Flaubert's Parrot Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

This is a tantalizingly elusive work of fiction, exhibiting elements of biography, autobiography, literary monograph, parody, novel, and anthology of maxims and epigrams. It is narrated by Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired British general practitioner in his sixties, widowed from a wife whom he never understood, who becomes obsessed with seeking to understand the essential nature of Gustave Flaubert.

Braithwaite begins—and finally ends—his quest by attempting to identify the particular green stuffed Amazonian parrot which Flaubert borrowed for a model while writing “Un Coeur simple.” In that tale, a simple, sacrificial Norman domestic, Felicite, devotes her life to serving a largely ungrateful family. The last object of her love is a parrot, Loulou, whom she comes to regard as the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Braithwaite discovers a green stuffed parrot in Rouen, perched above an inscription certifying that Flaubert had been lent the bird by the city’s museum and had kept it on his desk for three weeks while writing “Un Ciur simple.” A few weeks later, in Croisset, the village where Flaubert lived most of his life, Braithwaite discovers another parrot, also stuffed, also green. Which is the authentic model for Felicite’s Loulou?

Braithwaite ascertains that Flaubert described an ugly English matron he met aboard a boat from Alexandria to Cairo as looking “like a sick old parrot.” In Salammbo (1862), Carthaginian translators sport parrot tattoos on their chests. In L’Education sentimentale (1869), the protagonist Frederic Moreau peers into a shop window and sees a parrot’s perch. Flaubert’s niece, Caroline, insists in her memoirs that Loulou had a real-life model, as did Felicite. The second and incomplete section of Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881) includes a passage wherein the copying clerks are to transcribe a newspaper account of a lonely misanthrope who comes to love a magnificent parrot and teaches it to pronounce, one hundred times daily, the name of the woman who rejected him. After the parrot dies, the owner takes to perching in a tree, squawking, extending his arms like wings. He is committed to a maison de sante. Finally, the small house in Croisset where Flaubert wrote was called un baton de perroquet, “a parrot’s perch.”

Braithwaite is strongly tempted to regard the parrot as emblematic of the author, as the magic madeleine whose dissolution in the waters of Flaubert’s complex life will provide the key to his tormented temperament. Could the parrot be the Life which repeats and mocks itself, just as Braithwaite remarks on episodes in Flaubert’s life that parrot his work? Or could the parrot, as the only creature capable of making human sounds, symbolize the supremacy of Language to which Flaubert offered all other opportunities for happiness? Braithwaite muses,

  Felicite + Loulou = Flaubert? Not exactly; but you could claim that he is present in both...

(The entire section is 1231 words.)

Flaubert's Parrot Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Geoffrey Braithwaite, an amateur biographer, is at the statue of writer Gustave Flaubert in Rouen, France. Braithwaite’s project, it seems, is to get to know as much as he can about Flaubert so that he can connect with him. He especially needs to establish which of two stuffed parrots at two rival museums is Loulou, the one who inspired Flaubert to write his short story “Un Cur simple” (1877; “A Simple Heart,” 1903). Braithwaite notes that Flaubert had disapproved of seeking out information about authors beyond what is found in their works, but Braithwaite pursues his quest nonetheless.

Braithwaite meets Ed Winterton, an American academic, at a book fair. Winterton acquires a book they both had wanted to buy. He later writes to Braithwaite to say that he has discovered some fascinating material related to Flaubert’s life. This news intrigues Braithwaite, who imagines that based on this material he will be able publish a groundbreaking study about a hitherto unknown love affair between Flaubert and his niece’s governess, Juliet Herbert.

Braithwaite meets Winterton to discuss the discovery. Winterton tells him that the material did indeed reveal that Flaubert had an affair with Juliet, but he also tells him the material also includes a letter in which Flaubert asks that the material be burned—Winterton has done that, and Braithwaite is furious.

Flaubert had compared himself to various animals, from lizards and camels to bears. Apparently, he most liked to compare himself to a polar bear, living far from civilization. There also had been many real parrots in his life. One contemporary newspaper story told of one man’s parrot obsession, which may have been the inspiration for Flaubert’s short story “Un Cur simple.” Talk of a parrot’s empty perch in Flaubert’s novel L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Flaubert's Parrot Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barnes’s first novel of note, Flaubert’s Parrot, is a fictional biography of Gustave Flaubert, but only in the sense that it exposes the reader to some aspects of the French writer’s personality and achievements. Barnes has likened his approach to the uncovering of an ancient tomb, where random holes are tunneled into the earth covering in an attempt to get a sense of the tomb before excavating and unsealing it. Barnes feels that such an approach might give the reader greater insight into the subject of the biography than a more traditional technique.

In large part, this novel follows the thoughts of the main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite, as he embarks on his mission to uncover the life of the esteemed Flaubert, attempting to separate fact from fiction, sometimes interpreting his findings to fit his own needs. Just as the human mind wanders, so does the narrative, with Braithwaite ruminating about the problems inherent in writing biography, imagining arguments with Flaubert’s critics, recalling rumors and innuendo about his subject, creating a few of his own scenarios, and gathering research materials, as well as telling the novel’s story.

The book is a prime example of a story holding together seemingly disparate elements. It is divided into fifteen chapters, each a separate entity, but each shedding some light on either Flaubert or Braithwaite. It combines reality and fantasy, the natures of literary criticism and historical research, weighty ideas...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Flaubert's Parrot Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

The narrator begins his observations in Rouen, France, the birthplace of Gustave Flaubert. The great novelist's statue stands tall atop a pedestal, looking almost disdainful, holding its head aloof and turned in the direction of the cathedral. At its base, six North Africans are playing boules, a game of skilled ball throwing, and the thrower—stylish, ecstatic, alive—is contrasted with the bronze Flaubert—frumpy, "straggle-mustached," a toilet for pigeons. The Flaubert statue in Trouville is chipped and his house in Rouen—Croisset—has been demolished, as was his childhood home. The narrator muses that all things Flaubertian decay except his writings, which is in keeping with the novelist's wishes.

The narrator's goal is not to write a thorough biography of the great French writer but to compose a leisurely meditation on the man. The narrator is a retired doctor, widower, father of scattered adult children who keep in touch "when guilt impels." His Flaubertian odyssey begins in Rouen in the mid-1980s, forty years after the Nazis had seized the original casting of the statue. Evidence of the war is still abundant, but it has taken on a historical character and strikes the tourist as "not at all sinister." He recalls his own wartime memories without emotion and compares the Normandy invasion with the Norman Conquest: "one too distant to be true, the other too familiar to be true." The past, he says, is like a greased pig, making those who try to grasp it look ridiculous.

Like the narrator, Flaubert's father was a doctor, and the Flaubert museum in the Hôtel-Dieu is also a museum of medical history. Gustave was born in a room there. In later photographs, he seems an old man, but it is not clear whether it was syphilis that devoured his youth or simply life in the nineteenth century. There is a cartoon of Flaubert dissecting Emma Bovary, her heart on a fork. It is in the Hôtel-Dieu that the...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

Chronology

The narrator presents a time line of Flaubert's life. It is formatted like a two-column table in a reference book: Year and Event. He breaks the time line into three parts.

The first part begins with the 1821 birth of Gustave to Achille (a prominent surgeon) and Anne. They are a middle class family with property in Rouen. In 1825, a nurse is hired to care for Gustave. Her name is Julie, and she remains in his employ until his death. About five years later, Gustave acquires the first of a lifelong string of devoted friends. Gustave goes to school and begins to write from an early age. In 1836, Gustave develops his first passionate crush on a respectable Trouville matron, Elisa...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Finders Keepers

The narrator encounters another bibliophile in a secondhand bookstore. His new acquaintance, Ed Winterton, is an American working on a biography of the life of Edmund Gosse, an English contemporary of Flaubert. A year later, Winterton sends a note inquiring whether the narrator might be interested in a possible lover of Flaubert named Juliet Herbert. He apparently has come across some material relating to her, and the narrator is more than interested. He compares the moment to that of a fiancée opening the ring box—a moment, which, on reflection, he never discussed with his wife afterward and never can now. Juliet Herbert is a mystery in the much studied life of Flaubert. She was his...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

The Flaubert Bestiary

Braithwaite has compiled a list of animals that he believes feature significantly in the life of Flaubert. Each entry is a short essay on an aspect of Flaubert, the animal illustrating his relationships and self image.

The first and lengthiest entry is "The Bear." Gustave describes himself as a bear who lives alone, though Braithwaite points out that the hermit of Croisset lived in a relatively full house. A white bear-rug was a much loved (by himself and his niece) feature in his study. Though Braithwaite can cite many references comparing Flaubert to other animals—from oyster to gorilla—the bear is Flaubert's own essential self image—a mangy bear, a stuffed...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Snap!

Braithwaite dislikes coincidences and especially the fashionable invocation of Anthony Powell every time ordinary events result in ordinary convergences. He recalls a dinner party at which he was the only one present who had not just finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time. He ironically opines that irony is one way of legitimizing coincidence. Flaubert was a great admirer of irony.

In 1949, Du Camp and Flaubert climbed the pyramid of Cheops, timing their ascent with the rising of the sun. As Du Camp looked out over the Nile valley at dawn from the top of the Great Pyramid, Flaubert reached down and picked up a business card, presumably left there by a French polisher...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Emma Bovary's Eyes

Braithwaite hates literary critics. He holds up as an example the scholar and lecturer Enid Starkie, a highly distinguished Oxford emeritus whose professional life had been dedicated to the study of French literature, primarily Flaubert. Starkie had an atrocious French accent, he carps. He is angry with Starkie for pointing out that Flaubert gave the color of Emma Bovary's eyes as blue, brown, and black—with the passages given in footnotes. He admits that on reading this, he was at first annoyed with Flaubert, but his ire soon shifted to the critic.

Writers are not perfect, Braithwaite argues, "anymore than husbands and wives are perfect." He never believed that his wife...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Cross Channel

Braithwaite is taking the ferry across the English Channel to France. He remarks that the light on the French side is picturesque, while the view from the English side is gloomy and monotonous. He wistfully recalls going into a French pharmacy with his wife. The pharmacien tenderly examined and cleaned the blister on his wife's foot and sold them a box of bandages. Emma Bovary's body is watched over by Homais—a pharmacien. Braithwaite promises the reader that he will tell three stories: Flaubert's, his own, and his wife's.

Flaubert, Braithwaite states, is remembered as a bourgeois "bourgeoisophobe," a fat, bald aesthete who disparaged democracy for raising...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

The Train-Spotters Guide to Flaubert

The Flaubert family move to Croisset, presumably because it was a more therapeutic location for Gustave after the initial onset of his epilepsy. Their former house at Déville was doomed anyway; it would be soon be demolished for the railway. Gustave's was the first "railroad" generation, but he never liked trains. He called them a misdeed of modern civilization and claimed that train rides made him want to howl with boredom. It was the railway that facilitated his long affair with Louise Colet.

Flaubert had once excised a passage from one of Colet's poems which featured the image of a train's smoke, lined out horizontally on the landscape. He said he...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

The Flaubert Apocrypha

Braithwaite considers a host of what-ifs. "Do the books that writers don't write matter?" he asks. What follows is a sort of annotated bibliography of works that Flaubert might have written. Flaubert always threatened to write his autobiography. He claimed to have translated Candide into English; Juliet Herbert is supposed to have translated Madame Bovary. He considered a number of novels, including one about the notably pious pharaoh Mycerinus, who Flaubert conceived as incestuous, and another about a man who is happier in his dreams than in his real life. He contemplated a novel of chivalry. A novel about insanity was considered around the same time as one...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The Case Against

Braithwaite states that there are two kinds of people: the kind that want to know the worst, and the kind that do not want to know anything. He wanted to know the worst about Ellen, his wife, because he loved her. She believed only the best about him. So it is with beloved authors, and Flaubert has often been upbraided by his admirers for what they see as faults. Braithwaite enumerates and defends those faults:

  1. That Flaubert hated humanity—No, he was unimpressed by it. He was devoted to his family and his friends. He just didn't pay his respects to humankind generally.
  2. That he hated democracy—He preferred the Chinese model of enlightened oligarchy. He...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Louise Colet's Version

Flaubert's mistress strolls arm in arm with the reader, or maybe it’s Braithwaite, and tells the story of her affair with the famous writer from her own perspective. She begins by pointing out that Flaubert was not famous when they met. On the contrary, she was an established Parisian poet with powerful connections, including Victor Hugo. She was a renowned beauty and the lover of Victor Cousin. Flaubert was a provincial young man. "I was his catch; he wasn't mine."

Louise was thirty-five when she met Gustave. He was twenty-four. No, she says, she wasn't bothered by the age difference, though maybe it was more significant to Gustave. Louise was the same age...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Braithwaite's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

Playing off Flaubert's Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, Braithwaite presents his own dictionary of received ideas regarding Flaubert. It is an alphabetical listing of things and people associated with Flaubert, beginning with A for Achille, Gustave's older brother, who was named for their father and inherited the family expectations. Louis Bouilhet was Flaubert's "shadow" with whom he shared a close resemblance; Flaubert referred to him as his "left testicle." Louise Colet was either an untalented encumbrance who plotted to entrap Flaubert and force him to be happy, or a passionate woman cruelly...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Pure Story

Braithwaite is a doctor; he knows the script to recite to the surviving spouse when a patient dies: Take two of these and develop a hobby. Give it time.

When Ellen died, however, he found that mourning is "full of time; nothing but time." He has tried unsuccessfully to alleviate the misery with drinking and working. He has his "dead foreigner" to distract him. He notes that people think he wants to talk about it, but he quotes from Madame Bovary: "Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."

Whenever he thinks of Ellen, he thinks of a hail storm that smashed through...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Examination Paper

Braithwaite administers an examination probing the reader's understanding of Flaubert, life, and the role of literature. The test is in two sections, and the reader is allowed three hours to answer both questions in the first section and two questions (from a choice of ten) in the second section. Presentation and handwriting do not count. Marks are based on correctness, with deductions for silly answers.

Section A is labeled Literary Criticism. The first part is prefaced by the observation, based on recent examinations, that "candidates" are losing the ability to distinguish between life and art. The candidate is to consider the relationship between art and life suggested...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

And the Parrot . . .

Braithwaite has solved the mystery of the stuffed parrots. Which parrot was the real Loulou? He had written to a number of academics, the French embassy, and the Michelin Guidebook—even to David Hockney, who had painted a scene from Un Cœur Simple—asking whether the provenance of either bird could be established. Some of them never responded, and those that did were condescending. "Anyone would have thought I was a crank," he complains. The young, he says, are the cranky ones. If a twenty-something commits suicide, it's an act of moral courage; if a person of fifty-four kills herself, it's a selfish indulgence, a byproduct of post-menopausal depression....

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear