“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.’


Characteristics in the opening of ‘Birdsong’

The opening of the novel ‘Birdsong’ is filled with characteristics of Literature movements. The novel shows elements from both Romanticism and also Gothic. 


Throughout the opening of ‘Birdsong’ characteristics of Romanticism can be found. During the period of which Romanticism was at its peak folk law played a prominent part in the movement. This was where by which people were beginning to listen to the music and poetry not just of those who studied and were professional at the art but those of ordinary people (folk). This was all part of the bigger picture of those of a lower classer or lower profession beginning to break social normality and speak out.. This characteristic can be found in the first section of ‘Birdsong’ through Azaire’s factory and its workers, particularly when they decide to strike: “I ask you at least to sign this declaration of support for your fellow-workers” It is this idea of the lower classes speaking out that complies with the characteristics of Romanticism. 

Another characteristic of Romanticism that can be found in ‘Birdsong’ is the level of Nationalism that can be seen in the novel. It is the idea of patriotic feelings that can be seen through individual characters or in the language that convey to the reader a sense of Nationalism. French Nationalism can be seen in the opening of the novel, in the language used to describe the city of Amiens. It is depicted as a picturesque,  pre-industrialization place: ‘On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows’ It is with this use of language that the reader can feel a sense of nationalism, which can also be seen through Azaire’s factory and the way in which he manages it particularly in his meeting with Meyraux: “The government want us to rationalize our operations, to try to bring more of them under one roof” French Nationalism can be seen by the reader here and Azaire strives to make more of a profit by cutting the wages of his employees and by doing this making France’s economy greater. 


It is not only characteristics of Romanticism that can be found in the novel. It also shows aspects of a Gothic novel through its descriptions of buildings and its portrayal of certain characters:

The Gothic movement is one that took affect on many areas, including literature and architecture. Gothic architecture is something that is described within the novel, most prominently in the description if the Azaire household. It is with the ‘unexpected spaces’ and the ‘red creeper that had made its way up to the roof’ that convey to the reader the image that Azaire’s house is one of Gothic architecture. 

Along with Gothic architecture the novel also features many of the characteristics commonly found in a Gothic novel. A characteristic of a Gothic novel is one where by which a dwarf changes shape, this can be seen through the character of Lisette Azaire. She many not change hugely physical however it is psychologically that she seems to change shape. This can be seen when the Azaire family and Stephen take a fishing trip and Lisette attempts to seduce Stephen: ‘I’m a woman – at least almost a woman. My body is a woman’s  body, not a child’s’ It is through her attempts of seducing Stephen that it is made clear to the reader the Lisette is no longer as innocent as she first appears, our perception of her changes which then links to the characteristic of a Gothic novel. 

Another characteristic of a Gothic novel that can be seen in ‘Birdsong’ is the mental and physical imprisonment that some characters face. This can be seen in the Isabelle’s feminism views that are trapped within her marriage to Azaire. Isabelle is depicted as being a modern feminist ‘Isabelle felt herself grow, and she met no resistance’  however her latent feminism is trapped when she marries Azaire and she is under his physical imprisonment as well as his mental. 

Birdsong: A First Impression

Now that AS English Literature work is all done and dusted, its time to move on to A2 work.

We will be doing work on the novels of ‘Catch 22’, written by Joseph Heller and ‘Birdsong’ written by Sebastian Faulks. We began reading ‘Birdsong’ today and its safe to say, it wasn’t what many of us were expecting..

The novel begins with the description of the rural village of Boulevard Du Cange situated in the city of Amiens, France. The opening language is pastoral and depicts a place of pre-industrialization.

The language used in this opening can be described as feminine as it shows a sense of nurture, fertility and reproduction, this can been in the second paragraph with use of the words ‘damp fertility’  this portrays an image of the womb and the sense that it is the ultimate home.

The language of the opening suddenly changes with the description of the Azaire house. From being feminine in the description of the boulevard, the language now changes to masculine; ‘substantial man’. This language works as a contrast to the feminine language that was used to describe the pre-industrialized image of Boulevard Du Cange.

First impression are important and are prominent from the very opening of the novel. This can be seen with the introduction of the character of Lisette Azaire. It is through the simple description of her smirk that she is depicted as a sinister character. This idea of first impressions can also be seen through the age of Stephen Wraysford’s age. he is at the age of twenty when the novel begins pivotal age as he is still seen as young and naive however also charming.

Moving through into the third chapter of the novel, Stephen’s moral dilemma is made apparent to the reader. He realises the attraction he has towards Madame Azaire and so battles with his conscience on whether or not he should pursue her. The chapter is filled with sexual language that builds up the tension between Stephen and Madame Azaire; ‘The brown petals of a formerly white rose fell away’ This image of a ‘white rose’ convey the sense of Madame Azaire’s innocence falling away as easily as the flower’s petals. The whole of the chapter is filled with language to enlighten the sexual tension between the  two characters and therefore conveys to the reader the moral dilemma that both characters face.

All in all, the novel as a whole has created a positive impression in the sense that there is a deeper meaning behind each description which becomes almost enticing.