Sunday, 5 March 2017

Isn't This All Just a Bit Ridiculous: A Review of Daphne du Maurier's 'The Birds' (1952 short-story)

When applied to modern fiction, the word ‘fable’ sounds like an excuse. The word suggests the work harkens back to a simpler, more primal style – and thus the lack complex characters and plot is entirely justified. At times, the word ‘fable’ is justified (see Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). Some have called Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds fable-like, though I am not so sure. The story’s simplicity is not a feature, but a fault. The story’s self-seriousness, and lack of compelling characters, undermines its genuinely terrifying aspects.

In an isolated English village, birds attack Nat Hocken’s family. These little birds break through his windows to peck out his eyes. By the next day, he has fifty avian carcases to clean up, and no villager will believe him. People soon have no choice but to believe, as the birds blacken the sky in London. A state of emergency is declared. The BBC warns the populace to stay indoors. Against nature so unnatural, can Nat Hocken and his family survive? 

The Birds has one of those high concepts which is at once shocking and silly. Which side the work lands on is all in the execution. Ironically, works feel silliest when they do not relent in how seriously they take themselves. The silliness comes from the contrast of the audience’s idea of seriousness and the story’s. While du Maurier’s skill prevents The Birds tangling in silly string, her execution falters in too many places to call this story perfect. I understand du Maurier intends a foreboding sense of escalation by starting with benign birds, like jackdaws, and only then moving up to birds of prey – and, yes, I understand some of the best horror comes from inverting the natural order, so the most harmless become the most harmful. I understand this. But I can’t help but smirk at the unintended campness of depicting little birds as the worst thing ever. It’s like that execution device from Barbarella.

If du Maurier would relent with the story’s solemnity, perhaps I could take its pivotal moments more seriously. While it may sound vulgar, and Hollywood, and perhaps even Hitchcockian of me to demand comic relief, I feel some levity would have made the serious parts impact more. For one, the contrast of comedic and dark emphasises both the comedy and the darkness. If some elements of the story were explicitly silly, perhaps the central concept would feel less unintentionally silly.

I must state that the story only errs into silliness. The bird attack scenes are tense. The calm between storms, where birds wait docilely, are eerie. The self-seriousness merely undermines this tenseness and eeriness, but it does not quash them completely. As the story goes on, the self-seriousness almost evaporates, for du Maurier turns to more believable terrors. While the birds are a fantasy, the government’s feckless response seems a grim certainty. As Nat Hocken and his wife huddle around a radio, waiting for an emergency broadcast, which never comes, you feel their abandonment. I bang on about this fault because I can’t find other reviews criticising this element. Perhaps other reviewers had a very different experience from mine. Perhaps for them the story did not err into self-seriousness, but rather achieved Poe’s ‘unique or single effect’. I cannot agree with them.

And I cannot deny the quasi-Lovecraftian terror of the birds, the terror of the unexplainable, the terror of the pointless to explain. Events are at once natural and perversions of nature. The first line sets up this split: ‘On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.’ Winter comes quickly, but it does not come unseasonally. As it always has, it follows autumn. Watching the currently benign birds, Nat sees nothing more than ordinary, seasonal restlessness in them. ‘The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them, and they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.’ While du Maurier never definitively explains the birds’ motivations, she near definitively dismisses an explanation. This is not a man-made phenomenon. Around town, gossip spreads that the Russians have ‘poisoned’ the birds. But it’s just that, gossip. This is not man perverting nature, this is nature perverting itself.   

Characters grope at explanations. Some blame ‘the Russians’, some blame an artic wind, but no definite answer materialises. On the simplest level, having no answer is scarier. (Identifying the cause of your suffering is an act of therapy.) But more than that, to someone in such a situation, explanations don’t much matter. Who dropped the bomb? Well, we’re all going to die anyway. Who emitted more carbon dioxide? Well, climate change will ravage us all anyway. What’s the deal with these birds? It doesn’t matter. They’re at the window. By refusing to identify a cause, du Maurier focusses us on the effect: the suffering of Nat and his family.

Unfortunately, such terror hits the reader stronger when they actually care about the characters. For page economy, a short-story writer cannot flesh out too many characters. For most of the characters, the only question is: How flat are they? The Triggs are good-natured, but simple, folk, whose disbelief and optimism contrast Nat’s justified fear. Nat’s wife and children have no more characterisation than that they are his family, a set of people he has an interest in protecting. (His wife does not even get a name.) This is fine. We do not need every character to be a fully-rounded human being. These characters fulfil a function, which is to illuminate our protagonist’s struggle.    

Pity the protagonist is so dull. Nat Hocken is a manly protagonist, a veteran-cum-famer, more clear-minded than his neighbours. He is solitary, spare his duty to his family. Nat teeters between archetypal and stereotypical. Which you think he is will depend on how many stories you’ve read where a grizzled father figure guards his weaker charges. Granted, du Maurier wrote when such conventions were not entrenched in the apocalyptic genres. We, however, are reading her work now, in our current pop-cultural context. Nat is an example of a now overdone type. But though I’ve no taste for that type, the story does not spend enough time with him for Nat to become a wearying cliché. He is merely an unremarkable protagonist, rather than an actively boring one.

The Birds is almost a brilliant short-story. Du Maurier does her best to ground her fanciful concept, but goes too far. Her relentless po-facedness just highlight how silly the central idea is. I could forgive this if I’d any character to fear for in this work. But the only character with any depth is just dull. But given how other critics rave about this work, I’d say give it a read. The problems I have with The Birds are subjective. I can entirely understand how another reader could say, ‘No, I don’t think this is self-serious.’ So while I cannot champion this work, I urge you to make up your own mind.

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