Julian Barnes Essay - Critical Essays

Julian Barnes Long Fiction Analysis

In all of his works Julian Barnes has pursued several ideas: Human beings question, even though there can be no absolute answers; humanity pursues its obsessions, with the pursuit often resulting in failure. His novels have at the same time evolved in form and approach—the earliest are more traditional and conventional; the later works are more experimental. Barnes’s wit, irony, andsatire, his use of history, literary criticism, myth, and fable, his melding of imagination and intellect, and his continuing risk in exploring new forms and methods make him one of the most significant English novelists of his generation.


Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, is orthodox in technique and approach; divided into three parts, it is a variation on the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. In part 1, the narrator, Christopher Lloyd, and his close friend, Toni, grow up in 1963 in a north London suburb on the Metropolitan rail line (thus the title), pursuing the perennial adolescent dream of rebellion against parents, school, the middle class, and the establishment in general. Convinced of the superiority of French culture and consciously seeking answers to what they believe to be the larger questions of life, they choose to cultivate art, literature, and music in order to astound what they see as the bourgeoisie and its petty concerns.

Part 2, five years later, finds Christopher a student in Paris, the epitome of artistic bohemianism, particularly when compared to his life in Metroland. It is 1968, and French students are demonstrating and rioting in the streets for social and political causes. None of this touches Christopher; he is more concerned about his personal self-discovery than about changing or challenging the wider world.

Nine years later, in part 3, set in 1977, Christopher is back in Metroland, married to Marion, an Englishwoman of his own class, with a child, a mortgaged suburban house, and a nine-to-five job. Toni, still a rebel, chides Christopher for selling out to the enemy. Ironically, however, Christopher is content with life in Metroland. He consciously examines and questions his present circumstances but accepts their rewards and satisfactions.

Questioning and irony are continuing themes in all of Barnes’s novels, as is the absence of significant character development except for the leading figure. Toni, Christopher’s French girlfriend Annick, and Marion, his English wife, are not much more than supporting figures. Relationships are explored through Christopher’s narration alone, and Christopher finds himself, his questions, and his life of most concern and interest to him.

Before She Met Me

Before She Met Me is also a story of an individual’s attempt to relate to and understand his personal world. Graham Hendrick, a forty-year-old professor of history, has recently remarried. Now beginning a new life, happy with Ann, his new wife, and outwardly contented, both personally and professionally, Hendrick seems to be an older variation of Christopher and his self-satisfied middle-class existence. As in his first novel, Barnes includes a bohemian writer, Jack Lupton, as a foil for Hendrick’s respectable conformity.

Before they were married, Ann acted in several minor films, and after viewing one of them, Hendrick, the historian, begins to search out his wife’s past. At first his quest seems based on simple curiosity; soon, however, Ann’s history begins to take over Hendrick’s present life. Losing his professional objectivity as a historian, succumbing to jealousy, compulsively immersing himself in Ann’s past, blurring the distinction between the real Ann and her image on the screen, Hendrick becomes completely obsessed. Seeing the present as a world without causes, Hendrick finds his crusade in the past, and that crusade is no longer public but private. Bordering on the melodramatic, Before She Met Me is the story of the downward spiral of an individual who can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality. Did the love affairs Ann had on the screen replicate her private life off camera? Are her past love affairs continuing in the present?

Barnes poses the question, not only for Hendrick, caught up in his obsession, but also for the reader: What is reality, and can one discover the truth? Like Metroland, this novel has many comic and witty moments but ultimately ends tragically. Ann and Lupton had an affair that has since ended, but Hendrick, in his obsessive quest, falsely concludes that it continues; he murders Lupton and then, in Ann’s presence, he takes his own life. Although told in the third person, Before She Met Me centers on the plight of a single figure questioning his world. Hendrick and his compulsions dominate the novel: His first wife, their child, Ann, and Lupton are figures perceived through his persona.

Flaubert’s Parrot

With his third novel published under his own name, Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes received considerable praise as a significant writer of fiction, less parochial in form and technique than most English novelists of his time. His first book published in the United States, Flaubert’s Parrot was the recipient of numerous prizes. It too is a novel of questions and obsessions that unite the past and present, but in its collage of literary techniques, it is not a traditional narrative novel, including as it does fiction, biography, history, and literary criticism. As in his earlier works, Barnes focuses on a single individual in the novel; Geoffrey Braithwaite is an English medical doctor in his sixties, a widower, with a long-standing interest in the French writer Gustave Flaubert. Barnes also has been a student of French and admirer of Flaubert, and early in Metroland Christopher reads a work by Flaubert; several critics have examined the possible relationships among the author and his fictional figures Braithwaite, Christopher, and Hendrick.

Told in the first person, Flaubert’s Parrot examines Braithwaite’s attempt to discover which of two different stuffed parrots on exhibit in competing Flaubert museums is the one that sat on Flaubert’s desk when he wrote his short story “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”). In the story, an old servant, Félicité, is left after fifty years of service with only a parrot as a companion. When the parrot dies, Félicité has it stuffed. As her health fails, she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost, traditionally represented as a dove. On her deathbed she believes that she sees a giant parrot above her head. Braithwaite’s quest to determine which is the real parrot allows him, and Barnes, to pursue with wit and irony numerous aspects of Flaubert’s biography: his published works, including Madame Bovary (1857), his ideas for works he did not write, his travels, his use of animals in his writings, and his lovers. The novel includes chronologies, a dictionary, and an examination paper.

Flaubert’s Parrot is not concerned only with Braithwaite’s interest in Flaubert’s past and the two surviving stuffed parrots. As the doctor pursues Flaubert and his parrot, he also begins to reveal his own history. Braithwaite’s wife had frequently been unfaithful to him, as Emma Bovary was to her husband Charles, and she had eventually committed suicide. As Braithwaite explores the relationship between Flaubert and his fiction, seeking to know which is the real parrot, he also attempts to understand the realities of his own life and his connection with the fictional Charles Bovary. He becomes obsessive about discovering the truth of the parrots, but he is also obsessive about discovering his own truth. The difficulty, however, is that truth and reality are always elusive, and the discovery of a number of small realities does not result in the illumination of absolute truth. In the course of his discussions, Braithwaite muses on the incompetence even of specialists in ferreting out the truth; he criticizes a prominent scholar of Flaubert, whom he accuses of pronouncing French badly, of mistakenly identifying a portrait as Flaubert and of being unable to specify the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes.

Flaubert’s parrot, too, is seen as a symbol of this dichotomy of fact and fiction. The parrot can utter human sounds, but only by mimicking what it hears; still, there is the appearance of understanding, regardless of whether it exists. Is a writer, such as Flaubert, merely a parrot, writing down human sounds and observing human life without understanding or interpretation? At the end of Braithwaite’s search for the real stuffed parrot used by Flaubert while writing his short story, the doctor discovers that dozens of stuffed parrots exist that Flaubert could have borrowed and placed on his desk. Braithwaite’s quest has thus been one of many with no resolutions, posing questions without final answers.

Staring at the Sun

Staring at the Sun, Barnes’s fourth novel published under his own name, exhibits a stronger narrative line than Flaubert’s Parrot, but as in the story of Braithwaite, narrative here is not the primary concern of the...

(The entire section is 3787 words.)