Birdsong

by

Sebastian Faulks

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Birdsong: Part Seven: England 1979 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elizabeth is nervous to tell her mother she is pregnant. She has already told Erich and Irene, and they both reacted badly. Erich took her pregnancy personally on behalf of his son, whom she would clearly not be marrying. Even Irene acts angrily.
Like countless others, Elizabeth assumes that her mother will be disappointed that she is having a child out of wedlock.
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When asked who the father is, Elizabeth refuses to tell and says it’s “a secret.” She has finished reading her grandfather’s journals and has a clearer sense of what the war was like. She is confused over one entry, though. Stephen wrote about being trapped with a man named Jack who has a son called John, and in the exchange he writes, “I said I would have his.” Elizabeth is perplexed.
Elizabeth’s secrecy about her baby’s father mirrors Isabelle’s own secrecy regarding Françoise. Her grandmother’s story helps her to better understand her own circumstances.
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Elizabeth reads about her grandmother, Jeanne, in the journals, and notes that her grandfather refers to her as “kind” and “gentle.” There is not passion in his words.
This passage is proof of Stephen’s undying love for Isabelle. While he undoubtedly loved Jeanne, he loved her in a different way.
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Thinking about her grandmother, Elizabeth becomes confused again. Jeanne was born in 1878, and while she’s not exactly sure when Françoise was born, with her own birth being in 1940, she can’t seem to make the dates add up. Elizabeth can’t find an answer and quickly abandons her train of thought.
Elizabeth senses that she doesn’t quite know the whole story yet, and this makes it all the more powerful when she does discover her full history and truth.
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On Saturday, Elizabeth meets her mother for dinner, and surprisingly, Françoise is pleased about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. She tells her mother that she was worried she would be angry. After all, she’s not married. Françoise doesn’t ask about the baby’s father and Elizabeth doesn’t tell her. “Does it matter?” Françoise asks. “I don’t think it does,” answers Elizabeth.
The fact that Elizabeth doesn’t think the identity of her baby’s father matters is further proof of her independence and self-reliance. Popular expectations of women in society assume that Elizabeth can’t do this alone, but she feels otherwise.
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Françoise tells Elizabeth that her own mother was not married to her father. She then tells her that Jeanne is not her real grandmother. She has wanted to tell her over the years, but didn’t see the need. She tells Elizabeth that Jeanne, the woman she knew as her grandmother, didn’t marry her father until 1919, when Françoise was already seven years old.
Elizabeth’s life again mirrors Isabelle’s, and this is yet another connection to her past. In this passage, Faulks also continues his argument for the power of love—Françoise didn’t see the need to tell Elizabeth the truth because their love transcends the biology of birth.
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Elizabeth isn’t surprised; she knew that the dates didn’t add up. Françoise asks if there is a woman named Isabelle in the journals. Yes, says Elizabeth, “an old girlfriend.” Françoise tells her that Isabelle, Jeanne’s younger sister, was her real mother. She had died right after the war in the flu epidemic, and Françoise was sent to live with Jeanne and Stephen—that is the first he learned of his child.
Elizabeth doesn’t know the whole story of her history until she talks to her mother. Her grandfather’s journals, even the twenty she has yet to decode, will only take her so far. Elizabeth can’t expect to gather her entire history from one place or source.
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Françoise asks Elizabeth if she is angry, and while she says it may take some “time to digest it,” it doesn’t bother her. She asks her mother about Stephen. Françoise tells her that he didn’t speak for two years after the war, and even after that, he was quiet. “He never really recovered,” she says. He died at forty-eight, just a couple of years before Elizabeth’s birth.
Society expects Elizabeth to be angry with her mother, but she doesn’t let the truth of her biological history affect her love for her family. Stephen survived the war, but was clearly left deeply scarred by his experiences.
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Elizabeth visits the prenatal clinic and learns that first labors take hours. She can feel the child growing and moving inside her, and Robert manages to come and stay with her the week before her due date. He rents them a cottage near Dorset so that Elizabeth can relax before giving birth.
Elizabeth’s false belief that her birth will take hours foreshadows her emergency birth at the cottage. Robert’s effort to be near Elizabeth and make her comfortable is further proof of his love for her.
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Robert is worried that she will go into labor, but Elizabeth calms his fears. First babies are almost never early, she says, and they still have eight days. As Robert runs out to the market, Elizabeth begins to feel pains. She waits for the cramping to pass, and she doesn’t tell Robert.
Just like Isabelle, Elizabeth keeps the physical aspects of her pregnancy from Robert. To the two women, these moments should be kept private, even “from the men who caused them.” This process uniquely belongs to the women.
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The pain continues, and Robert insists on calling the doctor. Elizabeth protests, but the pain continues to worsen. Robert sees blood pouring from between her legs and they both know she is in labor. Robert holds her and encourages her to push when she feels it is right. He can see the head now, followed by the shoulders. Elizabeth screams one last time and pushes the baby out into Robert’s hands.
Notably, Robert does not try to command the situation or tell Elizabeth what to do, and in this way he is completely different from most of the other male characters in the novel. This behavior inspires some optimism for the future.
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The doctor arrives just in time to cut the cord, and a baby boy is placed in Elizabeth’s arms. She tells Robert that she wants to name him John, “a promise made by her grandfather.”
When Elizabeth names of her son John, Faulks implies that the past is alive in the present, as she fulfills a promise made decades before. John himself then represents the hope of a better future.
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Robert walks out into the sunshine. He can feel his spirit in his body, and he bends over to pick up a chestnut. He has waited for this day since he was a boy himself, and now there is John, “his boy, another chance.” Robert throws the chestnut into the air in his “great happiness,” and a crow is disturbed in a nearby tree. The bird flies out of the tree, “its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.”
This final birdsong symbolizes optimism; however, this hopefulness is somewhat guarded. Crows also often symbolize death and bad luck, and this harkens back to the unspeakable violence that humankind is capable of. Ultimately, Faulks argues that future generations must remember all that the war entails—even the tragedy.
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