Why are the last words of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five "Poo-tee-weet"? What statement is Vonnegut making by closing his text this way?
In his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel related that in response to a boy’s question about his experiences he said:
And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
While Wiesel understandably asserted that there is a moral imperative to speak about the atrocities and tragedies that destroy communities, it can be exceptionally difficult to do so. In the face of such horrors, human can lose the capacity to articulate their experiences, and words can lose meaning. Philosopher Theodore Adorno wrote extensively about the challenges of expression in a post-Auschwitz world.
Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans alike suffered from PTSD and an inability to describe and relate their experiences while fulfilling their obligations in the creation of the postwar society. Often survivors and veterans found themselves misunderstood and isolated, unable even to access their grief. It could be argued that it wasn’t until the 1961 trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem that dialogue about the war, Holocaust, and trauma was re-opened in public.
Author and veteran Kurt Vonnegut faced this challenge of processing traumatic memories while trying to establish himself as a writer. A soldier in the US Army who served during the Ardennes Counteroffensive, Vonnegut was captured by the German forces and, as a prisoner, of war witnessed the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. His 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death was his attempt to make sense of a traumatic situation.
Experiences like the ones presented in Slaughterhouse-Five cannot be conveyed through conventional literature and the confines of the novel as it was formalized in the 19th century. As the two world wars and Holocaust broke the conventions of Western society, new storytelling methods must be found or even created. In his epigram to the novel, Vonnegut notes to the reader about the “telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales” the work contains.
Boundary-stretching genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism can sometimes better express the inexpressible than straightforward memoir or literary fiction narratives. By placing the anti-heroic Billy Pilgrim’s war experiences and the events in Dresden in a science fiction context, Vonnegut could employ different methods of structure, chronology, and characterization to impress on the reader the chaos and confusion of war and its tendency to disrupt the notion of time and chronology.
Despite the flexibility allowed by science fiction, the author still finds expression difficult. The first chapter doesn’t give the reader any fictional characters or settings just yet but instead the author’s dilemma about how to go about writing. The chapter meanders as the author seeks a narrative voice and structure. He notes postwar Dresden “looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has” as a means to present the subject as mundane and matter-of-fact (somewhat sarcastically as well). He calls his work “a lousy little book” that incurred a great cost to him and reflects that to write about Dresden is both “useless” but “tempting,” revealing the problem with trauma: how to balance the desire to forget and be silent with the need to express and bear witness.
The story with its philosophical aliens, observations about social issues, and bleak humor makes a case for the horrors of war and the trauma it can leave on veterans and survivors, thus fighting back against the tendency to lapse into silence. The author uses the formulaic Tralfamadorian phrase “so it goes” in response to frequent deaths, repeated as an effort at acceptance.
However as Billy and the others walk outside, silence falls again in the damaged streets of Dresden. The bird call of “poo-tee-weet?” underscores humanity’s—and Nature’s—inability to make a comprehensive statement about war, tragedy, and suffering. Although the novel’s existence in part counteracts the silence, human expression will always be incomplete and imperfect.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
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The ending of the novel is a reference to the Tralfamadorian concept of time. The Tralfamadorians understand that time does not move forward nor backward, but every second in time happens at once, simultaneously. They describe it as a flat circle. We are told at the beginning of the novel that it will end with the phrase "Poo-tee-weet." So just as it happens at the beginning of the novel, it happens again at the end, because instead of moving forward or backward, time moves together. The end of the novel happens at the same time as the beginning of the novel.
"Poo-tee-weet" is also another way of saying Vonnegut's recurring line of "So it goes." Just as birds can't think of anything to say after a massacre than "poo-tee-weet," sometimes all a person can really say is "So it goes."
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