Flaubert’s Parrot, written by the well-known and prolific author Julian Barnes and published in 1984, can easily stand for a kind of masterpiece. Out of hand we can notice that the main protagonist and the narrator of this book are the same person namely Geoffrey Braithwaite. Furthermore what we can observe quite easily is the fact that the author managed to build a mixture of true elements of Gustave Flaubert’s life and meretricious or invented elements such as the existence of Geoffrey Braithwaite as a way of example. And despite this strange albeit enthralling mixture he managed to build a strong plot. Of course we know that Julian Barnes fancies Flaubert’s works. Accordingly, this author frequently refers to Flaubert’s great ideas and deep thoughts. Thus we will try to adduce a possible perusal of this enticing book. We will attempt to unveil the cult of Flaubert and find the philosophical intent of the author.
We all know that Julian Barnes truly admires Gustave Flaubert but how ? That the narrator has Flaubert’s vision of life, the same pessimistic aspect, the same anger against himself and also against the society (like Balzac) is clear and even obvious : “Books are not life, however we might prefer it if they were”. What we can add is that the tone of the book is particularly ironic, something which is also thoroughly true in Flaubert’s novels. Flaubert adamantly criticizes his own characters in his books (see L’Education sentimentale). That is why we can aver that an intense disparagement of life haunts or rather pervades the deep mind of the narrator. This process can be compared to a kind of annihilation of the author through his writings. “The artist must manage to make posterity believe he never existed” is a pivotal sentence that needs to be explained properly. We can construe this sentence as follows : it means that Flaubert enters a kind of legendary dimension and could be followed as a classical pattern, at least from a literary point of view. This sentence clearly shows the influence of Flaubert’s ideology upon the mind of the narrator. (Maybe can we suggest that a similar influence guides the writer in his narrative choices ?) In other words there are several dimensions of Flaubert which are to be taken into account here : Flaubert as a simple man, Flaubert as a prolific and obstreperous writer, Flaubert as “the hermit of Croisset”, Flaubert as a thinker (Shall we say free-thinker ?), “the bourgeois bourgeoisophobe” and so on and so forth. This wide and interesting gamut symbolizes the fineness and richness of Flaubert’s works. But it would be moronic to forget the most important thing : Flaubert’s works. That is why we find much intertextuality in this book. We can highlight the fact that Flaubert is praised as a great man in this text, from a literary point of view but also from a philosophical point of view.
The philosophical quintessence of this book is not very easy to grasp because it is truly concealed through the meanders of the narration : “For the religious, death destroys the body and liberates the spirit; for the artist death destroys personality and liberates the work.” As a way of example, this sentence highlights the obvious and utter difference which exists between the concept of reason or divine fire (Noûs) and the concept of feeling or carnal fire (Epitumia). These two concepts condition this passage. Whereas the religious has a staunch proclivity to show an excess of reason, the artist has a tendency to show an excess of feeling. Whereupon we can assert that the first thinks life and the second feels life (to a certain extent of course). Nonetheless the deepness of this sentence still needs to be analyzed and can be construed as follows : the artist is not seen as entirely bad and the religious is not viewed as completely good. These two human entities are truly complementary and are able to form a kind of fierce and benevolent synthesis together. That is why it would be ludicrous to say that the first embodies the fiend and the second embodies an angel. Even if Flaubert’s Parrot does not belong to the Romantic era, we can notice that there are certain common elements : idealization of a certain lifestyle, expression of our human subjectivity, superiority or primacy of our imagination (Books) over rules (life) and so on and so forth. Thus the author has a blatant propensity to convince us that there is no loophole, that there is no way out. In short the whole book is steeped in pessimism. Then the aim of the writer is quite clear because he shows that duality is always triumphing through the antagonistic character of the relationships between the image of the spirit and the image of the body. That is why the effect exerted upon the reader’s mind is positive. It is akin to a whole process of disillusionment.
In order to conclude we can add that, inter alia, this book could be defined by two important criteria : 1) the admiration of Flaubert and 2) a true and profound philosophical and literary intent. Flaubert, as a timeless man of letters, is followed as a pivotal pattern in this book. Moreover we can argue that the pivotal character tries to convey a message of great value : the world is viewed as a dark and hopeless mixture of signs. Then this book highlights the elevated mind and inner complexity of the narrator which is thoughtful (thanks to the quotations) and quite ironic (owing to his asides) at the same time. In the end we can say that this book unveils the great knowledge and accuracy of the author. Flaubert’s Parrot is really worth reading.