The Birds | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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The Birds | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The First Attack

At the story's opening, farmworker and war veteran Nat Hocken is watching birds at the end of his day's work. On this day there are many more birds than usual, and he discusses this with his boss, Mr. Trigg, who describes how, earlier, some birds knocked his hat off. Mr. Trigg believes that the changing weather is making the birds restless. Nat agrees that it is simply the colder weather and goes home to his family. Nat wakes up early in the morning, disturbed from his sleep by wind and the sound of birds tapping his window. When he investigates, the birds attack him, and then Nat and his wife hear their children, Jill and Johnny, screaming. Nat manages to fight off the birds attacking the children; when dawn arrives, the birds retreat.

Nat tries to rationalize the situation, reasoning that the birds are simply hungry and have been driven inland by cold weather. After Jill takes the bus to school, Nat goes to the farm to find out if anyone else had trouble with the birds. At the farm he talks with Jim—the cowman—and Mrs. Trigg. Mrs. Trigg says that the cold weather is coming from Russia, but she doesn't seem concerned about the birds, suggesting Nat "ought to write up and ask the Guardian" (a major English newspaper) about the strange behavior. Jim, meanwhile, has no idea that the birds have been acting strangely and offers useless advice about feeding birds crumbs. When he gets home, Nat gathers up all the dead birds around the house and takes them to the shore to dump them. At the shore he sees a vast horde of seagulls approaching. Nat worries that no one will take his concerns seriously.

Preparing

Back home, Nat learns from his wife that the birds are acting strangely all around the country, and the Home Office (the government-run civil defense department of the UK) is advising people to secure their houses and protect their children. Nat spends his morning fortifying the house by boarding up all the upstairs windows. At one o'clock a news bulletin describes the escalating situation across the country. Nat's wife, Mrs. Hocken, thinks the government should mobilize the army to shoot the birds, but Nat understands that there are too many birds to shoot and that the army will prioritize protecting major cities, not small communities such as theirs. "Each householder must look to his own," he thinks to himself. Worried about his daughter, Nat goes to the bus stop to escort her home, taking a garden hoe with him for protection.

Nat waits at the bus stop and watches the birds gathering their forces. Disturbingly, prey and predator birds alike are banding together. Nat uses a public telephone to report the birds' movements, but the operator doesn't seem to care. When Jill's bus arrives, Nat tells Jill to follow him home, even though she usually plays with her friends in the fields after school. On the way home Nat and Jill encounter Mr. Trigg in his car. Mr. Trigg is planning on shooting some birds for sport and asks Nat if he's interested in joining him. Trigg also claims that the Soviet Union ("the Russians") has somehow poisoned the birds. On Nat's request Trigg drives Jill home. When Trigg returns from dropping Jill off, Nat advises Trigg to barricade his home, but Trigg dismisses his concerns, calling Nat "windy" and offering to let Nat and his family stay with the Triggs. Nat declines the offer. On his way home Nat is attacked again by birds and barely makes it inside the house before a gannet (a large type of seagull) slams into the door.

The Next Attacks

After Nat's wife dresses Nat's wounds, the two of them discuss the ongoing problem, quietly, so as not to alarm the children. His wife again believes the army should come to the rescue, but Nat believes they are on their own. The family hunkers down in the kitchen, the safest room in the house. They listen to the radio playing music until the six o'clock news comes on. The radio announcer says that the government has declared a national emergency; there will be no radio broadcasts until the next morning.

After the family finishes an early supper, they hear the sound of airplanes and possibly naval guns firing. However, they hear the airplanes crashing, and Nat realizes that aircraft are useless against birds, which will simply fly into them. To reassure the children, Nat lies and tells them the aircraft have returned to base. Increasingly frightened, Nat reassures himself that the government must be devising a plan to deal with the birds, possibly involving poison gas, even if the use of gas might kill some people. Around eight o'clock the birds stop attacking, and Nat realizes that their activities are synchronized with the changing tides. Nat uses the lull to fix up the house's defenses. While working he sees the burning wreck of an aircraft in the distance.

Nat goes to sleep, but his dreams are troubled by the sense he forgot something important. When he wakes up he realizes he forgot to light the fireplace to protect the chimney. Birds are already trying to gain entry through the chimney, and Nat frantically lights a fire, burning the birds. Nat fights off the birds that have managed to get in while the children cheer him on. Even as he tries to keep his family's morale up, Nat realizes that they aren't prepared for a long siege, and their supplies of fuel won't last. Hawks begin to attack the house's defenses, and Nat fears their beaks and talons will soon tear the door apart. He searches the house for furniture to break to fortify the door, and upstairs he discovers that birds have broken into one of the bedrooms.

Nat and his family huddle in their kitchen until dawn. Nat fears that his theory about the tides is wrong, because if the birds can attack at any time there will be no hope of withstanding them. When seven o'clock comes they wait for the promised radio broadcast but no broadcast comes. They wait for a while until Nat realizes there will be no broadcast and switches the radio off, declaring "We've got to depend upon ourselves." After surveying the damage to the house, Nat decides to go to the Trigg farm to collect supplies. His family begs him to take them with him, and he agrees.

Stockpiling for the Siege

The family walks to the Trigg farm. Expecting to find the Triggs dead, Nat tells his wife and children to wait outside of the farm while he searches for supplies, harshly commanding them to do what he says. Nat soon finds Jim's body in the yard. Mr. Trigg's body is near the telephone, and Mrs. Trigg's corpse is upstairs. Realizing how dire the situation is, Nat decides to take everything he can from the farm, reasoning "The Triggs would understand." When he returns to his family he lies, saying that the Triggs have "gone to [stay with] friends." Nat takes the Triggs' car and loads it with supplies and the family makes three trips between the farm and cottage. On the last trip Nat stops at the bus stop to try the phone, but the line is dead. When he sees that there isn't any smoke coming from the houses in the town, Nat realizes all the townspeople have been killed. Now that the birds are inactive, he wonders why the air force isn't gassing the birds.

As Nat works to reinforce the cottage, he becomes disillusioned with the hope of rescue, realizing finally that the government won't save them. He thinks he sees warships on the sea, but the shapes are soon revealed as masses of gulls flying inland. The family eats supper as the birds attack again. Nat's wife expresses hope that America will come to the rescue, saying "Surely America will do something?" Nat doesn't answer her and instead thinks of new ways he can fortify the cottage. As the bird attack intensifies, Nat decides to smoke his last cigarette and turns on the radio even though its battery is low. The story ends on an uncertain but grim note, with the birds chipping away at the cottage door as Nat smokes calmly.

Analysis

Form and Inspiration

At over 30 pages "The Birds" is in the longer range of what's conventionally considered a short story and is sometimes considered a novella. There are no chapters or section titles, though there are a few section breaks within the story that represent scene transitions. The story is written in limited third person, never deviating from Nat Hocken's point of view and often accessing his thoughts. Sometimes du Maurier presents Nat's thoughts in quotations, while other times these thoughts are rendered indirectly as part of the narration. By keeping to Nat's point of view and not allowing access to information outside of his experience, the reader is left in the same state of confusion as the characters regarding the reason the birds are attacking. Because Nat is a war veteran, he thinks more strategically and realistically than others around him, such as his wife or the farmer Trigg. By narrating the story through his perspective, du Maurier also allows the reader the greatest amount of insight into what the birds are doing and how and why they are doing it, as well as what can—and cannot—be done to stop them.

According to du Maurier, the story was inspired by an incident she once witnessed in which a Cornish farmer, Tommy Dunn, was pestered by seagulls diving at him as he plowed a field. While the incident itself was rather tame, the author imagined a scenario in which such attacks not only become commonplace but outright deadly to humans. While the setting of the story is never explicitly described other than being coastal England, given du Maurier's ties to Cornwall, it is likely the story is set somewhere on the coast of Cornwall in southwest England.

Hope Gradually Diminishes

In the beginning of "The Birds," when Nat and the other characters first notice the strange activity of the birds, they are quick to assume that the birds are simply upset from the change in weather or are frightened. Even after the birds begin to attack people, Nat and others find ways to rationalize the change, and some people, such as Mr. Trigg, outright dismiss the danger, unable to perceive birds as a serious threat. Once the birds have proven themselves to be a deadly threat, Nat and other characters switch from dismissing the threat to believing that they'll be rescued by the authorities. As conditions worsen, Nat begins to realize that help won't be forthcoming, but other characters, particularly his wife, continue to hold out hope. An important moment for Nat comes when the aircraft presumably sent to scout out the birds all crash, brought down by the birds.

The diminishing hope is best encapsulated in the family waiting in the morning for the seven o'clock radio news bulletin, which ultimately never comes. Nat switches off the radio after waiting for an hour, realizing there will be no bulletin and that if he and his family are to survive, they can depend only on their own wits and resources.

Nat's hope is directly represented by his preparations and measures to secure his home against a long siege. Earlier, when Nat had hope of rescue, he was careful with supplies and mindful of things such as the wireless radio's battery life. However, by the end of the story, when Nat's wife is frightfully hoping that help will come from America, Nat demonstrates he's given up hope of rescue by switching on the wireless radio (even though no broadcast is coming) and smoking his last cigarette. Nat giving up on conserving supplies shows that he has accepted the inevitability of his and his family's demise, a remarkable shift in characterization underlining the unstoppable horror of the birds.

Throughout the story, du Maurier contrasts Nat's realistic attitudes with his wife's hopefulness. It is possible that Nat's military past has prepared him better to adapt to the sudden and horrific change of situation and that du Maurier is using Mrs. Hocken (and the Triggs, who also don't appreciate how grim the situation is until it's too late) to show how civilians are too easygoing and idealistic to survive disaster.

The Birds' Behavioral Patterns

While the short story never fully explains the real cause of the change in the birds, certain patterns of behavior emerge as the narrative unfolds that roughly define the parameters of the birds' behavior. Early on it becomes apparent that the birds have lost all sense of self-preservation, as they attack humans without regard for their own safety and even kill themselves by striking walls, windows, and doors while attempting to break into human dwellings. However, as Nat observes, certain rules of behavior come to light: the birds coordinate their attacks with the state of the tides, and they only attack humans.

Nat figures out by observing the birds' patterns of behavior that they attack during the flood tide and retreat and rest during the low tide. This contradicts his earlier belief that the birds are simply being driven inland by the cold arctic wind, as during low tide they don't attack even when the wind is blowing. Another quirk of the birds' behavior is that the birds don't attack other birds or nonhuman animals. Nat early on remarks on the bizarre lack of infighting between different species of birds that are natural enemies. That they don't attack other nonhuman animals is evidenced when Nat and his family go to the Trigg farm and find the Triggs and Jim all pecked to death, but the dairy cows are untouched.

The reason for these irregularities is never explained but suggests something stranger and more sinister than the explanations of arctic winds and lack of food. Earlier in the story, characters suggest natural causes for the birds' behaviors, but these natural causes are only red herrings (ideas that lead nowhere) and rationalizations, indicating that the characters are unwilling to confront the horrible truth that the birds suddenly want them dead. From a narrative standpoint, the birds resting between attacks increases the horror and suspense in the story and allows du Maurier to have outdoor scenes. Du Maurier likely intentionally included these pauses in the action to allow the tension to ramp up before the attacks begin again. An example of this is when Nat goes to escort Jill home during a lull and is attacked while on his way home. As for why du Maurier had the birds leave other animals alone, it's likely that the intent is to intensify the horror, showing that humans—and only humans—are targeted, singled out by whatever malevolent force is directing the birds. This, together with the unexplained cause of the crisis, deepens the sense of dread in a world in which nature has gone completely awry.

Patriarchal Family Dynamics

Throughout the story, while Nat does his best to stay alive and protect his family from bodily harm, he also does all he can to insulate them from seeing and understanding the true horror of the birds' attacks. As a traditional family patriarch, he sees his family as completely dependent on his protection. After the first assault by the birds, Nat reassures his children by telling them that the birds invading their room were just frightened and confused. Later, when he is escorting Jill from the bus stop and Jill notices the seagulls flying overhead, he assures her they're going to keep moving inland. It's worth noting that while Nat might believe his family is dependent on him, their actions (or rather lack of actions) show that they believe it too. Without knowing du Maurier's own thoughts on the matter, two interpretations are possible: first, that du Maurier is critiquing the traditional patriarchal family by showing how it leads to dependence and helplessness on the part of the wife and children, or second, that du Maurier is showing how a strong patriarch such as Nat is necessary to keep his family safe.

During the many attacks on the house, Nat consistently treats his wife and children as if they're incapable of holding up against the pressure of the new reality. When aircraft arrive to deal with the birds and then crash, Nat tells his children that the planes have returned to their base. Later, when the family goes to the Triggs' farm to gather supplies, Nat tells his family to wait outside so that they don't see the farmers' dead bodies. Interestingly, Nat's wife shows she understands more than Nat believes she does when she advises him to drive faster so that the children don't see the postman's body. This moment in particular might be a hint that du Maurier is subtly undermining her protagonist's worldview.

Civilization Collapses

In the later stages of "The Birds" Nat begins to realize that the British government won't be providing any assistance. The telephones no longer work, the radio is no longer receiving broadcasts from anywhere in Europe, and the military response that Nat's wife repeatedly hopes for never materializes except for a brief, ill-fated sortie (limited mission) by aircraft earlier in the story. "The Birds," which is heavily plot-driven, can be read, through its events, as a commentary of government ineffectiveness and the results of such ineffectiveness. Du Maurier may even be suggesting that she doesn't trust the British government (or perhaps any government) to act decisively or intelligently in event of an unprecedented crisis.

Nat holds out hope for a while that the government will devise some solution to the problem, perhaps with poison gas. However, Nat remains continuously perplexed by the "solutions" the government tries and becomes increasingly disillusioned by their lack of coordinated effort to save outlying communities and their lack of seemingly common-sense solutions. The story is fixed on Nat's perspective so that the reader can only know what Nat knows; as such, it's never shown what has happened to the rest of Great Britain, but owing to the silence of the radio stations across the country, it's very likely things have utterly collapsed, with much of the population either dead or forced into hiding. Ominously, Nat remembers that even when London was frequently under attack during the Blitz, a concentrated German bombing campaign against British civilian populations early in World War II (1939–45), the radios never stopped broadcasting.

The state of the rest of Nat's community may be a clue as to what's happened to the rest of the country and perhaps the rest of Europe, as by the end of the story none of the houses in town have smoke coming from their chimneys, indicating the birds have killed all the other townspeople. In showing the village wiped out and suggesting that the rest of the country (and possibly Europe) is in peril, du Maurier changes what would have been an intimate story of a family struggling against supernatural terror into an apocalyptic tale in which the family's struggles are only a microcosm of a global disaster.

The Birds Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Birds attack Nat Hocken and his family in their cottage.

Rising Action

2 Nat escorts his daughter to the bus stop.

3 Nat asks Mr. Trigg about the birds.

4 Nat boards up the house.

5 Birds attack Nat on his way home from the Trigg farm.

6 A radio bulletin announces a state of emergency.

7 Birds attack through the chimney, but Nat fights them off.

8 Hawks attack the cottage's door.

Climax

9 A promised news bulletin doesn't come.

Falling Action

10 Nat and his family go to the Trigg farm to gather supplies.

11 The family returns home.

Resolution

12 The family finishes dinner as the birds tear down the door.

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