Analyse Faulks’ presentation of social and cultural transformation in his novel Birdsong via a study of his female characters
The Roman poet Ovid once said in his narrative poem The Metamorphoses: “But since, o Gods, you were the source of these bodies becoming other bodies, breathe your breath into my book of changes”. Thus, literal and figurative transformation has been an enduring theme in literature since the dawn of civilisation. Over the centuries, literature has captured humankind’s use of transformation for survival purposes: be that social, physical, political and economical. For example, Les Mutineries by Guy Pedroncini, an account of the French riots that took place in 1917 ...view middle of the document...
Sympathy is created for Isabelle when we find out that Azaire beats her out of frustration and apparent infertility: “You’re so healthy of course”. She justifies his actions as occurring from “frustration and shame”. Thus, through her burgeoning relationship with Stephen, a young Englishman comes to work for her husband, Isabelle is introduced to a way of living that largely rejects the moral codes of her time. She is initially reticent to enter a sexual union with Stephen. “I don’t know if these things are… allowed.” Faulks’ use of an ellipsis emphasises the extent of her uncertainty as to whether what she is doing is socially acceptable.
As their affair escalates, Isabelle’s moral transformation becomes more apparent. On entering her local cathedral for worship, she pictures Stephen instead of Christ on the crucifix: “The waxy flesh below the ribs pierced and bleeding from the Roman soldier’s spear”. The replacement of Stephen for Jesus in such a sexually charged hallucination
indicates her shift in focus on life; that Stephen has replaced an integral part of her life.
Soon it is apparent that Isabelle and Stephen are preparing a long term future relationship together. This ambition is stressed where Stephen says: “You must end this, you must tell him not to come to your room”. The direct address used by Stephen implies that the control over her relationship lies with Isabelle, and it is empowering Isabelle further with this sense of urgency. The fact that she is willing to give up her social position and secure wealth to elope with Stephen, creates a sense of transformation in the early stages of the novel; the fact that she is freeing herself from the shackles of the societal norms becomes intrinsically tied to her developing sense of independence and autonomous identity.
Karl Marx once said: “Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex”. As we look through to the late 1970s in Part 3 of the novel, we see a sudden change in women’s societal position: “Elizabeth fought her way through the coats…” This could be deemed as Faulks using “the coats” as a symbolic metaphor for the barriers and restrictions that were put in place throughout the years to suppress the Women’s Liberation Movement. Consequently, the verb used in “fought through the coats” presents the extent of the struggle of women; their resistance to a suppressive system, to attain the more liberal position in which they’re in now in the 1970s. Thus, much to the contrary of Isabelle, Elizabeth is more liberated. This is represented figuratively by Faulks by using the clothes of Isabelle: “There was the high collar of her dress with the dull red stone at the throat”. The “dull red stone”, the ruby is a symbolic metaphor for her social class acting as a shackle around her neck. It is a representation of the oppression by her class, from her relationships with men, to her clothing. Not only this, but Elizabeth is also able to take control over her...