Birdsong

by

Sebastian Faulks

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Birdsong: Part Five: England 1978-79 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
 It has been two months since Elizabeth gave the journal to Bob, and little progress has been made. She managed to find out which regiment her grandfather had been in but little else. She decides to drive to Buckinghamshire, where army headquarters are located.
This passage underscores the soldiers’ and society’s broader attempts to bury the painful stories of the past. Elizabeth must go to great lengths to learn about this part of history.
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At army headquarters, Elizabeth is “met with suspicion.” Most of the files are confidential and she has difficulty accessing them. An officer agrees to let Elizabeth see the regimental history, and she skims the documents for names, coming across a Colonel Gray.
The officer’s “suspicions” and Elizabeth’s difficulty accessing historical documents again shows how society has purposefully obscured this painful history.
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Later that night, Elizabeth calls Bob and he suggests cross-referencing Gray’s name in the Who’s Who? If the Colonel was important or awarded medals, he is sure to be in the book, Bob says. After consulting the book, Elizabeth finds a number for a man in Lanarkshire. If he is still alive, he will be eighty-eight years old.
The Who’s Who is a British publication which identifies influential people in English society. Just as the title suggests, the publication tells Elizabeth only that Colonel Gray is an influential man, and like most historical records, it does not tell her why.
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Elizabeth’s thoughts are interrupted by the telephone. It is Stuart and he has called for a chat. Distracted, Elizabeth rushes him off the line, but before she does, she invites him to dinner on Saturday night.
Elizabeth does not really want to have dinner with Stuart; she only invites him to placate him and get him off the phone. Stuart represents the modern patriarchy, and Elizabeth is not interested.
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After she hangs up the phone, Elizabeth immediately picks it up again and dials the number in Scotland. She is struck with doubt and quickly hangs up, but after deciding it won’t cause any harm, she dials again.
Elizabeth’s assumption that her questions won’t cause any harm is rather selfish. Of course, she could inadvertently open wounds calloused by time, and this passage draws attention to this.
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When Gray comes on the line, he sounds annoyed. Elizabeth explains herself and her reason for calling, and he confirms that he remembers Captain Wraysford. Gray is reluctant to talk, but he tells Elizabeth that Stephen was a tall, superstitious man with dark hair. He was an orphan and quite “a strange man,” he says. Gray remembers his “unbelievable nerve,” and claims that “something worried him.”
Gray is annoyed because, like Stephen, he has no desire to talk about the war. Surprisingly, this is still the most information Elizabeth has managed to obtain about her grandfather.
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Elizabeth asks Gray if Captain Wraysford was kind, or funny, and if he got along well with the other men. Gray remembers that Wraysford never wanted to leave the front, and other than one man he befriended, he was a complete loner. She asks if he was a good soldier. Gray replies, “He was a terrific fighter, but that’s not quite the same thing.”
Gray’s description of Stephen as a terrific fighter but not necessarily a good soldier is very telling. Even after all this time, Gray still believes that love is the foundation of a good soldier—something Stephen certainly struggled with.
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Gray’s wife interrupts Elizabeth’s questions and insists that her husband rest. Elizabeth says she understands and begins to say goodbye, but Gray’s wife interrupts again: “There’s a man my husband used to write to. His name was Brennan. He was in a Star and Garter veterans’ home in Southend.”
Gray and Brennan represent the many forgotten war heroes of World War I. So much is owed to their sacrifice, yet they both fall into relative obscurity. In this way, Faulks continues to argue for the increased remembrance of war and those who endure it.
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Elizabeth telephones the matron of the veterans’ home and asks about Brennan. The woman tells Elizabeth that Brennan is a resident there but is “barely worth visiting.” Elizabeth thanks her and promptly drives to the home.
Again, this emphasizes Brennan’s obscurity and mistreatment as a returning soldier.
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When Elizabeth arrives at the home, the matron tells her that Brennan has lived there for the last sixty years. He was badly injured during the last battle of the war—leading to an amputated leg—and he suffers from shellshock. He has no living family; his last visitor was his sister in 1949, and she died shortly after. The matron says that Brennan is “soft in the head.”
Once again, it is shameful the way Brennan has been treated after his sacrifice. As a veteran suffering from shellshock, Brennan is not “soft in the head”—he is traumatized. In this vein, Faulks argues that all returning soldiers should be respected.
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As Elizabeth approaches Brennan, he is seated in a wheelchair “like a bird on its perch.” He glasses are kept together by tape. Elizabeth introduces herself, and sitting next to him, asks him about Captain Wraysford. “Such fireworks. We was all there, the whole street,” he says.
Faulks’s description of Brennan as “like a bird on its perch” is yet another reference to nature; however, this language also signifies the life that is still tragically trapped in Brennan’s broken body.
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Brennan is a world away, and Elizabeth sits with him quietly sipping tea. She decides to ask once more. “Captain Wraysford?” Suddenly, his voice “pipes up” as he says, “We all thought he was mad, that one. And the sapper with him. My mate Douglas, he was my mucker, he said, ‘That man’s strange.’ But he held him when he died. They was all mad.” Elizabeth sits with Brennan a bit longer and leaves.
Brennan is considered mad in his shell-shocked state; however, his short story suggests that the real insanity is the war itself. Brennan “pipes up” when Elizabeth asks about Stephen because he remembers him fondly. This suggests that Stephen’s men truly did love and respect him after all.
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The following day, Robert calls Elizabeth and tells her that he will unexpectedly be at his flat in London that night—and his family will be gone. “Of course I’m free,” she says. They make plans to meet at eight. 
This passage again reflects Elizabeth’s life of waiting because of the complicated nature of her relationship with a married man.
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That night, Robert tries to remove the obvious signs of his family from the apartment; however, since they live there, not much can be done. He feels guilty—he always does—but his relationship with Elizabeth isn’t just some “lighthearted sideshow.” He deeply loves her, and, unfortunately, he “married the wrong woman.”
Robert also disrupts popular gender stereotypes. Men often have extramarital affairs that are simply “lighthearted sideshows,” but Robert’s love for Elizabeth and his constant concern for his children makes him appear more emotional and sensitive.
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Elizabeth and Robert share a quiet and comfortable dinner. They spend a “night of enclosed harmony without discussing the difficult decisions that awaited them.” In the morning, Elizabeth leaves “with a light step.”
This quiet and comfortable night is evidence of Elizabeth and Robert’s love. Their relationship is complicated, yet when they are together, this is easy to forget.
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On Saturday, Françoise calls and tells Elizabeth that she has found twenty more notebooks in the attic. Elizabeth excitedly tells her mother that she has “nothing to do this evening,” and promptly runs to get them.
The additional notebooks that Françoise finds represent the amount of information that has been suppressed concerning the war. Elizabeth has only just begun to uncover her history—it will take much more work.
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Back at home, Elizabeth lights a fire, starts a bath, and opens the first journal. Suddenly, the intercom sounds. It is Stuart. She has forgotten that she invited him to dinner.
Elizabeth easily forgets about Stuart, showing her ultimate indifference to him.
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Elizabeth opens the door and Stuart hands her a bottle of wine. She tells him she is running late and is in the tub. She quickly dresses and, telling him she forgot the pasta earlier at the market, Elizabeth runs out the door to pick something up for dinner.
Even though Elizabeth doesn’t really care for Stuart, she still doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.
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In the doorway, Stuart picks up an old belt buckle engraved with Gott mit uns, or as Stuart translates, “God with us.” Elizabeth doesn’t want to tell Stuart about the notebooks. “Just something I got in a junk shop,” she says, leaving him in the doorway.
Stuart’s German skills have the effect of making him seem even more pretentious and self-important. Elizabeth clearly doesn’t feel close to him, as she doesn’t want to tell him about the notebooks.
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After dinner, Stuart puts on a record and asks Elizabeth to sit down. He tells her a story about a pretty girl who avoids getting married all her adult life until it is too late. And then, Stuart proposes to her.
This interaction further highlights Stuart’s self-importance. As a man, he presumes to know what is missing in Elizabeth’s life—and he believes that he is what is missing.
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Elizabeth is shocked. “I actually have a boyfriend,” she says. Stuart tells her that Robert will never leave his wife. He assumes that she is hesitant to marry him because they have not yet had sex. “Do you want a trial run?” he asks.
The way Stuart talks to Elizabeth is degrading.
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Elizabeth is mortified. As Stuart goes to leave, he turns to her and says, “I’ve planted the seed. You just do me the favour of watering it from time to time. Think about it.” Elizabeth says she will think about it.
Incredibly, Stuart still thinks that he has a chance with Elizabeth.
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Elizabeth is “in a condition of shock” for days after. The New Year comes, and she resolves to visit Brennan more. She takes him cake and whiskey, and just sits and drinks tea with him. Elizabeth asks him questions, but his answers are random and disconnected.
Through Elizabeth’s relationship with Brennan, Faulks argues for the improved treatment of war veterans. Elizabeth’s efforts are minimal, but she still manages to bring him some small measure of joy.
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Elizabeth realizes that she has not had her period since December 6, and today is January 21. She takes a pregnancy test, and not only is it positive, it is “bursting with life.”
Elizabeth’s pregnancy is itself symbolic of life and hope for the future.
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Elizabeth tries to call Robert, but he doesn’t answer. Soon, her phone rings and Bob tells her that he has cracked the code. “Greek letters, French language, and bit of private code,” he says. He has mailed the journal back to her—it should be there in the morning. Elizabeth thanks him and makes plans to drop off the twenty new journals the next weekend.
With twenty more journals, Bob and Elizabeth have their work cut out for them. This further highlights the level of historical suppression regarding World War I.
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In the morning, Elizabeth is finally able to read her grandfather’s journal. Bob has neatly translated it, and she easily reads over it. Stephen talks of his guilt for surviving when so many others have not, and he talks of “the anger and the blood.” She reads, “No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. […] When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.” He goes on, “We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.”
Stephen’s journals represent his own attempts to conceal his painful past, and society’s broader efforts to obscure the violent and painful history of the war. While the war is undoubtedly a source of pain for Stephen, Faulks argues that future generations must be aware of previous sacrifices, even if they are unlikely to understand them.
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