At a Glance
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale tells the story of Vianne (Rossignol) Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, two French sisters who resist the occupying Nazi forces during World War II (WWII) by hiding Jewish children so they are not taken to concentration camps (the Holocaust) and by leading the escape of Allied pilots whose planes have been shot down over France.
Since their mother died when they were children, Vianne and Isabelle have always been at odds. Vianne, the older sister, is a rule-follower, whereas Isabelle is rebellious and speaks her mind. The Nazi invasion of France heightens these differences. Vianne continues to follow the rules even when it means allowing a Nazi officer to live in her home and the abuse and arrest of her Jewish neighbors. Isabelle, who refuses to live passively under German authority, joins the French resistance movement and begins guiding Allied airmen out of France after their planes are shot down. For her work, she adopts the codename the Nightingale.
When the Holocaust puts Vianne’s Jewish best friend’s son at risk, she adopts the boy and begins forging false identity papers for other Jewish children so they can be hidden in the local Catholic orphanage. Isabelle is captured by the Nazis and interrogated. Claiming to be the Nightingale, her estranged father, Julien, rescues her but is executed in her place. Isabelle spends the remainder of the war in a Nazi prison camp, and she dies shortly after being freed. Years later, an elderly Vianne remembers these experiences and attends an event in her sister’s honor.
Written by: Kristin Hannah
Type of Work: Fiction
Genre: WWII narrative
First Published: 2015
Setting (primary): Carriveau, France
Settings (secondary): Paris, France; Oregon, USA; various French towns; Spain; Germany
Main Characters: Vianne Mauriac; Isabelle Rossignol; Julien Rossignol; Wolfgang Beck; Sturmbannführer Von Richter; Gaëtan Dubois
Major Thematic Topics: The changing nature of love in wartime; ways of expressing (or failing to express) love; loyalty; gender inequality and cultural expectations; complicity with evil; the humanity of enemies; what makes a life worth living
Major Symbols: Cold and heat; books; cancer; pregnancy and infertility; names and the power of naming
The three most important aspects of The Nightingale: One important aspect of The Nightingale is its exploration of gender and the societal expectations of women. Many of Isabelle’s character traits—her boldness, her willingness to fight, and her refusal to tolerate what she believes is wrong—are traits often celebrated in men. However, because she is a woman, society considers her rebellious, hard to deal with, and incapable of fighting in the war. Gaëtan, whom Isabelle meets in the woods as she flees Paris, is one of the first people to see her as “more than a girl,” as capable of things that society does not expect from women. Not only does Isabelle prove society wrong, but she also uses her gender to her advantage. Because the Nazis do not expect resistance fighters to be women, Isabelle is able to do things that may have gotten her caught and killed if she were a man. When she is finally caught for her work as the Nightingale, the Nazis are convinced that a woman could not be the Nightingale, a belief that saves her life. In addition to its advantages, however, being a woman incurs specific risks, as Vianne’s repeated brutal rape at the hands of Sturmbannführer Von Richter demonstrates all too clearly.
A second important theme the novel introduces is how love changes during wartime. Isabelle and Gaëtan are the clearest example of this change: Although they are deeply drawn to each other, they are reluctant to acknowledge their feelings because the context of the war renders their love both deeper and costlier. Meanwhile, Vianne loves her husband, but his absence and Captain Beck’s presence in the midst of the intensity of war causes her to experience a type of love that she knows is forbidden. In addition to romantic love, the book portrays many other kinds of love. The family love between Vianne and Isabelle, and between both sisters and their father, shows how war can make it difficult to express love. Finally, Vianne’s motherly love, both to her biological children and to the Jewish children she saves, raises questions about what parental love really means within the context of war.
Lastly, The Nightingale raises challenging questions about complicity with evil. Vianne wrestles frequently with her tacit collaboration with the Nazi invaders, especially when she provides Beck with a list of Jewish and Communist teachers at her school. Even though she reasons that Beck could have gotten the same information from anyone, Vianne feels a sense of guilt for allowing herself to be a cog in the Nazi war machine. This issue of complicity is one that is especially important in the WWII context because of the Holocaust: Although few people were masterminds behind the slaughter of millions of Jews and other “undesirable” people, many simply followed orders or stood by and did nothing while the abuse and slaughter took place.