Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot Summary
"Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" by Robert Olen Butler is a short story about a husband who has returned to Earth as a bird. The narration begins with his former wife entering his pet store. They greet each other but he can only repeat words and is unable to communicate that he is her deceased husband. The husband reveals his jealousy for her new boyfriend, the store clerk that speaks with her intimately, and the fact that this insecurity pervaded his thoughts even before he became a bird.
Adopted by his former wife, he gets a large cage with plenty of toys. At the thought of his wife with other men, the husband exercises his anger on a rawhide toy. While alive he feared constantly that his wife was cheating on him. Instead of talking with her, the husband caged his feelings away, similar to the physical cage he finds himself trapped in as a bird. Before becoming a parrot, the husband stalked the man who he thought his wife was cheating on him with, and while trying to peak through a window, he fell out of a tree to his death.
Now widowed, his wife has a series of boyfriends. The husband rages, throwing seed and squawking. He takes solace in his view of the backyard and the sky. He tries to fly to it, nearly dying because of the glass in his way. His wife is tearful because of the close call and returns him to his cage. This prompts him to reflect on their marriage, his insecurities, and what his wife means to him. He tries to talk to her and is distraught when he cannot articulate his feelings, just like when he was human. The husband decides he wants to fly away again, to "be free of all these feelings." He throws himself repeatedly against the glass, presumably until his death.
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 primary thematic elements. At first jealous and combative toward his wife’s lovers (he waits for one “to draw close enough for me to take off the tip of his finger”), he comes to love his wife more than he had when alive, to regret his own failures in their relationship, and even to feel pity for her latest lover. He realizes that his consciousness had always been divided, that he had always had another creature inside who might have felt love while he had only felt jealousy and anger. Butler contrives, however, to leave it an open question as to how much of the narrator’s emotional change is genuine compassion brought about by his new perspective and how much of it is merely the effect of the supplanting of his human emotional responses by his increasingly parrotlike nature.
(The entire section is 1,234 words.)