The Birds

The Birds Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Dominant Mother (Motif)

The motif of the dominant mother—or mother-figure—was quite clearly on Hitchcock’s mind during the period of his career in which he crafted The Birds. The film which immediately preceded it featured the mother of all dominant mothers: the mother of Norman Bates. Interestingly, Marnie—the film that succeeds The Birds—also features a very strong maternal figure central to its plot. While clearly not in the same league of menace as those mothers, Lydia Brenner is nevertheless presented as quite controlling of her son and a potential obstacle to the fulfillment of Mitch and Melanie's blossoming romance. Melanie must overcome Lydia's protectiveness to get close to Mitch, and in this case the bird attacks actually facilitate that by thrusting the two together in a difficult situation.

Eyeglasses (Symbol)

Glasses are one of the more overlooked symbols that pop up in Hitchcock’s films. The reason for this "oversight" is likely one of two things. One, the recurrence of spectacles is usually relegated to minor or at the most supporting characters. The more likely reason is that this recurrence of such an obvious symbol is lacking in any obvious recurring meaning. Glasses on a character in a Hitchcock movie may signify intelligence as easily as lack of glamour. The character wearing the specs may be a useful associate of the protagonist or an annoying obstruction. That glasses must have some significance as a symbol or merely a motif across his body of work can be exemplified by their unique manifestation in The Birds. One of the most memorable and chilling scenes in any Hitchcock film is the bird attack upon a defenseless and vulnerable group of young schoolchildren. In this scene a friend of Cathy's, who wears glasses, is knocked to the ground and her glasses are smashed. A close up of the glasses gives a clear indication that Hitchcock wanted to draw attention to them. In this film, the glasses seem to represent the helpless position of humans at the hands of these birds, as the girl is made completely defenseless when her glasses smash and she can no longer see. It could also represent the return to a more primitive state that the birds seek, if one's reading is that the birds wish to save the environment from human harm, here by destroying a technology (eyeglasses) that has helped humans overcome their weaknesses to dominate the environment.

Claustrophobia (Motif)

Another recurring motif interspersed throughout Hitchcock's films, but rarely made the center of thematic focus, is the psychological effect of being trapped within confined spaces. The closest that Hitchcock ever came to making this motif the primary theme of a film was Lifeboat, although the actual psychological impact of what it might be like to suffer from claustrophobia was more effectively portrayed in Rope. The Birds features two extremely different, but equally nightmarish, realizations of the terror that this particular phobia might be capable of producing in sufferers. Both situate Melanie within confined spaces that could not be more divergent: in the first, she finds sanctuary from an attack inside a phone booth on a small-town street corner surrounded by other people also trying to defend themselves against the onslaught. From within this sanctuary, the fear is primarily directed outward to the suffering taking place around here and the knowledge that she is as helpless as those on the outside. The second sequence is the exact opposite: she is alone inside a dark room, the only victim of an attack nobody else can see, and every bit as helpless.

The Birds (Allegory)

In the original story by Daphne du Maurier, the birds are an allegory for a Nazi invasion. In the film, they may similarly be an allegory for a Soviet nuclear attack. The film was produced at the height of the Cold War, when terror raining down from the sky was a constant threat. Several references to war and the hopelessness of the situation draw out the connection between the bird attacks and a nuclear catastrophe.

Vulnerability (Motif)

The film is full of images of the birds attacking the most vulnerable people, or attacking people in vulnerable positions. Hitchcock was known for trying to cause general childhood fears about our own safety to resurface, and a common motif is violence against the most vulnerable. People are likely to be more frightened by the concept of the villain(s) attacking us when we are vulnerable than when we are prepared, and so he shows several attacks on children, going as far as to highlight the broken glasses of one student to make her seem more defenseless and weak. Even when the attacks do not happen to people who are inherently vulnerable, like children, they still happen to people in vulnerable positions: locked in their car, in a room, or in the dark. In some situations this ties into the claustrophobia motif, but also extends outside of it to a broader fear of vulnerability.