Historical Context

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The Cold War Soon after World War II when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the ‘‘cold war’’ began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear, triggered by several circumstances: the emergence of the United States and the USSR as...

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The Cold War
Soon after World War II when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the ‘‘cold war’’ began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear, triggered by several circumstances: the emergence of the United States and the USSR as superpowers, each country's ability to use the atomic bomb, and the conflict between communist expansion and the determination to keep it in check. Each side amassed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could not only annihilate each country, but the world. Both sides declared the other the enemy and redoubled their commitment to fight for their own ideology and political and economic dominance.

As China fell to communism in 1949 and Russia crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the United States appointed itself as a sort of world police, and the Cold War accelerated. In 1950, the United States resolved to help South Korea repel communist forces in North Korea. By 1953, 33,629 American soldiers had been killed in the Korean war.

The Cold War caused anxiety among Europeans and Americans fearing annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism. Citizens were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow their governments and brainwash their citizens. The fear that communism would spread to the United States led to suspicion and paranoia. Many suspected communists or communist sympathizers saw their lives ruined.

This ‘‘Red Scare’’ intensified with the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss (1950) and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) for passing defense secrets to the Russians. Soon, the country would be engaged in a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical behavior during the Committee sessions.) By the time of McCarthy's death in 1957, almost six million Americans had been investigated by government agencies because of their suspected communist sympathies, yet only a few had been indicted.

In response to the cold war threat, Americans and Europeans built bomb shelters and conducted air raid drills, which frightened school children and heightened the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust.

Horror Story
The horror story has been an important genre in British and American literature for the last two hundred years and provides a notable link to the gothic novel. Subjects popular with horror stories include murder, suicide, torture, and madness. The stories can involve ghosts, vampires, and demons and the practices of exorcism, witchcraft, and voodoo.

The thrust of the horror story involves testing the central characters' courage and endurance as they experience physical as well as psychological danger. The terror that fills them can result from emotional chaos and push them to the edge of sanity and barbarism. These stories reflect the attempt to understand deeply rooted and primitive urges and fears as they are linked to concepts of death, punishment, and evil.

Elements of the horrific occur in classical literature as far back as Virgil's Aeneid and Lucan's Pharsalia through the Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, to the Gothic novel and short story in the nineteenth century. Early stories in this genre focused on the terrors of eternal damnation as outlined by various religious doctrines and on the secular ‘‘hell’’ of madhouses and prisons. Twentieth-century horror stories examined punishment as well as the dark recesses of the mind. Notable authors in this genre include E. T. A. Hoffman (‘‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’’ and ‘‘Ignaz Denner’’) Edgar Allan Poe (‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) Henry James (‘‘The Turn of the Screw’’), Ambrose Bierce (‘‘The Man and the Snake’’ and ‘‘A Watcher by the Dead’’), and contemporary writer Stephen King.

Literary Style

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Setting
Du Maurier uses the setting to reinforce a sense of menace. Her descriptions of the weather and the elements suggest that these forces are working in tandem with the birds. Nat notes the abrupt change in the weather, which he considers ‘‘unnatural’’ and ‘‘queer’’ the night before the first attack. He exclaims that ‘‘never had he known such cold’’ as the wind seems to ‘‘cut him to the bone’’ much like the birds plan to do.

The sea and the wind appear to be empathetic to the birds, almost as though they are participants in the attacks. Nat notes ‘‘there was some law the birds obeyed, and it was all to do with the east wind and the tide.’’ The gulls ‘‘ride the seas’’ before they come into land, and their attacks are timed by the tides. After the birds dive-bomb the Hocken's house, the wind sweeps away their broken carcasses.

Tone
The unrelenting threat of the birds creates a continual atmosphere of terror in the story. The tone is set quickly during the first night of attacks when the birds break into the children's room. The incident fills Nat with fear not only for his own survival, but, more importantly to him, the survival of his family. The level of terror rises as each avenue of assistance is cut off. Initially, the family is sure that they can receive help from their neighbors and from the government. Yet after the radio goes dead and they hear planes crashing in the distance, they gradually become aware that they are on their own, a realization that is reinforced when they find the dead bodies of their neighbors. The atmosphere of terror reaches its most intense point at the end of the story when the family huddles together in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of the birds splintering the wooden barricades, turning on the wireless to hear only silence, and recognizing that they are completely alone.

Literary Techniques

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Obviously, du Maurier’s story of supernatural events and almost unbearable suspense relies most heavily on its author's great talent for creating and maintaining tension. She very carefully constructs every portion of the story to maintain a constant feeling of foreboding in her reader. The story opens with an eerie indication that the world is about to be thrown into disarray, that chaos is about to be unleashed: ‘‘On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.’’ Du Maurier taps into her readers’ primal sense of the weather as a harbinger of good and bad tidings. The sudden cooling of the earth prompts the reader’s instinctive fear of the cold and the dark. By situating a seemingly innocuous image of the coming winter in her story’s first sentence, du Maurier sets the tone with an appeal to her reader’s deepest feelings.

The tension created by this first phrase never slackens. Throughout the story’s thirty-eight pages the reader remains anxious about what might happen to Nat and his family. One way readers are kept thus on edge involves du Maurier’s tendency to deny both her characters and her readers a clear view of the horror massing against them. Holed up in their small cottage, Nat’s family cannot see the attacking birds, but the sounds they make indicate that danger lurks just beyond their sight. The sounds are foreboding to say the least: ‘‘Now and again came a thud, a crash, as some bird dived and fell.’’ Nat and his family know they are in danger, but, since they cannot see the birds, they cannot guess the nature or extent of the threat. The suspense created by sound becomes more powerful when the birds of prey make an appearance at the cottage. Though he never sees the hawks and vultures that scratch at the window, Nat is sure that the crisis has become more intense when he hears the sound of talons ripping at his fortifications.

Du Maurier constantly ups the ante in other respects. The story builds in a steady crescendo. The massing of gulls at sea appears first as a curiosity. Soon, however, the mood becomes more ominous as a single bird swoops and strikes at Nat. Opening a window in the night, Nat felt that ‘‘something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing at the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings and it was gone, over the roof, beyond the cottage.’’ The story would contain much less emotional impact if the first bird attack produced a fatality. The intensity of attacks slowly builds until Nat knows he and his family are in real danger. Once holed up in their cottage, the intensity of the attack continues to build as the size of the birds’ increases. The story is an excellent example of the power of du Maurier's technique of introducing, then steadily increasing, tension.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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‘‘The Birds’’ is a disturbing story of suspense that never provides its readers with a resolution. Generic suspense tales bring tidy conclusions to their events. Du Maurier, however, frustrates her readers by failing to answer two important questions: Why do the birds attack? Will Nat and his family survive? Though at first frustrating, this lack of resolution makes the story great. Perhaps it is best to consider du Maurier's unresolved suspense liberating rather than frustrating. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the events. Thus, du Maurier allows for a degree of imagination most writers deny to their readers. Rather than simply imagining the scene, du Maurier's reader can imagine the end.

Du Maurier's story also gives important insights into the psychological dynamics of stress. Isolated and afraid, Nat and his family undergo a wide range of emotions while listening to the thud of birds on their walls and windows. Though tied to a fantastic event, du Maurier's psychological insights could apply in nearly any tense situation. Readers and writers alike might apply the coping mechanisms of du Maurier's characters to characters in other traumatic situations, from war to natural disaster.

1. Perhaps the easiest question to ask but most difficult to answer is, simply, Why do the birds attack?

2. Why does Nat make more efficient preparations for the birds’ attack than his neighbors? What aspects of his character make him a more cautious man?

3. What chances do you think Nat and his family have for survival? Does the story itself give you any indication of whether they will live or succumb to the birds’ attack?

4. The story often makes reference to war. Nat remembers the war; at one point the British government calls out warplanes in an effort to stop the birds. What parallels might one draw between war and the events related in du Maurier's story?

5. Compare and contrast du Maurier's story with Alfred Hitchcock's film version. Why does Hitchcock take such enormous liberties with du Maurier's tightly controlled story? Are du Maurier's descriptions or Hitchcock's special effects more powerful?

6. Why is Nat's wife unwilling to remain behind when he leaves for supplies in the story's final pages? Why might she willingly place herself and her children in danger rather than stay in the relative safety of the cottage?

Social Concerns

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Since du Maurier's short story ‘‘The Birds’’ never fully resolves itself and since it contains no explanation for the birds’ attack on people, one must rely on individual interpretations of the story’s action to find du Maurier’s social concerns. The author merely suggests that social concerns are at the heart of the bizarre, supernatural events related in ‘‘The Birds.’’ These concerns include a lack of respect for nature, a self-destructive impulse, and a deep-seated suspicion peculiar to the Cold War.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the uncanny events related in ‘‘The Birds’’ involves the notion of revenge. Humans have slaughtered birds for thousands of years; could their attack simply constitute a turning of the tables? One must read between the lines to find support for this explanation in the text, but it is there. For example, the story takes place on a coastal farm. Students must keep in mind that authors who write in a medium as tight and closely controlled as a short story rarely leave anything to chance; the most minute detail often carries a great deal of significance. The farm represents mankind’s most exacting control over nature. Fields, plants, and animals are carefully organized and the food they provide systematically collected. Farming, though essential to human survival, signifies mastery over rather than cohabitation with the natural order. Since du Maurier starts the birds’ attack on the site of such human dominance, the reader might infer that mankind’s control over nature causes the author some degree of anxiety. Yes, we are a dominant species capable of keeping the natural world under our collective thumb. But is this a true dominance, or merely an illusion? ‘‘The Birds’’ functions in part as a warning against the hubris inherent in assumptions of mankind’s dominance over nature. Should nature turn against us, we human would surely be on the losing side.

Even without nature turning against mankind, the species is to some degree doomed by its own penchant for self-destruction. Again, du Maurier’s plot appears secondary to the truths of human nature revealed under extraordinary circumstances. The anxiety and fear prompted by the birds’ attack draws too many parallels to war for a merely coincidental connection. When the crisis first strikes, the first impulse of Nat’s wife is to have the authorities call out the army: ‘‘‘what they ought to do,’ she said, ‘is to call the army out and shoot the birds. That would soon scare them off.’’’ Clearly, this suggestion has no rational basis; no army could put down an attack by billions of birds. That, however, is exactly du Maurier’s point. Warfare never works as a rational explanation for the resolution of conflict. To instigate the slaughter of thousands of countrymen and foreigners is never a rational thing to do. The solution appears no less absurd when proposed for the resolution of a conflict between birds and humans.

Not only the suggestions for dealing with the birds seem absurd, however. Throughout the story, individuals attempt to rationalize the birds’ behavior by linking it to the Soviet Union. In this way du Maurier introduces another social concern: the paranoia that struck the western world during the years of the Cold War. Beginning after World War II and continuing until at least the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the activities of the Soviet Bloc remained largely unknown to the public citizens of Western Europe and the United States. That their actions were unseen does not mean people did not imagine or guess at what they were doing. Because both the Soviet Union and its western counterpart, the United States, amassed nuclear weapons, people constantly feared political tensions would explode into a war that would bring about an end to humankind. Not surprisingly, this situation inspired a good deal of paranoia. In the United States this paranoia manifested itself in the persecution of well-placed individuals suspected of having ties to the communist party. The so-called McCarthy witch hunts (led by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy) destroyed dozens of careers and reputations. The fears which fueled the trials were, of course, unfounded.

Implicitly, du Maurier critiques this mood of paranoia by having a few of her characters blame the Soviet government for the birds’ bizarre behavior. Early in the story, before the birds’ behavior turns deadly, Nat has a conversation about the birds with a local farmer:

‘‘Well, what do you make of it? They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.’’

‘‘How could they do that?’’ asked Nat.

‘‘Don’t ask me. You know how stories get around.’’

Stories simply get around, inspired by the public’s irrational fear of the Soviet Union’s power to destroy the western way of life. When faced with an unexplainable situation, the Soviet Bloc always made a convenient scapegoat during the Cold War.

Du Maurier criticizes more than the irrational fear of the Soviet Union, however. Set in Great Britain, ‘‘The Birds’’ gives du Maurier an opportunity to descry England’s unreasonable reliance on American military strength. After her country’s own efforts have apparently failed, Nat’s wife says in desperation: ‘‘‘Won’t America do something ... they’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?’’’ This confidence in America’s ability to extricate them from a crisis clearly caused by some supernatural force appears no less misguided than the assertion that Soviet scheming lies behind the crisis. Unfortunately for the characters in ‘‘The Birds,’’ there are some forces beyond the control of the superpowers.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Auerbach, Nina. ‘‘Daphne du Maurier,’’ in British Writers. Scribner's, 1996, pp. 133-49.

———. Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Barkham, John. ‘‘The Macabre and the Unexpected,’’ in New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1953, p. 5.

Berkman, Sylvia. ‘‘A Skilled Hand Weaves a Net of Horror,’’ in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 15, 1953, p. 4.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990, pp. 17, 126-27.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. Doubleday, 1993, p. 184.

Kelly, Richard. ‘‘Daphne du Maurier: Chapter 6: The World of the Macabre: The Short Stories,’’ in Twayne's English Authors Series Online. G. K. Hall, 1999.

———. ‘‘du Maurier, Daphne,’’ in Reference Guide to English Literature, Vol. 1, Introductions, Writers A—G, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick. St. James Press, 1991, pp. 515-16.

———. ‘‘du Maurier, Daphne,’’ in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3d ed., edited by Aruna Vasudevan. St. James Press, 1994, pp. 201-02.

LeMasters, Carol. ‘‘Roles of a Lifetime,’’ in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. 7. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 48.

Lovecraft, H. P. ‘‘The Appeal of the Unknown,’’ in Horror. Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 29.

Paglia, Camille. The Birds: BFI Film Classics. British Film Institute, 1998.

Templeton, Wayne. ‘‘Daphne du Maurier,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 191: British Novelists Between the Wars. Gale, 1998, pp. 85-94.

Williams, Anne. ‘‘Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination,’’ in The Horror, The Horror: Recent Studies in Gothic Fiction, Vol. 46, No. 3. John Hopkins University Press, 2000, p. 790.

Wisker, Gina. ‘‘Don't Look Now,’’ in Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 8. University of Hull, 1999, pp. 19, 21-22.

Further Reading
Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. Doubleday, 1993. Forster's biography renewed critical interest in du Maurier and offered insight into how her relationships with the women and men in her life were reflected in her works.

Harris, June. ‘‘du Maurier, Daphne,’’ in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote. St. James Press, 1997, pp. 127-29. This overview offers a brief but comprehensive look at du Maurier's major themes and style.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination. St. Martin's Press, 1998. This thoughtful critique places du Maurier's fiction in the gothic tradition.

Bibliography

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Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Kelly, Richard Michael. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Taylor, Helen, ed. The Daphne du Maurier Companion. London: Virago, 2007.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1950s: Fear of a Russian attack with nuclear bombs prompts Americans and Europeans to build air raid shelters and conduct emergency drills.

    Today: With the overthrow of communism in the USSR, the Cold War has ended, yet the same level of fear exists in America, generated by the threat of terrorism.

  • 1950s: Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy conducts hearings from 1950 to 1954 intended to detect communist penetration of American government and academia; for his recklessness, he is censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954.

    Today: Racial profiling is being considered as a tool to help combat the threat of terrorism.

  • 1950s: America sends troops to South Korea to help the government wage a war against communist North Korea.

    Today: America is engaged in a war against terrorism. In 2002, that war centers on Afghanistan as U.S. troops, aided by the British, overthrow the Taliban.

Literary Precedents

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Du Maurier’s clearest American predecessor is poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe. Like du Maurier, his stories narrate supernatural events that remain largely unexplained. ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher’’ (1840), for example, relates events surrounding the accidental burial of a young woman, her re-emergence, and the destruction of the house in which all the events occur. Though this narrative sequence of events seems mysterious and remains largely unexplained, these attributes of the story are secondary to Poe’s primary focus, the atmosphere created within the story and the psychological reactions the events provoke in the characters.

Poe was the first literary critic to theorize the short story at great length. He asserted that a great short story must do two things: first, it must remain short enough to read in a single sitting; second, it must create a single mood. In ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’’ the mood created is one of foreboding and unfocused dread. Du Maurier creates a similarly unified mood in ‘‘The Birds.’’ Like Poe’s tales, the plot remains somewhat secondary to atmospheric and psychological considerations.

In its reliance on animals as a vehicle for social and psychological commentary, ‘‘The Birds’’ recalls George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945). This classic text tells the story of a group of farm animals who organize against the farmers who oppress them and create their own Utopian society. This society eventually devolves into a fascist regime with a pig named Napoleon at its head. Though stylistically similar, thematically the stories are quite different, du Maurier implies that constant suspicion of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union is irrational. Orwell, on the other hand, argues that all socialist societies necessarily disintegrate into oppressive, tyrannical, and manipulative communities.

Adaptations

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Alfred Hitchcock adapted ‘‘The Birds’’ to film in 1963. The film worked from a screenplay written by Evan Hunter that made substantial departures from du Maurier's text. Hunter wove a love story into du Maurier’s relatively simple tale of suspense. Additionally, Hitchcock’s film transports the story from its setting on the coast of England to a small resort town in northern California.

The movie version of ‘‘The Birds’’ opens in San Francisco where Melanie Daniels, played by ‘‘Tippi’’ Hedren, meets the dashing Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). What ensues is a somewhat convoluted love story involving Mitch and Melanie as well as Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) and his former lover, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette). Melanie follows Mitch to his home in Bodega Bay, a small resort town north of the city. There the bird attacks ensue and Melanie is forced to hole up in Mitch’s home. Eventually, the group heads out of town during a lull in the birds’ attack.

The twists and turns of this plot make for more compelling cinema, but they also detract from du Maurier’s tight, suspenseful production. Unlike du Maurier’s depiction of worldwide apocalypse, Hitchcock’s film suggests that the bird attack is an isolated incident. Furthermore, the film ends on a much more hopeful note for the main characters. Though battered, they seem, as the scene fades for the last time, to be headed for safety. Du Maurier’s story ends on a more ambiguous note. Nat has stored his home with provisions and blocked every entryway, but larger birds seem to come every night, threatening even his most stalwart preventative measures.

Du Maurier hated Hitchcock’s adaptation of her story. ‘‘The Birds’’ remained one of her favorite stories until her death. Its power, she thought, lay in its simplicity, its reliance on atmosphere and tension rather than plot. She never understood why Hitchcock took such liberties with her ideas. Clearly, her complaints were justified. Hitchcock’s movie is a masterpiece in its own right; nevertheless, it is a perversion of du Maurier’s masterpiece.

What Hitchcock’s film does provide, however, is a powerful series of visual images. Though the special effects employed in the film seem antiquated in today’s era of computer generated graphics, they did represent cutting edge technology when first presented to the public. Even du Maurier’s vivid descriptions fail to capture the eeriness of seeing a field or playground heavily laden with birds as well as Hitchcock’s haunting visuals.

Media Adaptations

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  • Alfred Hitchcock directed and produced The Birds for Universal Pictures in 1963. Evan Hunter wrote the screenplay based on du Maurier's story. The film stars Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, and Jessica Tandy.
  • The television film The Birds II: Land's End aired in 1994 as a sequel to The Birds.
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