The Masculine Role in Birdsong
Birdsong, written by Sebastian Faulks, is a novel about World War One in 1914. Beginning in 1910, Faulks tells the story of Stephen, capturing the drama on both a national and personal scale. Throughout the novel, the masculine roles in various characters are asserted in different ways. In the Edwardian era, the masculine ideal of manhood was the typical soldier; Graham Dawson said “the soldier has become a quintessential figure of masculinity”, thought to be strong and courageous. However, the men in the trenches were often passive and inactive as most were suffering from exhaustion and for some, shell shock: a disorder that frequently emasculated the men. The men who suffered from this disorder were seen as weak and branded as cowards.
A clear case of shell shock is the experience of the soldier, Tipper. On page 147, Tipper “ran along the duckboards, then stopped and lifted his face to the sky. He screamed again… His thin body was rigid and they could see the contortions of his facial muscles beneath the skin. He was screaming for his home.” However when writing his letter home before going over the top, he asserts his masculinity, telling his parents how he is not afraid of death and “can’t wait to let the Fritz have it!” This use of robust patriotic language shows that he is trying to emanate the emotions and behaviour that was expected of the men.
Shell shock also manifests itself in Stephen, his behaviour during the war reveals certain strange obsessions; for example, in France 1916, during Jack’s court hearing, Stephen speaks to him in extreme detail about the human anatomy. He also expresses his knowledge of the human anatomy when he is with the prostitute, expressing his sexuality in a clinical language; “he looked at the girl’s upper body, the ribs and spine, he thought of the shell casing that stuck from Reeves’s abdomen; he thought of the hole in Douglas’s shoulder where he had pressed his hand through almost...