Waiting for the Barbarians: A Happy Ending?

In a novel marked by graphic imagery of torture and desperation, I was shocked by the oddly hopeful ending to the book. The Magistrate’s dream becomes a reality as the town is softly covered in snow. For the people in the town, snow means winter, struggle and hardship, but at the same time it functions as a cleansing. The dirty, tainted town is resurfaced and polished in white. The white of the snow reflects the possibility of purity as well as a new light to the town. The snow is both bright like a light, and it also lays on the ground with an “eerie lightness” (155). As we discussed in class, light reflects truth or the discovery of the truth. By covering the town in white, it can serve as a reflection of the truth’s discovery on behave of the Magistrate as well as the rest of the town.

This hopeful image is furthered by the children who are building a snowman in the town. This act symbolizes the ability for children to find joy in the midst of an unprecedented low point in the frontier town. The children begin by making the body and the head. Magistrate says, “It strikes me that the snowman will need arms too, but I do not want to interfere” (155). This suggestions seemed odd to me when I first read this section. The boys add the “eyes, ears, nose and mouth” (155). They allow the newly created man to see, to hear, to smell and to speak, but not to touch. I thought about what arms are used for. Arms allow people to work, to touch, to hold onto things. Arms are the first part of the body that prisoners are no longer allowed to use, as they are tied behind their backs. Perhaps the Magistrate is reminding the boys that they need to give the snowman freedom, but arms also function in the novel as weapons. They are used to strike the prisoners and to control swords and guns. Perhaps a man without arms is a man who is able to prevent the war.

In the Magistrate’s dream, he sees a hooded girl making a snow replica of the town. In his mind he is emphasizing the importance of what he and the people on the frontier have created. It is interesting that the children here are not making a replica of the town, but instead the replica of a man, emphasizing in a way the importance of each person rather than what the group leaves behind. After the boys crown their creation, the Magistrate looks at it and says, “It is not a bad snowman. This is not the scene I dreamed of” (156). This can also be read as the Magistrate’s dream for the town is now what has become of it, yet it is still “not bad.” It is down going to take a different path. It is important that the Magistrate does not interfere as well. By not interrupting, he is allowing the children to be on their own and to function as a new generation separate from the mistakes of the elders.

Perhaps I am being too optimistic for the future of the town and am searching for some hope midst the torture and depression of the novel. With my reading of the ending, I also wonder, if the children are separate from the Magistrate, are they doomed to ultimately repeat the mistakes of his generation?

Maria Rajtik

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One Response to Waiting for the Barbarians: A Happy Ending?

  1. Maggie says:

    I thought that your focus on the snowman was very interesting. I recognized the snowman in relation to the Magistrate’s recurring dream, but I did not think to analyze the way the children were making the snowman. Your comment, “They allow the newly created man to see, to hear, to smell and to speak, but not to touch.” really stood out to me. The senses that the children have given the snowman are those that the Magistrate feels he and the other government workers are unable to possess at one time or another – he cannot truly see or communicate with Col. Joll, and he believes Col. Joll to be blind to the world around him as well. And you’re right, all of the torture came from the arms of others, and the worst torture of the Magistrate inflicted pain through his arms. I really like the way you pointed out the details of this aspect of the ending of the novel.

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