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Realities of War in Birdsong

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Fennster32
Words 1179
Pages 5
Explore how Faulks presents the different ways in which the characters cope with the realities of war in his novel Birdsong

Sebastian Faulks uses the impact of the war to shape and add depth to his characters. The ways in which they cope with war, and the reasons for them to cope in this way, give detailed insights into the characters themselves.

Faulks manipulates the character of Stephen Wraysford to begin the war as an extremely cold Officer, particularly towards Jack Firebrace, sending him for a court martial instantly, after a minor offence. Faulkes makes use of short, curt sentences in Wraysfords initial dialogue like “I doubt it.”This suggests harsh qualities, reinforcing the opinion that Stephen is a cold, removed character. Faulkes shows that Wraysford’s character softens towards his men, particularly the tunnellers, feeling empathy with their strange, but no less difficult path. This is shown in the contrast between the early parts of the novel where Stephen is almost exclusively referred to as “he” or “Stephen” and the later chapters where Stephen is referred to in a group with the tunnellers or other soldiers, making use of the pronoun “they” or “we” more often.
Faulks presents Stephen as losing some of the isolated exterior by the end of the war that was the defining feature of his character at the beginning, This is shown in Stephen’s attachment to Jack Firebrace, presented by Faulks in the end tunnel scene. The strength of this partnership is shown in Stephen’s persistent attempts to keep Jack alive, when he could have saved himself far more easily had he been alone.
Captain Weir copes with the war through the use of heavy drinking. This is first shown when Jack Firebrace is escorted to Wraysford and Weir’s quarters by Sergeant Adams for his court martial. The character notices the “almost empty bottle of whiskey”, inferring that Weir drinks heavily. Weir finds solace in his drinking addiction. Faulks implies Weir finds some degree of relaxation or attachment to music. Firebrace hears from “dugout behind him, the soft melody of piano music”. The word “soft” has connotations of soothing, softness and calming, showing Weir uses music to help him cope. Weir as tries not to think about his life in England, after being discontent with it in his time there. When Stephen asks, Weir tries to distract himself from it with the logic that he’s “got to think of staying alive”. Weir’s coping mechanism is not wholly affective, as he has a fairly nervous disposition during his time in the War. His hands shake, which could be down to one of two reasons, either a direct effect of shell-shock and shattered nerves, or a side-effect of the alcoholism he develops. However, Weir’s coping methods work to some extent, as despite his nerves and misgivings, he still ventures down into the tunnels and trenches every day, without truly breaking. Weir also seems to find comfort in the fact he now has comrades and men to call friends, unlike when he is at home, Faulks makes this clear when Weir tells Stephen about joining the engineers. “I like the role, I like the comradeship”.
. Faith in chance and something uninfluenced by anything else, is represented in the way Weir holds Faith in Wraysford, and the cards. Weir is shown to need something like chance to believe in, when Wraysford says “Weir doesn’t believe in anything. He needs something to sustain him”. This also backs up Faulks point that religious faith is not enough to sustain a man in wartime, as Weir “does not believe in anything”.

Michael Weir and Stephen Wraysford cope with the realities of war by finding a form of comradeship in each other, eventually enjoying the time they spend together and using it to keep themselves going. At first, Weir sees Stephen as a potential colleague and friend, shown by his answer to his commanding officer, Gray, when asked if he holds Stephen in good opinion: “I think so.” Faulkes suggests that despite Weir saying he “thinks” so, the short sentence without a pause between the question and the reply shows he was already self-assured of his answer in Stephen’s favour. Stephen reciprocates these feelings of friendship, when he thinks of Jeanne later in the novel. “What he wanted to say to Jeanne was that she, apart from Michael Weir, was the best friend he had”. Weir is obviously saddened by Stephen’s apparent death, as he writes “He was an inspiration. He was my shield…He was my closest friend”. This shows the power of friendship and comradeship in such a harsh setting. Of all, this is the most successful of coping mechanisms.
Jack Firebrace copes with the war by amusing and inspiring the men around him. Jack has a repertoire of jokes and tales that he tells to keep the men in good spirits, even if these fancies do not inspire the same feelings in Jack himself. “Jack himself laughed little” implies Jack is not as easily distracted by the tales. However, he still tells them often and well, “The men loved jokes, though they had heard each one before”. Jack persists in raising his men’s spirits. This reflects Jack’s generous, comradely nature. The sound of laughter that his jokes bring drown out the war in Jack’s head, and helps distract him from the harshness of war. The coping mechanism of doing something to put the war out of mind, is also shown when Stephen takes Weir to visit a prostitute.
Finally, Faulks also uses the concept of Faith to show how men at war can cope. However, Faith in a religious sense is shown to be a failed coping mechanism, as Stephen Wraysford, Jack Firebrace, and most notable the Army Priest Horrocks, lose their faith because of things they have seen or experienced during the war. The most poignant of which, is Horrocks. This is used to emphasise the event when Horrocks witnesses the events of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where the British alone suffered 58’000 casualties including 20’000 deaths. As Horrocks is a priest, his life would be heavily influenced by his Faith and belief in God. This makes his loss of Faith even more poignant and emphasises the brutal reality of the war. “Horrocks pulled the silver cross from his chest and hurled it from him”, it shows how horrific the events must have been, to cause a man so influenced by faith to finally lose it, all in one, short day. This image resonates heavily with the reader, and shows that Horrocks is so shocked and horrified at the chaos and scale of death that he sees, that he denies his Faith, on the grounds that if there was a God, he would not let something this horrific happen.
Overall, the novel Birdsong shows that no matter how successful men’s coping mechanisms are at first, they eventually fail, when faced with the true horror, and real brutality of war.

Word Count: 1500
Bibliography
‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks, Published by Vintage, 1993…...

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