Du Maurier’s story takes place shortly after World War II, a setting emphasized by her imagery of violence and references to fighter planes, machine guns, mustard gas, and Navy ships. Not only does the birds’ attack echo the horror of weapons of mass destruction and, specifically, the Blitz, but it also explores the toll of war on the human psyche. In “The Birds,” fending off the birds becomes analogous to engaging in war, which strips human beings of everything that makes them human.
The birds are relentless and indiscriminate in their attacks, killing men, women, and children alike. Du Maurier uses the language of battle to connect the birds to the military and machinery, presenting them as not simply a natural disaster, but an opposing army. Nat compares the feeling of the attacks to “air raids during the war” and tells his family after boarding up his home that they’re “snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter.” As though broadcasting from a war zone, the radio announcer warns, “The birds, in vast numbers, are attacking anyone on sight.” And while the birds are initially described as looking like clouds, Nat eventually confuses their formation on the bay with the Navy, observing, “The Navy was not there. It was the gulls rising from the sea.”
The birds also become like weapons through du Maurier’s description of their “instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.” In keeping with the idea of the birds as a military force, Nat, a disabled veteran, repeatedly thinks about military strategies to defeat them, such as firing at the birds while they rest at low tide. As he secures his family’s cottage Nat is reminded of working on a shelter for his mother in the town of Plymouth, which ultimately proved useless against German air raids.
Du Maurier’s evocation of war also gestures towards fundamental ethical questions of combat, namely how many casualties to accept in pursuit of defeating an enemy. As Nat postulates the use of mass weapons, he assumes that authorities would “warn” the population before releasing mustard gas or shelling. He asserts “The guns couldn’t shell the shore because of the population,” clinging to the preservation of his small seaside town even in the midst of a world-wide catastrophe. But even as he hopes for his town’s salvation, Nat professes his belief that the authorities prioritize urban citizens, positing that “we don’t matter down here … The people upcountry have priority. They’re using gas up there, no doubt, and all the aircraft. We’ve got to wait and take what comes.” He also fears that the use of mustard gas, though effective in killing the birds, would contaminate the surrounding lands and animals. His thinking reflects the nuclear fallout of World War II, and the increasing tension of nuclear proliferation, when he muses, “Where the trouble’s worst they’ll have to risk more lives if they use gas. All the livestock, too, and the soil—all contaminated.”
By focusing on Nat Hocken’s family as they battle the encroaching birds, du Maurier illustrates on a small scale how war reaches and transforms every aspect of life, leaving little room for many of the characteristics that make us human. The story is entirely focused on Nat’s attempts to survive and save his family, as he is constantly “planning against emergency”; there is no reflection on what his family actually means to him. Nat’s attempts to distract his wife and children from the hammering of the birds with special dinner treats and forced laughter ring hollow against the encroaching threat. He also doesn’t have time to mourn the death of the entire Trigg family; he must immediately begin ransacking the house for supplies if he is to make it home before the birds resume their attack. Du Maurier later emphasizes the Triggs’ absence as Nat watches his wife pour “the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.”
Until the end, Nat is planning next steps to secure his home and family. Only in the final moments of the story, when it appears the birds are breaking through the door and all is lost, does Nat decide to smoke his final cigarette—perhaps giving in to a final moment of pleasure and “civilization” in the face of imminent death. “The Birds” thus invokes the sheer horror and inescapability of mass violence, and the seeming futility of humanity in the face of its own destructive tendencies.
The Inhumanity of War ThemeTracker
The Inhumanity of War Quotes in The Birds
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.