As a fable of humility, “The Birds” condemns humanity’s hubristic belief that we can control the world around us. Building on the theme of man vs. nature, Du Maurier’s tale rejects the notion of humankind as the master of nature, instead suggesting that any belief in human superiority to nature is foolish and doomed. While Nat’s response to the bird attacks is to take immediate, purposeful action, nearly every other character is stubbornly skeptical that the birds are a true threat. Arrogant faith in man’s dominion over supposedly simple creatures like birds leads to destruction, as those who refuse to take the attacks seriously are the first to die.
Nat’s repeated attempts to warn those around him are met with mockery or dismissal. When he tells Mrs. Trigg about the incident in his children’s bedroom, she assumes it was a nightmare and asks if he is sure they were “real birds.” Jim, the cowhand, is similarly uninterested in Nat’s story. Later, Mr. Trigg teases Nat about shooting the birds for a “gull breakfast” and calls the whole thing a “lot of nonsense.” The entire Trigg household then dies from bird attacks that night.
Even the world beyond Nat’s small circle appears, at first, to dismiss the birds. The operator Nat dials upon seeing a flock of gulls hovering over the water sounds “laconic, weary,” causing Nat to deduce, “She’s another … She doesn’t care.” As Nat’s family listens to the radio announcement of the attacks, the announcer sounds like he is treating “the whole business as he would an elaborate joke.” Nat fears there will be many others like the announcer, and that Londoners would hold parties to get drunk and watch the birds.
Blind faith in human ingenuity proves just as dangerous as personal pride. Even those who take seriously the threat of the birds assume erroneously that their salvation will come at human hands. Nat, Nat’s wife, and the Triggs all put their faith in human ability to overcome any obstacle, trusting that a vague, distant “they” will come save them. This is itself a kind of hubris, a belief in the limitless power of human beings to solve problems and tame the natural world.
Mrs. Trigg says to Nat after he tells her of the first attack, “You ought to write up and ask the Guardian. They’d have some answer for it,” though, of course, this would be futile. Even Nat’s wife says, “Someone should know of this, someone should be told.” Later: “Why don’t the authorities do something? Why don’t they get the Army, get the machine guns?” She also asserts that America, newly-emerged as a world superpower at the time, will save them. Yet the British empire’s cutting-edge military technology is no match for the birds. Though the Army does send planes to attack them, Nat hears the planes crash and sees one of them burning, as the birds have jammed up the propellers.
Nat’s family repeatedly huddles around the radio for news, anxiously awaiting a broadcast to tell them what is happening and give them instructions. The radio announcer calls buildings “impenetrable,” yet Nat’s experience has highlighted the persistence of the birds, which undercuts the authority of the people he hoped would save him. By morning, the radio has stopped broadcasting altogether, revealing the depths of human hubris as the birds have so rapidly destroyed the most basic functions of society. While Nat seems the most prepared of anyone to take on the birds, even he puts too much faith in others at first, musing, “There’s one thing, the best brains in the country will be on it tonight.” As time goes on, however, Nat’s faith is shaken until he finally accepts that his family is on their own.
Given that “The Birds” was written in the wake of World War II—a time of great decline and economic struggle for the British Empire—the story also echoes general disillusionment with humanity and government’s ability to ensure stability and progress. Nat’s frustration with the government grows as he senses how ill-prepared it is. He thinks, “This was not a job for the government, for the chiefs of staff—they would merely carry out the orders of the scientists.” When no more aircraft come to help, Nat curses “the inefficiency of the authorities” who “always let us down. Muddle, muddle, from the start. No plan, no real organization.”
Nat is only able to survive as long as he does by realizing that no one is coming to help him, and staying humble and realistic about the situation and his own abilities. Yet he too stumbles in being “pleased with his handiwork” after securing his home, as soon enough the birds penetrate all his best defenses. Those around him, meanwhile, are condemned for putting too much faith in humanity’s hubristic belief that we have any real control over the natural world and a fundamentally chaotic universe.
Hubris and Humility ThemeTracker
Hubris and Humility Quotes in The Birds
It was, Nat thought, like air raids in the war. No one down this end of the country knew what the Plymouth folk had seen and suffered. You had to endure something yourself before it touched you.
The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds.
Nat thought to himself that “they” were no doubt considering the problem at that very moment, but whatever “they” decided to do in London and the big cities would not help the people here, three hundred miles away. Each householder must look after his own.
“I don’t want a gun,” said Nat, “but I’d be obliged if you’d run Jill home. She’s scared of the birds.”
He spoke briefly. He did not want to talk in front of Jill.
“OK,” said the farmer, “I’ll take her home. Why don’t you stop behind and join the shooting match? We’ll make the feathers fly.”
Jill climbed in, and turning the car, the driver sped up the lane. Nat followed after. Trigg must be crazy.
What use was a gun against a sky of birds?
There was no further drone of aircraft, and the naval guns had ceased. “Waste of life and effort,” Nat said to himself. “We can’t destroy enough of them that way. Cost too heavy. There’s always gas. Maybe they’ll try spraying with gas, mustard gas. We’ll be warned first, of course, if they do. There’s one thing, the best brains of the country will be onto it tonight.”