Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Books
Set on the eve of World War I, Birds Without Wings
tells the story of Eskibahçe, a charming and vibrant
ethnically mixed town in present-day Turkey, and how it is
irrevocably changed by the ravages of nationalism, war,
and religious fervor. Before the war, Eskibahçe is filled
with a wild assortment of characters, Christian and
Muslim, Turkish and Armenian, the mad and the sane, the
rich and the poor, living side by side in remarkable
There is Ali the Snowbringer, who lives with his
family and his donkey inside a hollowed-out tree; Iskander
the Potter, who supplies the town with proverbial wisdom
along with his pots; KaratavukIskanders sonand
Mehmetçik, whose deep friendship reaches across religious
barriers; Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja, priest
and imam, who hail each other playfully as "infidels"; Rustem Bey, the landlord and protector of the town, who
finds happiness with a Circassian mistress after his wife
is nearly stoned to death for adultery.
There are lunatics
as wella crazy Sufi known as "the Dog," who lives in a
tomb and terrifies everyone with his smile, and a man
known as "the Blasphemer," who flies into cursing fits at
the sight of any holy man. There is Philothei, a girl of
such disquieting beauty that she must be veiled, and her
besotted lover, Ibrahim the Goatherd, who will be driven
mad by the horrors of war. And there is Mustafa Kemal,
whose military daring will lead him to many stunning
victories against the invading Western European forces and
to a reshaping of the whole region. What happens to these
charactersand their beloved townbecause of the war is
the great tragedy that Birds Without Wings describes with such unforgettable vividness.
Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his
title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the
book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end
of the novel, "We were birds without wings. . . . Because
we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not
agree with us" [p. 550551]?
The setting of Birds Without Wings is an
early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its
distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary
world? In what way is the world of the novel vastly
different from the world today?
In his prologue, Iskander the Potter says that he
misses the Christians after they were removed from
Eskibahçe: "Without them our life has less variety, and we
are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves"
[p. 7]. Why does he feel that the presence of "others"
allowed the villagers to see themselves? Why is the loss
of variety so important? Why were so many different kinds
of people able to live together in Eskibahçe so
What makes Eskibahçe such a marvelously colorful
village? Who are some of its most eccentric and engaging
characters? How does the village change over the course of
The novel vividly describes the nationalist fervor
that swept the world in the early twentieth century: "Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece
for the Greeks, Turks and Jews out!" [p. 16] What causes
these feelings? What are their ultimate consequences?
After Ayse and Polyxeni convince the reluctant
Daskalos Leonidas to write a message in tears on the wings
of a dove, which they hope will fly to Polyxenis dead
mother, Ayse exclaims, "Its incredible! A man with that
much education, and he didnt even know about how to get a
message to the dead" [p. 77]. What does this scene suggest
about the gulf between traditional and modern ways of
understanding the world?
On the way to Smyrna, Iskander prefaces his story by
saying, "The thing about stories is that they are like
bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all
over the place before they get to the top of the pole" [p.
128]. Is what Iskander says here true of the novel itself?
How does the story line "creep all over the place"?
What kind of man is Mustafa Kemal? How does he
achieve his great military success? What are the ultimate
consequences of his actions?
Leyla tells Rustem Bey that the women in town are
saying he is a bad master because he doesnt beat her [p.
228]. What does this passage suggest about the
relationship between women and men in the novel? What
roles are women expected to play? In what ways are they
oppressed by their culture?
What are the most horrific aspects of war as they
are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its
greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do
the soldiers perform for one another and even for their
enemies? How does war affect the village of Eskibahçe?
Why does de Bernières use different narrators and
different points of view in the novel? Does this
multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novels main
What is the significance of the relationships
between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and
Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each
other despite their religious differences?
Can Birds Without Wings be read as a
cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say
about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and
forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky; Lawrence Durrell,
The Alexandria Quartet; John Fowles, The Magus;
A. R. Homer, The Mirror of Diana; Gabriel García
Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; James
McBride, Miracle at St. Anna; Henry Miller, The
Colossus of Maroussi; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.
Copyright Vintage Books.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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