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‘The Birds’, published in 1952 within Daphne du Maurier’s short story collection, ‘The Apple Tree’, presents an unimaginable horror and an interesting analogy of fear generated in America and Europe during the years of the Cold War. It became one of du Maurier’s most recognised and celebrated works, as it explored the darker side of animal nature, and the extent to which human’s misjudge circumstances they believe they can control. This meticulously written piece explains why war and technology have a negative effect on nature, and recognises their potential to disrupt the natural balance.
Du Maurier’s story revolves around the life of an English family and occurs within a short period of time – only a few days. It examines what would happen if birds, animals which are more commonly regarded as a peaceful species, would suddenly attack humans without inclination or reason. The story begins in the middle of the night when farmer Nat Hocken awakens to a persistent tapping at his window. Nat walks across to the window and is shocked by the scene of restless birds. Mr. Trigg, the owner of the farm, believes the bird’s unusual behaviour is caused by the upcoming winter. Nat believes that the government and military will not help to end the attack and rather, that he and his family are alone in the siege. “It’s always the same,” he muttered. “They always let us down. Muddle, muddle, from the start. No plan, no real organization. And we don’t matter down here. That’s what it is. The people upcountry have priority. They’re using gas up there, no doubt, and all the aircraft. We’ve got to wait and take what comes.” Nat’s family gets viciously attacked by the birds, which are determined to cause destruction to the town and its inhabitants.
By limiting the attack on the Hocken family, du Maurier conveys the terrifying theme of the story and succeeds in transforming it into a more personal and believable nightmare. The horror was heightened by the threat of a nuclear holocaust during the middle of the twentieth century, which made it more plausible. Nat Hocken takes the threat of the birds extremely seriously. When everyone believes their strange behaviour to be harmless, he notices the small changes in the air, the change of temperature, and advises his family to stock up on food. “We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more.”
He acts similarly to the attack of the birds as though the attack is caused by an invading army and not birds. He has full confidence in the army’s ability to manage the attack, and reassures his family that everything is going to be fine. He protects his family by using the resources he has in his home, even if they are not necessary. “He went into it and began bringing out the furniture, to pile at the head of the stairs should the door of the children’s bedroom go. It was a preparation. It might never be needed. He could not stack the furniture against the door because it opened inward. The only possible thing was to have it at the top of the stairs.”
Nat remains extremely level-headed throughout the whole ordeal and stepped up to act as a leader to support the frightened people around him. He recognises that the family is going to have to depend on themselves. They make the journeys from their house to the farm to gather supplies, and when they retreat to a cottage for safety, he secures the place for his family. “He went round the cottage methodically, testing every window, every door. He climbed onto the roof also, and fixed boards across every chimney except the kitchen. The cold was so intense he could hardly bear it, but the job had to be done. Now and again he would look up, searching the sky for aircraft. None came. As he worked he cursed the inefficiency of the authorities.” His calm demeanour once again reassures his family and understandably, he does this to protect his family and adopts the role of the leader to settle the havoc in the chaotic town.
Daphne du Maurier’s vision of ‘The Birds’ was chaotic and terrifying. Both the novel and film adaption was a tremendous success. With themes that explored the darker side of animal nature, it brought a horrifying and unimaginable reality to life.
By: Claire Fitzpatrick