From the passion of young lovers to the deadly animosity of war, Birdsong is an intimate look at the many forms of love and hate. The characters within Sebastian Faulks’ novel are overwhelmingly driven by these two conflicting emotions, each in different ways and to very different ends, and Englishman Stephen Wraysford is one such example. As a young man before World War I, Stephen is motivated by his forbidden love for Isabelle Azaire, the wife of a French textile manufacturer he has been tasked to observe by his British employer. Later, entrenched in the gruesome violence of the Great War (World War I), Stephen’s hate for his German enemy—and for the very troops he commands—compels him to stay alive and keep fighting through unimaginable odds. The men Stephen fights with and against are likewise motivated by their emotions; however, unlike Stephen, the troops are guided by love for their country, love for their families, and love for each other. While it is hate that keeps Stephen alive, he is ultimately saved by an act of love, through which Faulks effectively argues the power and triumph of love over hate.
Many of the characters in Birdsong are motivated by hate, through which Faulks highlights the power of this negative emotion on human behavior. When Isabelle runs away with Stephen, her decision to leave is in large part due to her dislike for her husband, not merely her love for Stephen. Isabelle’s husband, René, is a cruel man, and when she fails to become pregnant on account of his own impotence, he begins to beat her. As Isabelle’s disdain for René grows, so does her “passion” for Stephen, and this is evidence of the effects of hate on Isabelle’s behavior. As Isabelle leaves René, she questions, “Why should I trust you when you have given me so little reason even to like you?” Isabelle admits that she requires very little in terms of love, and that she “could be happy in the simplest way,” but René’s poor treatment of her cements her decision to go with Stephen, even though she is not entirely trusting of his love, either. Later, as a captain in the British army during the Great War, Stephen is motivated not by love or comradery, but by a “pitiful contempt” for the men in his charge. He views the war as “an exploration of how far men can be degraded,” and the actions of his troops satisfy his morbid curiosity, without which Stephen claims he would “walk into enemy lines and let himself be killed,” or “blow his own head off with one of these grenades.” Like Isabelle, Stephen’s actions are in large part driven by his hate. Stephen is further fueled by hate when he is trapped deep underground with a dying Jack Firebrace after a German bomb destroys their trench. Stephen attempts to provoke Jack with negativity, yelling, “Jack, can you hear me? I want to tell you about the Germans and how much I hate them. I’m going to tell you why you’ve got to live.” Stephen’s hate sustains him in the destroyed tunnel; however, Jack dies unmoved by his contempt.
Of course, Stephen’s hate cannot continue to sustain him either, and after he is rescued by German soldiers after six days trapped under the French soil, both Stephen and his enemy surrender in a spontaneous act of love—a crucial turning point in Stephen’s character. As Stephen is saved by Levi, a German officer whose own brother was killed in the very same mine collapse, Faulks writes, “Levi looked at this wild-eyed figure, half-demented, his brother’s killer. For no reason he could tell, he found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.” Until the moment they meet, Stephen and Levi are prepared to continue fighting and kill the enemy should he be found on the other side of the dirt. Face to face, however, both men react differently. Exhausted and mutually defeated after years of war and violence, the men are unable to continue their blind hate and instead embrace each other, through which Faulks argues the definitive power of love over even the strongest of hate.
Love is the driving force behind the plot and many of the characters within Birdsong, and in this way Faulks highlights the power of love in shaping and influencing human behavior. When Isabelle and her sister, Jeanne, are first introduced as young girls in the French city of Rouen, the narrator remarks that Isabelle “loved Jeanne as she loved no one else.” Jeanne returns this intense love and devotes most of her life to taking care of her sister. Jeanne even raises Isabelle’s daughter, Françoise, as her own after Isabelle dies of the flu. Many of Jeanne’s actions are in direct response to her love for Isabelle, highlighting the motivating nature of love. Furthermore, because of Isabelle, Stephen quits his job in London and delays his return to England, deciding instead to live in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, a commune in Southern France near Isabelle’s family, so that he and Isabelle can be together. Like Jeanne, Stephen’s own actions are driven by his love for Isabelle, again reflecting the powerful and positive influence of love on human behavior. Lastly, in the trenches of World War I, British miner and trench digger Jack Firebrace finds solace in love during the darkest days of war. Jack’s love for his son, John, gives him the strength to keep digging day and night, and after John dies from diphtheria, Jack turns to the love he feels for fellow miner, Arthur Shaw. In Firebrace’s “strange alternate life” of the war, Shaw is “the only person in the world to him,” and they both rely on their love for each other to endure the hardships of war, further supporting Faulks’ argument of the influence of love. Through the representation of love and hate within Birdsong, Faulks implies that even the violence of war is no match for the enduring power of love.
Love and Hate ThemeTracker
Love and Hate Quotes in Birdsong
Yet despite her formality toward him and her punctilious ease of manner, Stephen sensed some other element in what he had termed the pulse of her. It was impossible to say through which sense he had the impression, but somehow, perhaps only in the tiny white hairs on the skin of her bare arm or the blood he had seen rise beneath the light freckles of her cheekbones, he felt certain there was some keener physical life than she was actually living in the calm, restrictive rooms of her husband’s house with its oval door handles of polished china and its neatly inlaid parquet floors.
Sometimes from the safety of the sitting room he would fix his eyes on the group and the vital, unspeaking figure of Madame Azaire. He didn’t ask himself if she was beautiful, because the physical effect of her presence made the question insignificant. Perhaps in the harshest judgement of the term she was not. While everything was feminine about her face, her nose was slightly larger than fashion prescribed; her hair had more different shades of brown and gold and red than most women would have wanted. For all the lightness of her face, its obvious strength of character overpowered conventional prettiness. But Stephen made no judgements; he was motivated by compulsion.
René Azaire had no suspicions of what was happening in his house. He had allowed his feelings toward Isabelle to become dominated by anger and frustration at his physical impotence and by what he subsequently experienced as a kind of emotional powerlessness toward her. He did not love her, but he wanted her to more responsive toward him. He sensed that she felt sorry for him and this infuriated him further; if she could not love him then at least she should be frightened of him.
[René] remembered the pleasure he had taken in being the first man to invade that body, much younger than him, and the thrill he could not deny himself when she had cried out in pain. He remembered the puzzled look in her eyes when she gazed up at him. He could feel that she, more than his first wife, had the capacity to respond to the physical act, but when he saw the bewildered expression in her face he was determined to subdue it rather than to win her by patience. At that time Isabelle, though too willful for the father’s taste, was still docile and innocent enough to have been won over by a man who showed consideration and love, but with Azaire these things were not forthcoming. Her emotional and physical appetites were awakened but then left suspended as her husband turned his energy toward a long, unnecessary battle with his own shortcomings.
“I don’t want this.” Isabelle shook her head. The words came from her mouth without thought or calculation in their purity of feeling. “I don’t know what to do or how to behave now. I could be happy in the simplest way, like any other woman with a family of her own, without this terrible pain I’ve caused. I won’t listen to ether of you. Why should I? How do I know that you love me, Stephen? How can I tell?” Her voice fell to the low, soft note Stephen had heard when she spoke on his first evening in the house. It was a beautiful sound to his ears: pleading and vulnerable, but with a sense of strength in its own rightness. “And you, René, why should I trust you when you have given me so little reason even to like you?”
In good humour, braving the barely understood the jeers of the washerwoman who stood by to take their clothes, the men queued naked for the baths that been set up in a long barn. Jack stood behind Shaw, admiring his huge back, with the muscles slabbed and spread out across his shoulder blades, so that his waist, though in fact substantial enough, looked like a nipped-in funnel by comparison, above the dimple of the coccyx and fatty swell of his hair-covered buttocks.
“I know you go out on patrol with [the men] and bind up their wounds and so on. But do you love them? Will you give your life for them?”
Stephen felt himself closely scrutinized. He could have said, “Yes, sir,” and closed the conversation; but Gray’s informal hectoring manner, although unsettling, permitted frankness.
“No,” he said. “I suppose not.”
“I thought so,” said Gray, with a small triumphant laugh. “Is that because you value your own life too much? You think it’s worth more than some simple footsoldier’s?”
“Not at all. I’m a simple footsoldier myself, don’t forget. It was you who promoted me. It’s because I don’t value my life enough. I have no sense of the scale of the sacrifices. I don’t know what anything is worth.”
Stephen felt, at the better moments, the love for them that Gray had demanded. Their desperate courage, born from necessity, was nevertheless endearing. The grimmer, harder, more sardonic they became, the more he cared for them. Still he could not quite believe them; he could not comprehend the lengths to which they allowed themselves to be driven. He had been curious to see how far they could be taken, but his interest had slackened when he saw the answer: that there were no boundaries they would not cross, no limits to what they would endure.
Levi looked at this wild-eyed figure, half-demented, his brother’s killer. For no reason he could tell, he found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.
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.