A Comparison of the imagery and symbolism in Birdsong and Fair Stood the Wind for France

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Both Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks are novels concerned with and set during the time of World War. Because of this, both authors use symbols and imagery endlessly to both deliberately enhance their plot, and to subjectively give different meanings and ambiguity to details. The stories are both loosely categorised as love stories, and this theme is used as the backdrop to which the writers build their imagery and symbolism upon.

Of course, with both being set amongst World War, symbols can be seen in many things, including, most obviously, war items such as ammunition, the Somme, and emotions; yet I believe there are many specific to the two novels which show a deeper comparison of the two works and general similarities in war literature as a whole. In both of the two novels there are heavily used and deliberate symbols throughout the story; none more so than the eponymous inclusion of birds in Birdsong.

We as an audience are introduced to the definitive use of birds as a symbol from the introduction Faulks includes in his newest edition of the novel. Faulks states that: “the eponymous sound is not meant to symbolise ‘new life’ or ‘fresh hope’; it is intended to bear several meanings, but the most important is to suggest the indifference of the natural world to the human – human, as Philip Roth has put it, in the worst sense of the word. ” This inclusion makes it immediately and obviously clear that birds should be a large factor in the novel, yet after reading Birdsong, birds have no real depth or effect on the plot.

This must mean that they are included purely as a symbol to represent something else about the world, and Faulks even tells us there are several meanings to them. The fact that he even tells us he never wanted birds to symbolise ‘new life’ or ‘fresh hope’ shows us the obvious connotations which would normally follow birds in a war novel are not the reason for their enclosure. The main use of birds in the plot, as to be expected, is when tunnellers Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace try to save a bird which was being used to smell for gas underground.

Apart from this though, the only other real insertion of birds is when they are heard outside. If birds are not supposed to represent new life or fresh hope, then I believe, similar to Faulks’ manipulation of human flesh which I will move on to later, that they are there to show how the natural world has no concern to that of the human’s. By this I mean that birds, as a major and typical product of the natural world, will continue to sing despite the human destruction and indifference around them – this as a consequence shredding the nai?? e belief that birdsong is synonymous with optimism and happiness. The one other time when birds appear is during a typical piece of Faulks imagery: when Stephen has a reoccurring nightmare that he is surrounded by birds.

This seems as though it could be an analogy of the claustrophobia received by the tunnellers when they are underground; both the claustrophobia of the small space they work in and the robotic state they find themselves trapped by. “… reamed a dream that was a variation of one he had had all his life / they beat their wings against the window panes, flapped them in his hair, then brought their beaks towards his face. ” Birds seem to appear at moments of extreme emotion and drama, after having sex for the first time together, outside Stephen and Isabelle “can hear the sound of birds”. This sound eventually becomes one and the same with moments of high intensity; and this intensity is somewhat due to Stephen’s apparent fear of birds.

Stephen being afraid of birds shows there is some fear of the natural world; he even says “I had always hated them… There’s something cruel, prehistoric about them. ” This helps evaluate Stephen’s character, suggesting that his lack of emotion or willingness to express himself later on to his comrades, is because of a pre-existing fear of the natural world. This is summed up by Isabelle’s searching statement, “So there is something that frightens you”.

What we find in the symbolism of birds in Birdsong, we see in the use of a revolver in Fair Stood the Wind for France. With birds highlighting the effects the human world has on the natural world, this is reflected in the way the revolver embodies the physical world in conflict with the spiritual. H. E. Bates continually prescribes Franklin in possession of a revolver, which in turn is grasped in an almost religiously cherished manner as an object which shall never leave his side.

His French lover Francoise reluctantly allows the worship of the revolver to continue, yet brings forward the conflict of the coincidental and constant spiritual life. Francoise is the rigid and friendly, as paradoxical as it sounds, utter embodiment of complete trust in life, faith and God. Her beliefs and dependable optimism: “Everything will be alright”, find it hard to justify someone beholding a physical object for safety, when faith is all the security they need. This is why the revolver is so symbolic.

Bates even provides a narrative from Franklin where he tells of somebody else he knew who put all his faith into a revolver, only for it to be of no use or security during a time of desperation. This narrative is included to express Bates’ apparent opinion that the mechanical, physical and fundamentally human world is looked upon with great indifference by the natural world, and those who look to the human world for security are ultimately consumed with disillusionment. Frankie looked to the revolver and saw it suddenly as a useless and pathetic thing/ He saw them, the three generations of one nation, as part of a defenseless people, as part of the little people possessing an immeasurable power that could not be broken… He knew it clearly now as a more wonderful thing, more enduring, and more inspiring power than he had ever believed possible: the power of their own hearts. ”

This passage sounds as though it could have been written by either Bates or Faulks; its underlying message preaching of the sheer uselessness of something physical on the wider, wiser, more powerful spectrum of the natural world is something that Bates’ symbolisation of the revolver beholds. The revolver being the quintessentially perfect symbol to use; with its mechanism able to have a profound and distressing effect on the human world, yet such a contrasting irrelevance on the natural environment surrounding it.

It is also clear that Francoise, the voice of spiritual reason, manages to enlighten Stephen and persuade him to give up the ‘security’ of the gun, and trust in himself and the Francoise family to make everything alright. With this we see that Bates himself places his trust in something more spiritual which, for someone who fought in the war at the time of writing this, will have an intense consequence on those which may have read this novel in context.

This pattern of the natural and spiritual world contrasting the human and physical world is continued in Faulks’ imagery of the human body. The human body, especially in war novels, will generally follow a certain semantic structure where it can be represented in only a singular way; but in Birdsong, Faulks removes the singular representation of human flesh and splits it into the two binary opposites: physical and spiritual. Of course one cannot read Birdsong without squirming at the sheer graphicness which Faulks applies to the human body in contact with love and war.

With Faulks winning an award for the worst sex prose for a passage in another of his novels in the French trilogy, it is easy to pass the rather cringeworthy sex scenes with little more than a slight chuckle of discomfort. As much as I may feel this, I believe Faulks has included them for more than just plot enhancements; in my opinion he has manipulated the stereotypical semantics of the human body to be able to contrast its usage in love and war.

In a sex scene it would normally be expected that the art of love-making is conducted and appreciated through the abstract features of the heart and soul; that making love has a sort of higher meaning to it than the connection of two bodies, generally perceived as the meeting of two souls. As nice as it sounds, many will understand that this isn’t always quite as realistic as it may seem, and I believe this is the idea Faulks is trying to put across.

We see both in his introduction and contemporary character Elizabeth, that his most poignant message in Birdsong is that he wants a modern audience to unravel the heroics and romanticism that sometimes follows a war novel, and force them to see the utter destruction it could have on the purest part of humans we know, the flesh. “Within the strategy of any novel, the writer has a tactic, and that of Birdsong was simple: full out assault. ”

Again similar to the tearing down of all barricades of a contemporary audience’s expectations from a war novel, Sebastian Faulks also follows this tactic of teaching the contemporary audience something about the war which they didn’t know before. This is applied in the shape of his tunnellers. “… put something in your poem that people don’t know. I felt that if I could bring something new to my account of the war, it would detain even the well-informed, and the story of the tunnellers seemed to fulfil this role. ” “In the opening section, I wanted the texture of the prose to increase the sense of social and sexual claustrophobia. ”

The first sex scene promotes a claustrophobic and uncomfortable urgency between Isabelle and Stephen, and both the foreplay and love-making are conformed from the ideal that the human body can be used for good, something so often overlooked in many war novels. The graphic imagery of war mind you is something which would also not have been expected in a modern war novel. There are the obvious grim and gory inclusions of arms and legs and flesh being obliterated, and friends seeing other friends’ bare flesh on the ground; yet for me the most disturbing passages are those which contend and contemplate on the emotional horror suffered in war. A direct hit would obliterate all physical evidence that a man had existed… even a contained wound brought greater damage to the tissue than a bullet. Infection or gangrene often followed. ” “His thin body was rigid and they could see the contortions of his facial muscles beneath the skin. He was screaming for his home. ” These two passages really epitomise how Faulks tries to write down the sheer horror of war. The first really detailing and conveying the physical harm war has on a human body, from a tongue of researched and unflinching realism.

The second shows the affect war has on the human mind. These really oppose the imagery of human flesh during sex: “She wanted the touch of his skin/ He kissed her from the small of her back over the pink swell of divided flesh. ” We never see this rigorous description from Bates unless describing the landscape around his characters. Opening with: “Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of the crisp folds of crumpled cloth”, doesn’t go far wrong from showing the figurative and adoring language Bates likes to use solely for scenery.

The reason for the two separate usages for description I believe is largely because of target audience and personal propaganda. Bates was writing to people who were struggling through a war and who needed the timeless optimism and satisfaction which a love story often brings; yet Faulks, as he knew and stated, had to write for an audience largely unsusceptible and numb to shocks in literature, an audience who had to be throttled with gore, description, and love, just for the message to be understood.

All taken into account, the graphic coverage of sex in Birdsong is, I believe, included to be a comparison to the graphic features of war and the different uses for the human body, even if “she could take the last three or four spasms in her mouth” is slightly extreme. By having bodies blown apart without any comparison would bring the ideology that the human body is flesh with no substance or reason and provides no hope for the future of humans.

Sex is a tool to show that the human body has two features, one for love one for pain, the physical pain and mental pleasure again reflect the ideas of human and nature. So with Fair Stood the Wind for France, the graphic descriptions of scenery (instead of injury or sex) is not used as a symbol, but as a tool to show an unknowing audience what the terrain of another country was really like; the difference between France and England which only soldiers would know of. “The constant sunlight, untouched by anything that in England would have been called cloud, had made him think that summer was eternal. The sexual scene in Birdsong also happens to connect well to its other major symbol: Red.

The colour red appears frequently in Birdsong and is generally associated with passion and extremities. Before giving in to sexual temptation, Stephen fantasises over Isabelle and shows her apparent ‘frustration’ by the use of the colour white. “She was animated by a different kind of rhythm from that which beat in her husband’s blood”, “her white hands”, “her white hairs”; “he felt certain there was some keener physical life than she was actually living. The colour red as a symbolic inclusion starts when Faulks informs the audience of Isabelle’s childhood. He tells us about her getting her first period and how the colour of blood scared her as she had always thought of it in juxtaposition with pain. “this secret thing that promised new life and liberation should manifest itself in the colour of pain. ” This pain and fear seems to blossom into a kind of mental and physical retribution for Isabelle once she meets Stephen.

Before their affair the “Red Room” was a place where Monsieur Azaire could inflict pain on Isabelle during intercourse, as to both conceal and justify his ongoing impotency. Then to contrast this, Faulks sets Stephens ‘freeing’ of Isabelle in the Red Room, where she has her first enjoyable sexual experience and is taught things which she never knew she could perform or feel. Also, in the Red Room for the second time, Isabelle wears a “red and green outfit”, which again is evidence of the colour red being symbolised as a token of retribution and development.

The point must be made that of course there is countless other mentions of blood which in itself may be some way connected to the symbol of ‘red’; yet as many other things may also be, blood is a very abstract and ambiguous symbol to use in a war novel; and I believe, apart from the quotation I have included, Faulks has no symbolic coverage of blood but merely unravels its semantics and denotations. Although no coverage of colour, Fair Stood the Wind for France has a different take on the imagery of ‘nature’ than that provoked in Birdsong.

In Birdsong Faulks generally seems of the opinion that nature and natural actions are seen in anything that is apart from human touch, even love-making is an almost animalistic and unnatural movement. We see how Monsieur Azaire prowls over Isabelle and beats her during sex. Even Isabelle’s immediate reactions when having sex with Stephen are born: “out of instinct”, the innate, animal device. So in Birdsong, the imagery of nature is considered delicately by Faulks, who promotes a clear separation between the immediate connotations of ‘nature’ and the true, very inhumane ones.

There is of course the very cliched, and very ‘natural’ rebirth at the end of the novel. A rebirth is regularly used to signal an end to the suffering and a new start beginning, yet I find it hard to comprehend that Faulks, a writer of such depth and imagination, would manipulate such a common and predictable symbol. The imagery of nature is one which, to a point, is similar in both Birdsong and Fair Stood the Wind for France. Birdsong has its fair share of orthographic description of nature, yet this is surpassed eagerly by Bates in Fair Stood.

Almost every chapter opens with a figurative passage to present the ever changing, near indescribable scenery. For example, “All along the roadside the grasses and the leaves of beet and potatoes, and then, on the higher land, the leaves of the vines, were white with the dust of summer. ” There is of course no apparent need for such description, as it pays no goodness to the plot or the characters, yet I believe, like Faulks with Birdsong, Bates wishes to compare the beautiful and ‘righteously natural’ landscape, in a romantic light with the mechanical operations of the human race.

It is not just landscape that Bates seems to go a little overboard with though; it is also his symbolism of weather. There appears to be an ongoing pathetic fallacy-type technique going on in Fair Stood the Wind for France, which Bates adapts with his use of the sun and the moon especially. The moon appears frequently at the beginning of the novel, and I had first thought that it would be the typical literary symbol which is often used in novels: that the moon would indicate fate, which would also relevantly tie in with the surmise that Franklin should lay all is trust in ‘faith and God’.

Yet after researching common literary symbols for the moon, there was one connotation which felt extremely relevant, almost too much so for Fair Stood the Wind for France. The moon is often a very feminine symbol, and in dreams it is supposed to represent female intuition and energy; this I believe, is a symbolic clue to the introduction of a strong, female character: that of Francoise.

It is also important that the moon appears much less frequently after she is introduced, so the imagery or symbolism must have already been unravelled before Francoise enters the novel. The sun/heat in Fair Stood is always used as an intensifier, either emotionally to enhance the longing of home (England), or physically to emphasise the pain or disillusionment felt by a character. “… the burning heat of the day, all the late summer heat of mid-France”.

In Birdsong, Faulks never really touches on weather or skyscape specifically, instead tying all natural aspects of the world together to create something of a ‘naturalist’ or ‘realist’ novel, where the aim is to highlight the mechanism of human nature and the limits it can be forced to take before nature overwhelms. All in all I believe the imagery in both of these novels is incomparable because of the time they were written, and their consequential information and target audience. Both novels are very loosely classified as love stories, yet their descriptions and symbolism of the war and its consequences are undoubtedly different.

Of course Bates has an unfair advantage, he wrote Fair Stood the Wind for France at the time of war, so he was witnessing his imager at the same time as writing it; Faulks on the other hand had to feed his imagination with research, and write for an audience which has very limited knowledge of the true horror of war. The sheer comparison of time is the cause of the consistent differences of imagery. Bates had to write for an audience who were trying to almost ignore the true destruction which was happening around them, and the overwhelming love story is the veneer which camouflages the real horror.

Faulks on the other hand, had to write for an audience which is drowned in the typical boy-meets-girl love story, so only pure, unflinching and graphic imagery can be used to truly indicate to a deprived audience what really happened during the war. Contradictorily to the imagery though, the symbolism is relatively similar, with both authors using fairly common literary symbols in their works. This, I believe, is purely due to both authors being extremely traditional in their narrative, and keeping a much stylised technique throughout their respective novels.

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