“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” ~Christopher Reeve

Focus: In what ways Sebastian Faulks present the idea of heroism and courage in his novel ‘Birdsong’?

Sebastian Faulks, a British novelist is perhaps best known for his historical novels set in France, one of these being ‘Birdsong’, a modern novel written in 1993 two years after the end of the First Iraq War. The novel is written in third person to give an omnipotent view of the action and brutality of war. In the opening of the novel Faulks sets the scene of a pre-war society, examining the courses of the war using historical Literature movements such as Romanticism and Gothic. The second part of the novel concentrates on the war and the brutality faced by the soldiers before moving into the third and final section exploring the ‘new generation’ and a sense of the future.

The novel possesses the ability to depict a sense of heroic nature with a number of characters, the first ones being Azaire’s workers. In the opening chapters of the novel, Faulks depicts the character of Azaire as being a typical upper-class businessman, having no sympathy for his workers and motivated by money: ‘greater use of machinery and a consequent loss of jobs’ the character of Azaire establishes the social tension that were prevalent in Europe and also highlights the competition in trade. The structure of the opening chapters show the worth of the lowers classes which also works as a sense of foreshadowing the use of the soldiers. It is because of Azaire’s uncompassionate nature that the workers then strike against him, suggesting a sense of a heroic nature: ‘I beseech you to support my people. We must stand together in this matter or we will all fall’. This is the first glimpse of heroism Faulks gives to the reader showing the exploitation of workers in contrast to the uncompassionate upper classes.

Primarily, Faulks uses the characters of the soldiers in the second part of the novel to evoke the sense of heroism and courage. Focusing on a number of soldiers specifically such as Stephen and Jack, profound emotions of the novel are voiced. At the novel’s climax both of these characters are trapped underground by a German explosion and it is at this point that Jack and Stephen discuss their perceptions on the worth of life and love. What is spoken by Jack in his last moments certainly evokes emotion to the reader: ‘My world was in his face…I treasured each word he gave me’. Emotion is evoked to the reader through Faulks’ ability to create Jack’s speech in broken, incomplete sentences and allowing his idiolect to switch, changing from blunt to something more lyrical: ‘he was from another world, he was a blessing too great for me’.

Upon the reader’s first knowledge of Jack Firebrace, we see that he thinks of himself being ‘immune to death’, imaging that he will inevitably survive the war but also that death can no longer touch him after the experiences and brutality he has had to face. This thought is quickly dissolved through the letter from his wife Margaret, informing him of their only child, John’s illness: “has been very poorly indeed and the doctor says it is diphtheria”. The very wording of the letter heightens his – and our – apprehensions, enlightening us on not only the life of a soldier but also that of the civilians. The reader shares the experience of the death of his son with Jack, enhancing our attachment to the character and subsequently upon Jack’s death, Faulks is able to evoke emotion from the reader having throughout the novel, continuously referred back to the actions of Jack Firebrace.

Just like the reality of war, death comes quickly and therefore Faulks very rarely pauses for individual deaths, in fact the only extensive narrative death the reader sees is that of Jack Firebrace. The soldiers at the front have learnt not to be shocked, not even to be emotional, at any particular person’s death, and the manner of narration has to reflect this. Deaths are narrated through the eyes of particular characters with a numbed factuality. From Stephen’s original platoon, only three men remain alive at the front. “The names and faces of the others were already indistinct in his memory.” Faulks is able to depict to the reader the realisation of war, in that death comes quickly and so this very rarely depicted in depth. This is a universal fact of war with Faulks not only informing the reader of World War One but also all other wars, including the First Iraq War that finished two years prior to ‘Birdsong’ being written.

During the third and final part of the novel, the reader is given a glimpse at a new generation. Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter seeks to find out more about the war and what was endured. Elizabeth represents the modern, ignorant civilian yet she educated the reader on the shock horror of the war and tries to remind us that the actual dates of the war make it feel like a lifetime away, giving time structure in the novel, however also bringing about a universal truth: that was in any time and century offers sacrifice: ‘People don’t always appreciate what sacrifices were made for them – still are made for them – by the armed forces’.

 Michael Gorra, writing in the ‘New York Times’ commented that the parts of the novel set in modern-day England were ‘weak’ in comparison to the rest of the novel: ‘…it is as if Mr Faulks had bled his own prose white, draining it of emotion in order to capture the endless enervating slog of war’ Gorra is not the only critic to make such comments, with many others thinking that the modern-day sections of the novel are much less powerful but to some extent this interpretation is inevitable, given the events that happen in the trench warfare sections and so the third part of the novel can be argued to act as relieving the reader of the demand and emotion involving Stephen, Jack and Weir.

In conclusion, Faulks successfully displays the heroic nature of both a pre-war society with individuals such a Lucien LeBron through their courage to strike against working conditions and pay, making reference to the miner’s strikes that took place in Faulks time. He also particularly shows the heroic and courageous nature of the soldiers during the war with particular emphasis on characters such as Stephen and Jack Firebrace. Finally it is through the character of Elizabeth in the third sections of the novel that we are reminded of the sacrifice made by these soldiers as well as being given hope for the future with the novel ending optimistically. As noted by Anthony Campbell: ‘By any standards, Birdsong an impressive achievement: not light reading, but it will stay in your mind long after you close the book.’