Flaubert’s Parrot And The Problem Of Faith

Flaubert’s Parrot And The Problem Of Faith
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes was published in 1984. The book is hard to categorise in any one genre. Ostensibly a novel, it combines the elements of memoir, biography, essay and literary criticism, to name a few. The narrator of the book, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a retired doctor who is obsessed with the past and the 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert. As the book progresses, we find that Braithwaite has a story of his own to tell, that of his wife’s infidelity and subsequent suicide. This story is similar to Emma Bovary’s in Flaubert’s most famous work Madame Bovary, with Braithwaite himself as the deceived doctor-husband, like Charles in Flaubert’s novel. The titular parrot of the novel refers to a short story by Flaubert, “Un Coeur Simple” or “A Simple Heart,” written in 1877 for his friend, the well-known writer George Sand. Flaubert is said to have kept a stuffed parrot on his desk when he wrote the story, and throughout Barnes’s novel, Braithwaite is on a quest to find out exactly which parrot it was out of the two he has seen at the museums at Rouen and Croisset. He never finds out for sure.

Braithwaite is, in fact, looking for something far more important than a parrot. He is after truth, or certainty. He only comes at it in the latter part of the novel, though, after having dropped hints throughout. He wants to know why his wife was unfaithful and why she committed suicide, even though he loved her passionately. Many critics have noted that the search for Flaubert’s parrot is a red herring. The real story is about Braithwaite and his wife, what Braithwaite himself calls “Pure Story.” “Ellen's is a true story;” he says, “perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert's story instead.” At the close of the novel, Braithwaite’s failure in being able to determine for certain which particular parrot was used by Flaubert shows that searching for any kind of certainty is futile. That conclusion, however does nothing to dim Braithwaite’s desire to know for sure.

Critics like Dijana Tica have debated the similarities and differences between Barnes and Braithwaite. Both of them share a passion for Flaubert. The epigraph at the beginning of the book—a quotation from Flaubert—reads: “When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him” (emphasis in original). The impulse to defend a writer as a friend appears only when one believes wholeheartedly in the opinions of the writer; has lived, laughed and cried with the writer; has pondered over their life and thoughts and choices; and felt sorry for their misfortunes. In a word, one wants to defend a writer when one identifies with them. The writer’s concerns become one’s own concerns; one adopts their way of thinking and looking at the world. This is why Barnes/ Braithwaite says that love for a writer is the purest form of love. It follows from this that, even though Barnes consciously tried to distance himself from Braithwaite when he was writing the novel, as Ryan Roberts has noted, he shares Braithwaite’s adoration of Flaubert and consequently his outlook on life. As far as authorial intention goes, Braithwaite is obviously not Barnes, but authorial intention only goes so far. Flaubert’s Parrot can be seen as a memoir in disguise, because both Braithwaite and Barnes not only share in Flaubert’s concerns, but are passionate about them. For example, towards the end of the book, Braithwaite quotes Flaubert on despair: “People like us must have the religion of despair. One must be equal to one’s destiny, that’s to say impassive like it. By dint of saying ‘That is so! That is so!’ and of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm.”

Among all the other quotes from Flaubert which are spread out over the book, this one is key. Despair is the opposite of hope and signals a lack of faith. This has been a preoccupation with Barnes in much of his work.  In his essay entitled “’An Ordinary Piece of Magic’: Religion in the Work of Julian Barnes,” Andrew Tate traces Barnes’s preoccupation with questions of faith in four of his works. According to Tate, “The ‘God question’ persists across [Barnes’s] oeuvre in a way that might seem surprising for a novelist who, superficially, seems reconciled to a godless world-view.”  He quotes Barnes’s nonfiction work Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), where Barnes says that “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” And further: “The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque…What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious—seriously serious—unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?” (Incidentally, this is how Felicity in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” lives her life).

Flaubert’s Parrot is an earlier work, but the question of faith is just as central to this book as to others. The very title of the book comes from Flaubert’s short story “A Simple Heart,” which is all about faith. It’s the story of a domestic servant named Felicity who leads a simple life, is devoted to her mistress and her children, is unsuccessful in love, and gets obsessed with a parrot that gradually takes on the significance of the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost in her simple religious imagination. The story is not ironic; Flaubert does not mock Felicity. As Barnes states, Flaubert wrote the story to please his friend George Sand, whose temperament was quite the opposite of his own. Braithwaite mentions this at the very beginning of the book, and repeats it at the end: “’You provide desolation,’ wrote George Sand, ‘and I provide consolation.’ To which Flaubert replied, ‘I cannot change my eyes.’”  Braithwaite goes on to say: “Do you want art to be a healer? Send for the AMBULANCE GEORGE SAND. Do you want art to tell the truth? Send for the AMBULANCE FLAUBERT.” One can pick a fight with the assumption that “the truth,” whatever it might be, is always sad and gloomy. But in aligning himself with this Flaubertian conception of “the truth” as ugly and depressing, Braithwaite, and therefore Barnes, highlights again the lack of faith and hope that was widespread in Flaubert’s time, and has become the default mode of post-war writers and intellectuals, predominantly in the West. In fact, Braithwaite’s “dictionary of received ideas” could have included this point. Skepticism, even cynicism, is the fashionable attitude, but it is also the antithesis of faith.

Paradoxically enough, this very unbelief betrays a deep-seated yearning for belief. Braithwaite wants to be certain, not so much about the parrots as about life, about the past which escapes him like, in his own words, “a greased pig.” Braithwaite himself is like that greased pig for much of the novel--prevaricating, refusing to be pinned down, teasing the reader by starting to talk about his wife but backing out repeatedly. He is at home with facts, the minutiae of Flaubert’s life, the truths he can believe in. Hence the very detailed biography of Flaubert. But what he doesn’t know keeps him restless. According to Emma Cox, there is an “undercurrent of despair” in Braithwaite’s narrative. He wants certainty, he wants to “seize the past.” He even goes so far in his search for exactitude that he writes to the Grocers’ Company to know if “redcurrant jam [was] the same colour in Normandy in 1853 as it is now?” With his wife Ellen, he wants to know the worst. Braithwaite feels that though Ellen was fond of him, she never really tried to get to know him:

“She didn’t ever search for that sliding panel which opens the secret chamber of the heart[…]That’s the real distinction between people: not between those who have secrets and those who don’t, but between those who want to know everything and those who don’t. This search is a sign of love, I maintain.”

In other words, Ellen didn’t love him. Braithwaite hypothesizes about the reasons for Ellen’s unhappiness in the chapter entitled “Pure Story.” He admits that he is completely in the dark. He tries to console himself by philosophizing and looking to Flaubert, whose stoicism in facing “the black pit” at his feet gives him a measure of strength. Yet Braithwaite is tortured by the fact that he knows his wife “less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years.” He imagines that she was afflicted by despair, as he is at the present time, and tries to justify it: “Is despair wrong? Isn’t it the natural condition of life after a certain age? I have it now; she had it earlier.” At the same time, he admits that he is hypothesizing, even fictionalizing. He wonders if Ellen had come to see her life as insignificant. He then tries to console himself by thinking of Flaubert’s message in L’Education Sentimentale not to participate too much in life; he tells himself that “Les unions complètes sont rares”—“complete unions are rare.” However, the reader gets the feeling that none of these justifications are successful in alleviating his misery. At the end of the book, instead of finding certainty regarding the parrot, he is confronted with even more confusion with no possibility of it being resolved.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert tears romanticism to shreds, and then declares: “I am Madame Bovary.” As noted by William Grimes, Flaubert was “a realist who described himself to the critic Sainte-Beuve as ‘an old romantic mad dog.’" In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes shows that nothing is certain, but his character Braithwaite spends all his time looking for certainty. Somewhere he probably does understand that gazing at the black pit and being stoical is all very well, but it’s not a resolution; it’s merely a suppression of violent feeling. In identifying with the jaded Romantic Flaubert, both Braithwaite and Barnes betray a yearning for belief, perhaps a resolution of the “God question.”

Naveed Rehan, PhD, is an independent scholar