‘To what extent is the dehumanisation of war present in ‘Birdsong’

Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel ‘Birdsong’ is a particularly compelling novel about the hardship and consequences of war seen through the courageous main character Stephen Wraysford coupled, conjunctively with the reality of a modern society and the influences of past events that formulate Elizabeth Benson’s interpretations, Stephen’s granddaughter.

       One key theme that is explored throughout this novel is the experience of battle, how war had not only physically, mentally and emotionally affected many young soldiers lives, but had also generated unlikely friendships. Due to the profound effects and experiences of war, creates the idea of war as a dehumanising response in soldiers, who were prepared to risk their lives, of which many soldiers did and were killed. World War One was not an event in history that lasted only four years, but it is a continually remembered and significant event that changed the attitude and conventions of society, the people within it and the actions that are taken, and how they have impacted on modern society.

      The structure of ‘Birdsong’ begins with Stephen in France in 1910, visiting the Azaire household to gain knowledge and experience of industrialisation and modernisation of machinery. The novel commences initially with life before the war and the secrecy of Stephen and Isabelle Azaire’s affair, the new developing world of France and the simplicity of everyday life.  “On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners”, this simple and pastoral image sets the tone of the novel with an idyllic setting. The irony of this is particularly important, as the novel progresses we can see the landscape and the scene of war could not be more opposing.

       As the novel is separated into seven parts it is clear there is a variety not only of time setting but also of place, in that the events and situations that occurred were a result of the announcement of war. This announcement was the first indication to how war has a dehumanising force, in that conscription posed the almost inevitable risk of death. One particular representation of how war dehumanises soldiers is the representation of the noise of battle, the unnatural sounds of the outside “a sharp wailing began a few yards down the trench. It was a shrill, demented sound that cut through even the varying noises of gunfire.” This significant quotation signifies that every aspect of war, not only the death toll and landscape disruption but also the sounds of war demonstrate the dehumanising ability to physically and mentally destroy soldiers, this can be seen through the use of the word “demented” demonstrating perhaps the state of mind of surviving soldiers after the ordeal of war.

       The structure of the whole play similarly utilises and presents dehumanisation of war through other significant characters such as Stephens friend Jack Firebrace, “he had though himself immune to death; he thought he had hardened himself against it, but it was not so.” This representation demonstrates the extremities of war, that Jack had almost lost all human and natural emotion to the unnatural action of war. The structure not only demonstrates the dehumanisation of people at the time 1914-1918, but also in a more modern society with the use of Elizabeth, she is used to capture the memorandum of war, that it was and will continue to be a profound consequence of disagreements.

      Imagery is a significant technique Faulks uses to demonstrate the reality of war, vivid language such as “demented”, “your mind goes dead” and “the pupil seemed to grow blacker and wider”, as in the death of Tipper.  This shows the lack of compassion for life, and the stark brutality of death. Although the chaos of war was continuous and the threat of death present, the soldiers actively involved in the front line are seemingly lost and isolated from the distant and seemingly abandonment of their previous lives. The use of natural language is also another powerful reminder of the dehumanisation of war, the quotation “It seemed to have no agricultural purpose, there was no planting of ploughing to be done. Then he realised, they were digging a mass grave. ” This lack of sensitivity and unnaturalness of a “mass gave” can be seen to show the opposition between the idea of new life through “planting” to the construction of graves for young soldiers dismembered bodies, that were victims of the brutality of war.

     The contrast between parts of the novel set in 1912 onwards and the modern sections dated from 1978 can also be used to represent the social divisions of the rich and poor, The initial view of the wealthy Azaire’s can be seen through the introduction to the descriptions of their grand house in France, the representation of the grandeur of the door “there was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber.” This description evokes the impression of power, wealth and security within the household, two key industrial developments – iron and steel  signifying the emergence of the already established industrial revolution and its continuous progression. Contrast between the rich as the poor is highlighted through “small children in ragged clothes” to Azaire’s “leather-covered seat” this representation of class distinction does not represent the extremities of dehumanisation of people, but clearly demonstrates the social divides and poverty that was not only present at the time but is also a feature of today’s society. This distinction was diminished with the friendships that were developed between Stephen and other members of the infantry, who were from differing social classes and employment.

     Overall through the representation of the brutality of war, the effects not only of the landscape and the disruption of natural scenes but also of the effect war had on the mental and physical stability of the soldiers. It is clear that war had a profound and systematic dehumanising feature that not only affected the soldiers but also their families at home and the effort and morality of societies. Dehumanisation is an extreme interpretation but I feel is a significantly fitting description to the harshness of war and the consequences that follow. ‘Birdsong’ is a particularly significant and poignant novel that portrays the significance of the torture of war, the divisions between societies and the consequences of disagreements between governments, leaders and the radicalisation of people across the world.

Focus: In what ways does Wilfred Owen portray unnatural situations in natural surroundings within his collection of World War 1 poetry?

Wilfred Owen, a renowned world war one poet delivers his own personal thoughts and feelings about war throughout his poetry, particularly specifying in his disbelief and resentment at the consequences of war, namely the mass killing of thousands of young soldiers.

    Owens famous poem ‘Futility’ bases his attitudes on the disbelief that the sun, synonymous with power and creation cannot wake the wounded soldier, the rhetorical questions present are used as a common technique by Owen and emphasis his confusion at the suns lack of help in rousing the soldier, and show not only disillusion at war but at creation as a whole. The unnatural scene of death as the main theme within this poem, conjures up the thoughts that wars should not be fought if the sun – founder of life – cannot assist the young, wounded soldiers.  Similarly it can be noted that ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ emphasises the unnatural scene of war with the use of vivid imagery at how the landscape has been destroyed through artillery fire. Specific phrases such as “cursed through sludge”, “misty panes” and “thick green light” all emphasis not only the misplacement of young soldiers, that this is not a scene in which they should be witnessing but also the idea that war has totally unsettled the landscape around to a horrific unnatural setting. ‘Exposure’ is another distinctive poem in which elaborates the effects of the landscape due to war, a particular technique used is repetition “But nothing happens” this emphasises the fact there is seemingly no escape from war, that no real changes will be suddenly made for not only the men to be relieved from the torture of the constant fire of bullets but also that the landscape will be relieved from the mutation imposed upon it by the constant bombardment of men and weaponry. Significant quotations referenced are “rain soaks” “deep into grassier ditches” these quotations are used to literally expose the effects upon the landscape and how damaged it presently is. All three of these poems, I feel demonstrate a portrayal that Owen is discontented with the destruction not only of the landscape but of humanity and the consequences that follow due to human misunderstanding.

        Another key theme which is demonstrated throughout Owens poems is that of the innocence of youth that they do not belong in a war torn environment. Youth is particularly important and is regularly referenced to due to Owen personally witnessing the destruction of young lives due to violent weaponry. ‘Arms and the boy’ is a typical representation of how “children were much in Wilfred Owens mind” during Easter 1918 when this poem was first written while I personally feel that although this poem signifies the effects of war upon young soldiers, the significance of this poem is the personal approach I feel Owen takes upon the prolific brutality of weaponry that was used. In contrast I feel that ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’ is a poem that Wilfred Owen uses to question the death of young soldiers that are slaughtered in battle, he then further questions the lack of ceremonies and celebrations of their deaths, this idea of celebration can be seen through the quotations “no prayers, nor bells” “save the choirs” “holy glimmers of goodbyes” these phrases portray the typical features of a church funeral. The poem is taken from and is used in reflection to the national anthem, and references to song and praises of conflict and is ironic that it should represent joy and celebrations but it actually used in reference to the youth and that they are ultimately doomed by war.  I personally feel that the significance of the specific reference to youth within ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is one of Wilfred most poignant poems when referring to personal loss particularly within the young. This poem, for me signifies the innocence of youth in the unnatural setting of war that they “die as cattle” emphasising in the slaughter of the soldiers and the inhumane deaths.

  The dehumanisation of soldiers at war is specifically discussed within Owens poem “Mental Cases” this poem, written in 1918 describes the physical and mental effects of war, in particular soldiers mental deterioration and physical disabilities. The tone of the poem is Owens critical views in war and his message is clear in the resentment of how monumental war was upon young lives. The language used is emotive and graphic and represents imagery as “hellish” examples of graphic imagery that not only show their physical decline but also their present insanity are “baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked”. Similarly “Disabled” also exposes the suffering endured on a specific individual following the intensity of war. “He sat in a wheelchair, waiting for dark” this opening line introduces the simplicity of the language used throughout; the tone begins as sombre and reflective and begins the harrowing account of an invalid severely effected by war “legless, sewn short at elbow”. ‘Disabled’ and ‘Mental Cases’ both demonstrate the life changing effects of war on the casualties and how not only visible physical changes are present, but inner psychological effects show the all consuming, all destructing power of war.     

     In conclusion, Wilfred Owen demonstrates his frustration and absolute abhorrence at the cruelty inflicted by man, and its consequences ultimately leading to the death of many soldiers. My personal interpretation of Owens disturbing poetry evokes a sense of overwhelming desperation of the soldiers and their plight and the brutal consequences of war as an unnatural surrounding within natural and familiar setting.

What is Romanticism?

Romanticism was initially recognized as a common state of referral among many literary works and arose in the 18th century. This type of poetry refers to a more emotional level rather than that of explanation and reasons. A key figure and influential character was William Wordsworth who had strengthened the Romantic Movement greatly. The Romantic movement was of sort a revolt and includes many poetic ideals such as love, beauty and emotion, many involve John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Wordsworth, the movement begun from around 1750 to around 1870.

Romantic poetry consists of many key characteristics such as the imagination which is the essence of romantic poetry, emotions in expression of thought, nature in interpretation, pastoral life in culture and traditions, symbolism of different meanings and individualism of a representation of varied characteristics.

Wilfred Owen – ‘Futility’

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Wilfred uses many specific features that amount to his individual poetry which include:

  • opening creates a chaotic scene of war with the use of an anonymous character – “him”
  • use of nature as disapproval of war with use of religious language “fields unsown” “rouse”
  • rhetorical questions are used to draw the reader to his views and opinions on war and it’s consequences “too hard to stir?” “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”
  • punctuation is used to emphasis pauses within his statements and emphasis on specific viewpoints “Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides….”
  • contrast in setting with growing life as  a farmer and in the army surrounded by death also extended oxymoron of “cold Star”
  • assonance

Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’ demonstrates his beliefs and faith in the power of the sun and life that has been shattered, he has lost his awe and wonder in mans creation. Themes included in the poem are helplessness that death in war is inevitable, sadness and loss at the loss of all soldiers and the effects of conflict not only on the people that are affected but the economic and financial state of countries and the future stability of countries.

‘Wilfred Owen’

  • Wilfred Owen was born 1893 and died 1918
  • He was born in Oswestry (Wales) and was brought up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury
  • He is particularly well known for his interpretations of War poetry
  • He enlisted in the British Army in 1915


1893 – 18 March – Born Plas Wilmot, Oswestry.

1897 – Family moves to Birkenhead.

1906 – Family moves to Shrewsbury.

1911 – Wilfred becomes a lay assistant at Dunsden.

1913 – FebruaryLeaves Dunsden and returns home ill.

September – To Bordeaux, France to teach English in the Berlitz School.

1914 – June – Tutoring in a family at Bagneres de Bigorre, in the Pyrenees.Meets French poet Laurent Tailhade.

December – Tutoring in an English family in Bordeaux.

1915- May to June – Back to France after a brief visit home.

October – Returns to England and enlists in 3/28th London Regiment which shortly afterwards became the 2nd Artists Rifles Officers Training Corps.

1916 – June Commissioned into the Manchester Regiment. Reports to 5th (Reserve) Bn. Manchester Regiment at Milford Camp, Near Witley. With friend 2/Lt Gregg (later kia) devises improvement to gas mask.

7th July – Arrives at Talavera Barracks, Aldershot where he is attached to 25th Bn.Middlesex Regt. (C.O. Lieutenant-Colonel John Ward M.P.) for a Musketry Course at Mychett Camp, Farnborough. The course ends and he is classified “1st Class Shot”. Returns to Witley Camp.

18th November Official end to Battle of Somme.

24th November 2nd Manchesters leave Somme battlefield down to 156 officers and men.

October to November To Southport. In rooms at 168a Lord Street, Southport. To Fleetwood. Takes command of a firing range party. Lodges at 111 Bold Street, Fleetwood.

8th December Back in Southport. Takes charge of Musketry Party on the range at Crossens, nr Southport.

Christmas Embarkation leave.

29th December Folkestone. In transit to join 2nd Manchesters.

1917 1st January Arrives in France, thence to the notorious Infantry Base Depot at Etaples and later to 2nd Manchesters as an Officer reinforcement.

12th January Into the front line at Serre in charge of “A” Company.

Takes half of his platoon and occupies a former German bunker in No Man’s Land and posts a sentry who during a bombardment is blinded. (This incident became the subject of “The Sentry”).

4th February Transport Course at Abbeville.

1st March Rejoins the battalion in the line near Le Quesnoy en Santerre.

14/15th March Suffers concussion following a fall.

17th March Arrives at No.13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly.

4th AprilRejoins battalion near Manchester Hill, Selency.

8th/30th April In and out of the line at Savy Wood and in the attack on Dancour trench, St Quentin.

2nd May The C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Luxmoore, notices that Owen is unwell. Evacuated to No.13 CCS with shell shock.

16th June To Netley Hospital, Hampshire.

25th June Arrives Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh.

Mid August Meets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.

October Writes “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

November After leave, is posted to 5th (Reserve) Bn. Manchesters at Scarborough. Acts as mess secretary at Clarence Gardens Hotel (Now Clifton Hotel). (information – The Wilfred Owen Association)



Introduction to the novel ‘Birdsong’

To begin with, ‘Birdsong’ introduces Amiens, France in 1910 his business company sends him to work with Rene Azaire at his textile factory, he stays with Azaire and his family, his wife Isabelle and his two children Lisette and Gregoire, there is detail to the arrangements of how they live, the life before Isabelle and also Isabelle’s life with her struggles at home. The Novel then changes time frame to France 1916 – the middle of World War 1. He is a lieutenant in the British Army and we understand the changes the war causes and the newly found freindships between Stephen and other soldiers: Jack Firebrace, Michael Wier.

Throughout the first section of the novel we can see the changes that occur due to disruptions within relationships such as Isabelle leaving Azaire and his children, also the fear and loneliness that is present due to the onset of the war which significantly changes the attitudes and feelings not only of Stephen but also of the other men who are significant to the changes present in Stephen and how their understanding and sometimes contrast in mindset opens the mind of Stephen and he begins to remains past times with Isabelle and the challenging changes not only physically but also mentally and emotionally that have caused Stephen and Isabelle to consequently change.