In this essay I will be arguing that the relationship between Stephen and Madame Azaire is intangible in the opening of Birdsong. I think that the reason Faulks has done this is to engage the reader so that throughout the novel it is unclear on how their relationship is going to develop. I will be exploring a number of different encounters with Stephen and Madame Azaire. I will be talking about how their relationship is shown at the beginning of the novel and how they act around each other when they first meet. Faulks also uses a lot of references to eye contact when talking about Madame Azaire and Stephen and I will be exploring the importance of this. I will also be exploring how Faulks describes the character of Stephen and how he contrasts with the other male characters. Also I will be looking at the language Faulks uses when describing Madame Azaire.
When Stephen and Madame Azaire first meet he walks into the dining room where the family are already seated but Madame Azaire stands up, showing that before even knowing him she has a certain amount of respect for him. Also when he enters there seems to be excitement in her voice when greeting him ‘Ah, Monsieur, your seat is here.’ We get a sense that Madame Azaire is looking forward to some different company other than her husband and wants to make Stephen feel welcome. Stephen then returns the respect by taking her hand and bowing his head ‘briefly’ which could suggest that the atmosphere between them may be slightly awkward and he doesn’t want to seem too lost in her as he can feel the stares of two children.
When Madame Azaire’s son, Grégoire, asks Stephen’s age she quickly snaps at him as if she doesn’t want to offend Stephen and in some ways is embarrassed of her family as she wants to impress him. As well as when they first meet the awkwardness between Stephen and Madame Azaire continues when Faulks refers to the lack of eye contact between them. Madame Azaire is not ‘fully engaged’ in Stephen’s eye contact which gives a sense that there may be an uncomfortable tension between them. Eye contact is important because in the time that Birdsong was set people couldn’t put into words how they felt about each other and often expressed their feelings through their eyes. The reason Faulks has created this lack of eye contact between them both suggests that they don’t know how they feel about each other and Madame Azaire may not want Stephen to know everything about her as she may have some dark secrets.
Stephen seems to be intrigued my Madame Azaire which foreshadows a deeper relationship building between them. Faulks also refers to Madame Azaire’s eyes again when she is speaking to Bérard but this time they are ‘wider’ which shows she is not as cautious around him as when she is with Stephen and doesn’t feel a need to avoid eye contact with him. The fact that Stephen continues to watch her eyes suggests that he is interested in her and wants to find out more. In the opening of Birdsong Stephen is often mocked by the patriarchal characters such as René and Bérard but when Madame Azaire was invited to join in she ‘declined’ because she didn’t want to make Stephen feel uncomfortable and as a woman she understands how he must feel to be around such dominant characters and she didn’t want to emasculate him anymore than René and Bérard already had.
Faulks creates a contrast between the dominant men, René and Bérard, and Stephen to make him more of an enticing character. It also shows that he is different to men in those times, which makes him more attractive to Madame Azaire. Before the war men were seen as the dominant and more important ones as they were in charge of bringing the money in and women were in charge of the children and keeping the house in order. The fact that Stephen is different to Azaire is what makes him so attractive to Madame Azaire. When Madame Azaire seemed to ignore and tolerate Bérard Stephen thought that it was ‘magnificent’ because it was unusual for women to stand up to men or act in a way that could be seen as disrespectful towards them.
When in a conversation about music Madame Azaire invites Stephen to join in because she wants to get him involved in the male conversation and it could suggest that she wants him to challenge Bérard’s opinion. Faulks does this to break the awkward tension between Stephen and Madame Azaire and wants to gradually show the progress of their relationship to the reader. Stephen is ‘startled’ when Madame Azaire addresses him and she finally makes eye contact with him. This suggests that she is gradually letting her barrier down. When answering Madame Azaire he makes a reference to ‘the heart’ which links to love and shows her that he is a softer character unlike Azaire.
The respect seen between Madame Azaire and Stephen at the beginning continues when she leaves the table and Stephen stands up for her. When she stands up Stephen is drawn to her and sees her as a ‘commanding figure’. This suggests that Stephen struggles to take his eyes of her and there is something about her that he finds incredible. The fact that she is wearing a ‘blood-red‘ skirt gives connotations of passion and love which foreshadows the relationship between her and Stephen. However the red could also suggest that if Stephen becomes involved with her he could be in danger.