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Cinema Journal (2005) - "Oh, I See....": The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock's Hyper-Romantic Vision





This essay reads Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The Birds (1963) in the context of literary romanticism. The film reveals a debt to the romantic interest in a natural world that overpowers rational calculation and causality. Additionally, the film critiques educational practices that limit vision by imposing a false order on the sublime chaos of nature.


This essay reads Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The Birds (1963) in the context of literary romanticism. The film reveals a debt to the romantic interest in a natural world that overpowers rational calculation and causality. Additionally, the film critiques educational practices that limit vision by imposing a false order on the sublime chaos of nature.

A Hitchcock film-and The Birds is a particularly good example of this-is more analogous to a poem than a novel: Hitchcock focuses the attention and perceptions of the spectator, controls his reactions, through the rhythms of editing and camera movement as a poet controls those of the reader through his verse rhythms; and his films derive their value from the intensity of their images-an intensity created and controlled very largely by context, by the total organization-rather than from the creation of "rounded" characters.

Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited1

In the book cited above, Robin Wood initially compares Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) to another ambiguity-ridden twentieth-century text: E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924). In particular, Wood discusses the similarities between Lydia Brenner's speechless trauma following her discovery of Dan Fawcett's eyeless corpse and the more oblique despair that befalls Forster's Mrs. Moore after her niece s "assault" in the Marabar Caves. Although Wood concedes that the "density and complexity of characterization" is superior in Forster's novel, he also suggests that traumatic horror is better conveyed in Hitchcock's film.2

Both Mrs. Moore and Lydia Brenner possess a similar existential dread, but Wood believes that Hitchcock-through the specificity and intensity of his visual images-conveys the source of that horror more powerfully. Further, Wood believes that, because these and other images dominate the filmmaker's language (rather than painstaking character development as in A Passage to India), Hitchcock is far more a poet than a novelist. I strongly agree but would hasten to add that any comparison between Hitchcock and the modernists (poets or otherwise), while reasonable, ultimately leads to another productive line of inquiry: the film's clear ties to literary Romanticism.3

I need to be very precise about my terms here. I intend to connect The Birds to a particular version of British Romanticism.4 As A. O. Lovejoy established as early as 1924, the movement we now identify as literary Romanticism was marked by contradiction and conflict. Lovejoy advocated a thorough and precise "discrimination of Romanticisms," which later critics such as M. H. Abrams, Geoffrey Hartman, Jerome McGann, and others have continued to delineate.5 In this essay, my goal is to connect Hitchcock's The Birds to a series of philosophical, aesthetic, and religious ideas expressed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) and to juxtapose the film more generally with early works by both Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Such an exercise productively illustrates some of the most salient characteristics of Romantic poetry in its "first phase," while also demonstrating how Hitchcock's pessimistic rejection of human rationality in The Birds-as well as the educational institutions that serve the cultivation of reason-ultimately extends far beyond the ideology of the British Romantics.

The practice of reading Hitchcock within a literary and historical framework has been rare during the last two decades. Most scholarship on The Birds reflects a more general trend: what one might describe as the "Lacanization" of Hitchcock studies. While there are exceptions-for example, Thomas Leitch's refusal to submit the film's characters to the analysts couch, as well as Christopher Morris's poststructuralist interest in the film as an illustration of the problems of representation-much important work has adopted a psychoanalytic framework.6 In "The Birds: A Mother's Love," Margaret Horwitz offers a heterosexual, Oedipal reading that posits the bird attacks as symbols of a mother's desire to punish her son for his sexual desire for another woman.7 Also pursuing an interest in the film's complex of desire,...

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End Notes

  1. Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 164.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Wood invokes the Romantics in his analysis of Vertigo. In contrast to the "cards-on-the-table reality of Midge," Madeleine represents a Keatsian "vision" or "waking dream." For Wood, Vertigo seems more closely connected to Keats's "Lamia" or "Ode to a Nightingale" than to the genre of the mystery thriller. Ibid.,114.
  4. As one of my anonymous readers has suggested, another productive link might be made between Hitchcock and the German Romanticism of Ludwig Tieck and E.T.A. Hoffmann by means of the influence of German expressionist cinema.
  5. A. O. Lovejoy, "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms," PMLA 39 (1924): 229–53. For more on the further discrimination of the Romantics, see M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953); Geoffrey Hartman, The Unmediated Vision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954); and Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  6. Thomas Leitch, Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 225–31. Christopher Morris makes a case for at least one "modernist" preoccupation in The Birds (and one shared by postmodernists as well). Morris's argument is that "the problem of representation may always have been the film's proper subject" since "the film's major action consists of looking at birds and speculating as to their meaning." Because that meaning constantly shifts and ultimately eludes the viewer of The Birds, the chain of signification constantly breaks down, much as it does in the fiction of E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and their many twentieth-century literary successors. Morris, "Reading the Birds and ''The Birds''," Literature Film Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2000): 253–54. David Sterritt arrives at the same conclusion, suggesting, ultimately, that The Birds "is about the futility of language." Sterritt, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 142.
  7. Margaret Horwitz, "''The Birds'': A Mother's Love," in Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, eds., A Hitchcock Reader (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986), 279–87.
  8. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 97–106.
  9. Robert Samuels, Hitchcock's Bi-textuality: Lacan, Feminisms, and Queer Theory (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), 127–33.
  10. Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1998), 7.
  11. Ibid., 34, 8.
  12. For a more sustained discussion of Hitchcock as a "second-generation" British Romantic, see Richard Allen, "Hitchcock, or the Pleasures of Metaskepticism," in Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays(London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1999), 229–33. Allen traces the masculine anxiety common in so many of Hitchcock's films to a particular Romantic precursor: John Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes."
  13. Penelope Houston, quoted in Robin Wood, "Why We Should Take Hitchcock Seriously," in Albert LaValley, ed., Focus on Hitchcock (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 74.
  14. This and subsequent verse citations from Lyrical Ballads are from William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, 2d ed., ed. W.J.B. Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).
  15. John A. Calabrese, "Romanticism in Alfred Hitchcock's ''Vertigo'': Conflicts and Dark Reversals," Lamar Journal of the Humanities 18, no. 2 (1992): 52.
  16. See Wordsworth's enlarged "preface" to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, reprinted in Lyrical Ballads 1798, 158.
  17. Wordsworth's phrase appears in the expanded preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. See Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, 158.
  18. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, vol. 7, pt. II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 6.
  19. Sterritt, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 121.
  20. Evan Hunter, Me and Hitch (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 17.
  21. The problems with "controlling" nature occur almost immediately in The Birds, during Melanie's initial flirtatious repartee with Mitch, when she impersonates a clerk in the pet store and a handful of birds escape.
  22. One of the most complete discussions of narration in the Hollywood cinema appears in David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
  23. Hunter, Me and Hitch, 31.
  24. Lesley Brill discusses Hitchcock's recourse to implausible narratives as evidence of his debt to the Romance genre, in which "ordinary constraints of natural law are loosened." See Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 6.
  25. In the "preface" to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth suggests that one of his goals is to illustrate the principle of associationism: "I have said that each of these poems has a purpose. I have also informed my reader what this purpose will be found principally to be: namely, to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement." Like John Locke, Wordsworth was fascinated with the notion that differences in ideas seem linked to differences in sensory experience, thus subscribing to Locke's tabula rasa theory rather than to that of innate ideas. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, 158.
  26. Leitch, Find the Director, 230.
  27. McGann, The Romantic Ideology, 86.
  28. Ibid., 83.
  29. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, vol. 16, pt. I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 456.
  30. Coleridge recounts the details of his early education in chapter 1 of the Biographia Literaria. See The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 7, pt. I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 8–13.
  31. Not all critics view the children as "under siege" in this sequence. Richard Allen argues for a parallel between the attacking birds and the children, suggesting that Hitchcock reinforces this analogy by placing both the children and the birds on the same playground equipment and matching the rhythmic sounds of the birds' wings with the children's stamping feet and the birds' screeches with the children's screams. See Allen, "Avian Metaphor in ''The Birds,''" in Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse, eds., Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the "Hitchcock Annual", (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 293–94.
  32. For Hitchcock's own comments on his editing style in this sequence (as well as reproductions of his storyboards), see François Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 292–93.
  33. Susan Smith discusses the bantering use of "I see" as part and parcel of the film's larger epistemological concerns: the interconnectedness among seeing, knowing, and feeling. Although Smith's argument is often persuasive, the suggestion that the bird attacks provide "the basis for more authentic forms of understanding to emerge" is perhaps a bit optimistic within the world of the film. Perhaps such understanding can be enhanced among Hitchcock's viewers, but little evidence in the film suggests that the characters themselves move from "seeing" to "understanding." See Smith, Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour, and Tone (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2000), 125–31.
  34. William Blake, William Blake: The Oxford Authors, ed. Michael Mason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 275.
  35. Paglia, The Birds, 47.
  36. In an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock describes Lydia as "substituting her son for her husband." See Bogdanovich, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), 44.
  37. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 16, pt. I, 455–56.
  38. Hunter, Me and Hitch, 16.
  39. Ibid., 24.
  40. Ibid., 61.
  41. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 2000), 2:439.