In Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks highlights the incredible lengths of endurance that the soldiers of World War I were pushed to, having been subjected to the grim horrors of war. He makes it apparent that such horrors required a great deal of mental endurance as well as physical endurance, a notion that is aptly illustrated by Stephen Wraysford in a conversation with Michael Weir, “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded”.The first time that the reader is introduced to Jack Firebrace, he’s lying on a wooden cross whilst forty-five feet underneath France – a tunneller. Immediately, physical adjectives are used in order to portray how hellish and unforgiving a miner’s tunnel can be. In the second paragraph of Part Two, Faulks includes small chunks of description in a series of short sentences to progressively give the reader a tunneler’s perspective of the underground setting and its appalling conditions. The sweat running into and stinging Jack’s eyes; the claustrophobia of a four-foot-wide tunnel; the fact that all time had been lost track of whilst underground, which portrays the idea that this tunnel is a terrifying otherworld for the men inside it, who spend so much of their time underground that time itself means nothing: “He had lost track of how long he had been underground. He found it easier not to think when he might be relieved, but to keep digging”.The manner in which Faulks delivers these short descriptions in quick succession lends the reader a feeling of moving into darkness from light, and having to allow the eyes to become accustomed to it, as if the reader himself were being led into the mines in which tunnellers endured countless hours of darkness: “It had been six hours or more since he had seen daylight”. Also, the fact that Jack’s spade is an “adapted spade”, even though he’s specifically a tunneller, shows the haphazardness of the army when it came to providing a good standard of equipment for its troops; soldiers just took what they could get, because it was better than nothing. However, Jack just gets on with his work, digging at the earth, “hacking it out as though he hated it”; it’s noted that the harder he works, the easier it is, which implies that the terrible conditions of the tunnel are simply endured and the digging continues because it has to, which Weir often stresses to the miners: “If they think there’s a mine under them they won’t stay put for twenty four hours. There’ll be a mutiny”.Faulks writes of many ways to die in the novel, some of which the soldiers prefer over others, and when Jack reflects on the deaths of Turner and two others in the tunnel, he thinks about his attitude to death: “The men might have died anyway, perhaps in a worse way, with gas in their lungs or lying beyond help in no man’s land”. This shows his preference of being incinerated by an explosion over having to experience a slow, painful, languishing death due to gas or wounds – the fact that he has a preferred method of dying shows that he’s experienced enough death to come to the conclusion that it’s inevitable; he accepts that he’s going to die, and isn’t particularly scared of it, but would prefer to die a quick death.This is somewhat ironic, because Jack dies a long and painful death spanning a number of days after being buried alive with Stephen in Part Six. Even when Jack begins to eventually long for death, it still refuses to arrive swiftly, as shown when Stephen wakes Jack from unconsciousness, but “he could see Jack fighting to be free of him, desperate to shake off his last contact with the living world”. Faulks made this happen to show that war is unfair, and also that the events of war can change a man to the extent that he’d rather die than have to return to ordinary life, which seems distant and unrealistic; “While a primitive fear kept stirring in him, the pain of his body and the lost illusions of his life made him wish for the conclusion to come”.Faulks writes Stephen Wraysford’s account of the first day of the Battle of the Somme with a tone of stark frankness and bluntness, using the minimal amount of description needed in order for the reader to form his own image. The capacity to endure and the mood of the forty eight hours of unwanted reprieve before the battle is summarised with a single line: “The first rifle fire came with a falsetto crack. Barnes had shot himself through the palate”. These two short sentences are separated from the rest of the text as part of a small, five-line paragraph; this structure has been used to emulate and highlight the effect on the troops of the sudden single rifle crack – although the sound itself only lasted for a very short time, it carried a meaning and a sense of foreboding that offered the troops a morbid alternative to what lay ahead.Faulks’s accounts of specific deaths during the battle are numerous; these are designed to highlight the utter horror of war. One particularly vivid description tells of a man who is still marching towards enemy lines despite losing a large proportion of his face, “There was a man beside him missing part of his face, but walking in the same dreamlike state”; the way that Faulks describes the man as walking in a dreamlike state could perhaps be symbolic of the popular belief that the decision to make soldiers walk rather than run whilst charging meant that they were, fundamentally, walking corpses. Faulks also shows the futility of the tactics of higher ranks, who are still not yet adapted to the modern warfare of World War I, “Ten yards ahead and to the right was Colonel Barclay. He was carrying a sword”.Sebastian Faulks portrays the horrors of war in numerous ways; he describes the claustrophobia and intense heat and darkness of a tunnel; the realisation that death is inevitable and the unwise tacticians of the Battle of the Somme. Whatever situation soldiers are thrown into, though, it seems like they’re able to adapt and endure it – like when Stephen is forced to carry a canary through the mines despite his crippling fear of birds. At first, Stephen is revolted by the idea of catching the canary, “He felt himself close to tears as he searched the murk of the clay”, Faulks’s use of the phrase “close to tears” makes Stephen seem childlike, but his determination to help his injured comrade spurs him on, and, unwilling to upset Weir by killing the bird, he literally grits his teeth and carries the bird to safety, “With teeth clamped very tight together he held out both hands to Weir, who released the bird into the handkerchief”, possibly saving Weir’s life in the process. However, a lot of soldiers endured their situations because the only alternative was a court martial, but the threat of the firing squad was enough to make most soldiers do practically anything for their country.
Explore the ways in which Sebastian Faulks presents human endurance in the face of the horrors of war in the novel ‘Birdsong’ Essay
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