Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is infused with signs of nature and elements of the natural world. Birds, a symbol of optimism in the darkness of war, are heard singing over battlefields, and Jack Firebrace and the other English miners use small yellow canaries to test deadly gas levels deep beneath the soil of the World War I trenches. The serene and pastoral setting of the French battlefield is a cruel reminder of nature’s disregard for war and the cruelty of men, and when Faulks juxtaposes the natural world against the human nature—and by extension, the morality—of the men fighting the war, he comes to a disheartening conclusion. As British officer Stephen Wraysford discovers, there are “no boundaries the men will not cross, and no limits to what they will endure.” Much like the natural world, the soldiers carry on through the war despite its depravity, and often in complete disregard to the cruelty of men. In this way, Faulks highlights the greatest tragedy of war—the potential ugliness of human nature and the loss of one’s innocence and morality.
Throughout much of Birdsong, nature is compared, often beautifully, to the offensiveness of battle, and this implies nature’s indifference to the actions of men and war. When Jack and his company must march a considerable distance to their billet to rest, they can barely manage the walk. Their aching bodies scream under the stress of their heavy packs, and Jack twice falls asleep. Against the backdrop of the blackened and scorched landscape, Jack realizes that some green grass still remains “that had not been uprooted,” and there are “blossoms in the trees.” The grass and the flowers continue to grow in the face of his suffering. As a career miner, Jack is comfortable underground; however, he has a difficult time in the trenches. He “tries not to imagine the weight of earth on top of them,” and he refuses to “think of the roots of trees, stretching down through the soil.” Jack realizes they are “too deep now,” and Faulks’ imagery of tree roots stretching down to a distant Jack represents how far he has fallen from righteousness. Since Faulks suggests that nature cares very little about the actions of the men, the roots’ inability to even reach Jack carries increased significance.
Faulks also highlights human nature, and in the soldiers’ continued degradation, he argues the impact of war on morality. As the war rages on, Jack notes that “none of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did was beyond the boundaries of human behavior.” Instead, they do what is expected of them, “and Jack too joins the unspoken conspiracy that all is well, that no natural order had been violated.” Of course, this isn’t true; however, the irony of the statement makes this clear. As Stephen and Weir assess their bleak surroundings in the trenches, Stephen says, “I believe that far worse things than we have seen will be authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys and men like my Tipper and your Firebrace. There is no depth to which they can’t be driven.” Stephen has little faith in the morality of men, and his opinion is repeatedly reinforced, further reflecting the impact of war on humankind’s moral compass. After half of Stephen’s platoon dies in the advancing German infantry, he grows “used to the sight and smell of torn human flesh” as he watches “men harden to the mechanical slaughter.” To Stephen, there seems “a great breach of nature which no one has the power to stop.” The events of the war are so unspeakable, they appear unnatural, and as argued by Faulks, this too reflects the limitless boundaries of human nature. As the war nears its end, Stephen discloses in a letter to Isabelle, his lover before the war, that “some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers—fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.” In the killing of innocent men, the war is more than a crime against humanity, it is the absolute worst example of human behavior.
Ironically, while on a furlough to England after being nearly killed by the German infantry, Stephen manages to find some healing and solace in the peaceful nature of the English countryside. He is aware of the sky, the moon, the trees, and the church tower in the distance, and instead of being separate from them, Stephen feels as if they are “part of one creation, and he too […] is one with them.” Stephen considers his actions in the war a crime against nature; yet, metaphorically speaking, he is cleansed by nature. Stephen’s experience in the English countryside serves to inspire optimism going into the final push of the war, and this optimism remains until the end of the novel. When Stephen’s great-grandson is born decades after the war, his birth in itself symbolic of hope and possibility, there is one final birdsong. A crow flies off, “erupting from the branches with an explosive bang of its wings, rising toward the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.” While the presence of birdsong symbolizes optimism, Faulks’ use of a crow carries negative connotations of death and bad luck. Thus, the birdsong of the crow reflects a kind of guarded optimism—one that is ever mindful of the violent capabilities of humankind.
Nature, War, and Morality ThemeTracker
Nature, War, and Morality Quotes in Birdsong
None of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did were beyond the boundaries of human behaviour. You would not believe, Jack thought, that the fellow with his cap pushed back, joking with his friend at the window of the butcher’s shop, had seen his other mate dying in a shellhole, gas frothing in his lungs. No one told; and Jack too joined the unspoken conspiracy that all was well, that no natural order had been violated. He blamed the NCOs, who blamed the officers; they swore at the staff officers, who blamed the generals.
“No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want to know. I believe that it has barely started. I believe that far worse things than we have seen will be authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys and men like my Tipper and your Firebrace. There is no depth to which they can’t be driven.”
“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.”
Jack tried not to imagine the weight of earth on top of them. He did not think of the roots of trees, stretching down through the soil. In any case they were too deep now. He had always survived in London by picturing the tunnel in which he worked as a railway compartment at night: the shutters were closed over a small space, you could not see anything, but outside a wide world of trees and fields beneath an open sky was whistling safely by in the darkness. When the space was no more than three feet wide and he had the earth pressing in his mouth and eyes, the illusion became difficult to sustain.
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.
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.
Stephen felt himself overtaken by a climatic surge of feeling. It frightened him because he thought it would have some physical issue, in spasm or bleeding to death. Then he saw that what he felt was not an assault but a passionate affinity. It was for the rough field running down to the trees and for the path going back into the village, where he could see the tower of the church: these and the forgiving distance of the sky were not separate, but part of one creation, and he too, still by any sane judgement a young man, by the repeated tiny pulsing of his blood, was one with them.
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.”
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.