Birdsong Summary

Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong

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Birdsong Summary

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The novel tells two stories separated by time, but featuring characters connected through family. The novel’s main story is about Stephen Wraysford, focusing on his experiences during World War I. A secondary story features Elizabeth Benson, Stephen’s granddaughter, who discovers her grandfather’s journals and begins to learn about his life through them.

The book opens before the war, in Amiens, France. There, Stephen visits the home of his friend Rene and his wife, Isabelle. Rene is employed by a textile factory, and lives an outwardly happy, middle class existence with his much younger wife. Both Rene and Isabelle are unhappy in their marriage, however, and soon Stephen and Isabelle engage in an affair. This domestic discord is set against the political discord of unhappy industrial workers, who eventually go on strike.

Isabelle eventually reveals the relationship with Stephen to her husband. Rene throws Stephen out, and Isabelle leaves with him for southern France. There, Isabelle becomes pregnant, but does not reveal her pregancy to Stephen. Instead, unsure of their relationship, she leaves to live with her sister and parents at their family home. Isabelle’s father arranges for her to return to Rene with her honor intact, though she still harbors deep feelings for Stephen. She never reaches out to him, however.

The novel then advances to 1916, the early stages of the war. Stephen is a lieutenant in the British Army. He is present for the First Day of the Somme and the Battle of Messines. War leaves Stephen feeling depressed and defeated, buoyed only by his friendship with Captain Michael Weir and his men. Stephen, though, is also a committed soldier, and he refuses all offers of leave so he can continue to fight the war.

Eventually, Stephen is badly injured during a trip into No Man’s Land. Surviving but despondent, Stephen decides to write to Isabelle. His letter is deeply personal, expresses his fears of death, and the fact that Isabelle is his first and only love.

The novel then briefly shifts to England in 1978. There, Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, discovers his journals. She is experiencing emotional turmoil of her own, struggling with her relationship with her still-married boyfriend, Robert. Elizabeth decides to read Stephen’s journals to better understand his war experiences, a task made more difficult because the journals are in code.

In 1917 France, Stephen meets Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, while he is on leave in Amiens. Jeanne agrees to let Stephen follow her back to see Isabelle. Isabelle is in a relationship with a German soldier named Max, and her face has been disfigured by a shell explosion.

During a brief return through England, Stephen comes to appreciate his time away from the war, and expresses as much to Jeanne. Upon his return to the trenches, Stephen’s friend Michael is killed by a sniper.

Switching back to Elizabeth’s story, she continues the task of researching the war, including interviewing soldiers who knew her grandfather. She becomes pregnant with Robert’s child.

Back to the war in France, Stephen finds himself and a fellow soldier trapped underground as a result of a German mine explosion. The war is nearly over. Both men feel that hope is lost; the friend is badly wounded. Stephen tells of his love for Isabelle. He blasts his way out of the tunnel, using the technique his friend taught him before succumbing to his wounds. Stephen is saved by a Jewish German soldier as the war comes to its end.

The book returns to England in 1979 for its conclusion. Elizabeth reveals her pregnancy to her mother, who is surprisingly supportive. Elizabeth learns that Stephen and Jeanne married and lived in Norfolk after Isabelle died during the post-war influenza epidemic. Elizabeth and Robert go on vacation, during which Elizabeth gives birth to a son she names after her grandfather’s friend’s deceased son.

The major theme of the book is the nature of war, and the trauma associated with it. War created multi-generational trauma, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s reaction to learning about her grandfather’s experiences during the war. Her life has been affected by the war in ways she never realized.

Birdsong explored the nature of World War I, in particular, the visceral horrors of trench warfare. Scholars have noted that Birdsong is one of the best examples of a novel contending with the effects of PTSD after armed conflict, as Stephen definitely suffers from the psychological impact of the war.

Faulks’s main interest in writing Birdsong was to attempt to return to understanding World War I. He felt that, over time, people’s connection to and understanding of the Great War was beginning to fade with time. Birdsong was his way of showing how powerful the experience of World War I remains in human history and human consciousness.

Birdsong received critical praise, with positive reviews across multiple publications. The novel was also a commercial success. It has been adapted for the stage, radio, and television, and a film has been in development for several years.