Birdsong

by

Sebastian Faulks

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Birdsong: Part Three: England 1978 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In a crowded Underground tunnel, Elizabeth Benson waits for her stop. She tiredly pushes her way out of the car and onto the platform at Lancaster Gate, making her way home. She finds a letter from Brussels in her mail slot.
Through Elizabeth’s mundane experience on the subway, Faulks highlights the present generation’s ignorance of history. This is the same tunnel that Jack Firebrace tirelessly dug, and Elizabeth is completely unaware of this.
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Her lover, Robert, only sends letters when he is feeling guilty, and she smiles at his familiar words. As Elizabeth slides into the bathtub, the phone rings and her mother invites her for tea the next day. She accepts and readies herself for a night out.
This passage establishes Elizabeth’s affair with a married man. Elizabeth’s love for Robert mirrors Stephen’s affair with Isabelle. It also shows Elizabeth as a modern woman who loves whom she pleases without apology.
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Elizabeth has been close with Mark and Lindsay since college, and their friendship is comfortable and predictable. Lindsay has long since been trying to fix Elizabeth up with a man, and tonight will be no different. “Your trouble,” Lindsay says, “is that you frighten men off.”
Lindsay’s opinion of Elizabeth’s “trouble” with men is in keeping with popular gender stereotypes. Women are expected to be weak and dependent upon men, but Elizabeth refuses to live this way.
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Elizabeth reminds Lindsay about Robert, whom Lindsay refers to as “the Eurocat.” “He’s never going to leave his wife,” she warns. Elizabeth shrugs. She cares very little if he does. Lindsay laughs. She asks about children—at thirty-eight, Elizabeth doesn’t have much time. Elizabeth admits that she would like them, but first she wants to know why.
This passage underscores popular expectations of women and motherhood. Lindsay suggests that Elizabeth is incomplete without a child—that somehow her life will be wasted if she doesn’t procreate. Elizabeth challenges this assumption by leading a full life as a single woman.
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Lindsay laughs. “It’s called biology,” she says. “You don’t need to know anything.” Elizabeth deeply disagrees. She needs to know why. “I think one should have some sort of reason for doing something that, on the face of it, is quite unnecessary,” Elizabeth says.
Obviously, Elizabeth’s life does not literally depend on procreation. Drawing attention to this biological fact makes Elizabeth’s realization that her life metaphorically depends on future generations all the more powerful.
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That night, Lindsay introduces Elizabeth to a new man name Stuart. They engage in small talk, and he asks Elizabeth what she does for a living. She tells him that she runs a clothing company and Stuart asks her to clarify. “You say you run it. You’re the boss, are you?”
Stuart’s questioning of Elizabeth’s profession is a product of her sexist society. Stuart is in disbelief of her success because positions such as hers are traditionally held by men.
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Despite Stuart’s “cross-examination” of her, Elizabeth rather enjoys talking to him, and when he doesn’t ask for the number at the end of the night she is “relieved, though also fractionally disappointed.” As she drives home, she thinks about what it would be like to married.
Elizabeth subconsciously fears that she scared Stuart off, just as Lindsay accuses her of doing with most men. She is obviously bothered by the effect her independence and success has on the men she meets.
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When Elizabeth arrives home, she remembers that she forgot to buy milk. Then she realizes it doesn’t matter. She can sleep until she wants and do what she wants when she wakes—there is no one to disrupt “her tranquil routine.”
This passage illustrates the simplicity of Elizabeth’s life. She does not have the typical demands on her time that many women do, and Elizabeth views this a positive aspect in her life.
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The next morning, Elizabeth notices an article in the paper about the 1918 armistice. It catches her eye, but the “topic seemed too large, too fraught, and too remote” to her. Still, the article lingers in her mind.
Elizabeth represents the typical modern citizen in her ignorance of history and war. She has very little working knowledge of the war and its effect on her current society.
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At tea with her mother, Françoise, Elizabeth asks her about the war; “Something about the war article had unsettled her: it seemed to touch an area of disquiet and curiosity that was connected to her own life and its choices.”
This passage implies that the war is deeply connected to present and future generations, even in ways they don’t quite grasp or understand. In this way, Faulks argues the importance of remembrance.
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Elizabeth asks her mother if she still has her father’s old journals, but Françoise is unsure. She believes that she may have thrown them away. Elizabeth claims she is “mildly curious. It must have something do with my age,” she says. She feels that she is in “danger of losing touch with the past.”
Again, this passage highlights the importance of the past on future generations. Elizabeth better understands herself and the world once she learns about her history, including the dark past of the war.
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The following week, Elizabeth goes to visit Erich and Irene, her principal designers, at their office. Erich is in his early seventies, and he is very fond of Elizabeth. “What a wife you would have made my son,” he tells her often. While the company has been around for many years, its recent success is due in large part to Elizabeth and the young customers she commissions.
Erich’s insistence that Elizabeth would make a good wife for his son is rooted in their sexist society. Erich’s belief that Elizabeth is good wife material minimizes her success as the manager of the company. Instead of commenting on how well she does her job, he focuses on the job he thinks she is neglecting.
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Elizabeth asks Irene what she knows about the war and if her father fought in it. Irene’s not sure, although he would have been the right age and he definitely fought in something. “I’ve seen his medals,” Irene says.
This passage highlights how suppressed the stories of war actually are. It seems ridiculous that Irene is unsure of which war exactly her father fought in, and this underscores how little the soldiers spoke about their experiences.
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Elizabeth turns to Erich, who was a young boy in Austria during the war. “I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t think about war.” He is sure that Elizabeth’s English schools must have taught her, but she doesn’t remember. “I don’t seem to have been paying attention,” she says. “Exactly,” Erich tells her. “It’s morbid to dwell on it.” He calls it “ancient history” and shrugs Elizabeth off. She isn’t so sure it is “ancient history.”
With this passage, Faulks argues that there is no such thing as “ancient history.” The impact of the war is as important today as it was seventy years ago, and it will continue to be in the future. Not only is the war a profound lesson on the potentially evil nature of humankind, it also lends valuable insight into Elizabeth’s modern life.
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By the end of the week, Elizabeth is on a boat to France. She is planning a visit with Robert in Brussels, and she wants to stop at a World War I memorial before moving on to see him. Ashamed, Elizabeth realizes she doesn’t even know what a battlefield looks like.
Again, Elizabeth has zero understanding of what her grandfather endured. She doesn’t know how or where he fought, and she realizes that she is poorly informed regarding her own history. Faulks argues that society is likewise poorly informed.
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Elizabeth arrives in the town of Arras. While her own grandmother was French, she doesn’t speak the language and she doesn’t know the country well at all. She knows that battles were fought locally, but it appears to be a city. She thought battles were fought in the countryside. Elizabeth wonders what it matters anyway. After all, this is just a stopover on her way to see Robert.
Elizabeth still isn’t emotionally invested in the war and her history. She is preoccupied with the present and her personal life, and she easily dismisses the war. In this way, Elizabeth represents a typical, modern-day approach to history.
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Suddenly, Elizabeth is determined to learn about the town and the battle. “What did it matter?” she thought. “It mattered passionately.” Her grandfather had fought in this war, in the very same place she now stands, and she wants to feel connected to him—and this place.
Elizabeth realizes that like her life now, her grandfather’s life mattered—only his was consumed by this war that she knows nothing about. This is the point at which Elizabeth becomes emotionally invested in the war and its effects on her modern life.
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The next day, Elizabeth drives to a town named Albert. Irene’s husband, Bob, had told her about the town, and after a few minutes of driving she begins to see cemeteries and a large “ugly” arch. At first, Elizabeth mistakes the arch for a factory, but then she realizes it is the monument.
Faulks’s use of the word “ugly” to describe the arch mirrors the ugliness and death that prompted the existence of the monument in the first place. In this way, Faulks’s description resists glorifying the violence of the war.
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Out of the car now, she walks up to the arch through the meticulously manicured lawn. A man is sweeping the pavement, and as she approaches, Elizabeth notes that the arch is covered in British names. She is struck by the size and number of names, and she asks the man what they mean.
Notably, other than the man sweeping the memorial site, there aren’t any other people around. The monument stands in the middle of an empty field, and no one is near to appreciate it.
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The man tells Elizabeth that the names represent the men who are unaccounted for after the battle in Albert. “Men who died in this battle?” she questions. He clarifies—just the lost men, the dead are in the cemeteries. “The unfound?” she asks, disbelievingly. “Just these fields,” says the man, gesturing to the surrounding land. Elizabeth stops, visibly struck. “Nobody told me,” she whispers. “My God, nobody told me.”
This passage is a powerful reminder of Elizabeth’s ignorance. The names represent her dead ancestors, but she has never been taught the cost of war and depth of their sacrifice. Like her grandfather, Elizabeth has “no sense of the scale of sacrifice” involved in the war.
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Later, Elizabeth arrives in Brussels to visit Robert. She notes that she always feels nervous when she visits him. Because of him, she is part of a continuing lie and she feels obliged to live alone, waiting for him. When she visits him, she is slightly afraid that she will find he’s not worth all the hassle. As he answers the door, she throws herself into his open arms.
Despite her happiness with Robert, Elizabeth’s relationship is not carefree. Society has vilified her as “the other woman,” and while this doesn’t exactly square with who she is, Elizabeth is forced to assume this identity in many ways.
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They get ready for dinner and head out on the town. While they eat, Robert asks Elizabeth about her week, and she tells him about her sudden preoccupation with the war. He listens patiently as she explains the arch. “But nothing had prepared me for what I saw. The scale of it,” she tells him.
Again, this passage makes plain Elizabeth’s historical ignorance, but it also highlights Robert’s love and respect for her. He patiently waits as she rambles—he does not interrupt her like René and Bérard interrupt and dismiss Isabelle.
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In the following days, Elizabeth goes to visit Françoise. She has been thinking about her grandfather’s journals, which she suspects are in the attic, and she wants to find them. Elizabeth tells her mother that she is looking for her own old diary, and goes into the attic to snoop.
Elizabeth’s secrecy in looking for her grandfather’s journals mirrors Stephen’s secrecy in recording his experiences during the war.
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The attic is filled with random boxes, but buried beneath a pile of old trunks and papers Elizabeth hits pay dirt. Two books are at the bottom of a pile, and one is labeled, “Captain Stephen Wraysford, April 1917.” Another book is unlabeled and full of Greek script.
The Greek script that Stephen has coded his writing in represents society’s broader attempts to obscure painful history. Stephen hides his shame in his encrypted writing much like society hides the shame of war.
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Elizabeth tells Françoise what she has found. “That’s it,” her mother says. Françoise says there were many more, but these are all that remain. “I always thought,” she says, “that if he wanted anyone to understand them he would have written them in plain English.”
Again, this passage is exactly why Stephen codes his language. The irony of Françoise’s comment highlights the fact that Stephen doesn’t want anyone to know about the awful things he has seen and done.
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The next weekend, Elizabeth takes the book to Bob and Irene’s house. She is hoping that Bob will be able to shed some light on the strange writing. “I’ve got an idea,” Bob says. He turns to Elizabeth and asks her why she really wants to know about them. She tells him that she has a “vague idea” that the journals will help her understand something.
With this interaction, Faulks argues that history has a profound effect on the present and future. Elizabeth’s past helps her to better understand certain aspects of her modern life because, as Faulks asserts, history really does repeat itself.
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Bob tells Elizabeth that the writing is in Greek script, but it is not the Greek language, and it’s not English either. He has some ideas for cracking the code, and he asks Elizabeth to leave the journal with him.
Stephen’s hybrid writing is the result of his extensive education and his benefactor’s efforts to socially reform him. Ironically, Stephen uses the skills he learned for the betterment of society to explain its violent destruction.
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The next day, Stuart calls Elizabeth for a date and she agrees. He takes her to a Chinese restaurant that he claims is authentic, and he spends most of the night explaining the dishes on the menu. After, they go to Stuart’s house and he plays the piano for her. As she leaves to go home, it occurs to Elizabeth that she loves Robert as much as she does because he is not a threat to her independence.
Stuart dominates the conversation the entire night, and the topics he selects highlight his own knowledge and talents. Instead of being interested in Elizabeth, Stuart is busy expressing his own importance and power.
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