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Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature (2011) - The threat of the gothic patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds




Most scholars focus on the ambiguous meaning of the birds in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds, but this avian threat is little more than a MacGuffin, a catalyst used to further the film's real narrative. Rather than being a supernatural thriller, The Birds actually represents a dark exploration of the modern American Gothic: although the birds indeed prove a physical danger to Melanie's safety, she is ultimately destroyed as an independent subject by the imposing power of the Brenner family, a patriarchal structure metonymically represented by the ancestral house and its looming portrait of Frank Brenner.


The Threat of the Gothic Patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds

In 1952, Daphne du Maurier, already known for her popular mystery and wartime novels, crafted a sparse tale of ecological revolution and global destruction. "The Birds" confronts readers with a world gone mad, a world in which normally harmless birds unexpectedly begin to attack the human population of Great Britain in a concerted, orchestrated assault. The brief story follows the chilling plight of Nat Hocken and his family as they attempt to fortify their small seaside cottage against a relentless avian siege. The terror of the story comes primarily from the menacing birds, but the inability of the British government to protect its citizens taps into the more realistic fears of its contemporary readers, in light of both the Nazi bombings of World War II and the undefined threats of the newly established Cold War. By filming a loose adaptation of du Maurier's story in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock reinvented the tale under the guise of a melodramatic romance: instead of a stable, nuclear family, the movie revolves around a middle-aged playboy son and the wealthy and headstrong woman with whom he has fallen in love. However, by retaining du Maurier's flocks of murderous birds, Hitchcock also created his only supernatural horror film, a movie that crosses the boundary into science fiction and leaves viewers with an uncanny and unresolved conclusion (very much in the tone, if not in the details, of du Maurier's story). Thus, both du Maurier's original tale and Hitchcock's film version depict possible versions of the apocalypse, a world where nature has turned against humanity to cause inexplicable turmoil and carnage.

Much has been made of the ambiguous meaning of the birds themselves,1 the most obvious and prevalent connection between the film and the original short story, but the greater threat to the protagonist Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is in fact the human members of the Brenner family, a patriarchal structure presented in the grand tradition of the female Gothic mode by both their family home and the looming portrait of the deceased Frank Brenner. In fact, Christopher D. Morris' somewhat controversial reading holds that the birds in Hitchcock's film are little more than a MacGuffin, a "metaphor for reading" that has more to do with representation than interpretation (251); that is, Hitchcock reduces the terrifying flocks of psychopathic birds to simply a catalyst, an unexplained peripheral phenomenon used to move the Gothic elements of the social drama forward. Instead of relying exclusively on du Maurier's source text, Hitchcock develops a less obvious sense of menace and terror by tapping into the Gothic literary tradition, creating a cinematic adaptation that is more of an assemblage of antecedents rather than the expected effort at one-to-one fidelity.2 In the end, Hitchcock avoids a simple translation of du Maurier's story; instead. The Birds represents a dark exploration of the modern American Gothic. Although the birds indeed prove a physical danger to Melanies safety, she is ultimately destroyed as an in...

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  1. For example, Tony Magistrale claims, "the natural order rebels supernaturally until Melanie's transgression against the gender structure is corrected, and she reassumes her 'rightful place' in the patriarchal order" (78); and Margaret Horwitz similarly argues, "The birds' aggressive behavior is a displacement for maternal possessiveness (exemplified by Lydia Brenner) to which Melanie poses a threat" and that "the bird attacks function primarily as extensions of Lydia's hysterical fear of losing her son, Mitch" (279).
  2. For more explanation and discussion of my theory of assemblage adaptation, see my "Assemblage Filmmaking: Approaching the Multi-Source Adaptation and Reexamining Romero's Night of the Living Dead."
  3. In the words of Robin Wood, "the house becomes a cage ... a sunless box, in which the prisoners must come to terms with themselves and each other or finally succumb to the birds; and perhaps must die anyway" (168).
  4. I use the term "perceived" here because although Melanie appears to do what she wants and go where she wishes, her opulent lifestyle and spontaneous behavior are made possible by her father's wealth. In the larger scheme, then, Melanie is already a prisoner to the patriarchy before the film even begins. However, she thinks of herself as free and independent, and her systematic cowing over the course of the narrative thus demonstrates the power of the Gothic patriarchy to destroy her perception as well as her reality.
  5. In Rebecca and Notorious, the threats to the new, young wives are almost exclusively matriarchal ones—the mothers (or the mother figures) and their maternal relationships with their sons are the core problems. Psycho presents a similar structure, although in the case of Mrs. Bates, the mother exists only on a psychological level through Norman.
  6. Before this scene takes places, a dissolve replaces Melanie and Mitch with a shot of the house's fireplace: "They appear to be consumed by the fire. This dissolve indicates that the configuration of Mitch and Melanie as a couple must be destroyed and that this action is somehow related to Lydia" (Horwitz 284). The superimposition foreshadows the film's climax and underscores the destructive potential of Lydia's familial authority.
  7. Although it is beyond the scope of this investigation, the metatextual parallels between Melanie's loss of subjectivity and Hedren's own experiences at the controlling hands of Hitchcock himself are both fascinating and disturbing. As Donald Spoto points out, Hitchcock took over all aspects of Hedren's life during the shooting of The Birds, and the scene in the upstairs bedroom became a reality for the young actress, with days of being attacked by live birds resulting in a real-life psychological breakdown that mirrored the one suffered by Melanie in the film (484-485).
  8. Bernard F. Dick makes an even more astounding claim regarding the film's conclusion: The perverse ending makes it clear that everyone gets what he or she wants, except for Annie, the only truly tragic character in the film. As Mitch, Cathy, Lydia, and the bandaged and traumatized Melanie prepare to leave for San Francisco, conceding victory to the birds, Lydia holds Melanie against her. For the first time, Lydia looks benign, even maternal— not because she has accepted the idea that her son would marry, but because she knows he is not going to marry Melanie, who is obviously going to need plastic surgery, if not psychotherapy. (244)
  9. Horwitz emphasizes how Melanie is relegated to the role of a child by the end of the film, implying that "Lydia and Mitch are 'reunited'; now they have two 'children.' It is as if Mother is in the back seat with the younger child who is sick, while Father, in the front seat, drives with the older child next to him" (286).

Works Cited