Du Maurier never gives any explanation for the relentless bird attacks, which is part of what makes them so chilling. Human beings pride themselves on their rational intellect—they assume that their ability to make rational inferences about the world will allow them to manage their own fates. “The Birds,” however, dismantles the notion that reason has the power to dispel chaos by presenting humans as engaged in a futile battle with irrational and relentless forces.
Within a single day of the birds’ attacks, the intricately-constructed man-made world is brought to a halt. This highlights the fragility of these structures and the tenuousness of the order that guides society. People are so beholden to reason that things that are irrational or unexpected are fascinating and even awe-inspiring. Irrationality is shown to have a power over people, then, simply because it defies their expectations about the world. In this way, “The Birds” shows our over-reliance on reason, as the human reaction to something abnormal is to basically malfunction. Nat listens as the radio announcer describes the effect of the birds on the city: “traffic came to a standstill in many thoroughfares, work was abandoned in shops and offices.”
Du Maurier suggests not only the fragility of man’s world, but its absurdity as well. Nat’s wife only shops for the family on designated days, and her strict adherence to this completely arbitrary order has left the family with little food when the attacks begin. Table manners seem similarly ridiculous in the face of the attacks, as evidenced by Jill’s admonishment of her brother to wipe gravy from his chin mere moments before it appears the birds will break down the cottage door and kill them all.
By refusing to offer a clear rationale for the birds’ actions, du Maurier pits meaningless violence against Nat’s methodical attempts to survive. However heroic, Nat’s efforts are ultimately short-sighted and futile because he cannot defeat irrationality with reason.
Until the very end of the story, Nat is thinking of what concrete steps to take next to secure his family—from boarding up the windows, to gathering food, to lighting a fire in the chimney. Part of Nat’s mistake is to believe that, by completely securing the house, he can convince the birds to go somewhere else. Though Nat describes the “silly, senseless thud of the suicide birds,” he also believes that other, smarter birds “knew what they were doing.” “They’ve got reasoning powers, he thought. They know it’s hard to break in here. They’ll try elsewhere.” This logic attempts to ascribe rationality to the birds in order to predict how to defeat them. Nat cannot fathom, though, that the bird attacks are irrational and that he cannot deter them, as he would a human intruder, by making their entry difficult. The birds, of course, get inside anyway, showing a victory of irrational forces against the most concerted attempts to reason a way out.
Both the birds and the human beings in du Maurier’s story do things for no logical reason. Du Maurier suggests that, in his attempts to structure an ultimately meaningless world, man ironically spurs himself toward chaos. Though Nat can sense this instinct in the birds, he cannot see it in himself. Early in the story, he thinks that the birds are “like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly.” This parallels Nat’s own later actions when he encourages his wife to make tea and cocoa, rationalizing, “Keep her busy, and the children too. Move about, eat, drink; always best to be on the go.” He fails (or refuses) to see the folly in his own actions as he takes step after step to secure his home.
Du Maurier repeatedly invokes this notion of doing something solely for the sake of doing something as a distraction from knowledge of mortality. Nat believes that birds, like human beings, are prone to panic in the face of death, and that this loss of rationality is the real “trouble.” He thinks, “As long as everyone doesn’t panic. That’s the trouble. People panicking, losing their heads.” But if keeping busy has no deeper purpose, the work suggests, it is not any more a “rational” choice than embracing the chaos that is reality.
Reason vs. Chaos ThemeTracker
Reason vs. Chaos Quotes in The Birds
Perhaps, thought Nat, munching his pasty by the cliff’s edge, a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.
Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified. They were all small birds, none of any size; there must have been fifty of them lying there upon the floor. There were robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls or in the strife had been destroyed by him. Some had lost feathers in the fight; others had blood, his blood, upon their beaks.
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.
That was the line. Keep her busy, and the children too. Move about, eat, drink; always best to be on the go.
Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.