With the passionate affair between Englishman Stephen Wraysford and the married Isabelle Azaire, sex is prominently displayed—and explicitly described—within Sabastian Faulks’ Birdsong. When Stephen goes abroad to France to study textile manufacturing, he falls in love with the wife of his preceptor. Isabelle, neglected in her arranged marriage and stifled by a patriarchal society, eagerly enters into the affair. Her own marriage is completely lacking in sexual satisfaction, and her husband, René, approaches her in “a businesslike and predatory manner,” which she receives with “submissive indifference.” Isabelle is empowered by the carnal nature of her relationship with Stephen, and in a strange paradox, she finds strength in the very thing that oppresses her. Sex also plays an important role during Stephen’s experiences in World War I; from the prostitutes who serve the frontline soldiers to the intimacy of the men who share a foxhole, Faulks dismantles traditional stereotypes regarding sex and gender, challenging popular assumptions of what it means to be a man or a woman.
Faulks’ initial description of sex and gender early in the novel reflects popular stereotypes, which makes the effect of dismantling them later in the text all the more powerful. When Isabelle is introduced as a young girl in Rouen, she is described as the youngest of three daughters, and it is “assumed that when the other girls leave home Isabelle will stay and look after her parents.” As a woman, Isabelle has little control over the course of her life. Isabelle’s father, “a man bored by his houseful of women,” forces her to marry René Azaire as punishment for falling in love with a young man of lesser social status whom he does not approve of. Isabelle’s father asserts his patriarchal power to ensure that she does not marry beneath her class—and in the process, he breaks her heart. Isabelle’s marriage to René proves miserable, and when his own unhappiness manifests in impotence, he begins to beat Isabelle in lieu of a sexual release. René’s inability to perform sexually is emasculating, and because of his impotence, “he subsequently experiences a kind of emotional powerlessness towards [Isabelle].” René’s abuse is his attempt to tip the scales in his favor, and this reflects the sexist nature of society.
Beginning with Stephen and Isabelle’s affair, Faulks begins to upend common stereotypes regarding sex and gender by depicting Isabelle as a sensual woman with a voracious sexual appetite. When Isabelle and Stephen’s love is finally realized, they begin their affair in “the red room,” a deserted bedroom in the staff quarters of the Azaires’ home that has been long forgotten by René. Isabelle decorates the room a crimson color symbolic of her and Stephen’s racy affair, and they escape to the room as often as possible. In the isolation of “the red room,” Stephen tears the clothes from Isabelle’s body and does things to her that her older sister never told her about. Isabelle refuses to feel guilty for indulging her desires, despite acknowledging that the act is “surely not the way of the Catholic church.” Isabelle is expected by society and her religion to be chaste and pure, and this runs counter to her actual desires and actions. Ultimately, despite her initial love for him, Isabelle leaves Stephen and returns to her abusive husband. While she challenges society’s expectations with her affair, she eventually succumbs to the pressure and returns to her violent and loveless marriage. However, when the Germans occupy France during World War I and René is led away with the other men, Isabelle quickly falls in love with a German soldier. Again, Faulks challenges popular gender stereotypes by representing Isabelle as a woman with multiple love affairs. Instead of a demure woman, she is depicted as sexual and desirous.
Birdsong also challenges sex and gender stereotypes of men. Faulks depicts several of the men in his novel with tenderness and vulnerability, lending a certain femininity to their description. In the trenches of World War I, Englishman Jack Firebrace reflects on the importance of comradery, and he describes his closest wartime friend, Arthur Shaw, as “handsome” with “level eyes” and a “muscular back.” Faulks writes, “Jack could almost feel the supple shape of Shaw’s body as it curved to accommodate him in the narrow, stinking dugouts where they slept.” The intimate and vaguely sexual description of the two men challenges popular assumptions about men and masculinity, especially of soldiers. Faulks describes Stephen’s closest wartime comrade, Michael Weir, as a virgin who never finds the courage to seduce a woman. Stephen dedicates most of his off time to finding Michael a prostitute, and at the door of a brothel, Michael cries, “Christ, Wraysford, just let me get out of here. Let me go home. I don’t want this.” Weir’s inexperience and fear of the opposite sex (and perhaps his fear of sex itself) strips him of his expected virility, and because of this, he appears less masculine. Neither Jack, Shaw, nor Weir are described in traditional terms of sex or gender, and because of this paradox, Faulks’ attempt to dismantle popular stereotypes is much more effective. Images of women have long since been manipulated in literature to make them appear more masculine; however, the addition of men described in nearly womanlike terms is much rarer—as even metaphorical implications of femininity can be viewed as a threat to patriarchal society. Faulks’ representation of the men in Birdsong is unexpected and powerful, and as such, it serves to better disrupt stereotypes involving sex and gender.
Sex and Gender ThemeTracker
Sex and Gender Quotes in Birdsong
“This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano.”
Madame Azaire’s voice was cool and low […].
Monsieur and Madame Bérard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one use to such fancies. “And what was the tune, my dear?”
“I don’t know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like Beethoven or Chopin.”
“I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame,” said Bérard
gallantly. “It was one of those folksongs, I’ll bet you anything.”
“Madame,” said Azaire, “I assure you that Isabelle has no fever. She is a woman of a nervous temperament. She suffers from headaches and various minor maladies. It signifies nothing. Believe me, I know her very well and I have learned how to live with her little ways.” He gave a glace of complicity toward Bérard who chuckled. “You yourself are fortunate in having a robust constitution.”
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.
Azaire’s gaze had filled with something like amusement. “I don’t’ like to think of you having some kind of fit. I could easily—.”
“For goodness’ sake, René,” said Madame Azaire. “He’s told you there’s nothing to worry about. Why don’t you just leave him alone?”
Azaire’s fork made a loud clatter as he laid it down on his plate. For a moment his face had an expression of panic, like that of the schoolboy who suffers a sudden reverse and can’t understand the rules of behaviour by which his rival has won approval. Then he began to smile sardonically, as though to indicate that really he knew best and that his decision not to argue further was temporary indulgence he was granting his juniors. He turned to his wife with a teasing lightness of manner.
“And have you heard your minstrel again in your wanderings in the town, my dear?”
She looked down at her plate. “I was not wandering, René. I was doing errands.”
“Of course, my dear. My wife is a mysterious creature, Monsieur,” he said to Stephen. “No one knows—like the little stream in the song—whither she flows or where her end will be.”
She was the only one who did not respond to Bérard’s promptings. She barely contributed when he invited her to do so, but would speak, unbidden, on a subject of her own choice. This appeared to leave Bérard no choice but to cut her off. He would apologize with a small bow of his head, though not for some minutes, and not until he had taken the conversation safely down the path he wanted. Madame Azaire would shrug lightly or smile at his belated apology as though to suggest that what she had been about to say was unimportant.
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] saw the production of further children as important proof of his standing in society and a confirmation that this was a balanced match in which his age and the difference in tastes were not important. He approached his wife in a businesslike and predatory manner; she reacted with the submissive indifference which was the only response he left open to her. He made love to her each night, though, once embarked on it, he seemed to want it to be over quickly. Afterward he never referred to what they had done together. Madame Azaire, who was initially frightened and ashamed, slowly became frustrated by her husband’s attitude; she could not understand why this aspect of their lives, which seemed to mean so much to him, was something he would not talk about, nor why the startling intimacy of the act opened no doors in her mind, made no connections with the deeper feelings and aspirations that had grown in her since childhood.
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.
“What do you do?” he said to Elizabeth.
“I run a clothing company.” She disliked being asked this question, thinking people ought to ask new acquaintances who they were rather than what they did, as though their job defined them.
“You say you run it. You’re the boss, are you?”
“That’s right. I started out as a designer about fifteen years ago but I transferred to the business side. We formed a new company and I became managing director.”