Birdsong

by

Sebastian Faulks

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Birdsong: Part Six: France 1918 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Stephen tries to write in his journal, but it is all a “nightmare.” He picks up a magazine, and when that fails to keep his attention, he walks out to the garden of the house he is billeted in. Stephen notes the sky and the pebbles under his feet. In the distance, he hears the constant and steady sound of gunfire “rumbling like a train through an embankment.”
Faulks’s use of the word “nightmare” reinforces the terrible nature of Stephen’s story and underscores his desire to keep it a secret.
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The next day, Stephen goes to see Colonel Gray at headquarters. Gray looks unaffected by the war, and he asks Stephen if he is having fun with his “wee maps and lists.” “We…exist,” Stephen says, reminding Gray that he never requested to be an office worker. Gray tells Stephen that he is going back to the front line. There will soon be an attack.
Stephen is miserable in his office job. He misses his men, showing his growing love for them. Stephen is slowly becoming the soldier that Gray believed he could be.
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Gray asks Stephen what he thinks will be put on the memorial when the war is over. Stephen says he doesn’t know, but perhaps a list of actions. “It’s a proud list,” Gray says. Stephen, however isn’t proud. He feels “no pride in the unspeakable names.”
This interaction underscores Stephen’s shame. Ironically, this future memorial is the same monument that Elizabeth visits in 1978. She doesn’t feel a sense of pride there either.
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As Stephen leaves headquarters, Gray tells him to think about the memorial. He tells him to think of the places they have fought, and the blood that was spilled. The names of those “stinking towns and foul bloody villages whose names will be turned into some bogus glory by fat-arsed historians who have sat in London. We were there.” Gray tells Stephen he hates the names too. The only words he cares about are the words that will be chiseled at the bottom. The words everyone will remember: “Final advance and pursuit.” Gray says, “Don’t tell me you don’t want to put your name to those words.” Stephen agrees that he does.
Gray’s words highlight the inaccuracy, or at least the superficial nature, of historical documents about the war. After all, the “fat-arsed historians” know nothing about the true suffering of war, and like Weir’s parents, they are informed by second-hand accounts like newspapers. Gray’s words also reflect his desire to survive no matter the cost..
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Before going back to the front line, Stephen takes a few days to go to Rouen. Amiens has become too dangerous, and Jeanne has relocated until it is safe to return. Sitting in her small flat, Jeanne thinks that Stephen doesn’t resemble the man her sister had described to her. This thought comforts her and makes her desires easier to accept.
Again, this passage stresses the danger to civilians during the war. The war is the cause of homelessness and displacement for many people, and the danger in Amiens emphasizes this.
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Jeanne tells Stephen about the German advance on Amiens. She didn’t want to leave, but she was forced. Jeanne admits that she hasn’t told her parents she is in town. By now, she says, her parents have “given up hope in their daughters” anyway.
To Jeanne, returning to Rouen is similar to returning to the oppressive state of her father’s home. The fact that Jeanne does not tell her parents that she is town is proof of her determination to be independent.
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Bérard sent her father a letter telling him about Isabelle and Max, Jeanne says, and when she wrote Isabelle, she wasn’t surprised to hear it. According to Isabelle, when the Germans occupied Amiens, Bérard figured they would be there for the duration of the war. He offered the commandant his house, and when the troops pulled out after a few days, he was branded a coward and traitor. Now, he tries to “make up for it by making very belligerent noises.”
This passage reflects Bérard’s true vile and sexist nature. He is intent on destroying Isabelle, even when she is long gone. René is also gone and presumably dead, and Bérard has nothing to gain by causing Isabelle increased pain. Still, Bérard attempts to secure his own power at Isabelle’s expense.
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Jeanne tells Stephen that Max is not well and that he has had to have his leg amputated. “You mustn’t let yourself go,” she says. “It’s nearly over.” As she continues to encourage and support Stephen, he asks her why she is so good to him. “Because I love you,” she says.
Notably, Jeanne encourages Stephen to find strength in her love for him. This is in contrast to Isabelle, who earlier in the novel encouraged Stephen to find strength in his own love for her. This is evidence of Jeanne’s true love for Stephen, and proof that Isabelle never really returned the love that Stephen gave her.
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Jeanne and Stephen go out for dinner, and afterward, they sit in the garden drinking brandy. They dream about after the war. They talk of singing and dancing, and drink until Jeanne feels dizzy.
The garden is symbolic of life and nature in the face of the war, but it is also a reflection of their hope for a better life after the war.
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Later, Jeanne undresses in her bedroom. She walks naked across the room to get her robe. As she reaches for it hanging on the back of the door, Stephen opens it. He is looking for the bathroom. Jeanne moves to cover herself but instead invites him inside.
Again, this interaction disrupts typical gender stereotypes. Jeanne is not modest, and acts on her desires.
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“Let me hold you,” Jeanne says. Stephen walks into her arms and puts his own arms around her thighs. He lays his face between her legs and begins to weep. “Isabelle,” he cries. “Isabelle.”
Sadly, Stephen does not love Jeanne in the same way that he loves Isabelle. She was his first and greatest love, even though she broke his heart.
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When Stephen returns to the front line, the man who has taken Weir’s position with the miners asks him to go in the tunnels. His men must enlarge the listening post, but they can hear the enemy above them. Stephen agrees to go, provided he is not gone for more than an hour.
The new captain only makes Stephen miss Weir more. Stephen’s request to not be gone for long foreshadows the many days that he will be trapped underground.
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Later, Stephen crawls into the tunnel behind Jack Firebrace and two other men. They soon meet up with two other infantry men, and the three miners lead the way. Jack winds them through the deep tunnel system, and Stephen notes the other men growing uncomfortable. One of the men hears something, and they all flatten themselves on the ground in silence.
This scene mirrors the first time Stephen and Jack met and went underground together. Of course, all of the men who now go underground with them are new recruits, and this again highlights the high number of casualties during the war.
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A miner takes out a stethoscope and listens. He motions for Jack to come listen too, and he closes his eyes in concentration. Jack confirms footsteps moving back toward the German line, about ten feet up. “Retreating?” asks the man. Jack confirms, “But they could have laid a charge,” he says.
This passage again emphasizes how difficult Jack’s job is. Armed with only a stethoscope, it is impossible to know why the Germans are retreating.
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The miner suggests waiting five minutes, and just as Stephen protests, the tunnel blows up. As Stephen lays on the floor in the midst of the fallen earth and rock, he can tell that he is not seriously injured. He begins looking for survivors and finds movement beneath the rubble. He begins to dig. After an hour, he begins to make progress.
It is miraculous that Stephen continues to survive. Like the randomness of his superstitious game, there is no rhyme or reason to why Stephen has survived while so many others have died.
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Jack can hear Stephen unearthing him, but he can feel his legs crushed under a large beam. He moves his head violently side to side, trying keep himself alert. Finally, Stephen uncovers him.
This passage highlights the dire situation that Jack is in. Even if Stephen does manage to find him, it seems unlikely that he will live.
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“What happened?” Stephen asks. Jack tells him the Germans blew a charge right above them. They probably know where they are. There may be more. For now, he can’t move his legs—they remain buried under wood and dirt. Stephen keeps digging. His own arm is clearly broken, and he furiously moves dirt with one hand.
This underscores Stephen’s own bravery and endurance. Of course, it would be easier to save himself, but Stephen is determined to free Jack even if it costs him his own life.
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Stephen works for five hours trying to free Jack before he must take a rest. He falls asleep on Jack’s chest just as another explosion rocks the tunnel. Jack tells Stephen that the chances of a rescue party reaching them are very low, and now, with the second explosion, he will be unable to get back.
This again emphasizes the dire state of their situation and Stephen’s exhaustion. Stephen must work though unimaginable odds for a chance to live.
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Stephen frees Jack and begins making his way down the tunnel that Jack has identified as the exit. He is only able to make it a few yards at a time—Jack’s weight and his own broken arm make movement difficult. After about an hour of painful movement, Stephen hits a wall. “You’ve brought us the wrong fucking way,” he says. This is not the end, however, only where the second bomb went off. “We’re about twenty yards short of the main gallery,” Jack says.
This passage highlights Jack’s importance during the war. Faulks has already established that the miners are not typically treated well by the infantry soldiers, yet it is their knowledge and hard work that helps to win the war. After all, Stephen wouldn’t even know how to get out of the tunnel without Jack’s help.
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Stephen and Jack stay in the tunnel for nearly an hour. If they don’t do something, Stephen thinks, Jack will die of his injuries and he of thirst. Jack asks Stephen if he is afraid to die. “I think so,” he says. Jack finds it ironic that of all the men, he’s going to die here with Stephen, who, for the first time, tells him his name. “Shall I call you that?” Jack asks. Stephen says yes.
As a man and a soldier, Stephen is supposed to be brave at all times, and while this is true much of the time, he still feels profound fear and openly admits it.
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Stephen asks Jack who he would like to die with. “Which human being out of all those you have met would you choose to hold your hand, to hold close to you in the beginning of eternity?” Stephen asks. Jack clarifies, “To be with, like that, always, do you mean?” Stephen answers yes, and Jack immediately says John. He tells Stephen about his son, his great love for him, and the sadness he feels in his death.
Again, this is evidence of Jack’s undying love for John. Even as he dies, Jack continues to find strength in his love for his son.
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“You talk almost as though you had fallen in love,” Stephen tells Jack. Jack explains how he did. Stephen tells him to hold on. After he gets him out, Stephen says, he can have more children. “No,” says Jack. Margaret is too old. “Then I will have them for you,” Stephen says.
This passage is significant because this interaction is why Elizabeth names her own son John. She honors Stephen’s promise, and her future son is symbolic of the hope for a better future.
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Jack asks Stephen if he would choose to die next to him. Stephen tells Jack he “will do very well,” but the only time he has felt the kind of love that Jack speaks of was with a woman. “Not your own flesh and blood?” Jack asks. “I think she was my own flesh and blood. I truly believe she was,” Stephen says. Stephen considers giving up, but Jack urges him on. At least, he says, it will give you something to do.
Once again, this conversation highlights Stephen’s love for Isabelle. Notably, Stephen’s love for Isabelle does not sustain him in quite the same way that Jack’s does. Stephen considers giving up, and a dying man must urge him on.
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Jack begins to tremble so badly that Stephen is unable to carry him, and he resigns himself to death. Stephen is certain that death is near too, and he hears Jack begin to moan and call to his mother.
Jack’s calls to his mother highlight the pain of war, and mirror Stephen’s own calls earlier in the novel.
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Stephen falls asleep, and when he wakes, he reaches out into the darkness. He feels something solid and thinks it’s a body, but it is a sandbag. The entire wall appears to be made out of sandbags. Stephen wakes Jack to ask him why there are sandbags here—they seem out of place—but Jack is delirious and thinks he’s in London building the underground railway.
The underground railway that Faulks references in Jack’s delirium is the same railway that Elizabeth impatiently rides in 1978. This is another example of the presence of the past in future generations.
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Jack, suddenly becoming lucid, tells Stephen that the New Zealanders lay sandbags differently than the Englishmen, and that there may be explosives behind the bags. “Could we blow it?” Stephen asks. Jack isn’t so sure, although it is possible. “I just want to die in peace,” he says.
Despite that fact that Stephen is an infantry soldier and outranks Jack, Jack is an integral part of British army’s success during the war.
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Stephen talks to Jack as he digs, trying to keep him alive. After hours of work, he finds several stacked boxes of explosives behind the sandbags. He wakes Jack and tells him of his discovery. Stephen sees over two hundred boxes and Jack laughs. “That’s ten thousand pounds. It takes one pound to blow up the Mansion House.” Stephen decides to move the boxes and asks Jack to help him. When he says he can’t, Stephen says, “I know. Just encourage me. Tell me it can be done.” Jack nods. “You’re mad enough,” he says.
Stephen finds a massive number of explosives buried in the tunnel, and this puts the scale of the war into perspective. Stephen is trapped in one portion of one tunnel—one of hundreds of tunnels. All in all, the trenches dug by Jack and the other miners during World War I stretched over 440 miles across the French terrain.
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After Jack explains how to blow the explosives, Stephen carries him down the fighting tunnel and out of the way of the blast. He takes a box of ammonal and empties it in a bag, which he then carries to the chamber and empties against the guncotton primer that sits on the only remaining box of explosives. He fills the bag three separate times and empties more ammonal. He lights the fuse. It travels a way and fizzles. Just as he is convinced that it won’t work, it blows in a deafening explosion.
It is truly amazing that Stephen is capable of this amount of work considering the shape he is in. Stephen is broken, both physically and mentally, and he is slowly dying of thirst. Stephen notes earlier in the novel that there is no limit to what the soldiers will endure, and he is further proof of this opinion.
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In a German dugout, Lieutenant Levi feels the blast. Another officer approaches him and orders him down into the hole to check out the damage. Levi is a doctor back in Hamburg, and there are three men underground.
As Stephen’s German enemy, the character of Levi has been heavily vilified. However, the fact that Levi is a doctor during peacetime suggests that he is not an inherently destructive figure.
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As they walk along the underground tunnel, Levi and the men come across substantial blockage. Levi suspects that his own brother was in the tunnel when it blew, and he is desperate to find him. As they work their way forward, they debate the cause of the blast. The wonder if it was an accident—undetonated explosives are unstable, after all.
Considering the amount of explosives Stephen has found hidden in the tunnels, undetonated explosives are a serious risk.  This makes going into the tunnels all the more dangerous and terrifying.
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In the meantime, Stephen wakes up underground. There is no light but there is some air, and he tries to wake Jack. When Jack doesn’t respond, Stephen begins to yell. “Do you hate the Germans? Do you hate everything about them and their country?” Jack doesn’t move.
Here, Stephen summons what is left of his hate to try to survive. Of course, Stephen cannot sustain Jack with his hate, and this furthers Faulks’s argument of the power of love over hate.
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In the course of digging, Stephen has lost most of his clothes and his revolver. If he wants to kill himself now, he will have to use his knife. Stephen begins to beg Jack. “You have to want to live. You must believe.” Quietly, Jack says he doesn’t want to live. Stephen asks him if he wants to see them win the war. “No one can win,” Jack says.
Jack’s death stresses the senselessness of war. For Jack, it doesn’t matter who wins the war. The death that surrounds him means that they have already lost. Jack finds it impossible to live in a world without John, and with this much hate and ugliness—it is incompatible with the love that has sustained him this far.
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The Germans’ controlled explosion blows a hole large enough for them to go through, and Levi and the others move on. They come upon a second hole and one of the men climbs inside to check it out. He finds a body inside, and when he can’t dislodge it, he removes a watch from the man’s wrist and climbs out.
The Germans must work for hours and set off additional explosions in order to find their missing men, and this puts the size of Stephen’s own blast into perspective.
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Out of the hole, he hands the watch to Levi, who recognizes it as his brother’s—a present from their father on his bar mitzvah. “Silly boy,” Levi says. “So near the end.”
The fact that Levi’s brother nearly makes it to the end of the war makes his death seem even worse. Levi’s description of his brother as a “silly boy” makes him seem like a child who really didn’t know any better.
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The Germans stop to eat. Levi’s religion will not allow him to eat the food, so instead he prays. After eating, the men continue to dig.
Similar to Stephen’s superstitious card game, Levi searches for the meaning of war within his Jewish religion.
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Entombed in the darkness, Stephen figures that they have been trapped for five or six days. He yells out to Jack, who is awake and lucid. He tells Stephen that he is thankful for his last parcel of socks—they are a great cushion for his head here in the tunnel. Stephen tells him that he never received a parcel during the war. “You poor bugger,” Jack says. “You’ve worn army socks all the way through?” Jack laughs a slight laugh, coughs, and dies. Stephen is “bitterly alone.” He keeps striking his knife on the wall.
Jack’s assessment that Stephen is a “poor bugger” is right on. While Jack’s dying words seem ridiculous and more indicative of his disorientation, they do hint at a greater truth. Stephen isn’t a “poor bugger” because has only army socks; the great tragedy of Stephen’s life is that he is “bitterly alone,” just as Faulks describes him in the tunnel.
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After four hours of digging, the Germans make little progress. Suddenly, Levi hears a tapping sound. “There’s definitely somebody trapped back there,” he says. They get ready to blow it again, and one of the men asks Levi what he will do if the enemy is behind the wall. “Then it would be the man who killed my brother,” he says. The men assume he wants revenge, but he corrects them. “My faith provides me with guidance for anything. I am not afraid to meet him, though, if that’s what you mean. I should know what to do.”
Levi serves as a foil to Stephen. Levi is not filled with hate and contempt for his enemy like Stephen is. Even though Stephen is technically responsible for his brother’s death, Levi still does not hate him. Furthermore, Levi is confident that he will do the right thing when he meets whomever is on the other side of the dirt. This is also unlike Stephen and his “quick temper” that often gets him into trouble.
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Levi orders the men to keep going and they finally break through. Stephen’s tapping echoes, and Levi accidentally goes in the wrong direction but eventually doubles back. Stephen begins to see his rescuer, and he is wearing a German uniform. As Levi looks at Stephen, who seems “wild-eyed” and “half-demented,” the men fall into each other’s arms, “weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.”
Presumably, had Stephen embraced hate in the moment he is rescued instead of love, this ending would play out much differently. Ironically, now that Stephen refuses to fight, he finally becomes a great soldier.
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The men climb out of the tunnel together into the German trench to the sounds of birds. In English, Stephen asks Levi if it is over. Levi answers in English: “It is finished.” He looks around the German trench and down toward No Man’s Land. As Stephen’s lip begins to tremble, he lays his head on Levi’s chest and sobs.
The birds again represent nature’s indifference to the war and humankind, but they also symbolize optimism. The war has ended, and No Man’s Land is quiet.
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The men bring up the bodies of Jack and Levi’s brother, and bury them in a shared grave. That night, they eat out in the open air and Stephen says he must head back to the British side. Before he leaves, Levi gives him the buckle from his belt as a souvenir. It is engraved and reads Gott mit uns. The men embrace one last time and Stephen walks across the quiet of No Man’s Land.
This passage solves the mystery of the belt buckle that Elizabeth finds in Stephen’s old belongings. The fact that Stephen saves the buckle is proof of its value and significance in his own life, and it has likewise become important to Elizabeth.
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