Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Flaubert's Parrot

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot is a postmodern novel by English author Julian Barnes (1946-Present). Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a fan of French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), becomes obsessed with a stuffed parrot that inspired one of the writer's most important works. As he digs deeper into Flaubert's personal life, he begins to uncover a series of uncomfortable truths about the artist and himself.

Flaubert's Parrot refers to the lives and works of French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Known for his works of literary realism, Flaubert was a groundbreaking writer who helped to establish much of the criteria of the modern novel.

Born in Rouen, northern France, Flaubert started writing early. After moving to Paris to study law, Flaubert grew bored of the city and his studies. Dropping out, he returned to Rouen, determined to become a writer. After a few abortive attempts at novel writing, he began working on a serialized story that would become his most famous work, Madame Bovary (1856).


Flaubert's Parrot, Gustave Flaubert, StudySmarterGustave Flaubert was famously misanthropic and refused to have children because of his bleak view of humanity. Wikicommons

The story of a bored housewife in a small provincial town struggling to break free of her monotonous routine, the novel was highly controversial upon publication. Flaubert's depiction of bourgeoise life in France included realistic portrayals of sex, which led to charges of obscenity that the writer successfully defended himself against in 1857.

Flaubert was a notoriously slow writer and spent days focused on one sentence, trying to find the perfect wording. Although his career spanned over forty years, he only published twelve novels. Flaubert's style focused on the minor details of life, which he imbued with significant importance to create a realistic atmosphere. His style was highly influential on the emerging Realist movement.

In 1877, Flaubert publishedTres Contes (Three Tales). The first tale, "Un Coeur simple" ("A Simple Heart"), concerns a young woman who lives a meaningless life but remains wholly devoted to her pet parrot, Loulou. While writing the story, Flaubert borrowed a stuffed parrot from the Museum of Rouen to inspire his writing.

Flaubert's Parrot: Summary

After his wife's death, retired doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite goes on a trip to the city of Rouen in northern France. As a fan of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, Geoffrey uses the trip to tour sites important to the writer's life and legacy.


Flaubert's Parrot, Rouen, StudySmarterThe city of Rouen is Flaubert's hometown and the setting for the novel. Wikicommons

On a visit to a Flaubert museum, Geoffrey views a stuffed parrot that the museum claims was on Flaubert's desk during the writing of Three Tales (1877) and inspired the character of Loulou. The following day he visits another museum that has a similar stuffed parrot. This parrot, the second museum claims, is the real parrot that served as Flaubert's inspiration during the writing of Three Tales.

Does Julian Barnes present Geoffrey Braithwaite as an unreliable narrator?

Braithwaite decides to investigate each museum's claim and find out which is the actual stuffed parrot Flaubert used during the writing process. He begins by researching three sources on the writer. The first is a traditional biography that depicts Flaubert's life as a successful endeavor. The second is a biography that focuses on the traumatic events of the writer's life and portrays Flaubert as a tragic figure. The final source is Flaubert's journals.

As Braithwaite explores Flaubert's life and legacy, he finds it increasingly difficult to confirm one objective truth as the three sources often contradict and disagree. While trying to uncover the truth about a stuffed parrot, Braithwaite dives into literary criticism and is forced to re-evaluate the life and work of his favorite writer.

How does Geoffrey feel about literary critics and criticism in general?

An American academic, Ed Winterton, contacts Braithwaite to share his research. He tells Geoffrey about a set of love letters he discovered that confirms Flaubert's illicit affair with a young woman named Juliet Herbert. However, in accordance with Flaubert's wishes, Winterton destroyed the letters to protect the writer's legacy.

The quest to discover the truth reveals more about Braithwaite than it does about Flaubert. He admits that his wife, Ellen, committed suicide and carried out numerous affairs during their marriage. Racked by guilt and anger towards her, Geoffrey struggles to come to terms with her death and realizes his Flaubert obsession has become a coping mechanism. In his quest to discover the actual parrot, Geoffrey recognizes that people are complex, and their lives can not be defined as entirely good or bad.

Flaubert's Parrot, Parrot, StudySmarterGeoffrey learns a valuable lesson about finding the true identity of Loulou. Wikicommons

Braithwaite contacts a French academic who informs him that the natural history museum in Flaubert's hometown had over fifty stuffed parrots during the period he wrote Three Tales. Flaubert had asked to borrow one, and there is no way to know which is the actual parrot used by Flaubert. Both of the stuffed parrots on display as "Flaubert's Parrot" have an equal chance of either being or not being the inspiration for the writer's work. In the end, Braithwaite reasons that the truth, in this case, ultimately does not matter.

In the end, Geoffrey cannot determine the parrot's true identity. Does the novel have a happy ending? Why or why not?

Flaubert's Parrot: Characters

Here is a look at the most important characters in Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot.

Geoffrey Braithwaite

The novel's narrator and protagonist is a retired English doctor who has recently lost his wife. During a trip to France, he becomes obsessed with discovering the true identity of Flaubert's Parrot. Geoffrey's quest is ultimately revealed as a coping mechanism to deal with his wife's complex legacy.

Geoffrey is presented as highly intelligent and focused as he investigates numerous historical and literary sources to uncover the truth. Although much of the novel is focused on Geoffrey's quest, the reader learns little about him until the book's closing chapters.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert is a real-life figure who produced some of the most influential novels of the 19th century. Although he does not appear as a character in the story, Flaubert is the most significant presence in the book. Having grown up the son of a successful surgeon, Flaubert was set to become a lawyer before he dropped out to pursue his passion for writing.

Flaubert is a profoundly pessimistic person who distrusts and dislikes other people. As Geoffrey researches the life of his favorite writer, he discovers a complex and often controversial personal life. Through this obsession, Geoffrey is able to realize that even the most talented people are multi-layered and nuanced.

Flaubert's Parrot: Themes

In Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes uses Geoffrey's obsession with a French novelist to explore the idea of subjectivism and truth.

Subjectivity and truth

Subjectivity refers to judgments people make based on their opinions, experiences, and feelings. The opposite of subjectivity is objectivity, where judgments are based on facts rather than opinions or emotions. Most academic disciplines strive to maintain objective analysis.

When Geoffrey begins his quest to uncover the truth about Flaubert's stuffed parrot, he gathers a group of historical documents. Each source presents a different view of the facts and is impacted by the author's subjective opinion. As Geoffrey dives deeper into his quest, he begins to realize that all of the sources used in historical records and biographies are tainted by the personal nature of memory and opinion.

This subjectivity connects to the idea of truth. While traditionally, it was thought that one version of the truth exists, Geoffrey learns that discovering the truth about the past is actually impossible. Since historians and biographers draw from sources that depend on memory, it is impossible to build a single objective truth. Geoffrey also discovers that historians and biographers can choose to omit facts that do not reflect favorably on their subject. Each of the biographies Geoffrey uses comes to a different conclusion on Flaubert's life. Even Geoffrey himself is guilty of having an overly optimistic view of Flaubert as a person.

Ultimately, Barnes uses Geoffrey's journey to show that, like the stuffed parrots, there is no singular truth, just many versions of the same event and person, all of which contain truth and fiction. The novel itself is constructed from elements of both fact and fiction to show that the act of telling someone else's life story is partially creative and involves the writer's imagination and beliefs.

Flaubert's Parrot: Analysis

With Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes uses creative techniques and styles to push the traditional boundaries of the novel. The book blends elements of fiction with large sections of historical fact and literary analysis. By combining these different writing styles, Barnes ignores the usual fiction conventions, like plot, in favor of an in-depth exploration of Flaubert's life and legacy.

Entire chapters of Flaubert's Parrot contain elements of non-fiction writing. One chapter is a chronology of significant events in Flaubert's life, listed as facts and dates without the presence of characters or dialogue. Barnes includes a section that deals with literary criticisms of Flaubert's works, then has a chapter defending the writer against his critics. While Geoffrey is the novel's protagonist, the reader learns much more about Flaubert's life and motivations.

Flaubert's Parrot is a highly experimental novel that employs many techniques of postmodern literature.

Postmodern literature is a highly experimental and self-reflective form of writing. Postmodern works often use nonlinear narratives and fragmentation instead of traditional storytelling techniques. Flaubert's Parrot features the postmodernist process known as intertextuality, which is when an author shapes their work as a response or rebuttal to another writer's work.

Postmodern works often ignore plot or story in favor of a more in-depth character study. Most of the novel is in Braithwaite's first-person point of view. This allows the reader to see how dedicated and gripped Geoffrey has become in his quest for the truth. This quest takes precedence over Geoffrey's relationship with his wife and family. Ironically, Flaubert claims an author's personality and personal life should have little bearing on the reader's relationship to their work, yet Braithwaite can focus on little else.

Barnes employs many experimental techniques to highlight the limitations of the truth and writing. The novel switches between several styles, from biography to literary criticism and long sections where the narrator uses argumentative techniques. While traditional novels depend on a driving plot or action, Barnes fully immerses the reader in Geoffrey's obsession.

Flaubert's Parrot: Quotes

Julian Barnes uses Flaubert's Parrot to investigate the ideas of truth and memory. Here is a look at some of the book's most important quotes.

"Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life." (Ch. 13)

In Flaubert's Parrot, Barnes investigates the power of the written word. In the beginning, Geoffrey places great importance on Flaubert's writing and feels that written records can provide a fuller picture of a person's life because they are distant from the messiness of real life. Eventually, he learns about the limits of history and facts concerning the actual truth.

"What happened to the truth is not recorded." (Ch. 4)

As Geoffrey dives deeper into Flaubert's life, he realizes that the truth is often subjective and tainted by the human fallacies of memory and bias. While historians and biographers can dive into more detail, they can never capture the absolute truth because there is no unifying objective truth.

Flaubert's Parrot - Key takeaways

  • Flaubert's Parrot is a postmodern novel by English author Julian Barnes.
  • The story follows Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite as he becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about the parrot that inspired French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
  • The novel explores the fallibility of memory and history.
  • The book blends fiction and academic writing elements, such as history and literary criticism.
  • Barnes uses many postmodern techniques, including a nonlinear storyline, an unreliable narrator, and an experimental style.

Frequently Asked Questions about Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot was written by English author Julian Barnes.

Flaubert's Parrot is about a man obsessed with discovering the true identity of which stuffed parrot was the inspiration for one of Gustave Flaubert's stories.

In real life, Gustave Flaubert borrowed a stuffed parrot from the natural history museum in his hometown of Rouen while writing his collection, Three Tales

Flaubert's Parrot deals with themes of subjectivity and the truth. As Geoffrey researches the life of Gustave Flaubert, he discovers the unreliability of historical records and biographies. 

Flaubert's Parrot is a relatively short read; most editions are about 190 pages long. 

Final Flaubert's Parrot Quiz

Question

In which French city is Flaubert's Parrot set?

Show answer

Answer

Rouen

Show question

Question

The novel's title refers to which Gustave Flaubert story? 

Show answer

Answer

"A Simple Heart"

Show question

Question

Who is the protagonist and narrator of Flaubert's Parrot

Show answer

Answer

Geoffrey Braithwaite 

Show question

Question

The novel's title refers to Flaubert's beloved pet parrot that once saved the writer's life. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

During his research, Geoffrey discovers Flaubert had _____________. 

Show answer

Answer

Conducted an affair

Show question

Question

In the end, Geoffrey is able to uncover which of the parrots was used by Flaubert. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Geoffrey finds out that the truth is often __________. 

Show answer

Answer

Subjective 

Show question

Question

Flaubert's Parrot is an example of which literary form?

Show answer

Answer

Postmodernism 

Show question

Question

In reality, Geoffrey's obsession with Flaubert is a way of coping with his wife's death. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Flaubert's Parrot uses elements of non-fiction like history and literary criticism.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Flaubert's Parrot quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.