Throughout the novel, birds represent hope and belief in an afterlife. This symbol originates with the death of Tommo’s father. He is killed as he rescues young Tommo from a falling tree, but at the funeral, the whole Peaceful family believe that he has been reincarnated as a swallow, which is swooping around the church. Big Joe gets up to release the trapped swallow, and when he has done so, the whole family feel that the spirit of their father is now free and has moved into the afterlife. After the funeral, Mrs. Peaceful tells Big Joe that Mr. Peaceful is “up there” and “as happy as the birds.” Tommo’s father said more than once that “in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.” Thus, the symbol of the bird becomes a symbol of heaven to Tommo and his family.
Tommo carries this symbol with him into war. Even on the battlefield, Tommo still notices the birds in the midst of so much chaos and death. He notes that he has “even seen larks over no-man’s land,” and that he “always found hope in that.” Later in the novel, in the aftermath of a horrific attack, Tommo realizes that the birds still sing: “There is one [dead soldier] lying in the wire with his arm stretched heavenwards, his hand pointing. He is one of ours, or was. I look up where he is pointing. There are birds up there, and they are singing. I see a beady-eyed blackbird singing to the world from his barbed-wire perch.” Even in the midst of the dead, and from a barbed-wire perch, the birds still sing and consequently spread hope. In this passage they are also very clearly associated with heaven. The dead soldier who is pointing “heavenwards” is also, notably, pointing towards the singing birds.
Tommo loses his religious faith during the course of the war, but he still consistently mentions the fact that he finds hope in the birds he sees. During the war, the birds gradually come to represent something slightly different for Tommo than just a religious form of “heaven.” Instead, the birds imply a different form of life after death, free of the dogma and ritual of organized religion. Every time that Tommo sees a bird, he is reminded of his father. In this sense, his father lives on with Tommo. This form of life after death is not religious, but it is still a significant source of comfort and hope for Tommo.
The symbol becomes particularly poignant upon the occasion of Charlie’s death. Tommo hopes that there will be birds present at Charlie’s execution, claiming that “it will be easier if there are birds.” The birds, presumably, will help Tommo (and Charlie) to believe that there is hope for Charlie after his execution, and that he will happily and freely transition in a new life of some kind after his death, religious or otherwise. When Charlie has been executed, the novel touchingly ends with mention of the fact that “the birds are singing.” The singing birds, as is the case earlier in the story, present a glimmer of hope at redemption for Charlie. They are a promise of hope at the end of an otherwise very bleak tale.
Birds Quotes in Private Peaceful
A swallow swoops over our heads all through the prayers, all through the hymns, flitting from window to window, from the belfry to the altar, looking for some way out. And I know for certain it is Father trying to escape. I know it because he told us more than once that in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.