each death different is not taken into account and the effect is somewhat numbing. “So it goes” forces the reader to accept death and move on. The device is almost necessary; otherwise, the reader might become too depressed to finish a novel so saturated with death.
Additionally, the repetition of “So it goes” draws the reader’s attention to every single instance of death in the novel. As the story progresses “So it goes” becomes a refrain of sorts; as it propels the reader forward, it also cues him or her. Thus, the reality of death becomes simultaneously more familiar and more difficult to ignore. Though I remain perplexed by this issue of “So it goes,” one thing is clear: Vonnegut crafts a far different type of war novel. Early in the tale, O’Hare and the narrator read a book about the Crusades which states “History in her solemn page informs us that the crusaders were but ignorant and savage men … that their pathway was one of blood and tears. Romance, on the other hand, dilates upon their piety and heroism, and portrays … their virtue and magnanimity…” (15-16). Vonnegut presents us with neither “history” nor “romance,” but perhaps something far more poignant – and accurate – than either.