April 14, 2003

The Birthday Boys: A Story of Triumph

Upon a first reading, Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys might seem like a discouraging tale about human failure. After all, the book chronicles the 1912 Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott—an expedition plagued by numerous mistakes that ultimately ended in the deaths of Scott and four of his men. Upon a closer reading, however, it becomes clear that The Birthday Boys is a story of triumph.

In order to determine if one has triumphed, we must determine if he has achieved his good—for what is triumph if not the attainment of one’s good? The good, according to many people, is physical survival: to have life is to be in possession of the good. The “birthday boys” reject this view; instead, they claim that the good consists of living well—specifically, living courageously and lovingly. That living courageously is more important than mere survival is affirmed by Scott, as he declares that cowardice is worse than death (97). That living lovingly is more important than survival is affirmed by Birdie, as he elevates “the spiritual” above “the material” and claims that “nothing matters a damn except that we should help one another” (64). If we use these standards—that the good consists of living courageously and lovingly—then it is clear that the birthday boys achieve their good and, thus, triumph over life.

Although some might question their sanity, it is unarguable that the men in The Birthday Boys are courageous. Regardless of how bad the weather is or how much pain they are in, they continue plunging onward, determined to reach their goal. Scott never backs down from a challenge: for him, “there was no such word as impossible” (178). Taff refuses to complain of his own suffering and performs the unprecedented feat of building sledges in the worst of conditions (167). Although they encounter unpredictable hardship, Birdie and Cherry refuse to give up on their mission for eggs; there is “something splendid,” Birdie thinks, “sublime even, in pitting oneself against the odds” (144).

Along with being courageous, the men in The Birthday Boys are loving, both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, the men care about each other. Scott, for instance, prays for the safety of Birdie and Cherry (113), and expresses his great love for Taff (185-86). Moreover, he cannot stand to see his men suffer and, for this reason, continually orders Bill to pain-killing drugs to those in great pain (184). Similarly, Bill and Birdie spend “an inordinate amount of energy worrying about the welfare of others” (161).

More than just inward sentiment, the men’s love is expressed in actions, as they repeatedly make sacrifices for one another. Bill is constantly nursing the men, even when he himself is suffering. During his journey to find eggs with Birdie and Cherry, for instance, he spends much time trying to prevent Cherry’s feet from getting frostbite, never giving “a thought to his own” (137). Oates, though he himself is in great pain, tries to comfort the dying Taff (183). And all the men go out of their way to make each other’s birthdays special. Even as Bill, Birdie, and Cherry suffer through a life-threatening blizzard, they manage to each eat “a boiled sweet in honour of Bill’s birthday” (156).

The birthday boys triumph, not merely by being courageous and loving, but by doing so amid the greatest of adversities. Although adversity can bring out the worst in people, causing them to become cowardly and selfish, it brings out the best in “good men” (70). When conditions worsen, the men in The Birthday Boys become more courageous and more loving. By the book’s end, it is clear that the birthday boys are good men, men who have triumphed.

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