Flaubert's Parrot Additional Summary

Julian Barnes

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.)

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.)