For all their disagreements, scientific fact and science fiction are in agreement concerning the viral quality of fear. Men tend to panic when the wind changes overnight and blows beyond their control. Pandemonium is never as distant as a complacent people imagine. Civilized society is not immune from collapse just because it is civilized. Ingenuity leads to dependency, and dependency to dilemma. Daphne du Maurier illustrated this dramatically with her 1952 short story, The Birds (more known today as the 1963 film by Alfred Hitchcock). The Birds bears a primal sort of significance concerning the startling fragility of human infrastructure. The terrors of science fiction are often representative of terrible facts and du Maurier gives readers a bird’s-eye view.
The plot of The Birds is brutally simple, posing a sudden, unpredictable change that changes everything, just as “the wind changed overnight” on December the third. Birds of all feathers flock together, abandoning their customary behaviors, and turn on human beings with restless intent towards violent extermination: that mindless, relentless power of nature that accomplishes its purpose by patient degrees. This disturbing phenomenon which casts a harmless given into a harbinger of disaster is entirely unexplained, falling into the same category of mystery that the natural lives of birds beg. The overarching mystery of birds in and of themselves is also invoked in the story. From the Holy Ghost appearing as a dove, to Mother Goose, to the Ancient Mariner’s Albatross, to the Raven croaking “Nevermore,” there is something elemental in avian mythology and symbology.
The narrative’s rustic hero, Nat Hocken, muses as he watches a gathering cloud of birds before they first strike: “Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose?” To what purpose, indeed. Nat wonders if winter somehow gives the birds a warning of impending death—but the warning of death is one given by the birds to humanity. To Nat, the birds were nothing more than birds. It never occurred to him to consider the ferocious apathy of nature pitted against humanity’s insect frailty, and neither does it occur to most men.
All too soon, the uncanny attacks begin. Robins, finches, and sparrows break into children’s bedrooms in the dead of night. Rooks, crows, and jackdaws mobilize on martial missions across the sky. Black-backed gulls swoop and scream with bloody beaks. Gannets plummet and crash kamikaze-like into doors. Hawks and falcons claw through shuttered windows and broken glass. Families, stupefied and terrified, hide away in boarded-up houses like prehistoric people to defend against the unthinkable aerial assault. As Alfred Hitchcock put it, “It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds. Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside.”
They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.
Confusion and desolation rip at the bulwarks of society and psychology in the beaks and talons of the birds, rendering humanity suddenly besieged, reduced to prey. All the sanity and security invested in scientific hypotheses, guns, military aircraft, radio technology, government think-tanks, and table manners disintegrate under the assault of the birds. With disturbing vignettes of impending destruction and glimpses of the dead, The Birds pecks at the heart of distress against a frantic backdrop of mayhem as an entire nation reels, shaken beneath the beating wings of the birds. And all as quickly as the change of the wind overnight.
Daphne du Maurier was well-known and well-regarded for her macabre and paranormal contributions to literature, famous in particular for her novel Rebecca (1938). Du Maurier wrote off-kilter stories, bringing the strange to the fore, and The Birds is considered her masterpiece. In it, she causes the natural and the ordinary to become unnatural and ominous, forcing the admission of an instability that the world strives to deny even in the face of history, national crisis, natural disaster, or neighbors’ reports. The Birds grapples with the human tendency to ignore troubles whether they are on the horizon or around the corner, deploring how people have to endure evils for themselves before they can be touched by evil.
The Birds is a clear allegory of the fears associated with the Blitz bombings over London during World War II, and as a meditation on helplessness, so does it bear application to these unstable days. The Birds is a timely piece of literature that poses a fundamental question concerning the makeup of civilization—a story that contemplates the cause and consequence of cultural upheaval and the miraculous balance that is almost universally taken for granted. In short, the incisiveness of The Birds is that of the well-crafted scientific thriller, whose relevance is rooted in presenting the acts of God that could bring the human race to its knees.
Hubris blunts the thrill of existence, the drive to keep up the struggle to survive—the struggle that makes life precious. The Birds introduces the importance of cherishing and defending the way of life against forces that would destroy it, not resting upon the laurels of artificial success or false security. Humanity will never reach the summit of existence, and the smugness of man is the first stumble towards his fall, making Icarus with his bird’s wings an apt emblem for mankind.
Neither will nature ever be conquered, and man must somehow come to terms with the fact that, though he is the lord of creation, he is subject to it at the same time. In his 2005 documentary on grizzly bears, German filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears… I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” The Birds is similarly haunting, without understanding, without mercy. The forces of nature will attack if taken for granted. The vultures are ever wheeling. Consider the birds of the air, by all means, and be thankful for the mild goodness of life lest the wind change overnight.