At its essence, Sabastian Faulks’ Birdsong is a powerful reminder of the importance of the past on present and future generations. Birdsong chronicles the lives of Englishman Stephen Wraysford and his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, spanning two continents and nearly seventy years, and this unique structure allows Faulks to highlight the impact of historical trauma across generations. Stephen’s experiences in the violent trenches of World War I deeply affect who he becomes, and while the war is full of intense pain and profound shame, it is an essential part of Elizabeth’s identity as well. Elizabeth, however, knows very little about the war or the men who fought in it, including her grandfather, and this reflects society’s tendency to ignore the lessons of the past. In fact, it is not until Elizabeth begins to learn about the war and her grandfather’s place in it that she begins to better understand herself. Driven by a strange compulsion to uncover her history, Elizabeth finds that the war “touches an area of disquiet and curiosity” connected to her “own life and its choices.” Through this depiction of Elizabeth and her efforts to discover her identity, Faulks argues that the past lives on in the present—and that it is in one’s best interest to know his or her history.
Stephen’s experiences in the war are horrific, and he goes to great lengths to conceal his involvement, which allows future generations to live oblivious to the past. During the war, Stephen is forced to participate in senseless killing, and the broken and decaying bodies of other soldiers litter the trenches and surrounding areas as far as the eye can see, until the smell of blood overwhelms his senses. To Stephen, the smell is “like the back of a butcher’s shop, only stronger.” In order to survive during the war, Stephen tries to ignore his pain and rarely verbalizes his experiences. When Stephen finally commits his feelings to a private journal, he encrypts his writing in “Greek letters, French language, and a bit of private code” so that it cannot be easily read. Encoded in his journal, Stephen writes, “No child or future generation will ever know what this [war] was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.” Stephen’s efforts to hide his experiences reflects society’s broader efforts to cover up or obscure painful history. After the war, Stephen refuses to speak. His silence lasts two whole years, and even after it is broken, he will not speak of the war. According to Elizabeth’s grandmother, “from that day on it was as though [the war] hadn’t happened.” Françoise, Elizabeth’s mother and Stephen’s daughter, explains, “Like a lot of men of that generation, he never really recovered.” Stephen spends the rest of his short life concealing his past, and he dies before Elizabeth is born. While the exact cause of Stephen’s death is not known, it is clear that he intends to take his memories and experiences with him to the grave.
Of course, Elizabeth must in turn go to great lengths to uncover the past and learn the story of her grandfather; her unfamiliarity with history mirrors society’s own ignorance of the past. Despite the significance of World War I on the British people, Elizabeth knows next to nothing about the war. When she questions an older Austrian friend who was a young boy during the war to find out what it was like, he answers, “I have no idea. I don’t think about war. In any case your English schools should have taught you all about that.” Elizabeth, the representation of mainstream society, knows only the vague surface details of the war, such as where it was fought and by whom, and has very little understanding of what actually happened. When Elizabeth travels from England to France to visit a memorial honoring the lost soldiers of the area, she is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the monument and the countless names that cover every inch of it. She is shocked to discover that the massive structure does not represent all of the dead, only those unfound and presumed dead. It also does not reflect the death toll of the entire war but only the surrounding battlefields. “Nobody told me,” Elizabeth claims. “My God, nobody told me.” Elizabeth is shaken that her own history involves this much death, yet it is not talked about. Once Elizabeth finds all of her grandfather’s journals hidden in her mother’s attic after weeks of searching, it takes her friend, Bob, an expert in language and archaeology, over two months to break Stephen’s coded writing. The past does not reveal itself easily to Elizabeth, and when it does it is a source of considerable pain and shame; however, history lends important, if uncomfortable, insight into her modern life.
By excavating the past, Elizabeth learns that history truly does repeat itself. Her own choices in life mirror those of her biological grandmother, Isabelle, whom Elizabeth has never even met. Separated by decades, both women fall in love with forbidden men—Elizabeth with a married man, and Isabelle with a man who is not her husband—and both relationships result in a child. Of course, Isabelle gives birth to Elizabeth’s mother, Françoise, and when Elizabeth gives birth to her own son, she reaches into the past to name him John, a “promise made by her grandfather.” From her grandfather’s journals, Elizabeth learns about Stephen’s attempt to comfort a dying man at the end of the war. The soldier’s own son, John, had since died of a childhood illness, and the soldier questions the point of war and all the death. After all, he is certain to die as well, and even if he doesn’t, he is too old to have any more children. Stephen consoles him, stating, “then I will have [children] for you.” Through the birth of John, Faulks implies that past generations are alive and well in the present, and they alone represent the hope for a better future.
History and the Future ThemeTracker
History and the Future Quotes in Birdsong
If night would fall, the earth might resume its natural process, and perhaps, in many years’ time, what had happened during daylight could be viewed as an aberration, could be comprehended within the rhythm of a normal life. At the moment it seemed to Stephen to be the other way about: that this was the new reality, the world in which they were now condemned to live, and that the pattern of the seasons, of night and day, was gone.
In the tunnel of the Underground, stalled in the darkness, Elizabeth Benson sighed in impatience. She wanted to be home to see if there were any letters or in case the telephone should ring. A winter coat was pressed in her face by the crush of passengers along the aisle of the carriage. Elizabeth pulled her small suitcase closer to her feet. She had returned from a two-day business trip to Germany that morning and had gone straight in to work from Heathrow without returning to her flat. With the lights out she could not see to read her paper. She closed her eyes and tried to let her imagination remove her from the still train and its tightfitting hole.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months. No child or future generation with ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like hum beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.
Gray stood up and came around the desk. “Think of the words on that memorial, Wraysford. Think 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. As our punishment of God knows what, we were there, and our men did in each of those disgusting places. I hate their names. I hate the sound of them and the thought of them, which is why I will not bring myself to remind you. But listen.” He put his face close to Stephen’s. “There are four words they will chisel beneath them at the bottom. Four words that people will look at one day. When they read the other words they will want to vomit. When they read these, they will bow their heads, just a little. ‘Final advance and pursuit.’ Don’t tell me you don’t want to put your name to those words.”
He threw the chestnuts up into the air in his great happiness. In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow, which erupted from the braches with an explosive bang of its wings, then rose toward the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.