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The Birds Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Du Maurier clearly shows a stronger interest in psychological issues than social concerns in ‘‘The Birds.’’ Three major themes garner as much of du Maurier’s attention as the relatively simple plot. All these themes relate to the ways in which people deal with highly stressful situations.

The first of these themes is the hubris of mankind. When placed in an incomprehensible situation, du Maurier’s characters continue to use their experience to exert some measure of control over the situation around them. People, simply have too much pride, du Maurier suggests, to concede defeat or to admit that events such as the mass slaughter of people by birds are beyond their ken. Nat, for example, explains the birds’ behavior away with references to natural habits. When the first, solitary bird attacks Nat he can explain it naturally: ‘‘frightened, he supposed, and bewildered, the bird, seeking shelter, had stabbed at him in the darkness. Once more he settled himself to sleep.’’ Nat can sleep soundly after settling his mind with an explanation that seems reasonable. Birds act erratically when frightened, so the erratic behavior of this bird must be the result of fear.

Even when such rational explanations become absurd, du Maurier’s characters continue to make them. Apparently, people can delude themselves a great deal when faced with untenable circumstances. As mentioned above, some characters turn to the evil machinations of the Soviet Union as a social explanation for the supernatural phenomenon. Clearly, though, such explanations are indicative of nothing more or less than the absurd way in which people assert their capacity for understanding even the most inexplicable situations.

Once the characters give up on trying to explain the crisis in which they find themselves, they give over to the mood swings that accompany a highly stressful situation. Nat’s family is variously hysterical, meditative, and desperate in the face of the birds’ attack. Having endured the thuds of the birds on their roofs and windows for a day and a night, Nat’s children relieve their anxiety by laughing at the situation: ‘‘This was the way to face up to it. This was the spirit. If they could keep up like this, hang on like this until seven, when the first news bulletin came through, they would not have done too badly.’’

The morning light and the familiar sound of the news coming over the radio can replace the emotional relief provided by laughter. In fact, a variety of small comforts can, du Maurier asserts, lessen the anxiety caused by imminent danger. Nat understands this, so he puts his wife and children to small, more or less meaningless tasks in the hope that these chores will make them feel as if a degree of normalcy remains. Nat believes that this is as important for his wife as it is for his children: ‘‘It kept his wife occupied, undressing the children before the fire, seeing to the bedding, one thing and another, while he went round the cottage again, making sure that nothing had worked loose.’’ Domestic habit ameliorates the feeling of dread as much as hysterical laughter. Anything, it seems, that distracts du Maurier’s characters from the danger outside their cottage’s walls aid them in coping with their fear.

Eventually, though, a dangerous situation will break those who do everything in their power to endure the anxiety it causes. This happens in the final pages when, enjoying a temporary break in the birds’ attack, Nat prepares to leave in order to gather supplies. Having relied on his steady calm through the night of terror, his wife gives into despair: ‘‘‘Take us with you,’ she begged, ‘we can’t stay here alone. I’d rather die than stay here alone.’’’ Du Maurier's characters thus run the whole gamut of psychological states. They cope with small familiarities or laughter. After sustaining their tension for so long, however, du Maurier finally narrates the breaking of their spirit,...

(The entire section is 1,212 words.)