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...
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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, their resignation to their fate.
Survival At its heart, ‘‘The Birds’’ is a story of survival. The plot and the thematic foci begin and end with Nat Hocken's struggle to survive the bird attacks. Du Maurier frames the story with these attacks, opening with a sole bird pecking at Nat's bedroom window and ending with a swarm bombarding the Hocken's home, seemingly desperate to get to the family huddling inside. Thus, Nat's main activity during the duration of the story is to protect himself and his family against this dangerous onslaught.
The cool-headed Nat works carefully and methodically to insure his family's survival. After the first attack, he boards up the windows, noting that they are the birds' easiest point of entry. He then reinforces the doors and blocks the chimney. Even during the frightening attacks, Nat continually focuses on survival, determining what he must do when the assault subsides. During each break, he summons his courage and ventures out into the open with little protection in order to repair the breaks in the barricades he has constructed or to gather food and fuel in preparation for the next attack.
Parenting Nat's determination to protect his children supersedes his own instinct for self-preservation. At the beginning of the story, his daughter's scream causes him to rush into his children's room to find that a swarm of gulls have broken in. His only concern is for the safety of his offspring, and he immediately pushes them out of the room before he begins to fight off the birds. The next day when he observes a mass of gulls moving inland, he rushes to his daughter's bus stop, determined to protect her. After he deposits her safely in his neighbor's car, he returns home on foot. Just as he approaches his door, he again is viciously attacked by another onslaught of birds.
Nat also attends to his children's emotional needs. Throughout the story, he tries to calm their fears by diverting their attention from their winged assailants. He directs them to the daily rituals of family life and encourages his wife to prepare their favorite treats. When the birds begin to break into the upstairs bedrooms, he barricades his family downstairs, enticing them with the chance to have an exciting camp out in the kitchen.
Gender Roles During the family's struggle to survive, Nat and his wife fall into stereotypical gender roles, which some scholars, most notably Margaret Forster in her acclaimed biography of du Maurier, attribute to the author's ambiguous sexuality. Nat is the one who takes charge of the protection of the family while his wife, who is never given a name by du Maurier, most often cowers in the background with her children. Mrs. Hocken does tend to the children by dressing Johnny's wound and preparing their meals, but she often seems as terror-stricken as they are. When Nat decides to leave the house to look for food and fuel after an attack has subsided, his wife is so filled with terror that she refuses to stay behind with the children. The portrait of her subservience and weakness is reinforced when Nat has to order her to stay back when he explores the Trigg's farmhouse. At first, she tries to follow, but Nat's firmness causes her to retreat back to her children.