Daphne du Maurier 1952
After its publication in 1952 in her short story collection The Apple Tree, “The Birds” became one of Daphne du Maurier’s most celebrated works. The story presents an unrelenting portrait of terror and a compelling analogy of the atmosphere of fear generated in America and Europe during the Cold War years.
Covering only a few days in the life of a family living on the Cornish coast of England, “The Birds” examines what would happen if animals traditionally regarded as symbols of peace and freedom began to ruthlessly attack humans. The story opens in the middle of the night when farm worker Nat Hocken wakes to an insistent tapping at his window. Du Maurier quickly increases the tension and horror as Nat’s family suffers several vicious attacks by hordes of swarming birds, seemingly bent on destruction.
Richard Kelly, in his article on du Maurier for Twayne ’s English Authors Series Online notes, “by limiting the focus of her story upon Nat Hocken and his family, du Maurier manages to convey the effect of a believable claustrophobic nightmare.” This sense of claustrophobia is heightened by the story’s references to the bombing raids England endured during World War II and the paranoid atmosphere created by the threat of nuclear holocaust during the middle of the twentieth century. Eleven years after it was written, the story was turned into a popular film version by Alfred Hitchcock.
Daphne du Maurier was born on May 13, 1907, in London, England to Gerald (an actor and manager) and Muriel (an actress) du Maurier. Her grandfather was artist and author George du Maurier (Peter Ibbetson in 1891 and Trilby in 1894). As a child, Daphne enjoyed reading and indulging in games of fantasy, which helped develop her literary talents.
She lived in Cornwall throughout most of her life, first in her parents’ summer home near Plymouth and later in Menabilly, a nearby seventeenth-century estate. The gothic landscape of Cornwall, the setting for the legends of King Arthur, Tristan and Iseult, and many pirate tales, inspired her work and often became the landscape of her own fiction, most notably in her novels Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941), The House on the Strand (1969), and the short story “The Birds.” She would also write a history of the area in 1967.
Wayne Templeton, in his article on du Maurier for Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that during her adolescence, she “began to experience an intense desire to be a boy.” Templeton reasons that these feelings suggested an “awakening of lesbian tendencies in an era when many people, including homosexuals themselves, believed that one person in a homosexual relationship must have female inclinations, the other male.” In later years, she would often pretend to be a boy named Eric Avon. Due to the stigma that was attached to homosexuality, du Maurier suppressed her sexual tendencies, but often noted to friends that she kept a “boy in a box.” These masculine leanings influenced her novels and stories, which were often dominated by a male narrator.
She began her literary career in 1925 when she started writing dark, pessimistic verse and short stories that were clearly influenced by Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, and Somerset Maugham. Her first two publications, the short stories “And Now to God the Father” and “A Difference in Temperament,” appeared in 1929 in The Bystander, a periodical edited by her uncle, William Beaumont.
While she was staying with her parents in their home in Cornwall, the twenty-four-year-old Daphne penned her first novel, The Loving Spirit, a historical romance that became a best-seller and also earned critical praise. The book inspired Frederick “Boy” Browning, a major in the Grenadier Guards, to meet her, and soon, the couple was married. Templeton notes, “while du Maurier would confess to being deeply in love with several women during her life, she would never admit, even to herself, that she was bisexual.”
Her literary reputation as an important new talent was solidified by the publication of her fourth novel, Jamaica Inn (1936). Critics noted her similarities to the gothic novels of the Brontë sisters, Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Heights (1847). When Rebecca appeared, however, in 1938, critics determined that she had established her own literary voice.
Her short story collections were also well received, especially The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories (1952), published in America as Kiss Me Again, Stranger (1953) and as The Birds and Other Stories (1963); and Not After Midnight, and Other Stories (1971), republished as Don’t Look Now (1971). Successful film versions have been made of several of her novels and stories, including Rebecca, “The Birds,” and “Don’t Look Now.” Du Maurier was awarded the National Book Award in 1938 for Rebecca and given the title Dame Commander by the Order of the British Empire in 1969. She died on April 19, 1989, in her beloved Cornwall.
The story opens on the third of December on the Cornish coast of England. The weather has changed overnight from a mild autumn to a cold, harsh winter. The narrator introduces Nat Hocken, who supports his wife and two children through his government pension and through work at a neighboring farm. While watching the sky, Nat notes that the birds appear more restless than usual. Mr. Trigg, who owns the farm where Nat works, attributes the birds’ unusual behavior to the coming hard winter.
That night, while all of his family sleeps, Nat hears a tapping at his bedroom window. As he opens it, he feels something jabbing at his hand. He sees a bird fly away and notices that his hand is bleeding. Soon after he returns to bed, the tapping returns, this time with more force. When he opens the window, a dozen birds go after his face, drawing more blood. After an intense struggle, he is able to beat them off, and they fly away. Soon after, he hears his daughter scream in the next room. When he rushes in, he finds a swarm of birds attacking the children. Again, he is eventually able to fight them off, though many dead birds are left behind.
After the attack, Nat tries to calm and comfort his family, explaining that the harsh winter has disturbed the birds and that they came into the house because they were frightened and lost and wanted shelter. His wife, though, notes that the weather has changed too quickly for the birds to be affected by it. Nat finds his own comfort in the order of the kitchen, with everything in its proper place.
The next morning, Nat walks his daughter Jill to the bus stop and then stops at the Trigg’s farm to “satisfy himself that all was well.” Mrs. Trigg, the farmer’s wife, thinks Nat has exaggerated his story about the attack since she and her husband have had no trouble with the birds. Nat returns home and removes the dead birds from the children’s room. As he looks out at the sea, he sees thousands of gulls amassing on the waves.
When he returns to the house, his wife informs him that she heard several reports on the radio of bird attacks occurring all over the country, including London. He tells her about the thousands of gulls in the sea, waiting, he insists, to launch an assault. In order to protect them during the night, Nat boards up the windows and the chimney. When he notes that the gulls have risen from the waves in silent circles in the sky, he runs to the bus stop to meet Jill.
When the birds start to swarm overhead, Nat begins to run, pulling a frightened Jill behind him. At home the family huddles in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of birds scraping and smashing against the boarded windows, trying to get in. They hear on the radio that a national emergency has been declared due to the attacks. In a few hours, the attack subsides when the tide ebbs.
Nat notes that the birds have been splitting the wood barricades and so reinforces them with furniture and with the dead bodies of birds who have smashed themselves against them. During the next attack, which begins a few hours later, the birds break into the children’s room, and Nat finds that the emergency radio system has gone dead.
When the attack subsides, the family ventures out to the Trigg’s farm to gather supplies, continually watched by the land birds who are waiting for the gulls to begin the next onslaught. They find the dead bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Trigg as well as Jim, their cow hand. Nat notes that no smoke is coming
from the chimneys of the other houses in the area and regrets that he did not take the other children home with him.
After gathering up food and fuel from the farm, the family returns home and the attack soon begins again. The story closes with Nat listening to the “tearing sound of splintering wood.”
Jill is used to heighten the story’s tension, but her character is more fully developed than that of her brother. She is quite scared of the birds throughout most of the story, especially when she sees her brother and her father’s injuries. She also picks up on her parents’ apprehension, which compounds her fears. However, she also exhibits a childlike resilience when, the day after the first attack, she plays with youthful unconcern, dancing” ahead of her father and “chasing the leaves” on the way to the bus. She and her brother find enjoyment during the bumpy ride home from the Trigg farm.
- Alfred Hitchcock directed and produced The Birds for Universal Pictures in 1963. Evan Hunter wrote the screenplay based on du Maurier’s story. The film stars Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, and Jessica Tandy.
- The television film The Birds II: Land’s End, aired in 1994 as a sequel to The Birds.
Johnny, like his sister, is used to heighten the story’s tension and to illustrate one of its main themes. His initial injury fills his parents with dread and compels them to do whatever they can to protect their children. He, like Jill, displays a child’s resiliency.
Mrs. Hocken appears as a stereotypical “weak woman” and is not very fleshed out; perhaps this is why du Maurier never gives her a name. While she does comfort her children and often tries to shield them from fearful thoughts, she appears almost as afraid as they and displays a childlike sense of insecurity and terror. She refuses to stay in the house with the children when Nat decides to go for supplies, and she never displays the confidence in their survival that her husband has.
Nat Hocken’s wartime disability provides him with a pension. As a result, he only needs to work part time at the Trigg’s farm to support his wife and two children. Trigg gives him the lighter jobs at the farm, which he carries out efficiently. Nat gains the reputation for being a solitary man. In between his chores on the farm, he often stops to gaze out at the sea that surrounds the farmland on either side and watch the movement of the birds.
His nature allows him to be keenly observant of his surroundings. He is the first in the area to take the threat of the birds seriously, since he has always carefully monitored their behavior. He quickly takes stock of the situation, sensing that the nighttime attack will not be the last and determines the materials and supplies he and his family will need to survive. Nat is also a realist. He immediately understands the dangerous situation he and his family are in and the difficulties the authorities will face in trying to get rid of the birds.
Nat keeps a cool head under pressure, focussing solely on how to protect his family both physically and emotionally. When the birds break into the children’s bedroom, he immediately pushes the children out before he begins his battle with the birds. When he sees the gulls swarming inland, his first thought is his daughter’s safety, and so he runs to the bus stop to fetch her. At home, he continually tries to comfort and reassure his family that no harm will come to them as he sets up barricades around the house. Even at the end of the story, with little hope of rescue, cut off from neighbors and the outside worlds, Nat does not succumb to his fears. He continues to try everything he can to survive.
His empathy emerges as he comforts his family and protects them from further distress. He does not tell them that the birds have broken into the bedroom and he cheers his children when they hear birds dropping dead outside the door. In an effort to distract them, he tries to make a game of the experience for Jill and Johnny, explaining that they will be camping out in the kitchen for the night. When he notes that no smoke is coming out of his neighbors’ chimneys, he berates himself for not bringing all the children home with him so that he could protect them.
Jim takes care of the cows on the Trigg’s farm. He does not like Nat because of his reputation for reading books and acting “superior.” Thus, he shows no desire to converse with him when Nat comes to warn his neighbors about the birds. Jim does not believe Nat’s story since “it took time for anything to penetrate Jim’s head.” He is killed when the birds attack the Trigg’s farm.
Mr. Trigg owns the farm on which Nat works. When Nat tries to convince him about the impending danger, he and his wife treat “the whole business as he would an elaborate joke.” Trigg represents the average citizen who would not take this type of threat seriously, due to their complacency, their confidence in the authorities to protect them, and in their own resilience. He assures Nat that he will shoot the birds out of the sky and invites him to come over the next morning to enjoy “a gull breakfast.” As a result, Trigg does not take any steps to protect himself or his wife, and the birds kill them both.
Like her husband, Mrs. Trigg does not believe Nat’s story.
At its heart, “The Birds” is a story of survival. The plot and the thematic foci begin and end with Nat Hocken’s struggle to survive the bird attacks. Du Maurier frames the story with these attacks, opening with a sole bird pecking at Nat’s bedroom window and ending with a swarm bombarding the Hocken’s home, seemingly desperate to get to the family huddling inside. Thus, Nat’s main activity during the duration of the story is to protect himself and his family against this dangerous onslaught.
The cool-headed Nat works carefully and methodically to insure his family’s survival. After the first attack, he boards up the windows, noting that they are the birds’ easiest point of entry. He then reinforces the doors and blocks the chimney. Even during the frightening attacks, Nat continually focuses on survival, determining what he must do when the assault subsides. During each break, he summons his courage and ventures out into the open with little protection in order to repair the breaks in the barricades he has constructed or to gather food and fuel in preparation for the next attack.
Nat’s determination to protect his children supersedes his own instinct for self-preservation. At the beginning of the story, his daughter’s scream causes him to rush into his children’s room to find that a swarm of gulls have broken in. His only concern is for the safety of his offspring, and he immediately pushes them out of the room before he begins to fight off the birds. The next day when he
Topics for Further Study
- Alfred Hitchcock based his film version of “The Birds” in part on two separate incidents in California when large groups of gulls broke into homes and smashed into car windows, as noted by Camille Paglia in her critical assessment of the film. Research these incidents and any others you can find on documented bird attacks. How realistic are the attacks in the story as compared to the real-life incidents? How could the behavior of the birds be explained?
- While Hitchcock maintained the tension of the story in his film version, he dramatically changed the plot. Do you think a successful film version could be made that would retain most of the story’s plot elements? How would you go about filming a more accurate version of the story?
- Americans on the home front never had to live through the bombing raids that the British endured during World War II. Research the psychological effect these raids had on the population.
- In the story, the government can find no way to control or get rid of the birds. Investigate possible ways authorities could have stopped the attacks or at least protected the victims.
observes a mass of gulls moving inland, he rushes to his daughter’s bus stop, determined to protect her. After he deposits her safely in his neighbor’s car, he returns home on foot. Just as he approaches his door, he again is viciously attacked by another onslaught of birds.
Nat also attends to his children’s emotional needs. Throughout the story, he tries to calm their fears by diverting their attention from their winged assailants. He directs them to the daily rituals of family life and encourages his wife to prepare their favorite treats. When the birds begin to break into the upstairs bedrooms, he barricades his family downstairs, enticing them with the chance to have an exciting camp out in the kitchen.
During the family’s struggle to survive, Nat and his wife fall into stereotypical gender roles, which some scholars, most notably Margaret Forster in her acclaimed biography of du Maurier, attribute to the author’s ambiguous sexuality. Nat is the one who takes charge of the protection of the family while his wife, who is never given a name by du Maurier, most often cowers in the background with her children. Mrs. Hocken does tend to the children by dressing Johnny’s wound and preparing their meals, but she often seems as terror-stricken as they are. When Nat decides to leave the house to look for food and fuel after an attack has subsided, his wife is so filled with terror that she refuses to stay behind with the children. The portrait of her subservience and weakness is reinforced when Nat has to order her to stay back when he explores the Trigg’s farmhouse. At first, she tries to follow, but Nat’s firmness causes her to retreat back to her children.
Du Maurier uses the setting to reinforce a sense of menace. Her descriptions of the weather and the elements suggest that these forces are working in tandem with the birds. Nat notes the abrupt change in the weather, which he considers “unnatural” and “queer” the night before the first attack. He exclaims that “never had he known such cold” as the wind seems to “cut him to the bone” much like the birds plan to do.
The sea and the wind appear to be empathetic to the birds, almost as though they are participants in the attacks. Nat notes “there was some law the birds obeyed, and it was all to do with the east wind and the tide.” The gulls “ride the seas” before they come into land, and their attacks are timed by the tides. After the birds dive-bomb the Hocken’s house, the wind sweeps away their broken carcasses.
The unrelenting threat of the birds creates a continual atmosphere of terror in the story. The tone is set quickly during the first night of attacks when the birds break into the children’s room. The incident fills Nat with fear not only for his own survival, but, more importantly to him, the survival of his family. The level of terror rises as each avenue of assistance is cut off. Initially, the family is sure that they can receive help from their neighbors and from the government. Yet after the radio goes dead and they hear planes crashing in the distance, they gradually become aware that they are on their own, a realization that is reinforced when they find the dead bodies of their neighbors. The atmosphere of terror reaches its most intense point at the end of the story when the family huddles together in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of the birds splintering the wooden barricades, turning on the wireless to hear only silence, and recognizing that they are completely alone.
The Cold War
Soon after World War II, when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the “cold war” began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear, triggered by several circumstances: the emergence of the United States and the USSR as superpowers, each country’s ability to use the atomic bomb, and the conflict between communist expansion and the determination to keep it in check. Each side amassed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could not only annihilate each country, but the world. Both sides declared the other the enemy and redoubled their commitment to fight for their own ideology and political and economic dominance.
As China fell to communism in 1949 and Russia crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the United States appointed itself as a sort of world police, and the Cold War accelerated. In 1950, the United States resolved to help South Korea repel communist forces in North Korea. By 1953,33,629 American soldiers had been killed in the Korean war.
The Cold War caused anxiety among Europeans and Americans fearing annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism. Citizens were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow their governments and brainwash their citizens. The fear that communism would spread to the United States led to suspicion and paranoia. Many suspected communists or communist sympathizers saw their lives ruined.
This “Red Scare” intensified with the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss (1950) and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) for passing
Compare & Contrast
- 1950s: Fear of a Russian attack with nuclear bombs prompts Americans and Europeans to build air raid shelters and conduct emergency drills.
Today: With the overthrow of communism in the USSR, the Cold War has ended, yet the same level of fear exists in America, generated by the threat of terrorism.
- 1950s: Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy conducts hearings from 1950 to 1954 intended to detect communist penetration of American government and academia; for his recklessness, he is censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954.
Today: Racial profiling is being considered as a tool to help combat the threat of terrorism.
- 1950s: America sends troops to South Korea to help the government wage a war against communist North Korea.
Today: America is engaged in a war against terrorism. In 2002, that war centers on Afghanistan as U.S. troops, aided by the British, overthrow the Taliban.
defense secrets to the Russians. Soon, the country would be engaged in a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical behavior during the Committee sessions.) By the time of McCarthy’s death in 1957, almost six million Americans had been investigated by government agencies because of their suspected communist sympathies, yet only a few had been indicted.
In response to the cold war threat, Americans and Europeans built bomb shelters and conducted air raid drills, which frightened school children and heightened the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust.
The horror story has been an important genre in British and American literature for the last two hundred years and provides a notable link to the gothic novel. Subjects popular with horror stories include murder, suicide, torture, and madness. The stories can involve ghosts, vampires, and demons and the practices of exorcism, witchcraft, and voodoo.
The thrust of the horror story involves testing the central characters’ courage and endurance as they experience physical as well as psychological danger. The terror that fills them can result from emotional chaos and push them to the edge of sanity and barbarism. These stories reflect the attempt to understand deeply rooted and primitive urges and fears as they are linked to concepts of death, punishment, and evil.
Elements of the horrific occur in classical literature as far back as Virgil’s Aeneid and Lucan’s Pharsalia through the Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, to the Gothic novel and short story in the nineteenth century. Early stories in this genre focused on the terrors of eternal damnation as outlined by various religious doctrines and on the secular “hell” of madhouses and prisons. Twentieth-century horror stories examined punishment as well as the dark recesses of the mind. Notable authors in this genre include E. T. A. Hoffman (“Die Elixiere des Teufels” and “Ignaz Denner”), Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”), Henry James (“The Turn of the Screw”), Ambrose Bierce (“The Man and the Snake” and “A Watcher by the Dead”), and contemporary writer Stephen King.
By the time her short story collection The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories (1952), published in America as Kiss Me Again, Stranger (1953) and later as The Birds, and Other Stories (1963) appeared, du Maurier was a well established commercial success. As Nina Auerbach notes in her article on the author for British Writers, du Maurier did not receive much attention from scholars who deemed her work “too readable to be literary.” The publication of The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories in 1952, which contained her masterful short story “The Birds,” however, earned her praise from critics as well as the public. After the publication of Not After Midnight, and Other Stories (1971), republished as Don’t Look Now (1971), along with the appearance of Margaret Forster’s biography in 1993, du Maurier’s literary reputation grew to the point that many scholars now echo Auerbach’s assessment that she is “an author of extraordinary range and frequent brilliance.”
Sylvia Berkman, in her review of Kiss Me Again, Stranger for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, singled out “The Birds” in the collection, praising how du Maurier builds up her harrowing account of the birds’ attacks “with intensifying accurate detail.” Yet, Berkman insists that the story’s references to the Cold War “dissipate the full impact of a stark and terrifying tale.”
In his article for The New York Times Book Review, John Barkham notes that du Maurier delights in baffling her readers with “her mysteries.” Barkham calls “The Birds” “a masterpiece of horror.” Richard Kelly, in his overview of du Maurier for the Reference Guide to English Literature, claims that the story, along with Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, “stand out among her works as landmarks in the development of the modern gothic tale.”
Perkins teaches American literature and film and has published several essays on American and British authors. In the following essay, Perkins compares du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” with Alfred Hitchcock’s film version.
In 1963, Universal Pictures released Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to public and critical acclaim. Evan Hunter’s screenplay loosely adapted Daphne du Maurier’s short story, transplanting the location from the Cornish coast of England to the seaside town of Bodega Bay and changing a major thematic direction. In du Maurier’s tale, the bird attacks and the characters’ responses to them emerge as a political statement on the paranoid atmosphere that existed in Europe and America during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. Hitchcock’s version discarded this topical theme and opted instead for a portrait of the main character’s psychosexual power struggle, heightened and redirected by the bird attacks. Both story and film, however, offer gripping portraits of humans struggling helplessly against the darker forces of nature.
In her review of Kiss Me Again, Stranger for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Sylvia Berkman complains that du Maurier’s story is “marred by unresolved duality of intent.” She insists that the author’s “turning of this material also into a political fable, with the overt references to control from Russia and aid from America ... dissipates the full impact of a stark and terrifying tale.” Berkman, however, fails to note that by placing the story into a Cold War context, du Maurier increases the story’s sense of isolation and doom. The bird attacks as an analogy for nuclear destruction compound the characters’ fears of complete and inevitable destruction.
Du Maurier begins her political framework when, after the first bird attack, Nat visits the Triggs’ farm to see if anyone there had had a similar experience. The Triggs and their hired hand Jim note that they have not been attacked and consider Nat’s story to be either an exaggeration or a nightmare. Their inability to recognize impending danger from the skies reminds Nat of the air raids England suffered through during World War II, which he had also endured. Many ignored the air raid sirens, failing to take appropriate precautions and seek shelter, and so were subsequently killed by German bombs. Du Maurier plants another reference to the bombing campaign when Nat later notes, as his family huddles in the kitchen during another attack, that the experience is just like being in an air raid shelter. The threat becomes intensified by the narrator’s suggestion that during their attacks, several of the birds become suicide bombers, calling to mind the Japanese kamikaze fighters during World War II.
The memory of his past experiences during World War II coupled with the political realities of the present magnify Nat’s terror as a new threat comes from the sky. Cold War fears of communist invasion emerge in the story when, after several
What Do I Read Next?
- Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), a tale of love and death on the moors of Yorkshire, has been long considered one of the finest novels in the gothic tradition.
- Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s sister, earned accolades for Jane Eyre (1847). Her novel focuses on a governess who comes to live in an estate owned by the mysterious Mr. Rochester.
- Du Maurier’s collection, Not After Midnight, and Other Stories (1971), republished in America as Don’t Look Now (1971) includes one of her most successful stories. “Don’t Look Now” traces a young couple’s struggle to cope with the death of their daughter.
- Du Maurier’s Rebecca, published in 1938, chronicles the life of a young, frail woman who must face the ghosts of the past in an isolated mansion on the Cornish coast.
people have been attacked, many insist that the Russians have poisoned the birds, prompting their bloodthirsty behavior. The BBC’s declaration of a national emergency before all communication is cut off increases the sense of inevitable destruction. Richard Kelly, in his article on du Maurier for Twayne ’s English Authors Series Online, concludes that the Hocken family “becomes a microcosm of an apparent worldwide disaster, and the conclusion of the story clearly suggests that the birds will destroy all the people on earth.”
Deciding that du Maurier’s short story could not be expanded into a feature length film, Alfred Hitchcock added a new plot line, that of the romantic relationship between the film’s two main characters, rich socialite Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor). The action begins when Melanie drives to Mitch’s home in Bodega Bay and she becomes embroiled in a battle of wills and wits not only with Mitch, but also with his mother, with whom he lives, and his ex-girlfriend. These antagonistic relationships are dramatically altered by the bird attacks, which are quite similar in design and intensity to those in the short story.
At the beginning of the film, Melanie appears as an independent, self-assertive woman who determines to establish a romantic union with Mitch. She initially becomes the sexual aggressor in the relationship, discovering where Mitch lives and subsequently delivering a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy’s birthday in an effort to make an impression on him. Mitch lives with his mother and Cathy, as Melanie discovers when she asks a resident for directions and is told the address of Lydia Brenner and “the two kids.” This description reflects the suggestion of an oedipal relationship between Mitch and his mother, who appears grasping and manipulative, and who obviously feels threatened by Melanie. Lydia has previously been successful at destroying her son’s romantic relationships, as his ex-girlfriend Annie notes. Ironically, Annie tries to discount the Freudian implications of their relationship when she remarks, “with all due respect to Oedipus,” Lydia is not a “jealous woman” or a “clinging, possessive mother” but merely fears “being abandoned.” Yet, as Camille Paglia notes in her analysis of the film, Hitchcock admitted in his assessment of Lydia that she has been “substituting her son for her husband.” The suggestion of Mitch’s attachment to his mother is reinforced by the fact that, as Paglia has observed, Lydia and Melanie look “remarkably alike.”
The ensuing power struggle between Lydia and Melanie for Mitch’s attention is interrupted and redirected by a gathering of birds. Melanie is attacked by a lone gull as she pilots a boat to Mitch’s dock, but, the next day, it escalates to a flock of birds attacking Cathy and her friends during a birthday party. This incident begins to change Melanie’s role as sexual aggressor to a more traditional
“While the story and the film follow different plot lines, the tone and the impetus for the narrative in the film stay remarkably true to the original: a nightmarish vision of a disordered universe where man’s traditional hierarchical position in nature is reversed.”
role of maternal protector, as she comforts Cathy, in effect usurping Lydia’s position. This maternal relationship is reinforced later as she tries to calm Cathy after sparrows invade the house through the chimney and terrorize her and Lydia to the point that Lydia appears numbed and quite fragile.
Relationships shift one more time at the end of the film when Melanie becomes trapped in the attic with a flock of frenzied birds that viciously attack her. After Mitch eventually pulls her out, she appears to be in a catatonic state, her aggressive will successfully broken. At this point, Lydia reassumes her maternal role and helps guide Melanie out of the house and into Mitch’s car. Lydia appears victorious as she cradles the now submissive woman who has tried to interfere with the Brenner family’s loyalties to its matriarch. Yet her cradling of the broken Melanie suggests that Lydia will now welcome her into the family in her more passive role.
While the story and the film follow different plot lines, the tone and the impetus for the narrative in the film stay remarkably true to the original: a nightmarish vision of a disordered universe where man’s traditional hierarchical position in nature is reversed. Nature conspires against the Hockens and the Brenners as it appears to aid the birds in their attacks. In both, the sea seems to work in conjunction with the birds. In the story, the gulls ride the waves, waiting for the tide to signal the next attack. In the film, the pet store saleswoman notes, a few hours before the gull assaults Melanie in the boat, that “there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland.”
The predatory nature of the birds becomes evident in both works. Nat insists that the attacks have been logically planned: the gulls go after humans in the country, and the larger birds cover the cities. Prior to one attack, Nat notices gulls circling overhead “as though they waited upon some signal. As though some decision had yet to be given. The order was not clear.” Mitch recognizes the same type of “instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines” after the gull assaults Melanie. He exclaims, “it seemed to swoop down at you deliberately,” just like the swarm of birds do the next day during Cathy’s party.
The characters respond to the crisis in similar ways. In each, a family is bombarded by a swarm of birds that invades a family’s home and terrorizes the occupants. Hitchcock echoes the political backdrop of du Maurier’s story when he explains that this incident in the film was based on the bombing of London during World War II, which his mother endured. In each, a main character is trapped alone in part of the house, struggling to survive the onslaught of the murderous birds. The pace in both quickens as the characters and readers/audience experience unrelenting terror while watching the birds amass, preparing for the next offensive. Nat carefully watches the waves where the birds sit, waiting for nature to signal their movements. Melanie waits outside the schoolhouse for Cathy while, one by one, a swarm of blackbirds gather ominously on the jungle-gym in the playground.
The characters either reinforce or revert to traditional roles during the crisis. Throughout the attacks, Nat assumes the dominant role of protector as he pushes his children out of their bedroom after the birds have broken in, and he runs to the bus stop to pick up his daughter. Meanwhile, his wife alternates between cowering in the corner of her kitchen and comforting her terrified children. The presence of children also gives the characters in the film an opportunity to revert to conventional behavior. After the attacks begin, Melanie noticeably softens as her primary concern becomes Cathy’s welfare. Yet it is Mitch who becomes the family’s ultimate protector as he rescues Melanie from the attic and drives his family away from their invaded home.
In her preface to The Breaking Point, du Maurier writes, “There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps.” All the adult women, Mrs. Hocken, Lydia, and Melanie, snap to some degree while the men stay focused on what is necessary for survival. Thus, both author and filmmaker suggest that, when faced with physical danger, men, out of necessity, assume the dominant role, a very traditional point of view made more complex by the nature and consequences of the threat.
Hitchcock most likely included a romantic plot line to help insure the film’s success, yet his divergence from du Maurier’s story becomes a successful and thought-provoking extension of the author’s themes. By grounding their works in an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of mankind, both present compelling studies of human behavior.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “The Birds,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Kattelman holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Ohio State University. In this essay, Kattelman discusses the literary techniques du Maurier uses to create the horrific effect of her short story.
What would happen if nature purposefully turned against the human race? This simple premise is the basis for Daphne du Maurier’s taut, tension-filled short-story “The Birds.” In a few short pages, du Maurier takes the reader on a journey through a desperate fight for survival against a savage, unnatural world. How does du Maurier successfully achieve such a horrific effect in so few pages? She does so by masterfully employing some traditional techniques that are characteristic of the horror genre.
One technique du Maurier uses is that of focusing the tale solely upon the character of Nat Hocken. Although other characters appear in the tale, they are relatively inconsequential. “The Birds” is definitely Nat’s story, and du Maurier takes the reader on a journey right along with him. The story never cuts away from what Nat is thinking, feeling, or doing, and thus, the reader gains a strong sense of identification with the main character. The description of Nat’s actions and intentions allows readers to place themselves “in Nat’s shoes,” thus experiencing the fear and horror exactly as he does. They see through his eyes: “There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These
“. . . du Maurier’s story is a very compact, effective shocker that utilizes some traditional techniques of the horror genre to create a haunting, powerful impact upon the reader.”
were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds.” They hear through his ears: “At last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew, and through the density of the blanket he was aware of light. He waited, listened; there was no sound except the fretful crying of one of the children from the bedroom beyond.” The reader is there in the room with Nat.
This “parallel journey” is a common technique of the horror genre. Horror writers often place readers in the middle of the same situation that engulfs the protagonist. In his book The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll notes that “Horror appears to be one of those genres in which the emotive responses of the audience ideally, run parallel to the emotions of the characters. Indeed in works of horror the responses of the characters often seem to cue the emotional responses of the audiences.” Thus, the short story writer provides clues as to how the reader should react through descriptions of the characters’ reactions.
Du Maurier provides numerous examples of this technique in “The Birds.” For instance, after the first major attack in the children’s room, du Maurier notes how Nat is “shocked and horrified.” She also lets the reader know that he is “sickened” at the site of the dead bird carcasses littering the floor. These descriptors play upon the reader’s emotional state, drawing them into the situation and placing them right next to Nat in his struggle for survival. As the story progresses du Maurier provides even more information about Nat’s experiences, describing not only his mental and emotional state, but his physical state, as well: “The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh.” The reader is meant to vicariously feel what Nat is experiencing and du Maurier’s adept use of description helps achieve this end.
In addition to taking the reader upon a parallel journey with the protagonist, du Maurier uses another common technique of the horror genre; she turns a common, familiar, “human-friendly” item into a cold-blooded killing-machine. By turning the “known” into the “unknown,” the horrific effect is heightened. As Carroll states in his book, “Horror is generated in part by the apprehension of something that defies categorization in virtue of our standing or commonplace ways of conceptualizing the order of things.”
In other words, horror is created when ordinary, everyday objects look or behave in ways that are unfamiliar. They move outside the bounds of recognition, either in form or in behavior, and into an unknown realm. This cuts to the very heart of human apprehension. As the famous horror writer H. P. Lovecraft notes in “The Appeal of the Unknown,” “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Human beings make sense of their world through categorization. Knowledge is power, and familiarity with something or someone provides a sense of comfort. Horror writers shatter this comfort by forcing a reader to look at the familiar in a new and different light, thus disorienting them. The disorientation creates fear and apprehension, and ultimately causes the emotion we have come to know as horror. Writers can create this disorientation a variety of ways. They may conjure up a monster or a presence, which does not exist in the real world, or they may alter familiar creatures so that they look and/or behave differently than anything that can be found in common experience.
The latter is what du Maurier does in “The Birds.” She creates her horrific effect by fashioning a threat out of creatures that are well-known and considered benign by most human beings. Birds are usually thought to be beautiful, sweet creatures. They serenade mankind with sweet songs and are a symbol of peace and love. It is presumed that birds are not endowed with any malicious intent and that they will always behave as expected. These beliefs are very reassuring. When the known world goes awry, however, the impact can be shocking.
By turning these everyday creatures into savage killing-machines, du Maurier creates a stronger effect than she might have achieved if she had chosen a fantastic or supernatural predator. Birds serve as a much more plausible threat, thus creating a very powerful story. After all, it is much easier to believe that the needle-beaked crow circling overhead might suddenly swoop down and viciously attack you than to expect Godzilla to show up in your back yard.
Du Maurier even emphasizes the commonality of the birds in her story. During Nat’s conversation with Mrs. Trigg, she suggests that the attacking birds have been blown in from the Arctic circle. He assures her that this is not the case, however: “No, they were the birds you see about here every day.” By investing innocent, omnipresent creatures with a malicious, evil intent, the horror is made more immediate for the reader. It’s an effective technique and one that has been used repeatedly by many of the great horror-masters. For example, in Cujo, Stephen King turned a loving family pet into a vicious killer, and there are numerous stories in which the most angelic-looking child is turned into the embodiment of evil, as in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
In “The Birds,” du Maurier repeatedly juxtaposes the ordinary rituals of hearth and home with the extraordinarily threatening occurrences that are taking place outside. This is a third technique that serves to heighten the tension of this tale. Throughout the story, Nat tries to maintain some semblance of order and normality as a way to allay his family’s fears and to retain his own sanity. He believes that if he and his family can focus upon parts of their world that are still familiar, perhaps order will be restored and things will revert back to normal. Du Maurier gives the reader several descriptions of Nat’s need to hold on to the well-known parts of his world: “he knelt down, raked out the old embers and relit the fire. The glowing sticks brought normality, the steaming kettle and the brown teapot comfort and security.”
The more Nat tries to cover up his rising fear and hysteria, however, the more he telegraphs it to the reader. The warm, familiar world of Nat’s home stands in stark contrast to the cold, evil swarms of birds that are circling outside. Nat assures his family that as long as the radio is playing or the fire is burning, things will be all right. The reader knows, however, that Nat’s reassurances to his wife and children are hollow and that things are probably not going to be “all right” as he keeps insisting. The radio will go silent and the fire will eventually go out.
Du Maurier’s story is a very compact, effective shocker that utilizes some traditional techniques of the horror genre to create a haunting, powerful impact upon the reader. She takes the reader on a parallel journey with the protagonist, turns the known into the unknown, and juxtaposes the comfort of traditional family life against the deadly force of nature gone awry. She also adds one extra “shocker” at the end of her tale.
Adding to the horrific lingering effect of the story is the unresolved ending. Instead of providing a nice tidy conclusion for the story, she brings it to an abrupt halt and never provides a justification for why the events have occurred. The reader is left “hanging” and wondering, right along with Nat. Du Maurier does not let the reader off the hook by explaining away the birds’ bizarre behavior or by suggesting a plausible solution by which the human race might save itself. Instead, she forces Nat and the reader to remain in a claustrophobic house where all they can do is sit, listen, and wait for the inevitable terror that’s certain to return.
Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on “The Birds,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Deneka Candace MacDonald
MacDonald is an instructor of English Literature and media. In this essay, MacDonald considers du Maurier’s text as a reflection on nature versus culture, the human condition, and feminist principles.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, with recurring environmental disasters of every imaginable kind, scholars, pseudo scholars, and the like began to take a marked interest in the growing binary relationship between humankind and animals, or more to the point, between culture and nature. Moreover, this theme of cultural distress has been reflected in contemporary fiction, which often personifies natural enemies of humankind on a variety of levels. Full of striking warfare metaphors, poignant spatial imagery, and provoking references to the “other,” Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” is a clever fictional addition to this growing concern with the phenomenon of nature versus culture.
Du Maurier begins her tale with a marked indicator of the role nature will play in her story:
“... the birds are representative of othered beings, not even the traditionally foreign others of the historical period (Russia), but local others, minorities and marginalized beings who have joined together to become one powerful force in the face of previous control and power.”
“On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.” With this dramatic change in the weather, the birds begin to loom in the sky, illustrating their powerful presence and foreshadowing the dread that awaits Ned Hocken, his family, and ultimately, humankind. It is this relationship between human and nature that du Maurier is primarily concerned with as she immediately sets up a powerful dichotomy between the two: “the figure of the farmer silhouetted on the driving-seat, the whole machine and the man upon it would be lost momentarily in the great cloud of wheeling, crying birds.” This initial image of the farmer astride his machine, battling a “cloud” of birds, is the first in a series of disturbing motifs that continue throughout the story; the message is clear: man/machine cannot successfully battle nature/the birds. Indeed, as “The Birds” continues, readers learn that nature works deliberately against man; it is nature’s tides (the flood tide) that bring the vicious bird attacks, just as it is the ice cold wind that chips against Nat’s hands, discouraging him as he works to defend his home.
Images of war, carnage, and holocaust soon become linked with the open geography of the farm as well as the closed confined spaces of Nat’s home. As he runs for shelter and protection from the raid in the gaping sky, Nat notes that the birds become bolder with each diving attempt at his body:
They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible fluttering of the birds. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered.
In addition to the boldness of the birds, it becomes apparent that some of the birds are selfless, attacking for the greater cause “with no thought for themselves.” Nat looks on in horror as the suicidal, dive-bombing birds miss him, crashing, “bruised and broken, on the ground”: “The wings folded suddenly to its body. It dropped like a stone.... They heard the thud of the gannet as it fell.”
To his dismay, Nat discovers that man-made products such as windows are not sufficient protection against nature’s anger. Frantically, he turns to natural products, first wood to board the windows and doors, and then the gruesome bloodied bodies of the dead birds themselves to insulate the broken boards and windows. He reasons that “the bodies would have to be clawed at, pecked, and dragged aside, before the living birds gained purchase on the sills and attacked the panes.”
This image of carnage immediately following the first major bird attack foreshadows further warlike imagery for the story. The birds have literally become an army, their corpses used as a repugnant defense. Further, both the black, cold weather and the viciousness of the birds themselves are attributed to Russian influence, just as Mrs. Trigg’s indifference to the problem is “like air-raids in the war,” reflecting a cold war attitude. Nat’s wife, too, reflects this mentality: “Won’t America do something? They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?”
Later, holocaust images are abundant when Nat neglects to keep the kitchen fire alight. He becomes frenzied as he attempts to pull the “smouldering helpless bodies of the birds caught by fire” from the chimney, unable to think of anything else, unable to heed the cries from his family in the background. When it is over, the kitchen fills with the smell of burning feathers from the “heaped singed bodies of the birds.”
However, the battle with nature and culture stretches beyond Nat’s small farm home in England but to the rest of the country (and the world by implication). Thus, the wireless radio ends its final transmission with the national anthem after its warning of the unnatural behavior of the birds. The telephones go “dead” during the night while the birds attack, and Nat discovers Mr. Trigg’s body beside the telephone, indicating that he made a failed attempt to telephone for help before the birds gorged on his body.
Clearly, mechanical developments in technology are no match for nature’s birds. In addition, man’s attempt to launch an “air raid” on the beasts fails when the birds attack the aircraft, infecting their propellers and sending them crashing into the farmland. Even the wind seems to come alive as it reclaims the dead birds, “sweeping them away” back into the sea during Nat’s attempt to bury their bloodied bodies. Nat and his family are forced to hide, afraid and hunted as the birds launch a systematic attack, in the small confined space of their man-made cottage. The wide open spaces of the farm and the sea are occupied by the birds and are, therefore, unsafe for humanity.
The story ends with a poignant analogy between nature and culture: “Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood.... the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.” Consequently, as Gina Wisker notes in her article “Don’t Look Now,” “the unease she [du Maurier] leaves us with develop[s] into fully fledged refusals of closure, and celebratory transgressions.” Indeed, the people in “The Birds” will not be rescued. There will be no happy ending. They will die.
Despite the fact that critics, including the biographer Nina Auerbach in Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, have plainly confirmed du Maurier’s non-feminist status, her work clearly reflects some of the same issues which feminism explores. Further, as du Maurier challenged mainstream assumptions in her own life, experimenting in lesbian relationships and challenging the traditional roles of gender, it is perhaps not surprising that “The Birds” openly and cleverly addresses the motif of otherness. As Anne Williams notes in The Horror, The Horror: Recent Studies in Gothic Fiction, “Ever since its origins in the late eighteenth century, the Gothic has provided Anglo-American culture with a space of monstrous ‘otherness.’”
Throughout “The Birds,” there is the suggestion that the birds that attack Nat Hocken and others are strange relentless beings who must be from outside the natural order of things. Nat initially tells his children not to worry, that the birds “aren’t the birds, maybe, from here around. They’ve been driven down from up country.” This notion is reiterated by Mrs. Triggs later when she says, “I suppose the weather brought them.... Foreign birds maybe, from the Arctic circle.” Not only does this reinforce the already blatant cold war imagery in the story, but it also points to comfortable accusatory “othering” within the text. The vicious attack of the birds has come from elsewhere; local birds would never turn on the local people.
Ironically, the reader discovers that these are local birds. Further, they are several species of local birds: “robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now joining one with another in their urge for battle.” Most importantly here, as Nat notes, these are birds, who, “by nature’s law” would not normally band together. Metaphorically, on one level, the birds represent Mother Nature as she works to bring the birds of many species together in an angry army to attack and punish humanity.
On another level, the birds are representative of othered beings, not even the traditionally foreign others of the historical period (Russia), but local others, minorities and marginalized beings who have joined together to become one powerful force in the face of previous control and power. They attack the farmer and the farm hands, the patriarchal inhabitants of nature’s land who have reaped her resources. As Wisker notes:
It exposes hidden fears and lurking perversities derived from disgust at difference... at the Other, at the abject, the ‘not I,’ rejected otherness.... The abject also involves anything monstrous and animal like which can take over and destroy.
Thus, the birds will not be stopped; they will not remit. They are relentless, acting with the nature’s floods, timing their attacks to coincide with the ebb and flow of the tides.
“The Birds” is one of many stories in which du Maurier explores the workings of the mind. As a woman interested in the inner struggle with internal evil and the disturbing images of the unconscious mind, du Maurier often explores the notion of horror from these perspectives. Thus, a crucial theme in “The Birds” is the relationship between reason and insanity. The story is expertly constructed to play upon both the characters’ and the readers’ ability to reason in the midst of unreasonable behavior.
Du Maurier presents the reader with ordinary birds—seemingly harmless animals who traditionally represent peace, freedom, and spirituality—but with something distinctly sinister about them: “but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.”
Particularly, this story reflects the teetering between reason and sanity in the character Nat Hocken. Indeed, as Carol LeMasters notes in Roles of a Lifetime, “[du Maurier’s] view of humanity proved darker than anything her literary forbears could have envisioned.” Thus, although Nat is “aware of misgiving without cause,” he attempts to remain entirely reasonable for much of the story, assuring his family and himself that there are logical reasons for the strange unnatural behavior of the birds. He states that “it must have been fright that made them act the way they did,” or that “the east wind brought them in. They were frightened and lost, they wanted shelter.” Nat’s reasonable explanations are confirmed by the wireless that recounts the “suspected reason of cold and hunger” as the bird’s motivation for attack.
Nat’s fear of the bird phenomenon can be seen clearly in his overcompensation to detail in the task of preparing the home. He is decidedly “over practical” throughout the ordeal. He immediately heeds the wireless instructions to protect his home, busily setting about the property boarding up windows, filling the chimney bases, and awaiting further news from the radio. He keeps himself occupied, thinking of food supplies, how many candles they will need, whether or not they have enough batteries and coal for the fire, etc., and where and when they can gather more.
However, as he battles nature’s ice cold wind and goes about his tasks, his own musings about the attacks are full of self-doubt. He is certain that Mr. Trigg’s “shooting match” with the birds will fail, and curses the man for not having the insight to defend his home. Eventually, Nat begins to ascribe human attributes of consciousness, greed, vicious-ness, and awareness to the army of birds attacking his home: ‘“they’ve got reasoning powers,’ he thought, ‘they know it’s hard to break in here. They’ll try elsewhere.’” Moreover, while Nat is initially confident that the authorities will solve this crisis with nature, he begins to doubt their competence: “someone high up had lost his head.”
Finally, as the birds ravenously hunt him and his family, he becomes less rational. Nat eventually resists reason and embraces the terror of the birds. As he lights his last cigarette and watches the empty packet burn, he is resolved to his fate. Wisker notes that du Maurier herself says it best when she acknowledges, in a private letter: “The evil in us comes to the surface. Unless we recognize it in time, accept it, understand it, we are all destroyed, just as the people in “The Birds” were destroyed.”
Source: Deneka Candace MacDonald, Critical Essay on “The Birds,” inShort Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Guyette has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh. In the following essay, Guyette examines the influence of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation on du Maurier’s story.
In her short story “The Birds,” author Daphne du Maurier creates a chilling piece of fiction that haunts the imagination by vividly conjuring up innate primal fears. Her stark depiction of a family huddled inside their house as hordes of vicious birds relentlessly attack is truly the stuff of which nightmares are made. When explored at a deeper level, however, this piece can be interpreted as something much more than just a macabre scenario involving birds gone berserk. Looked at closely, du Maurier’s story can be seen as a cautionary tale about man’s tendency to wage war and the profound dread plaguing a civilization perched on the brink of annihilation because of that trait.
Published as part of a collection of stories in 1952, “The Birds” was written when the psychological wounds of World War II were still fresh, and the Cold War between western democracies and the Soviet Union was already well under way. As a native of Britain, du Maurier was keenly aware of the terror wrought by the German bombing raids that besieged England. Married to a British army officer who commanded an airborne division, she lived with the constant knowledge that one day there could be a knock on the door informing her that she had become a widow and that her small children were fatherless.
But the end of the war did not bring a sense of peace or stability, neither for du Maurier nor the rest of the world. The images of mushroom clouds erupting from atom bombs dropped on Japan continued to cast their troubling shadows across the planet as the arms race with the Soviets escalated and the specter of nuclear conflict hovered. Such a conflict threatened not only humanity, but all life on earth. As a result, for the first time in history, man’s unique tendency toward war had culminated in weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to the entire natural world.
Just as the world suddenly changed forever at that instant the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima to usher in the nuclear age, the change portending doom is equally swift and unexpected as the story of “The Birds” begins. The world changes literally overnight as the mild, mellow days of autumn are transformed, immediately becoming cold and harsh as a foreboding wind begins to blow in from the east. The land freezes hard as stone in a matter of hours. “Black winter had descended in a single night,” writes du Maurier.
The story’s central character, Nat Hocken, is a war veteran suffering from a disability. Because he works part-time at a farm, Nat is very much in touch with the rhythms of nature. Living near the ocean, he takes pleasure in watching the seasonal rituals that dictate the migration patterns of the many different kinds of birds that inhabit the area along the British sea coast that’s home to Nat and his family.
It is while Nat is working in the fields that he first senses something odd about the birds gathering around him. There are many more of them than normal, and they seem unusually agitated. Nat thinks of them as a “warning” that winter is approaching. When the weather turns with a shift in the wind that night, the coinciding attack of birds is immediate. First it is just one small bird fluttering against the bedroom window of Nat and his wife, but even it draws blood.
Before the night is through, Nat is battling fiercely to protect his young children from the swarm of birds that have flooded into their room. As the sun rises and the birds flee, Nat surveys the carnage and sees several dozen dead birds of many different varieties. It is more proof that something unnatural is occurring because, under normal circumstances, these birds would have “kept to their own flock and their own territory ... It is as though a madness seized them, with the east wind,” Nat tells his wife.
References to the “east wind” are frequent throughout the story. Ensuring that the significance of that is not lost on readers, du Maurier is even more explicit when referring to the source of this sudden cold. Mrs. Trigg, the wife of the farmer Nat works for, asks him specifically if he thinks the razor sharp wind is blowing in from Russia. Later in the story, after the birds have made their first attack, the farmer tells Nat, “They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.” It is a stark example of the kind of cold war paranoia that was proliferating during the 1950s.
But that threat is not enough to instill caution in the farmer. Ignoring advice to board up his windows to fend off attack, he thinks a gun will allow him to handle any threat the birds might pose. Nat sees the farmer’s dismissive attitude toward precautionary measures as similar to that of people who failed to acknowledge the onset of the second world war. There are numerous references to World War II throughout the story. As it turns out though, the postwar attack of birds seem to be an even more formidable enemy than the Axis powers were. The British planes that successfully fought off the Germans prove useless against the small winged creatures willing to thrust themselves into engines, causing the aircraft to crash and explode. Likewise, the massive warships that helped the British and their allies beat back the forces of fascism are powerless against this new terror.
From Nat’s vantage point, the only weapon that might be of use is poison gas, which may kill the birds but would (like nuclear fallout) leave behind a world so “contaminated” that it would be uninhabitable. This sense of futility reflects du Maurier’s personal philosophy regarding war. According to Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, the author saw all armed conflict as a fruitless endeavor. As she wrote to a friend regarding the war: “What carnage there is going to be ... and what will have been achieved? Nothing.” Forster also described a time during the middle of World War II when du Maurier looked at her young son and pessimistically thought about the terrible fighting and how his generation will all be “doing the same in twenty years’ time, and it made her shudder.”
That same sort of dire outlook permeates “The Birds.” In Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers, Richard Kelly writes about the struggle Nat Hocken and his family endure when they see “nature turn upon them ... The end result,” observes Kelly about the attack, “is that human beings are forced to act like animals themselves, with survival as their solitary goal.”
Whether the Hocken family will prevail is something that’s left to doubt. As “The Birds” draws to a close, the family is huddled inside their kitchen as if it were an air raid shelter, with food and
“... for the first time in history, man’s unique tendency toward war had culminated in weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to the entire natural world.”
fire wood in short supply. The radio is silent, and they are shut off from the outside world as hordes of birds stab at the windows and claw at the roof with their talons. Indeed, the family’s survival is very much in question. What brought them to that point is what du Maurier described as a new-born instinct “to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
As the Hocken family is forced to live like animals, the birds in this story display a type of intellect usually associated with humans. From the outset, Nat notices that the birds gather to attack in organized “formations,” like so many war planes. It is as if they were on specific missions, acting under orders from some unseen high command, with some flocks being assigned cities to attack while others are given rural areas to assault with their kamikaze-like bombardments. “They’ve got reasoning powers,” thinks Nat. And that may be the ultimate horror story: a world in which nature, threatened with annihilation by the awesome destructive powers of modern technology, retaliates by assuming a characteristic that otherwise makes man unique—the ability to ruthlessly and systematically wage all-out war.
Source: Curt Guyette, Critical Essay on “The Birds,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay excerpt, Kelly explores du Maurier’s treatment of the “breaking point” between emotion and reason and the effect this has on the characters in “The Birds.”
Although some of du Maurier’s novels, such as The House on the Strand and The Flight of the Falcon, acknowledge the workings of the unconscious mind, most of her short stories focus upon this sixth sense and explore the region of the mind that borders upon reason and madness, the natural and the supernatural. In her preface to The Breaking Point, du Maurier writes, “There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps.” Two of her tales that study this breaking point, “The Birds,” and “Don’t Look Now,” have been indelibly etched upon millions of minds through the enormously popular films by Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg.
“The Birds” is an excellent short story that has been turned into a very bad motion picture. “On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter,” the story opens. This sudden shift in the weather sets the tone for the catastrophic change in the natural order of things to follow. The tale focuses upon an English farmer, Nat Hocken, his wife and children. As the cold begins to bite into both the land and Nat’s body, he notices that there are more birds than usual, both over the sea and land. That night he hears pecking at the windows of his home. The birds are trying to get in, and when he goes to investigate the noise one of them pecks at his eyes. Some fifty birds then fly through the open window in his children’s room, and he manages to kill most of them amidst the hysterical cries of the children.
The next day the family discusses the bizarre occurrence. Nat explains that the east wind must have affected the behavior of the birds and caused them to seek shelter in his house. When his daughter, Jill, says that they tried to peck at her brother’s eyes, Nat again offers a rational explanation. “Fright made them do that. They didn’t know where they were, in the dark bedroom.”
Later that day, Nat sees what he thinks are white caps out at sea, but they turn out to be hundreds of thousands of gulls: “They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide.” When he returns home his wife informs him that there was an announcement on the radio stating that “its everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.” A later bulletin says that “That flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas.”
“Dislocation” is a key word in this story, for it identifies the fundamental disruption in the natural order of things. Man, who is ordained to have dominion over the birds and the beasts, suddenly has his authority threatened. There is not only a dislocation in the great chain of being but within people’s minds. Reason and serenity are displaced by fear and panic in this unexpected reversion to a Darwinian world of the survival of the fittest.
Realizing that neither the government nor the military could do anything to help at this point, Nat assumes the thinking of a survivalist: “Each householder must look after his own.” Life within his small farmhouse takes on the character of Londoners during the airraids: the family huddles together, food is carefully accounted for, windows and other openings are sealed up, as they prepare for the invasion. The next day the birds continue to gather ominously in the sky and in the fields. On his way home Nat is viciously attacked by a gull, and during his panic a dozen other gulls join in. “If he could only keep them from his eyes. They had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder.”
Safe at home again, Nat has his wounds treated by his wife, and his children become terrified at the sight of the blood. The battle is now in earnest. The parents do their best to keep the children distracted, but their gut fear shows in their faces and in their actions. That night thousands of birds assault the house, breaking the windows, screaming down the chimney. Using all of his energy and resourcefulness, Nat manages to get his family through the harrowing hours. Daylight brings a degree of safety, for the birds seem to settle quietly in the fields.
Nat goes to the home of his neighbor, the Triggs, to see if he can get some food for his family and discovers the mutilated bodies of the couple. Mr. Trigg is lying next to his telephone, and his wife, an umbrella and a few dead birds at her side, is lying on her bedroom floor. Nat gathers up some food and returns home. This time he barricades his house with barbed wire around the boarded windows and chimney. He works feverishly as his wife and children sleep and then joins them in the hope that his small world is secure.
The story ends with Nat lighting up his last cigarette and listening to the attack of the birds:
The smaller birds were at the window now. He recognized the light tap-tapping of their beaks, and the soft brush of their wings. The hawks ignored the windows. They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many millions of years were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.
By limiting the focus of her story upon Nat Hocken and his family du Maurier manages to convey the effect of a believable claustrophobic nightmare. The birds may be attacking people throughout the world, but du Maurier wisely keeps the story within the confines of one person’s family (though, of course, Nat hears reports of the birds turning predatory in London). The Hocken family becomes a microcosm of an apparent world-wide disaster, and the conclusion of the story clearly suggests that the birds will destroy all the people on earth.
During recent years there have been stories and films featuring everything from rabbits to ants as man’s final enemy. Du Maurier’s story, however, was something of a shocker at the time, and her choice of birds as the destroyers was particularly effective. Birds have long been associated with peacefulness, beauty, freedom, spirituality, music, and poetry. Unlike ants, frogs, rats, bees and the other assortments of creatures that go on the rampage in contemporary science fiction tales, birds are attractive and elusive creatures. By making them relentless, almost calculating predators, du Maurier revolutionizes the traditional symbolism of birds, and her story conjures up the nightmarish imagery of the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, in which grotesque birds with stabbing beaks threaten the rational order of things. Du Maurier plays upon the archetypal fear of having one’s eyes pierced by having Nat several times throughout the story exclaim in the midst of an attack that he must protect his eyes.
One other nice touch in the story is that du Maurier does not offer some pseudo-scientific explanation for the birds’ behavior. Given an ordered and reasonable world, her characters attempt to explain the phenomena in terms they can understand—a shift in the weather or migration patterns. They gradually discover, however, that their life-long assumptions about reason and order do not apply, that their world has suddenly become absurd, a bad dream in which rules of logic and common sense no longer work. The end result is that human beings are forced to act like animals themselves, with survival as their solitary goal.
Alfred Hitchcock became interested in du Maurier’s story after he read the headlines of a Santa Cruz newspaper: “A Sea Bird Invasion Hits
“‘Dislocation’ is a key word in this story, for it identifies the fundamental disruption in the natural order of things. Man, who is ordained to have dominion over the birds and the beasts, suddenly has his authority threatened.”
Coastal Homes.” Realizing that there was no plot or character development in the short story, Hitchcock knew he would have to get someone, preferably a novelist, who could expand the story and make it suitable for a film. He turned to the novelist Evan Hunter.
Hunter’s final story line is as follows: A rich San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) meets a brash young lawyer named Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor) in a pet shop. Despite Mitch’s arrogant manner, Melanie is attracted to him, and she travels by boat to his home in Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of love birds his young sister wanted. Returning to town, Melanie is attacked by a swooping gull that wounds her head. Later she accepts an invitation to Mitch’s home for dinner, despite his mother’s disapproval of her. The birds in the area, meantime, show signs of erratic behavior. Melanie goes to help out at the sister’s birthday party the next day, and during the party a flock of gulls attacks the children. The school teacher, Annie Hay worth (played by Suzanne Pleshette), was formerly in love with Mitch and provides the love triangle.
The violence increases as a flock of sparrows pours into the house through the chimney. A neighboring farmer and his wife are pecked to death; another attack leads to an explosion of a gasoline tank; and Annie is killed while trying to protect her students. Finally, Melanie, Mitch, his mother and sister, barricade the house against a brutal onslaught of birds. During a lull the next day, Mitch gets his car, and he drives the terrified group away slowly down a road surrounded by birds.
Hitchcock did not want any stars in his film. He told Hunter, “I’m the star, the birds are the stars—and you’re the star.” Apart from the famous stage actress Jessica Tandy, who played the mother, there were no well-known actors in the film. Hitchcock chose Suzanne Pleshette, a newcomer, over Anne Bancroft for the role of the school-teacher. He gave Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor their first leading roles. A great expense of time and money went into the birds themselves: mechanical birds, animated birds, and real birds. Two men, wearing protective gloves, threw live birds at Tippi Hedren during the climatic scene. Hours were spent in shooting this scene in a caged room as Hedren attempted to act under the constant bombardment of feathers and beaks. Once a frightened bird left a deep gash on her lower eye lid, and the terror in the cage became more than mere acting.
If a lesser figure than Hitchcock had produced this film it is doubtful that it would have received such enormous notoriety. It is without a doubt the worse film version of a du Maurier story. Evan Hunter’s script is largely devoted to the dull and unbelievable love story between Mitch and Melanie. The audience must sit through over an hour of poor acting and vapid dialogue before the birds get their chance to star. The nightmare effect of du Maurier’s story is diminished beyond recall, with the exception of one excellent scene in which Melanie sits outside the school house waiting for Mitch’s sister. As she sits there smoking a cigarette, a jungle-gym set in the background ominously fills up with large blackbirds.
Brenda Gill, in the New Yorker, observes that the film “doesn’t arouse suspense, which is, of course, what justifies and transforms the sadism that lies at the heart of every thriller. Here the sadism is all too nakedly, repellently present.... If this picture is a hit, the Audubon Society has an ugly public-relations problem on its hands.” Most of the major newspapers and magazines attacked this film with the vehemence of the predatory birds themselves. Before long, the critics were busily attacking each other. Gary Arnold in Moviegoer ridicules the opinions of Peter Bogdanovich and Andrew Sarris, who contend that The Birds is Hitchcock’s greatest artistic achievement. Arnold observes that Evan Hunter’s script lies at the heart of the film’s failure: “Since the people in the film are so shallow, so lacking in the qualities and complexities of human beings, the birds themselves lose a good deal of force both as terrorizers and possible symbols. Assaulting vacant, passive, cardboard figures proves very little, I think, about what men are like or what they may have in store for themselves.” ...
The autobiographical fable embedded within this tale, then, argues that du Maurier’s wide experience, her best-selling novels, and her concessions to Hollywood are all meritorious. The elitist writers may have the adulation of the snobbish literary establishment but real life moves on a lower, more powerful plane, and the elitist will one day come to realize that.
In most of her short fiction du Maurier is primarily interested in conclusions and in the events that lead to those conclusions. Character, atmosphere, language, social commentary—all are of secondary interest to her as she plunges her undefined characters into a sequence of events that inextricably lead them to a predestined, usually surprising, fate. Her stories present life in neat, tidy little packages. Her characters are manipulated by their contrived future, their every gesture and word leading to a preconceived conclusion. Du Maurier’s best stories avoid this easy pattern in favor of a more complex, ambiguous view of life. “The Birds,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Way of the Cross,” and “Ganymede” are four of her most convincing and entertaining stories. Like Rebecca and The Parasites, two of her best novels, they convey a cogent sense of the terror and comedy of ordinary human life.
Source: Richard Kelly, “The World of the Macabre: The Short Stories,” in Daphne du Maurier, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 123–40.
Auerbach, Nina, “Daphne du Maurier,” in British Writers, Scribner’s, 1996, pp. 133–49.
———, Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Barkham, John, “The Macabre and the Unexpected,” in the New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1953, p. 5.
Berkman, Sylvia, “A Skilled Hand Weaves a Net of Horror,” in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 15, 1953, p. 4.
Carroll, Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, Routledge, 1990, pp. 17, 126–27.
Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Doubleday, 1993, p. 184.
Kelly, Richard, “Daphne du Maurier: Chapter 6: The World of the Macabre: The Short Stories,” in Twayne’s English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall, 1999.
———, “du Maurier, Daphne,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, Vol. 1, Introductions, Writers A-G, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 515–16.
———, “du Maurier, Daphne,” in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3d ed., edited by Aruna Vasudevan, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 201–02.
LeMasters, Carol, “Roles of a Lifetime,” in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. 7, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 48.
Lovecraft, H. P., “The Appeal of the Unknown,” in Horror, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 29.
Paglia, Camille, The Birds: BFI Film Classics, British Film Institute, 1998.
Templeton, Wayne, “Daphne du Maurier,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 191: British Novelists Between the Wars, Gale, 1998, pp. 85–94.
Williams, Anne, “Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination,” in The Horror, The Horror: Recent Studies in Gothic Fiction, Vol. 46, No. 3, John Hopkins University Press, 2000, p. 790.
Wisker, Gina, “Don’t Look Now,” in Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 8, University of Hull, 1999, pp. 19, 21–22.
Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Doubleday, 1993.
Forster’s biography renewed critical interest in du Maurier and offered insight into how her relationships with the women and men in her life were reflected in her works.
Harris, June, “du Maurier, Daphne,” in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote, St. James Press, 1997, pp. 127–29.
This overview offers a brief but comprehensive look at du Maurier’s major themes and style.
Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik, Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination, St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
This thoughtful critique places du Maurier’s fiction in the gothic tradition.
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