Interview with Joseph Heller

Interview about Catch-22 including the decision of the name and the context of the novel.

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‘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.