Is There Closure in Slaughterhouse Five?
Despite the fact that Kurt Vonnegut ends the novel Slaughterhouse Five in a manner that provokes the reader to believe it shows that the conflict has reached closure, the very end of the novel represents a new beginning. The author uses the last few paragraphs to tie the novel together by describing the end of the war in detail and in the process implies a renewal with symbols including springtime, the morning, and the trees that were “leafing out.” Amidst the implied sorrow that one automatically equates with endings, such as the closed down mines, the missing soldiers, and lack of humans, the theme of renewal along with the singing birds supersedes the aftermath of war. The very end of the novel encapsulates the overall theme of the horrors of war and escape from destruction and violence into peace.
Some may argue that the final paragraphs of the novel represent the end of the novel rather than the commencement of a new beginning. Indeed, some may interpret the sound of the birds in the same manner they are introduced at the beginning of the novel. In fact, one may argue that the last few paragraphs of the novel mirror the initial introduction of the birds on page 24. In the beginning, the reader learns about the birds in conjunction with the consequences of a massacre. The narrator describes a scene in which dead bodies blanket the ground, making no noise. The eerie silence represents the destruction and desolation that evolves from death. The narrator asks, “And what do the birds say?” (24) Then he answers his question by stating, “All there is to say about a massacre – Poo-tee-weet?” (24). The fact the birds sing while surrounded by death and destruction depicts a strong contrast and thus a way in which a survivor can emotionally cope with death – a concept that most humans have difficulty accepting or understanding. Similarly, at the end of the novel the narrator stands alone in a world that seems to have gone silent. However, this time he does not ask what the birds say. Instead he states, “Birds are talking” (275). This time, the implication is that the birds are not simply singing a message to the world, as “one bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?” (275). The distinction between asking what the birds say and asserting that the birds are talking differentiates these two depictions of finding oneself surrounded by silence. The action of the bird talking directly to Billy Pilgrim implies a sense of trust, camaraderie and complacency, unlike the former situation in which the birds sang into a vacuous space littered by death. In this way, the sound of the birds does not necessarily resemble doom as it does at the beginning of the novel; rather, it seems that given the subtle yet meaningful differences in the second scenario, their singing shows a level of joy.
Vonnegut’s novel depicts many themes, among them the horrors of war. In Chapter One, the narrator describes the scene after a massacre. He states, there is “nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24) A massacre leaves a deadening silence and any sound that is made that breaks the silence has a deeper meaning than if the same sound is made when there is noise. Therefore, the narrator believes that in death or bloodshed, there is nothing to say because what has occurred is beyond the realm of a human’s capacity for rational thought. When an absurd event occurs and leaves a witness speechless, the narrator implies that the silence is the result of having a loss of anything to say that makes sense because, as in the case of a massacre, it is impossible to make sense of senselessness. This renders the sound or speech of the birds meaningful because they are the only living beings that make a sound. The narrator states that the birds’ chirping says, “all there is to say” (24). The sounds of the birds represent the only thing that makes any sense. Similar to the way in which the massacre leaves the men lifeless, the space surrounding the narrator is vacuous. The birds speak but the fact that their words are meaningless – insofar as they do not have a specific definition – represent their meaning. The birds’ method of communication or mode of speech occurs through chirping or singing and typically implies happiness. Amid such horror and emptiness of a massacre, the sounds of the birds not only develop into an intelligent statement, but their song reverberates joyfully, overcoming the darkness and unspeakable horror of death. Therefore, the birds send a message by calling out to the world that life can and does exists, even in the presence of death. The deeper implication of the sound is that it represents hope, renewal and the appreciation of the goodness in the world and respect for that which continues living.
The narrator states regarding the novel, “It starts like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet” (28). The use of the “listen” as part of the first line of the novel ties in with the action of listening to the sound that the birds in the novel make. When the birds sing out their message in the midst of the horror the narrator experiences the audience has no choice but to hear; since the sound they make also represents all there is to say the act of listening to their words becomes necessary for the those who can hear them. Inciting the reader to “listen” develops a structure in which the reader actually serves as part of the narrator’s audience. As long as someone has something to say, then there seems to be an obligation on the part of the audience to listen to them. Since the birds make the sounds, Poo-tee-weet, and the novel ends with the phrase that the birds say, it presents an open door to the future.
The phrase “And somewhere in there was springtime” (274) evokes an image of renewal, since Spring is the time when flowers bloom and the natural world comes alive again after winter. He goes on to describe the scene and inform the reader that the war has ended and the world was returning to normalcy and the ‘birds were talking” (275). People associate spring with the chirping of birds, as sound that symbolizes the ushering in of a renewal of nature. The chapter’s ending depicts the idea of how life constantly regenerates and when something ends, something new begins. Thus, therefore even though these paragraphs serve as the end of the novel, they also represent the transition into a new phase of life.
On the surface, the final paragraphs of Slaughterhouse Five may bring clarity to many readers of the novel and infuse them with a sense of closure. However, the underlying symbolic implication could shed some doubt on the actual meaning embedded within the paragraphs as well as the true intention of the author. On one hand, the representation of the scene in which the narrator finds himself serves more as the beginning of a new stage of life, just as the springtime ushers in a new stage of development among all living things. At the same time, the author may have presented the ending in this manner to give those readers who choose to embrace the finality of Billy Pilgrim’s journey an opportunity to understand it the way they are accustomed to reconciling any journey or, in this case, novel. That is, it offers a beginning, a middle and an end. However, others may relate to Billy Pilgrim and the concept of death and rebirth on a different level and as a result understand that with the end of death and destruction comes rebuilding – and a rebirth. Therefore, as the springtime beckoned and the birds spoke to Billy, he prepared to begin the next stage in his journey, as he survived the war and until we die, all humans must continue on.
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