Applying a School of Criticism of Schilb and Clifford Analyze “Birdsong”
The Novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a story of various parts of one mans life, Stephen Wraysford. The first par of the book is a love story, when Stephen Wraysford is living and working in Northern France. The main text of the book is when Stephen Wraysford returns to Northern France again, this time as an officer in the British Army, during the First World War. This is the section in which Jack Firebrace features. The final part of the book is a recurring sub plot set in the seventies. We initially meet Jack Firebrace in the most horrific circumstances possible. Jack is a miner, tunnelling under enemy positions placing mines in the hope of halting enemy advances.
“The top layer of skin had gone from his body”, “He had apparently been caught by a gas attack some way behind the front line. Blinded by the chlorine, he had stumbled into a house that was burning after being hit by a shell.” Through his depiction of the “scorched body”, “discharging eyes, down over the face and neck, the raw chest, the groin and throbbing legs”, Faulks clearly highlights to the reader the life-destroying physical devastation war has on soldiers, but does so in a detached manner, stating what has happened, putting little emotion behind the tragic loss. This shows how soldiers’ lives were almost dispensable, with Faulks’ message mirroring great wartime poets like Sassoon and Owen, whilst simultaneously showing how nobody had any form of defence against the chemical warfare first used during WWI. Faulks describes how the boy “begged to die”, connoting again how human life seemed to be wasted without any care. Owen himself also describes the disastrous effects of gas attacks on soldiers in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est‘, where he too refers to the “froth-corrupted lungs” of gas victims, watching men “gargling”, “drowning” and “flound’ring” under “a green sea”of chlorine. Through his powerful lexis, and the contextual connotations of Owen, the young soldier in the hospital is immensely powerful to Faulks’ presentation of physical conflict in Birdsong. To highlight the physical devastation of war in Birdsong, Faulks examines the demoralising Battle of the Somme. This gory battle took place between the 1st of July 1916 and the 23rd of November 1916. “Bugles and whistles sounded, and the first of the hundred and twenty thousand British soldiers rose from their trenches and went over the top.”“Over a million soldiers were killed in the Battle of the Somme alone, including a massive 30,000 in just one day”. Faulks presents this slaughter of innocent lives extremely well in Birdsong, and the Somme sections provide hideous and graphic content to illustrate to the reader the severity of ‘the war to end all wars’, and its physical conflict. Faulks describes this horrific battle through Stephen’s eyes; “There was a man beside him missing part of his face, but walking in the same dreamlike state, his rifle pressing forward. His nose dangled and Stephen could see his teeth through the missing cheek.”
Still, one should also bear in mind that Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke want to evoke readers’ compassion for soldiers and their fortitude. Moreover, the authors, who witnessed war, might be reluctant to speak about its atrocities because these memories were very painful. So, these motives could have shaped their literary choices. The concept of heroism is closely related to masculinity. In fact, the perceptions of heroism are often based on the gender norms established at the beginning of the twentieth century. In particular, Sebastian Faulks notes that the soldiers were supposed to act as “real men” (1997, p. 123). In other words, these people were supposed to display fortitude or stoicism, even though they did not even to be involved in this war. Such people were not allowed to display any signs of weakness. One should keep in mind that Sebastian Faulks does not dismiss the importance of heroism. Moreover, the writer does not deny that many of soldiers could indeed display fortitude and courage. Nevertheless, the writer lays stress on the idea that heroism was not always the major priority for these people. This is one of the assumptions that the writer does not accept because it eventually leads to the victimization of soldiers. This is of one of the aspects that is important for the analysis of this novel. Yet, one should take into account that some of the poets, who lived during World War I, did not want to emphasize their heroism. This issue is partly explored by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce et Decorum est. His poem indicates that in many cases, soldiers could be reduced to the status of mere machines that could no longer care about other people. Moreover, these people could be reduced to “old beggars” (Owen 2005, p. 52).
As can be seen, at its essence, Sabastian Faulks’ Birdsong is a powerful reminder of the importance of the past on present and future generations. Birdsong chronicles the lives of Englishman Stephen Wraysford and his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, spanning two continents and nearly seventy years, and this unique structure allows Faulks to highlight the impact of historical trauma across generations.
Brooke, R 2013, Collected Poems, The Oleander Press, London.
Faulks, S 1997, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War, Vintage, London
Owen, W 2005, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, New Directions Publishing, New York.
Sasson, S 2012, War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Courier Dover Publications, London.