Study Guide

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot

by Robert Olen Butler

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

As the title promises, the story revolves around a compulsively jealous husband, who is, as the story opens, sitting on a perch in a cage in a pet store in Houston, reincarnated somehow as a parrot. The reincarnation of the human narrator’s consciousness into the animal body is established as the opening premise with the very title and is never explained. However, once Butler makes this stipulation, the story proceeds realistically. Rather than simply imagining a person in a parrot suit, Butler imagines the limitations of the parrot’s brain and nervous system. When his former wife, who enters the store and is drawn to him, says, “Hello,” he can say it back, but when she then says “Pretty bird,” he can only repeat “Hello”: “She said it again, ’Pretty bird,’ and this brain that works like it does now could feel that tiny little voice of mine ready to shape itself around those sounds.” Butler thus provides a foundation for both the recognizably human aspects of the tale and the animal point of view that defamiliarizes them for the reader. The initial encounter with his former wife exemplifies the method: “She knows that to pet a bird you don’t smooth his feathers down, you ruffle them. But of course she did that in my human life as well.”

She buys him and keeps him in a cage in his former den. The physical transformation of the narrator provides opportunity for comedy, while his more gradual psychological transformation provides...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story revolves around a compulsively jealous husband, the unnamed first-person narrator of the story. It opens abruptly, with the narrator sitting on a perch in his cage in a pet store in Houston, having been reincarnated somehow as a yellow-nape Amazon parrot. One day, his former wife, accompanied by what he assumes must be her current lover, enters the store and is drawn to him. She buys him and takes him back to their former home, where she keeps him in a cage in the den. Despite his physical and, to a degree, psychological transformation, he is still jealous of his former wife’s latest lover. He is limited, however, to taking out his resentment on the bird toys in his cage.

In a flashback, the narrator reviews the circumstances that led to his death as a human. His wife had always had lovers, and after becoming suspicious that a new employee at her office had become the latest in that series, he found out where the man lived and went to his house. The narrator climbed a tree in an attempt to look through a window to catch his wife and the man together but died after falling from his perch. No explanation is offered as to the mechanism of his reincarnation.

Over time he becomes more and more birdlike, distancing himself from his jealousy as his thoughts increasingly turn to flying away and escaping. One day his wife leaves the door to his cage open, and he tries to fly to freedom. The sliding glass doors through which he sees the sky, trees, and other birds outside are closed, however, and he flies headfirst into them. When he eventually sees his wife and her new lover naked, he finds them more pitiful than beautiful or threatening, and his jealousy appears to have given way to sympathy. Already injured by flying into the doors that lead outside, he resolves to continue to throw himself against the glass. The story ends with the implication that his response to this new existence, though motivated by a desire for freedom rather than revenge, will have the same fatal result as his response to his former situation.