The Birds | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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The Birds | Themes

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Humans versus Nature

"The Birds" is a classic example of a people-versus-nature conflict in fiction. However, unlike most such stories—in which the conflict typically ends in humans triumphing over flora, fauna, and the elements—in "The Birds," nature (in the form of birds) topples humanity and wipes out civilization across Britain. It is humanity's superiority in most people-versus-nature conflicts both in fiction and reality that makes the ending of "The Birds" chilling and disturbing. The subversion of humanity's dominance over nature is central to the horror of "The Birds."

This ordinary human dominance over animals is taken for granted throughout the story, but the characters are steadily shown that the birds won't be easily conquered. Early in "The Birds" the Triggs suggest that the birds will go back to normal behavior when the weather changes. When the birds begin attacking people, Nat and his wife both hope the British government will get rid of them, either with soldiers or poison gas. However, all these expectations and hopes are ultimately dashed, and by the end of the story humanity (or at least the people of the British Isles) seem to have lost the struggle with nature (the birds), with no radio broadcasts coming from anywhere in the country and everyone in town except the Hockens killed.

It is also worth noting that the birds are not the only natural force that the human characters must contend with in "The Birds." The unusually frigid winds blowing from the east, which are initially blamed for the birds' odd behavior, are also cause for concern, as they herald the approaching winter. The weather is so abnormally cold that Nat can't remember a winter with such cold winds. The winds act as harbinger of and medium for the birds' violence. The way in which the birds attack during high tide and rest during low tide also supports the theme of man versus nature. These pauses are the only way Nat and his family even survive through the first night, as they allow him to shore up his house's defenses during the lulls. Other animals aren't targeted by the birds' attacks; the animals on Mr. Trigg's farm are left unharmed while the Triggs are pecked to death. This emphasizes how humans have been singled out by the birds' aggression and suggests that perhaps the birds will become docile again when there are no more humans to kill.

Because of the relentlessness and discernment of the birds' attacks, Nat comes to believe that they are being directed somehow, although who or what force is directing them is never confirmed. Some characters blame Russia for the birds, but no evidence is ever given to reinforce these rumors, and a supernatural origin for the birds' malevolent change seems just as likely. Another question the story leaves ambiguous is whether the birds are attacking other countries, though at the story's end Nat's wife claims the radio can't pick up broadcasts from foreign countries either, suggesting the rest of Western Europe is also under attack. All of this uncertainty is just as much a part of the story's horror as the subversion of human-animal power structures: the characters never understand why they have suddenly become prey nor whether the entire world—or only their country—is doomed.

Old Ways Are More Reliable than Modern Conveniences

Throughout the story, modern technology and conveniences are demonstrated to be at best unreliable and at worst useless in dealing with the bird threat. When Nat is going over the house's food supplies with his wife, he remarks, "We'd be better off in the old days ... when ... there was food for a family to last a siege, if need be." While being able to purchase food might be more convenient than making the food themselves, the family would have been better off if it had all the means for food production within the house.

Another way in which old ways are demonstrated to be superior to newer things is in the comparison between the Hocken family's cottage and the newer council houses in the town. The cottage's older construction methods—smaller windows and sturdier stone walls—make it easier than the more modern houses (whose occupants all die from the birds) in the village to fortify against the birds' assaults.

Modern technology in the form of aircraft, radios, guns, and telephones all fail to provide any real aid or relief against the bird menace. Nat's attempt to warn the relevant authorities through the telephone accomplishes nothing, aircraft sent to scout out or attack the birds all crash when swarmed by birds, and the radio news broadcasts offer little new information before they are silenced. When Mr. Trigg tells Nat of his intention to shoot the birds, Nat wonders "What use was a gun against a sky of birds?" On the other hand, older technology and methods such as boarding up windows and making fires in the chimney do much more to keep Nat and his family safe.

Threat of Annihilation

The story's conclusion, which sees the rest of the community slaughtered along with (presumably) most of the British population, is similar to the potential effects of a nuclear war. Much as the British population was woefully unprepared to survive the sudden murderous change in the birds, they would have been similarly unprepared to survive a nuclear war.

During the 1950s, when du Maurier wrote her story, the United Kingdom, one of three nuclear powers at the time, faced the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (Russia). Russia is referenced twice in the short story, each time as a possible cause of the birds' movements and strange behavior, with Mr. Trigg alleging that the Russians somehow set the birds against Britain. Within only a few days in the story, human life on the British Isles is wiped out, representing the devastation nuclear war would have wrought.

At the time of the story's publication the best protection available to most civilians in the event of nuclear attack was a tactic called "duck and cover," wherein people were instructed to simply find cover. Duck and cover would have offered virtually no protection from atomic bombs or their radiation. Much like in "The Birds," the government's instructions to the people of Great Britain fail to adequately prepare them for the birds' ferocity. In the story the birds' attacks destabilize British civilization and disrupt communications, just like a hypothetical nuclear conflict would have done.

Throughout the story, Nat and his family struggle to survive while also attempting to conserve limited supplies of food, building materials, and fuel. Nuclear war threatened similar rationing for anyone intent on survival. A major obstacle to gathering needed supplies is that it requires Nat to go out into the open, exposing himself to the birds. In this sense the birds mirror the threat of nuclear fallout, deadly lingering radiation that contaminates an area after an atomic blast. The Hocken family's house, serving as a safe, fortified bastion against the birds, resembles the fallout shelters that many households built to protect themselves from nuclear attack during the Cold War.

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