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Heroism Theme in Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Essay

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Updated: Mar 17th, 2020

Introduction

The experiences of soldiers during World War I are explored by various authors who may represent different countries, cultures. or historical periods. For instance, it is possible to consider the novel Birdsong written by Sebastian Faulks in 1997. This novel can be compared with poems written by people who witnessed the horrors of the trenches. They were directly familiar with the brutality of various battles.

In particular, one can mention such poems as The Soldier by Rupert Brooke and How to Die by Siegfried Sasson. In particular, it is critical to compare the way in which the theme of heroism is treated by Sebastian Faulks and war poets. Overall, Sebastian Faulks demonstrates that many popular conceptions about war heroism are not consistent with the real-life experiences of soldiers who were exposed to the atrocities of combat.

Moreover, these people could display signs of weakness, despair, or fatigue. Very often, they were virtually dehumanized. These characteristics are not usually related to heroism. This is one of the issues that Sebastian Faulks examines in his novel.

In contrast, some of the war poets attempted to create an idealized image of soldiers who were ready to fight for their country despite various perils, including death.

Nevertheless, it is critical to remember that Sebastian Faulks does not dismiss the bravery of soldiers risking their lives. More likely, he strives to show that the romantic portrayal of soldiers’ experiences can prevent people from understanding the atrocity of war. These are the main issues that should be examined more closely.

Depiction of violence in various literary works

It should be noted that soldiers, who were involved in the war, were supposed to act in a courageous and dedicated way. The wellbeing of their country was depicted as their topmost priority. Moreover, they were expected to be ready for self-sacrifice. Additionally, it was believed that these people could always display fortitude despite the challenges they could encounter on a daily basis.

To some degree, soldiers were supposed to meet the certain standards of heroism. These are some of the issues that should be taken into account because they are useful for the analysis of the literary works chosen for this paper. Overall, Sebastian Faulks demonstrates that conventional standards of heroism are not always applicable while describing the events of World War I.

In particular, one of the characters says, “This is not war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded” (Faulks 1997, p. 143). To some degree, this quote illustrates the author’s attitudes toward this military conflict and its effects on people. Many of the scenes, envisioned by the writer indicate that heroism is closely associated with degradation and horror.

For instance, Sebastian Faulks depicts the horrible scenes witnessed by the characters of the novel. It is possible to mention the following quote “Jack saw part of Turner’s face and hair still attached to a piece of the skull” (Faulks 1997, p. 118).

A person, who witnesses such events, does not always attach importance to heroism, bravery, or patriotism. Sometimes this individual can be very emotionally crippled. Moreover, a soldier’s only desire may be to escape the battle. This is one of the aspects that should be distinguished.

Furthermore, the writer demonstrates that in the trenches, heroism may not produce a strong impression on other people. The main problem is that death and suffering became commonplace during various battles that took place during World War I. This is why people did not always pay close attention to heroic behavior such an attack on the lines of the enemy.

The author gives the following depiction of heroic behavior, “Stephen saw men trying to emerge from the trench but being smashed by bullets before they could stand” (Faulks 1997, p. 215). It should be noted that the soldiers, described by the author sacrificed their lives; however, their names were not glorified; in fact, many of them were simply forgotten.

Thus, one can say that Sebastian Faulks’ novel evokes readers’ sympathy for thousands of unknown heroes whose bravery was not appreciated by anyone. This oblivion is probably the main tragedy of these people. This is one of the main aspects that should not be disregarded.

The authors, who lived through World War I, also created powerful images of heroism. To some degree, their literary works were aimed at highlighting the heroism of soldiers as well as their selflessness. Many of them wanted to show that soldiers had thought only about the victory or the glory of their own country. These are some of the themes that many of war poets explored.

To some degree, this argument is relevant if one speaks about the poetry of Rupert Brooke who wanted to create an ideal image of a British soldier. For example, one can mention such a poem as The Soldier. The writer depicts a person who is ready to die for his own country without questioning why this sacrifice is necessary.

However, the unknown narrator does not concern himself with the possibility of death or injury which can impair his life in the long term. This person admits that this event is probable, but he speaks mostly about his dedication to England. For example, one can examine the following lines.

“If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England” (Brooke 2013, p. 138).

The character is keenly aware of the idea that he represents Great Britain; thus, he should meet certain standards. To some degree, the story-teller wants to sound like an individual who is not concerned about such risks as horrible injury or mutilation. Additionally, he does not want to evade the battle.

Thus, one can say that the unnamed narrator is described as a hero whose behavior should be emulated by other people fighting for their own country (Brooke, 2013). This poem could be a message to other British soldiers who fought during World War I. So, the intended readers were expected to follow the examples, set in this poem. This is one of the main details that can be singled out.

It is possible to discuss the poem How to Die written by Siegfried Sasson. This literary work is remarkable because the author depicts the last moments of a dying soldier. This poet portrays the tragic experiences of a person who will soon face his death. To some degree, the poet tries to depicts how people should face various hardships, including death. In this way, Siegfried Sasson emphasizes the idea that soldiers fought heroically.

This poet does not want to focus on the details that could contradict this popular image. For instance, the writer says that these people were expected to fight without “sobs and curses” since they contradicted the behavioral norms established during that period (Sassoon 2012, p. 54).

These signs of weakness were not acceptable for soldiers or officers because these people were supposed to represent the values of Great Britain. Siegfried Sasson describes the man who witnesses the sunrise, but this person knows that he will die very soon. The following lines can give readers deep insights into the inner world of this soldier,

“Dark clouds are smoldering into the red

While down the craters morning burns.

The dying soldier shifts his head

To watch the glory that returns” (Sassoon 2012, p. 54)

This poet does not want to give a very realistic depiction of the soldier. In particular, the writer does not try to produce a shocking impression on the readers. Instead, Siegfried Sasson is willing to create vivid imagery of a hero who experiences the final moments without fear.

Additionally, unlike Sebastian Faulks, this author does not want to mention the cries of pain or curses that were inseparable components of many battles. Therefore, this poem cannot throw light on the real experiences of soldiers whose needs were often neglected. In fact, very often, their emotional and physical traumas did not attract any attention of the public. These are some of the main aspects that should be not overlooked by the readers.

These examples suggest that unlike the war poets, Sebastian Faulks is more willing to depict the harsh or even brutal reality of war because by depicting the battles in this manner, the author does not have to sacrifice his integrity. To some degree, the depictions of physical injuries are aimed at showing how the inner world of a person can be transformed by the horrible images of battles.

People, who are exposed to these images, do not necessarily perceive themselves as heroes. In many cases, these individuals can be only concerned about survival during the next day or even the next hour. These are the issues that are most relevant to them.

In turn, the novel Birdsong illustrates the transformation of a person who is forced to kill other people without knowing why it is necessary to do it. These people can be overwhelmed by the senselessness of their actions. This is one of the details that can be singled out.

Heroism and emotional state of soldiers

It is possible to say that Sebastian Faulks depicts soldiers as people who are psychologically demoralized people, especially due to the effects of “shell shock” (Faulks, 1997, p. 382). One should keep in mind that shell shock is a term which used to describe the enormous stress which results from combat, fatigue, and continuous expectation of sudden death. In many cases, this stress makes a person unable to act or reason.

Such individuals become virtually paralyzed. Moreover, the effects of shell shock were often confused with cowardice. Overall, this detail is important for the author because, in this way, he can show that traditional conceptions about heroism may not be consistent with the reality of war. This is one of the details that can be distinguished. In turn, Sebastian Faulks also describes the feeling of helplessness experienced by soldiers.

These people no longer understand why exactly they have to kill one another. This writer demonstrates that these soldiers do not crave for glory or heroism. To some degree, their behavior ran contrary to the expectations of the general public.

Therefore, many of the myths created during World War I do not really throw light on the real behavior of many soldiers who paid much attention to the populist slogans which were very widespread during World War I. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked.

Overall, Sebastian Faulks’ is interesting because it shows that heroic behavior is often accompanied by actions that are not compatible with everyday norm and conventions. For example, one can speak about people who were “madly stepping over their friends’ bodies” (Faulks 1997, p. 360). Such details are omitted by Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke. Admittedly, Siegfried Sasson depicts a dying person, but this picture cannot highlight the brutality of war.

In contrast, Sebastian Faulks is willing to uncover the unsavory details of war. This is one of the reasons why he chooses to mention that some of the characters decided to go the brothel (Faulks 1997, p. 297).

Such details are not mentioned by Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sasson because this behavior is not compatible with the concept of heroism. By mentioning these details, these authors could compromise the idealized image of soldiers fighting for their country.

It is possible to say that Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke portray war in a relatively similar way. Both of them strive to show that soldiers were ready to display such qualities as bravery, fortitude, and readiness for self-sacrifice. In contrast, Sebastian Faulks emphasizes the idea that these people could also be affected by pain, fear, the feeling of helplessness, callousness, and even indifference.

This author does attempt to create an idealized image of a soldier. These are some of the aspects that should be considered since it is critical for understanding the differences in the portrayal of people who were forced to confront one another.

Still, one should also bear in mind that Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke want to evoke readers’ compassion for soldiers and their fortitude. Moreover, the authors, who witnessed war, might be reluctant to speak about its atrocities because these memories were very painful. So, these motives could have shaped their literary choices.

The concept of heroism is closely related to masculinity. In fact, the perceptions of heroism are often based on the gender norms established at the beginning of the twentieth century. In particular, Sebastian Faulks notes that the soldiers were supposed to act as “real men” (1997, p. 123). In other words, these people were supposed to display fortitude or stoicism, even though they did not even to be involved in this war.

Such people were not allowed to display any signs of weakness. One should keep in mind that Sebastian Faulks does not dismiss the importance of heroism. Moreover, the writer does not deny that many of soldiers could indeed display fortitude and courage.

Nevertheless, the writer lays stress on the idea that heroism was not always the major priority for these people. This is one of the assumptions that the writer does not accept because it eventually leads to the victimization of soldiers. This is of one of the aspects that is important for the analysis of this novel.

Yet, one should take into account that some of the poets, who lived during World War I, did not want to emphasize their heroism. This issue is partly explored by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce et Decorum est. His poem indicates that in many cases, soldiers could be reduced to the status of mere machines that could no longer care about other people. Moreover, these people could be reduced to “old beggars” (Owen 2005, p. 52).

Apart from that, the soldiers were not allowed to question the axiom according to which a man should be ready or willing to die for the county. Yet, Wilfred Owen describes this statement as “the old lie” (Owen).

Therefore, one should keep in mind that Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke no not reflect the diversity of poetry about World War I. Very often different authors attempted to depict the experiences of soldiers in a more realistic way. This is one of the issues that should be considered by people who study literary works created during World War I.

It is critical to remember that these literary work discussed in this paper were written during different historical periods. Sebastian Faulks’ novel was published at the time when World War I became a subject of many scholarly books or articles. Additionally, modern readers know more about the experiences of soldiers whose heroism was often accompanied by callousness or cruelty.

Furthermore, these people were not necessarily concerned with such issues as heroism or patriotism. Additionally, more attention is paid to gender norms such as the standards of masculinity or femininity. Moreover, many of the authors, who were writing during World War I could be convinced that the soldiers had been fighting for some noble cause, even though this cause was not clearly identified.

This idea was questioned at the time when Sebastian Faulks wrote his novel. In particular, World War I can be described as a horrible atrocity that could be explained by the unwillingness of European countries to resolve their conflicts in a peaceful way. Therefore, his novel reflects some of the modern attitudes toward this military conflict. This is one of the differences that should be taken into account.

Conclusion

Overall, these examples indicate that Sebastian Faulks demonstrate that the ideal images of soldiers’ heroism do not reflect their real-life experiences. By focusing on the challenges faced by soldiers, the writer dispels many of the myths created during that period. In particular, his novel reveals that heroism was often mingled with pain, brutality, and callousness.

Additionally, the writer lays stress on the idea that constant fear of death could devastate the emotional life of soldiers. This literary work contradicts the image created by Siegfried Sasson and Rupert Brooke who tend to idealize the actions of soldiers or their worldviews.

Still, one should keep in mind that many war poets also show that heroism is often impaired by despair, suffering, or indifference. This issue is explored in the works of Wilfred Owen. This comparison is important to understand how World War I can be portrayed in literature. These are the main arguments that can be advanced.

References

Brooke, R 2013, Collected Poems, The Oleander Press, London.

Faulks, S 1997, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War, Vintage, London

Owen, W 2005, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, New Directions Publishing, New York.

Sasson, S 2012, War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Courier Dover Publications, London.

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