Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Birds Fall Down is massive in concept and cuts across many literary genres. As a political thriller, it builds up considerable tension and has a plethora, perhaps a surfeit, of ingenuity. As a historical novel, it vividly evokes the period atmosphere of the streets of Paris, of the railways, and of the small provincial town where the Count dies. The traditional Russian mourning rituals in the Paris apartment are described with a rich intensity of detail. As a Kafkaesque study of truth and illusion, it is shot through with ambiguities of perception. At a personal level, it can be read as the story of an innocent young woman’s reluctant involvement in the aggressive politics of a male-dominated world. It is about politics, religion, feminism, history, and revolution: Above all, it is an investigation into the nature of treachery.

The tragedy for both the Count and Chubinov is not so much that their respective causes have been betrayed but that each has suffered a supreme personal loss. The symmetrical contrivance of the main events, with the two protagonists, both from the same class but with directly opposing political convictions, being betrayed by—and grieving for—the same agent, enables the author to develop her thesis that treachery is a personal rather than a political matter, less dependent on the particular public cause involved than on the private makeup of the perpetrator. The subplot, Edward’s betrayal of Tania, echoes this theme.

The novel is deeply embedded in the Russian politics of the period, with emphasis on the inevitability of social change. The Count is presented as a magnificent anachronism, an upholder of values and traditions that have had their day. Tania, for whom all revolutionaries are self-deluded and self-destructive, foresees a brighter future for the poor of Russia through the enlightenment of the ruling class. Chubinov and his associates are posed as Hegelian romantics, idealists playing with revolution and with other people’s lives.