Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Why does Kurt Vonnegut end "Slaughterhouse-Five" with the words "Poo-tee-weet"?

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Kurt Vonnegut ends "Slaughterhouse-Five" with the words "Poo-tee-weet" to symbolize the ineffable nature of war and massacre. This nonsensical bird sound stands for the fact that there's nothing intelligible to say about such devastation. The phrase encapsulates the senseless loss of life in war, underscoring its futility. Vonnegut uses this sound to leave the reader pondering the catastrophic impact of war, emphasizing that no words can truly capture its profound destruction.

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The birds in Slaughterhouse-Five make the sound “Poo-tee-weet”—something that is heard after a massacre. The sound “Poo-tee-weet” is a stand-in, a nonsensical noise made by birds that represents the fact that there is nothing intelligible that can be said about war or massacres. The death and loss from war is not something that can be analyzed or effectively eulogized; the only thing we can say is utterly insignificant in the face of the devastation.

The book focuses on the fire-bombing of Dresden, a real event that Vonnegut lived through as a POW—just like Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut has Pilgrim go through the same experience so that he can make the statement that the loss and damage of war are ineffable—no words can adequately describe it, and there is nothing we can say to capture the scope or depth of the loss. Vonnegut, in “Dresden Revisited,” goes so far as to say,

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.

The meaninglessness of the massive loss of human life is encapsulated in the phrase “poo-tee-weet”—and the unnecessary nature of war, in general, is what Vonnegut captures by closing his novel by the words. Ultimately he leaves the reader with that question—“Poo-tee-weet?”—asked by the birds, because really, what else is there to say about the devastation? Nothing anyone can say will ever really mean any more than the sound of a bird chirping in the silence of so many dead.

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In the first chapter, when discussing the difficulty that he had writing the anti-war novel, Vonnegut explains that "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." Since the bombing of Dresden is a massacre, there is nothing intelligent to say about it. Since the last scene of the novel occurs shortly after the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut ends with a nonsensical and unintelligible question: "Poo-tee-weet?"

By ending the novel this way (by asking a question that makes no sense), Vonnegut drives home the point that war makes no sense and that the bombing of Dresden was a senseless act. Furthermore, "Poo-tee-weet?" is a question and not a statement of fact. Thus, Vonnegut ends with a nonsensical question that the reader cannot answer intelligibly, and the reader is in a similar situation as Vonnegut, who can find "nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."

Finally, as Vonnegut states in the opening chapter, it is the birds that ask this closing question.

"Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "'Poo-tee-weet?'"

Humans are the only animals capable of such destruction, and the birds are left to question this horrific act. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut shows that animals are innocent victims of war as seen in the wounded horse that Billy weeps for and in "Princess," the dog with its tale between its legs, who has been dragged into the war.

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One of the main themes of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is the destructive nature of war. The book examines the anachronistic experiences of Billy Pilgrim, a veteran and survivor of the Dresden firebombing who has "come unstuck in time."

Billy first hears the "Poo-tee-weet" from a bird singing outside his window when he is in the ward for nonviolent mental patients in a VA hospital in New York. This bird makes a reappearance at the end of the novel; World War Two has just ended, people are flooding into the streets, and the "[b]irds were talking." Billy hears this phrase once again as the last line of the book.

Earlier, we get context for what "Poo-tee-weet" means:

...[T]here is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like Poo-tee-weet?

So, Vonnegut chooses to end the book with "Poo-tee-weet?" in order to allude to the uselessness of commenting on something as horrific as a war. "Poo-tee-weet" effectively means nothing; to end the book with a meaningless statement, an answerless question, echoes our inability to account for the devastation of war.

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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.

Further Reading:

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

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Why are the last words of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five "Poo-tee-weet"? What statement is Vonnegut making by closing his text this way?

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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