Flaubert's Parrot Flaubert’s Parrot - Essay

Julian Barnes

Flaubert’s Parrot

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of FLAUBERT’S PARROT, is a lifelong admirer of the writings of Gustave Flaubert. When Braithwaite discovers two stuffed parrots that are said to have belonged to his idol, he sets out to discover which of the birds was actually Flaubert’s. Though this seriocomic detective story gives the novel its name, it is but one of the multitude of concerns of this complicated and diffuse book.

In one sense, FLAUBERT’S PARROT is a lively work of creative scholarship with Flaubert as its subject. Though Braithwaite is retired from a medical career, his interest in Flaubert is intense enough to qualify him as an expert on both the writer’s life and his works. As Braithwaite retraces Flaubert’s steps and analyzes his works, he creates a complex and endearing portrait of the novelist. Yet this novel is also a work of antischolarship. Braithwaite’s own method is creative and intuitive rather than strictly factual, and he has nothing but contempt for academic critics, whom he considers arrogant and unimaginative.

FLAUBERT’S PARROT is ultimately more concerned with Geoffrey Braithwaite than it is with Gustave Flaubert. As the novel progresses, Braithwaite shares with the reader his convictions about everything from the art of fiction to his late wife--she, also, is one of his obsessions. The detective story concerning the stuffed birds becomes a mere sideline as Barnes envelops the reader in Braithwaite’s brilliant and erratic mind.

Chronologies, lists, and even a mock literature-class examination are skillfully woven into the text of FLAUBERT’S PARROT, and Barnes’s use of such unconventional devices makes for a work of great variety and sophistication. Readers interested in the theory and practice of the novelist’s art will find FLAUBERT’S PARROT a rare and stimulating treat.


Brooks, Peter. The New York Times Book Review. XC (March 10, 1985), p. 7.

Kermode, Frank. The New York Review of Books. XXXII (April 25, 1985), p. 15.

Rafferty, Terrence. Review in The Nation. CCXLI (July 6-13, 1985), p. 21.

Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. LXI (July 22, 1985), p. 86.

Time. Review. CXXV (April 8, 1985), p. 78.