"The Birds" Criticism "The Influence of the Cold War and Nuclear Proliferation"

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“The Birds” Criticism “The Influence of the Cold War and Nuclear Proliferation”

Curt Guyette

Guyette has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh. In the following essay, Guyette examines the influence of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation on du Maurier’s story.

“... for the first time in history, man’s unique tendency toward war had culminated in weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to the entire natural world.”

In her short story “The Birds,” author Daphne du Maurier creates a chilling piece of fiction that haunts the imagination by vividly conjuring up innate primal fears. Her stark depiction of a family huddled inside their house as hordes of vicious birds relentlessly attack is truly the stuff of which nightmares are made. When explored at a deeper level, however, this piece can be interpreted as something much more than just a macabre scenario involving birds gone berserk. Looked at closely, du Maurier’s story can be seen as a cautionary tale about man’s tendency to wage war and the profound dread plaguing a civilization perched on the brink of annihilation because of that trait.

Published as part of a collection of stories in 1952, “The Birds” was written when the psychological wounds of World War II were still fresh, and the Cold War between western democracies and the Soviet Union was already well under way. As a native of Britain, du Maurier was keenly aware of the terror wrought by the German bombing raids that besieged England. Married to a British army officer who commanded an airborne division, she lived with the constant knowledge that one day there could be a knock on the door informing her that she had become a widow and that her small children were fatherless.

But the end of the war did not bring a sense of peace or stability, neither for du Maurier nor the rest of the world. The images of mushroom clouds erupting from atom bombs dropped on Japan continued to cast their troubling shadows across the planet as the arms race with the Soviets escalated and the specter of nuclear conflict hovered. Such a conflict threatened not only humanity, but all life on earth. As a result, for the first time in history, man’s unique tendency toward war had culminated in weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to the entire natural world.

Just as the world suddenly changed forever at that instant the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima to usher in the nuclear age, the change portending doom is equally swift and unexpected as the story of “The Birds” begins. The world changes literally overnight as the mild, mellow days of autumn are transformed, immediately becoming cold and harsh as a foreboding wind begins to blow in from the east. The land freezes hard as stone in a matter of hours. “Black winter had descended in a single night,” writes du Maurier.

The story’s central character, Nat Hocken, is a war veteran suffering from a disability. Because he works part-time at a farm, Nat is very much in touch with the rhythms of nature. Living near the ocean, he takes pleasure in watching the seasonal rituals that dictate the migration patterns of the many different kinds of birds that inhabit the area along the British sea coast that’s home to Nat and his family.

It is while Nat is working in the fields that he first senses something odd about the birds gathering around him. There are many more of them than normal, and they seem unusually agitated. Nat thinks of them as a “warning” that winter is approaching. When the weather turns with a shift in the wind that night, the coinciding attack of birds is immediate. First it is just one small bird fluttering against the bedroom window of Nat and his wife, but even it draws blood.

Before the night is through, Nat is battling fiercely to protect his young children from the swarm of birds that have flooded into their room. As the sun rises and the birds flee, Nat surveys the carnage and sees several dozen dead birds of many different varieties. It is more proof that something unnatural is occurring because, under normal circumstances, these birds would have “kept to their own flock and their own territory ... It is as though a madness seized them, with the east wind,” Nat tells his wife.

References to the “east wind” are frequent throughout the story. Ensuring that the significance of that is not lost on readers, du Maurier is even more explicit when referring to the source of this sudden cold. Mrs. Trigg, the wife of the farmer Nat works for, asks him specifically if he thinks the razor sharp wind is blowing in from Russia. Later in the story, after the birds have made their first attack, the farmer tells Nat, “They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.” It is a stark example of the kind of cold war paranoia that was proliferating during the 1950s.

But that threat is not enough to instill caution in the farmer. Ignoring advice to board up his windows to fend off attack, he thinks a gun will allow him to handle any threat the birds might pose. Nat sees the farmer’s dismissive attitude toward precautionary measures as similar to that of people who failed to acknowledge the onset of the second world war. There are numerous references to World War II throughout the story. As it turns out though, the postwar attack of birds seem to be an even more formidable enemy than the Axis powers were. The British planes that successfully fought off the Germans prove useless against the small winged creatures willing to thrust themselves into engines, causing the aircraft to crash and explode. Likewise, the massive warships that helped the British and their allies beat back the forces of fascism are powerless against this new terror.

From Nat’s vantage point, the only weapon that might be of use is poison gas, which may kill the birds but would (like nuclear fallout) leave behind a world so “contaminated” that it would be uninhabitable. This sense of futility reflects du Maurier’s personal philosophy regarding war. According to Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, the author saw all armed conflict as a fruitless endeavor. As she wrote to a friend regarding the war: “What carnage there is going to be ... and what will have been achieved? Nothing.” Forster also described a time during the middle of World War II when du Maurier looked at her young son and pessimistically thought about the terrible fighting and how his generation will all be “doing the same in twenty years’ time, and it made her shudder.”

That same sort of dire outlook permeates “The Birds.” In Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers, Richard Kelly writes about the struggle Nat Hocken and his family endure when they see “nature turn upon them ... The end result,” observes Kelly about the attack, “is that human beings are forced to act like animals themselves, with survival as their solitary goal.”

Whether the Hocken family will prevail is something that’s left to doubt. As “The Birds” draws to a close, the family is huddled inside their kitchen as if it were an air raid shelter, with food and fire wood in short supply. The radio is silent, and they are shut off from the outside world as hordes of birds stab at the windows and claw at the roof with their talons. Indeed, the family’s survival is very much in question. What brought them to that point is what du Maurier described as a new-born instinct “to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”

As the Hocken family is forced to live like animals, the birds in this story display a type of intellect usually associated with humans. From the outset, Nat notices that the birds gather to attack in organized “formations,” like so many war planes. It is as if they were on specific missions, acting under orders from some unseen high command, with some flocks being assigned cities to attack while others are given rural areas to assault with their kamikaze-like bombardments. “They’ve got reasoning powers,” thinks Nat. And that may be the ultimate horror story: a world in which nature, threatened with annihilation by the awesome destructive powers of modern technology, retaliates by assuming a characteristic that otherwise makes man unique — the ability to ruthlessly and systematically wage all-out war.

Source: Curt Guyette, Critical Essay on “The Birds,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

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