When looking for WW1 novels this article came up that I thought seemed interesting! Having not watched this episode in a while I found the videos rather amusing!! Hope you enjoy:)
The novel ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks focuses on WW1 and its effect on society through the journey of the protagonist Stephen Wraysford and his family. The novel is structured around three time periods and Faulks uses these time changes and the characters in each to show the differences that the war made. The first section is set in France before the war and introduces Stephen and his affair with Isabelle. This whole section shows how little rights women had, especially shown in Isabelle’s unhappy and abusive marriage to Azaire. The next section contains the war and explores trench warfare, tunnelling and going over the top. The final section is set in 1970s Britain and concerns Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth who is researching WW1. This last section truly shows the change in society and women’s rights as Elizabeth is free to have a child despite being single.
The novel opens with a lush and Romantic description of Amiens and the “river Somme”, showing the nature that will soon be destroyed by the war. Faulks describes passages and tunnels multiple times in the opening paragraphs, giving the ideas of the tunnels of WW1 from the very beginning, “the river Somme broke into small canals”, “unregarded passageways”. It could be argued that Faulks does this to show how the actions of the society in “France 1910” caused the war. The natural elements of the description give ideas of the Garden of Eden, and thus you could see the war as symbolising the fall of man.
Houses are often used as outward manifestations of the family that lives within them in literature and the Azaire house in Birdsong is no different. The house is described in a gothic manner as having a “strong, formal front” with “iron railings”, this sturdy exterior shows that the family is respectable however the iron railings could be seen as a metaphor for Azaire trapping Isabelle within and seeing her as a possession. Isabelle is an obviously beautiful trophy wife, her beauty not shown through her husband’s admiration but Stephen’s curious thoughts about her, “her white hands”, “membrane of her lower lip”. Isabelle is a commodity to Azaire, her marriage was “sold” to Azaire by her “father” and he objectifies her, choosing to “display her to his friends”. This shows the patriarchal nature and capitalist views of Victorian society.
Azaire is not only an abusive husband but an exploitative business owner, representing the capitalist businessmen who contributed to causing WW1. We can see a socialist point of view in the character of Meyraux who plainly describes the problem with society in his argument with Azaire, “What the industry needs is… a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks links capitalism to war by having Azaire talk about his workforce using the semantic field of war, “we need to retrench”. In both war and industry the men are used merely as pawns to advantage those higher up in society.
The first things we encounter in “France 1916” are the tunnels, mirroring the opening passage of the novel, “forty-five feet underground”. Faulks uses the language of industry in this section “mechanical” “grinding” to show how the soldiers were merely cogs in a mechanism. Faulks introduces the men, giving them names and a back-story, allowing the reader to get to know them so that the reader empathises with Stephen’s pain when they die. He creates images using simplistic language with very little emotion to brutally describe the horrors of their injuries; “his head was cut away in section… ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping.”
Stephen doesn’t see war like the officials do, he almost poses as the voice of reason, “Every one of the men we’ve killed is someone’s son”. Faulks uses him to voice the views of many soldiers, including Wilfred Owen, “No one in England knows what this is like”. That thought is a theme of the whole novel, confirmed through Elizabeth’s naivety about the casualties of the war in the 1970s. The only outcome of war is the questioning of morality, which is exactly what Stephen does when talking to Wraysford, he expresses his newly damaged mindset weaved with both his opinion and societal opinions of war, “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded”. He even speaks the truth when talking to his hopelessly optimistic superiors who believe that the battle will be “over at dawn”, Stephen thinks logically and questions both the “terrain” and the actions of the “enemy”.
When the soldiers wait for the command Faulks uses short sentences and phrases, “They were almost there. Stephen on his knees, some men taking photographs from their pockets, kissing the faces of their wives and children. Hunt telling foul jokes.” This slows down time and shows the panic of the anticipation. He uses short sentences again in the battle itself, this time to speed the action up, “It had not been cut.” Faulks personifies nature, “soil spat”, suggesting that nature is fighting back and joining the battle, a similar idea to those in “Futility”. The dehumanisation of soldiers is shown very specifically in the battle as the soldiers are described as “primitive dolls” and “humps of khaki”, giving the impression that they are less than human, dispensable. Faulks uses several semantic fields in the battle, this mix of semantic fields adds to the eclectic and crazed nature of the war. He uses the semantic field of machinery, “clog the progress”; horror, “his nose dangled”; and when Stephen survives the Romantic field of nature, “There are trees beyond the noise, and down in the valley is the fish-filled river.” Faulks later mixes the semantic field of butchery, “pink skin” “small joints of meat” with the semantic field of drowning, “wave breaking” “undertow of fear”. The semantic field of butchery makes the reader see that the soldiers were treated like animals, simply dying for a higher purpose. The semantic field of drowning insinuates that either the men were drowning in the noise of the war “sound of shellfire” “explosion”, or even that they were drowning in the bodies, unable to dispose of them all.
The sections set after the war concern Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter who is both coping with being pregnant with a married man and searching for her grandfather’s story. Part 3 unsurprisingly starts in the “tunnel of the underground”. The motif of introducing each timeframe using tunnels links all three, showing how the war affected all. Elizabeth visits France to try and find out what the war is like and is surprised by the scale and horror of it all, the “endless writing as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes”. That image gives the reader an insight into Elizabeth’s head and the unfathomable number of names on the memorial. Because the reader has just got a taste of WW1 through ‘Part 2’ we sympathise with Elizabeth, however the tone of these sections seems ironic because we know we’ll never experience it like the soldiers did, which is why “My God, nobody told me” rings true with the readers.
Elizabeth gets impregnated by a married man, and the fact that she can do so and have the baby shows how the world has changed. Before the war this would be frowned upon by Victorian society but not even her mother minds now. The only one who’s unsure is Robert, her lover, and the novel ends with him finally accepting the thought of another baby and being overwhelmed with “great happiness”. A feminist reader would be glad of this ending as it truly shows that despite the deaths caused by World War 1 it propelled society into the future and promoted freedom. Faulks shows in this final section what the men in WW1 fought for, not for patriotic values or revenge but for the future.
So we’ve been here on WordPress for a whole year and now we’re starting looking at ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks!
The opening passage of ‘Birdsong’ describes the open passages of the canals of the river Somme as well as the Boulevard Du Cange in Amiens. The paragraph is really a display of what life was like before the war, a rich and idyllic description of nature “On the damp side were chestnut trees, lilac and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners.” The description gives the idea of the Garden of Eden, which suggests that the fall of man must be close, and sure enough WW1 is around the corner. The idea of “small canals” with “water gardens” gives the first images of passages and tunnels, and thus the first idea of trenches and the tunnels below No-Man’s Land.
We are then treated to a description to the “Azaires’ house” which has a “strong formal front” behind “iron railings” . This represents the family itself, which is formal and separated from the workers. Azaire himself is a capitalist and doesn’t respect his workers. We could also look at the house in terms of its facade, the term facade could easily be applied to countries in Europe at that time, where tensions were running high due to the breaking down of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the subsequent power vacuum. However the idea of a front could simply be a term referring to the front line, where the most fighting occured.
The description of the inside of the house also concerns itself with the idea of mystery and passages, “it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners.” This is the second image of passageways, linking to the trenches and underground tunnels. The quotation “the house was always a place of unseen footsteps” gives the house a sense of intrigue. However it also highlights a major issue later on, in the tunnels Jack Firebrace and his men have to stop and listen for noises several times when digging to ensure the enemy isn’t close. These “unseen footsteps” are exactly what the soldiers in the tunnels needed to listen out for.
Later on in the book Azaire discusses his workers with Meyraux, a socialist. Parallel to this section of the book is the rise of socialism, unions and socialist governments, we hear of riots and Isabelle goes to feed the starving children. Meyraux says that industry needs “a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks uses the language of war in Azaires speech and Stephen’s thoughts to foreshadow the future and also show how he uses his men as pawns to get his own way, just like soldiers, “we can therefore only retrench”, “Stephen was surprised by the simplicity of Azaire’s asault”.
We can see the wealth and success of Azaire in his family, his children are “plump”, an outward display off his extravagance and his wife is beautiful, a typical trophy wife. All the descriptions of Isabelle make her seem attractive, formal and fragile, “Her clothes were more fashionable than those of other women in the town yet revealed less.” The idea of her being like a porcelain doll is reinforced by the description of “polished china” in the room.
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‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a poem by Wilfred Owen written as an elegiac lament for the young soldiers who were slaughtered in battles that he too fought in. He delivers this message by shocking the reader in a variety of ways. The poem is almost written in sonnet form; Owen liked to misuse the sonnet form to show that he was anti-establishment and angry. Owen mixes the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchen and the Elizabethan sonnet by using “ababcdcd effegg” and uses a mix of half rhyme (“guns” & “orisons”) and full rhyme (“bells” “shells”). This misuse of the sonnet is a strong statement that would have shocked society, the sonnet was literally a poetic “anthem” (an anthem being a song to represent a nation) which the British society loved, by misusing it Owen expresses his raw emotion and hurt at the loss of life and the complacency of the public on the matter.
Owen asks why there are no funerals in Britain for the dead soldiers, why there are no “mockeries” or “passing-bells”. The passing bell was a bell that rung when someone died, and Owen uses this image to represent how nobody marked the deaths of some of these soldiers. The bell also provides us with a connotation with noise, especially with the idea of noise ringing in our ears, similar to the noise in the trenches. He also talks of how these “doomed youth” had no future; in the phrase “die as cattle” Owen uses connotations with the death of cattle and slaughter to evoke emotion in the reader. When the reader reads the word “cattle” immediately there are connotations with the slaughter of defenceless animals, thus Owen is suggesting that the soldiers going over the top of the trench may as well be “cattle” being slaughtered.
Owen uses onomatopoeic alliteration to create the noise of shells and bullets, especially in the line “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”. The next line is cleverly constructed, “Can patter out their hasty orisons”. When put in the whole sentence it simply states that the bullets cause the deaths of the praying soldiers however the word “patter” is the interesting word in this sentence. The word originates from ‘Paternoster’ (meaning ‘Our Father’, the most prominent Christian prayer) and came to mean repetitive noise, like how prayers are repeated in churches. Not only is this onomatopoeic and creates the idea of the repetitive sound of the shells but the idea of prayer continues as this “patter” of gunfire stops their own “hasty orisons”, literally translating as the repetitive prayer-like noise is cutting their hasty prayers short; thus linking religion and warfare, something that would have made Christians in society uncomfortable.
The poem contrasts the civilian life with the lives of the soldiers: for example he contrasts the “choirs” in funerals with the “demented choirs of wailing shells”. This personifies the shells and contrasts religious groups with the weapons that killed thousands of soldiers, once again upsetting society and defying the norm. Owen suggests that there is no “mourning” for the soldiers except for the “shrill” noise of the shells that reminded him of crazed choirs. He extends this idea by suggesting that the “candles” are no longer held in the “hands of boys” but in “their eyes”; they are no longer choirboys but soldiers fighting, and the candlelight is going out, “shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes”. Owen uses the burning light of the candles as a metaphor for their lives, however he also uses the last line “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds” to represent the deaths of the soldiers. Some could argue that this last line links to the people back home, the “pallor of girls brows” is the only thing back home that shows the mass killing, there are no funerals, and it is these families who will remember their sons and husbands every “dusk”.
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This reading especially really helped me with the rhythm of this poem. When reading it in class I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm in my head and when trying to read it. There’s strong consonance in this poem which is really heard in this actor’s voice, as well as the onomatopoeia.
You can hear the alliteration so very well in this reading of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, especially the onomatopoeic ‘rifle’s rapid rattle’.
I really like this recital of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ because it isn’t read by some Oxford scholar but an actor whose voice really expresses the sorrow of the poem; his voice also strikes a chord with me because his northern accent would be the accent of many of the men who died.