Study Guide

Birdsong

by Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong Analysis

Birdsong (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Young Stephen Wraysford goes to France in 1910 to study manufacturing methods only to run away with Isabelle Azaire, the neglected wife of his host. Discovering herself pregnant and confused about her feelings for Stephen, Isabelle leaves him as well. The increasingly alienated Stephen stays in France and is almost pleased when the war gives him an opportunity to try to focus his confused emotions. The war, however, proves more horrendous than anyone could have imagined, leaving Stephen angrier than before. Hoping to die at times, he miraculously escapes death while all his friends are falling, once even when his body is discarded as a corpse.

Stephen eventually finds some solace with Jeanne Fortmentier, Isabelle’s older sister, only for more emotional confusion to develop. Sixty years later, Elizabeth Benson, his granddaughter, finds herself similarly at a loss until she becomes pregnant by her married lover. Tracking down the truth about Stephen, Isabelle, Jeanne, and the war—with the help of her grandfather’s coded diaries—Elizabeth attempts to find some order within the chaos that is the twentieth century.

Faulks’s depiction of disorder is almost lyrical because of his poetic writing style. His treatment of the overlapping themes of love, sex, alienation, nature, violence, and death recalls the best war fiction, particularly Ernest Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1929). Like Hemingway, Faulks cannot resist occasional sentimentality, but the strength of his images of war and the passion of his writing style make BIRDSONG a memorable experience.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, February 15, 1996, p. 990.

The Guardian. October 19, 1993, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, December 1, 1995, p. 1652.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 7, 1996, p. 4.

New Statesman and Society. VI, September 17, 1993, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 11, 1996, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXII, April 1, 1996, p. 97.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 11, 1996, p. 58.

The Spectator. CCLXXI, September 18, 1993, p. 39.

The Times Educational Supplement. November 5, 1993, p. 12.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 10, 1993, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 18, 1996, p. 3.

Birdsong (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The horrors of World War I and the resulting disillusionment meant more to the British than to any other nationality, yet there are few major British novels dealing with the Great War. The most lasting fiction about this experience has been created by Americans—Three Soldiers (1921) by John Dos Passos, The Enormous Room (1922) by e. e. cummings, Through the Wheat (1923) by Thomas Boyd, A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway, Paths of Glory (1935) by Humphrey Cobb—and a German—All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque—while the British are notable for the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves and such memoirs as Graves’s Good-bye to All That (1929). Sebastian Faulks remedies this gap with a graphic vision of World War I. Birdsong, however, is more than a war novel as Faulks blends such topics as sex, love, alienation, nature, and death into the fabric of his narrative.

Stephen Wraysford is just twenty when he visits Amiens in 1910 to study French textile manufacturing methods for his English employer. Staying with Azaire, owner of the local textile factory, Stephen is slowly drawn to Isabelle, his host’s haunting young wife. Their attraction soon develops into an affair, and they run away after confronting Azaire, who has neglected and abused his wife. Isabelle is uncertain whether she loves Stephen or is just sexually attracted to him. When she becomes pregnant, she leaves him and returns first to her family in Rouen and later, uncomfortably, to a forgiving Azaire, who merely wants to reestablish the facade of a happy family for the sake of his place in the community. (Stephen does not discover his daughter’s existence until after the war.)

Stephen continues his self-imposed exile in France, working at various jobs in several villages until the war begins. Quickly promoted to lieutenant, he develops a friendship with Michael Weir, an officer in charge of a group of “miners,” men who burrow beneath the trenches to try to detect enemy mines. Stephen’s experience of the war alternates with that of Jack Firebrace, one of Weir’s miners. Stephen catches Jack asleep on duty but declines to take any measures against him. Later, when Stephen is badly wounded and assumed to be dead and his body is tossed amid a pile of corpses, Jack rescues him. Jack is well acquainted with death, having seen several friends killed and been informed of the death of his young son back in England. At the very end of the war, Stephen and the severely wounded Jack find themselves trapped underground for several days before being rescued by German soldiers, including Levi, whose beloved brother has died in combat. Between battles, Stephen meets Isabelle’s older sister, Jeanne, and develops a friendship which intensifies after he finds Isabelle again and learns she is in love with Max, a German officer.

Another strand of Birdsong follows the more mundane travails in the 1970’s of Elizabeth Benson, Stephen’s granddaughter, who has been told little of her family’s past by her mother, Françoise. Managing director of a clothing company and nearing forty, Elizabeth is dissatisfied with her life. In love with the married Robert, she realizes he will never divorce his wife. Elizabeth tries to make some sense of her ennui by investigating Stephen’s life, including visiting the sites of battles in France and having a friend’s husband decipher her grandfather’s coded journal. Happy, regardless of Robert’s plans, to find herself pregnant, she learns that Jeanne is not her grandmother.

Faulks, a former journalist who has written three previous novels, depicts war as the most harrowing of human experiences. Stephen, in his self-pity, is foolish to think that this chaos will help him forget his misery. The war only brings a sharper sense of pain. Faulks might be criticized for overdoing the scenes of blood and dismemberment, but his excess is intentional to make these horrors as vivid as possible. Helping a wounded soldier reach the stretcher bearers, Stephen becomes drenched in blood and almost chokes on the butcher’s-shop smell. As the man is being carried away, the bearer is hit by shrapnel, and his blood splatters Stephen even more. A gruesomely burned soldier tries to scream at his pain but has lost his voice. Standing in a shell hole, Stephen feels something move beneath him: the face of a man whose...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)