Discuss the theme and central idea of "Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot" by Robert Olen Butler.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot" provides the reader with many things to consider.  Robert Olen Butler wrote a touching recollection of the failure of communication in a marriage which involves a loss of trust and the poison of suspicion. 

The protagonist, an unnamed man/parrot, narrates the story after he has been reincarnated as a parrot.  Ironically, his former wife/widow wants a bird and selects her former husband/parrot to take home.

Those nut-brown eyes were before me and she said, "I want him." And that' s how I ended up in my own house once again. 

How did the man become the bird?  That is the heart of the story.  Jealousy invaded his marriage.  Thinking that she was cheating on him, he climbs a tree to see into the window, falls out of it, and breaks his neck. 

The primary idea of the story finds clarity in the tainted, jealous love that the narrator feels for his wife and the inability to communicate with her.  He never confronts his wife; he holds his feelings inside and allows them  to grow until he acts foolishly. 

After the parrot settles into his new cage, he understands that his wife has moved on in her life.  Men come and go.  The parrot can just see into her bedroom.  He has wanted to take a bite out of one of these men, but he lets it go. He uses his bird toys to take out his frustration. The bird is still thinking like the man.

In the beginning, nothing has changed.  As the man becomes more and more parrot, he does see that he loved his wife when he was a man, but because of his jealousy was unable to communicate with her. The parrot decides to fly away.  His cage door is open, and he flies toward the sky.  Forgetting about the glass, Wham!, he hits his head and falls to the floor. His wife hurries to help him and is consumed with worry.  She cries with fear that she will lose him. The parrot recovers.

Eventually the theme of the story becomes evident. The parrot/man comes to love his wife more than he had when he was alive.  He regrets his failure to communicate with her.  Finally, he realizes that he always had a dual persona.  He loved his wife but inside he was tortured by his jealousy and anger.  The author gives the parrot genuine compassion for his wife and a new perspective.  He understands how he failed in the relationship. 

I was jealous in life. I admit it.  I would admit it to her.  But it was my connection to her... I loved her more in that moment, seeing her terrible nakedness, than I ever have before. 

Cleverly, the author chose an animal that has the ability to talk.  Of course, he only mimics what he hears.  No matter because this parrot's world circulates around watching, thinking about, and observing the round robin of men who travel through her life.

The narrator tells the reader that he no longer despises her lovers. He feels pity for them.  When the woman offers her hand for the parrot to sit on it, he realizes that he cannot fill the hole in her heart that he made when he left her.  As the story progresses, the shift in the bird goes from predominantly human to now more birdlike.  After his realization that he can no longer truly satisfy his wife, the parrot wants to be free even at the cost of his life.  He will go out again by flinging himself into the thing [He no longer remembers the word glass.] which is between him and the freedom from all of the feelings that as a bird he no longer understands. 

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