The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Now in a prison for convicts serving terms under five years, Bartle feels that his life is pleasantly ordinary. He is glad to notice that most people have forgotten him and that he can read library books. During his first few months in prison, he desperately tries to find a pattern to the war. He makes marks on his cell every time he recalls a memory from the war, hoping that they might coalesce into a logical string of events, but soon realizes that events cannot be connected to each other. Instead, they occurred randomly, following no apparent pattern.
Bartle’s satisfaction does not derive from the success of justice—since, in fact, Bartle played no part in Murph’s death, for which he was tried—but from his social isolation. Since Bartle’s solitude derived from his inability to show his true self to others, when he is left on his own he is able to confront his own memories without the added stress of social pressure. This gives him the time and space he needs to confront his own wounds.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When members of the prison staff see these signs, they are impressed by the number of marks, which soon cover Bartle’s cell, making Bartle feel as though the memories themselves are turning into prison walls. The guards assume that Bartle is counting the amount of time he has spent in prison, asking him if it has been about nine hundred eighty-three or ninety days—a series of numbers that remind Bartle that Murph was not counted among the dead for a time.
The guards’ belief that Bartle’s marks are related to his imprisonment is highly ironic, since the guards are wrong on a literal level but correctly highlight that Bartle is mentally imprisoned by his own memories. Their mention of the number of days recalls Murph and Bartle’s game in which they counted soldiers’ deaths. This analogy suggests that one is never able to put an artificial end to suffering (through counting, for example), but that people like Bartle must learn to deal with the consequences of pain and death in the long run, well beyond one thousand days or deaths.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
One day, Murph’s mother comes to visit Bartle in prison. Although the two of them are initially uncomfortable, and Mrs. Murphy is visibly grieving, she describes the moment when officers came to tell her husband and her that their son was dead—a piece of news that neither of them was able to process for a long time. Bartle says that he never meant for it to happen this way, and Mrs. Murphy replies that that does not change anything. Bartle agrees.
The fact that the meeting between Bartle and Mrs. Murphy does not bring reconciliation highlights, once again, that war does not necessarily bring solidarity, since individuals are so busy trying to protect themselves and heal their mental wounds. Mrs. Murphy’s attitude is not outwardly accusatory, but she does seem unwilling to free Bartle of all responsibility.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Mrs. Murphy explains that people soon tired of her desire to know why her son switched so quickly from MIA to dead, and that friends told her that she simply needed to find her own truth in this entire story—a comment that frustrates her, since she believes there should be only one truth. She then asks Bartle if he has plans for the period after his release, but he admits that he simply wants to return to ordinary life and be forgotten by everyone, even if he cannot himself forget what he lived through.
Mrs. Murphy’s search for truth mirrors Bartle’s search for the underlying meaning of his experience in Iraq. These two enterprises are bound to fail, since a single truth does not exist—only the myriad perspectives of each person who experiences an event. Bartle and Mrs. Murphy are thus both condemned to particular kinds of solitude, as they are bound to handle their memories on their own, without hoping for external relief.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
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Although Bartle does not feel any sense of reconciliation from his meeting with Mrs. Murphy, he appreciates that she sincerely wants to understand what happened to Murph and why Bartle wrote her a fake letter. For six hours, Bartle tries to explain everything, although he finds himself unable to connect events to each other, in the same way that he cannot connect the marks on his cell. In the end, he does not feel relieved, but justified in his resignation—an outcome he is satisfied with.
Bartle does not necessarily seek absolution, but only the freedom to live life as he has decided to: resigning himself to the lack of logic or war, and to his desire to be left alone. Neither Bartle nor Mrs. Murphy seems concerned with questions of ethics or morality. Instead, both seem intent on understanding the past in order to redefine their attitude toward it, and decide how to live their life from then on.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Much later, Bartle reflects on this period and feels that his loss is abating, as he gets older and feels Murph fading away. After leaving prison, he now lives in a small cabin by the Blue Ridge mountains. He has begun to feel normal, and has organized his life to keep war memories as distant as possible, preferring, for example, to look at trees rather than at open spaces such as the desert. He appreciates having a small space that he can manage.
Although Bartle feels increasingly normal, this sense of normality hinges on his complete isolation, as he still seems unable to integrate civilian society. It also requires maintaining control over every aspect of life—an artificial attitude that Bartle is able to create for himself precisely by keeping form subjecting himself to the unpredictability of external events and other people’s behavior.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
In prison, Mrs. Murphy gave Bartle a map of Iraq, but after looking at it for a long time Bartle concludes that it is impersonal, alienating, and unable to reflect his own experience. However, on the first day in his cabin, he hangs the map up, sticking a medal in the place where he found Murph’s body. He sees the map as an imperfect depiction of memory, unable to convey what he truly lived through.
Bartle’s lack of connection to this map suggests that his memories only make sense in his own mind and cannot be expressed externally with the precision and complexity they would require. At the same time, though, Bartle does find some comfort from the map’s capacity to externalize and validate his experience externally.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
That first day in the cabin, Bartle walks outside. He imagines hearing the sound of a cloth being taken off of a monument somewhere in the country. Then, he imagines Murph’s body, no longer disfigured. In his mind’s eye, he sees the body drifting down the Tigris river, where it turns into a skeleton, free of injuries, and passes by a pair of soldiers who wish him peace. The body then reaches the junction between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and finally flows into the sea, where waves break endlessly, taking him in.
Bartle contrasts his own pain with national celebrations of war (taking a cloth off a monument) to suggest that public narratives do not necessarily reflect a soldier’s personal experience. His final imagining of Murph’s body reveals that he has come to terms with Murph’s death and is able to let go of it physically and mentally—allowing Murph’s body to flow away from him without feeling any guilt, but, rather, allowing the past to be just as it is: imperfect, yet distant and peaceful.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon