”Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks Essay Sample

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The riverboat trip is a key moment in the first part of the novel. The way that it prefigures the war shows how Faulk’s interlinks peacetime with war. The trip can be used to highlight Stephen’s view of the war, and also his views of companionship, shown by his interactions with Madame Azaire.

The first piece of evidence that it is relating back to the war comes in the first paragraph on P44. All of the characters have had their lunch and they are sitting quietly, passing time. This is as though they are men after war. They are all silent and want to be alone. During the paragraph, there is no speech. This is like the aftermath of war because they are all reflecting on the events of the day. This point is reiterated in the next paragraph where they ‘clambered back into the boat.’ This does not make it sound like they are all out for lunch, but more like some form of struggle. This is made clearer by the afternoon laying ‘heavy and dull on them’. During the war, men would have struggled with weather. The men would not have liked hot weather, because it would make it hard for them to carry out light tasks. They would also dislike cold weather, because they would struggle to function normally. Wilfred Owen highlighted the problem of the weather in Dulce et Decorum Est;

Knock-Kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge

Throughout the riverboat trip, and the novel, we would be able to assign each character a position in the army. The B�rard’s would probably become the generals. This is because of B�rard being such a dominant character. He doesn’t really value people’s opinions and would rather listen to himself. On P45 we are told how ‘B�rard propelled the boat on its slow, straight course.’ The boat can be used to symbolize the war. The generals only have to tell people orders for hundreds of men’s lives to be changed. Using the same principle, Madame B�rard comes across as one of the generals that doesn’t fight, but takes credit for others actions. ‘Madame B�rard, in thick formal clothes, looked disconsolate at the front of the boat.’ It is as though she would be trying to fit in with all of the soldiers, but struggling to do so due to a lack of experience.

The main section of the riverboat trip is regarding Stephens’ attitude towards death. It is littered with negative words that wouldn’t suggest that they’ve been on a pleasant afternoon trip. ‘Hectic abundance’, ‘death’, ‘shot’ is just some that Faulks uses. The whole description of the water gardens could be used to describe the war, and mainly the trenches. It is almost as though it is portraying the harsh conditions that the soldiers had to endure, ‘What was held to be a place of natural beauty was a stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay.’ Stephen sees the fields and the gardens that are picture of beauty, and inadvertently relates them to the war. The water gardens would one day be used to fight a war, where the killing of life would happen on a constant basis.

There are three key moments when we see what the effect of war would have on men physically and psychologically. When Stephen catches Madame Azaire’s eye, we are told that she ‘looked into his with no social smile or conversational suggestion.’ Many men during the war suffered from shellshock, and the war was certainly a time when men saw goings on that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. The second is when Gr�goire ignores the fish that jumps out of the water. He is even said to have been ‘previously excited’, which shows how the day is having an affect on him. If both characters were men in the war, then we could fully comprehend why they would not want to talk to react to small happenings. Most soldiers found it hard, even impossible, to describe the atrocities of war. People would have seen friends and relatives die and that would be too much for most people. The final moment shows the tension that was apparent during the war. Gr�goire splashes water at Lisette, and she hits him, making him cry. It is obvious that Lisette is highly strung and did not want to be in any contact. Gr�goire’s actions can be likened with that of Tippers breakdown later in the novel. He is struggling to cope with what is happening, and breaks down easily.

Stephen’s attitude to death is expanded upon during the paragraph at the base of P45. It starts with ‘All of them, he thought, would be taken back by this earth’, which shows a certain degree of negativity. It is almost as though he is questioning the reasoning behind life. If we are all going to die, then why bother living. The primary example that Stephen gives is of B�rard’s tongue. This is slightly comical, because it is a dig at the way B�rard is always talking, and also a reference to the tongue that he ate during lunch. Stephen shows us of a belief that he holds throughout the novel, that we all die and return to the earth (circle of life). He calls the ground the ‘clinging earth’, as though it is dragging you down towards your death. This attitude is very pessimistic, and is brought up again by Faulks during the novel, when Stephen talks to Weir about the limits of man.

When the trip comes to an end, B�rard does as any general would do and rewrites ‘the story of the afternoon’. This would have been typical of most generals who ‘edited’ stories to highlight the glory. It is also true of telegrams that were sent home to the families of the killed. They would get informed of how their son died bravely on a mission that was critical in the war against evil. This of course, was mostly untrue, but eased the pain and suffering back home.

Generally, the riverboat trip is merely just a way for Faulks to prefigure the war through the eyes of Stephen. It is littered with references to the war, from ‘shot through guns’ to ‘the earth had been dug out of trenches’. It is however, a very good contrast between the war and peacetime. The countryside of France never was intended for use in such a barbaric and monstrous way. Overall, the riverboat trip is highly detailed, and gives us a clear insight into the feelings and beliefs of Stephen.

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