Discussion Topic

Symbolism and metaphor in Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds."


In Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds," the birds symbolize the unpredictability and uncontrollable force of nature. Metaphorically, they represent the underlying tensions and conflicts in society, showcasing how humanity's sense of control is fragile and can be easily disrupted by natural forces beyond its understanding.

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What is the metaphor in Daphne Du Maurier's short story The Birds?

Daphne Du Maurier's short story The Birds was a reaction to the fears faced by the British and others in the years following World War II, which saw England heavily bombed by Germany, and the emergence of a new threat of attack by the Soviet Union. Du Maurier's story, in short, is a parable. The author had survived the German bombing and rocket attacks and now, when the world should have experienced a period of peace, the specter of Russian bombers and missiles was seemingly growing. Stalin was still alive and in power in the Soviet Union when Du Maurier wrote The Birds, and the murderer of tens of millions of his own people and conqueror of Eastern Europe presented a particularly threatening presence. 

Whether Du Maurier was warning against the threat of the Soviet Union or satirizing it is uncertain, but the former is more likely the case given her personal experiences of war. Her narrative is almost "Churchillian" in its warning against complacency (Winston Churchill had warned against the rise of Nazi Germany to no avail and now the former prime minister and statesman, once more cast into the wilderness, was similarly warning against the Soviet threat). Read, for instance, the following passage from The Birds for evidence of such a conclusion:

"Various incidents were recounted, the suspected reason of cold and hunger stated again, and warnings to householders repeated. The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds. There would be parties tonight in London, like the ones they gave on election nights. People standing about, shouting and laughing, getting drunk. 'Come and watch the birds!'"

The story's protagonist, Nat Hocken, views the bizarre and threatening behavior of the birds far more seriously than many others in his native England. His is a lone voice amidst the jubilation he monitors from the more urban and urbane environs of London. That the story ends on a decidedly dismal note can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a warning against complacency in the face of a new threat, or as a warning against mankind's unquenchable thirst for new means of destruction (i.e., nuclear weapons, new to the world's arsenals). The Birds ends with Nat contemplating his imminent demise, and it is in this final scene that the author provides her most compelling evidence that her story was intended, after all, as a warning more against nuclear weapons than against a threat from afar:

"Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines."

That passage -- "instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines" -- certainly lends weight to those who interpret The Birds as a warning against nuclear weapons.

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What do the birds symbolize in "The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier?

In "The Birds," the birds symbolize the uninhibited and unbridled power of nature. This is shown most clearly in their violent and repeated attacks on humans. In one incident, the birds attack Nat Hocken's house in the middle of the night, and Nat is forced to fight them off using a blanket:

He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks.

What is most terrifying about these attacks is how sudden and unexpected they are. Moreover, the human population is completely incapable of fending off the birds. The BBC news broadcasts offer little in the way of practical advice, and the government appears to have no clear strategy. To exacerbate the problem, guns do not provide an effective defense against the birds, as we see through the tragic deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Trigg.

By employing this symbol, Du Maurier sends a very bleak reminder that nature can dominate humans (and their technology) very easily.

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In "The Birds" what do the birds symbolize in this story?

Many have argued over the years that the birds represent the power of nature and mankind's stubborn inability to recognize the power of nature.

Throughout the story, the characters are at the mercy not only of the birds, but also of the wind and sea. Everything seems to work in concert to attack this town. Of course, the characters try to control the situation for their own safety, but they are simply outnumbered and overpowered. 

Humans are at the top of the food chain, but that often goes to our heads and we fall into the belief that we can control nature. It is not usually until some natural disaster that we are reminded that we live at nature's will. One landslide, earthquake, wildfire, or in this case, bird swarm, can throw our entire world into chaos. This story reminds readers of mankind's hubris and suggests that even small and normally non-threatening things can become a threat when they act together.

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In "The Birds" what do the birds symbolize in this story?

I think that the birds represent the idea of a threatening presence that is larger than that of the human being.  These threats are the ones that threaten our basic existence and we, as human beings, are unable to stop what is there.  Nat cannot stop the birds.  In the end, the best he can do is to be mindful of their presence, not deny it, and then seek to protect his family at every waking moment.  In this light, the birds can be seen as those unavoidable forces that shadow and loom over our consciousness as human beings.  The presence of these forces seem to compel individuals to pay attention and be mindful of their external or objective world.  Interestingly enough, though, the response to this does not seem to be to further engage in the external world, but rather retreat to the internal.  In this light, the birds function as the catalyst for individuals to retreat to their internal domain in the face of overwhelming objective odds.  The Cold War historical context of the work helps to bring this out in even more force in sensing the importance and the function of the birds.

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What are some symbols in "The Birds" by Daphne Du Maurier?

In "The Birds," Du Maurier employs a number of symbols. Here are a few to consider:

  • The gun symbolises how man underestimates the power of nature. Mr Trigg thinks that shooting the birds will be fun, for example, and will solve the problem of the birds' attacks. But, as Nat predicted, guns are powerless against them. In fact, the birds continue their attacks unabated and they kill Mr Trigg. When Nat finds Mr Trigg's body, Du Maurier draws our attention to the gun lying by his side.
  • The silent radio represents man's helplessness in the face of nature. Early in the story, for example, the radio acts as a source of information and comfort to Nat and his family, by stating that they are not the only victims and by instructing them what to do. But once the programmes stop, it becomes clear that Nat's society is completely unable to cope with the birds' attacks. Nat and his family are, therefore, alone in their struggle to survive. The closing image of the story, in which Nat listens to the silent radio, is a poignant reminder of this.
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What did the birds symbolize in The Birds By Daphne du Maurier?

The birds are something which one day are normal and benign, the next malevolent and murderous.

I don't think they directly symbolize the USSR or Russians, although the story does take place during the cold war and is very much a part of that. Perhaps what they symbolize is the dark forces which exist in the world but aren't seen that can one day turn into war and violence. They are the symbols of a world which seems peaceful from the outside, like the cold war, but where violence could break out at any time.

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What are some symbolic phrases from "The Birds" by Daphne Du Maurier?

The opening of the story contains symbolism.  Du Maurier uses the opening of the story to indicate a theory of correspondence, a connection between the weather and impending dramatic elements in the story:

On December the third, the wind changed overnight, and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden-red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plow had turned it. 

The change in season is almost symbolic regarding the change that Nat and others will experience very soon.  The birds themselves occupy symbolic importance.  Naturally, they are predatory in the context of the story, but in her descriptions, Du Maurier uses them to indicate the challenges that human beings face:

...there are more birds about than usual; I’ve noticed it too. And daring, some of them, taking no notice of the tractor. One or two gulls came so close to my head this afternoon I thought they’d knock my cap off! As it was, I could scarcely see what I was doing when they were overhead and I had the sun in my eyes. I have a notion the weather will change. It will be a hard winter. That’s why the birds are restless.

The "restless" condition of the birds is symbolic of what is going to happen as the narrative develops.

Nat's initial defense of his children is also described in an interesting way.  Du Maurier describes flailing, trying to use anything to defend his children from the birds' attack:  "He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air."  The symbolism of a blanket, an object of nurturing and comfort, having to be used as a means of defense is significant.  The chaos that the bird end up causing is significant.  After the first attack, Nat goes to the kitchen, visibly shaken by what he has experienced in defending his children:  "The sight of the kitchen reassured him. The cups and saucers, neatly stacked upon the dresser, the table and chairs, his wife’s roll of knitting on her basket chair, the children’s toys in a corner cupboard."  This is symbolic because Du Maurier constructs the kitchen as a realm of safety and security, a domain in which all is well.  Such a construction is in stark contrast to what is to come.  In each of these situations, symbolism is used the heighten the tension between the human beings and the birds.  In doing so, Du Maurier uses objects like the kitchen, the blanket, and weather to enhance the increasingly helplessness that Nat and the humans face against the birds.

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