Jealous Husband Returns in Form as a Parrot: Search for Freedom
I am analyzing the story called “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” It was written by Robert Olen Butler, and first published in the New Yorker on May 22, 1995. It eventually became a part of his book “Tabloid Dreams” that was published by Henry Holt & Co in 1996. “Tabloid Dreams” was a collection of twelve short stories, each inspired by supermarket tabloids. Each featured a title worthy of and comparable to an actual article. This story is about a man who dies and reincarnated into the world as a parrot. It is set in the Houston of the 1990’s. The story is told entirely in the first person. In summary, the story is a cautionary tale of morals and human failings. It makes the reader wonder if the punishment fits the crime of jealousy. My answer is yes. However, I also found myself wondering if she really did cheat on him. When the story opens, the parrot is sitting on a perch in the front window of a Houston toy store. He is thinking about the other parrots and wondering if they are also paying for past sins. This is a clue. At this point we don’t know he was once a man and once a husband. We also do not know what he did that caused the transformation into a parent. The actual process of the change is also never detailed. However, it clearly is a punishment, but a mystery as to who did it. God is never mentioned in the story.
By sheer coincidence, his widow happens to be shopping in the very same pet store. This is when we realize that he still thinks as the person he was, but obviously cannot communicate. The torment of this is made very clear as he experiences frustration at only being able to say “hello” to her when he wants to say so much more. This theme continues. It’s no surprise that she buys him and takes him to the same house they occupied together. Of course, he is in a cage and the symbolism is very strong. In a parrot’s body, he is imprisoned on two different physical levels. During the story, we finally find out about the events that led up to his transformation. He began to suspect that his wife was having an affair with her coworker after she mentioned him several times. The rage was so great that he had to lock himself in the bathroom. Then comes the Saturday when he went to the coworker’s house to spy and catch them in the act. However, there was no one around and no proof but he persisted regardless. He climbed a tree and kept crawling “till there was no limb left and I fell on my head”. This was before he could see if anyone (let alone his wife) was in the bedroom. He sacrificed his own safety and his own life to feed his jealous obsession.
This paragraph is written in such a way to make some readers believe his wife was having an affair. However, it is just suspicion, stalking and jealousy on his part; there is no actual proof. I believe that someone can have an interest in someone else without it being sexual. The narrator was insecure and obsessed. To make matters worse, he now must observe her with different men. It is not clear what her relationship (s) with these men is. It could be anything from her interaction with the salesclerk to casual one-night stands to actual boyfriends. Regardless, he is still jealous of all of them, and disgusted by their similar physical type that she finds attractive. He wants to strike out at them constantly. An example of this can be seen in his statement “I missed a lot of chances to take a lot of chances to take a bite out of this clerk in my stay at the shop and I regretted that suddenly”. In the house, he vents his rage on his bird toys – “I bite and bite and it’s very good”. He gets revenge on one man, who he calls “cracker” and “peanut” in sly deliberate insults.
It is a constant torment that keeps him on edge. He “can see the space at the foot of the bed, but not the bed itself”. He watches the men go in, come out and all the while must listen to the sounds and the words they speak. It becomes more and more unbearable. He did try to fly away once, when she forgot to close the cage door. He wanted to reach the “vast sense of peace” he could see through the glass doors. It was an attempt to destined to fail as he crashed his head. His wife wept and clutched him. Her tears touched him but changed nothing real. However, what was changing was his perceptions and self-honesty. He was beginning to think like a bird, as well as a human. When he sees his wife naked for the first time as a bird, he is protective of her – feeling like she needs feathers as a covering. He wanted to offer his own and at that moment he states that he loves her more than he ever had before. He wants to say, “You are beautiful, my wife, and your beauty cries out for protection”. “I want to cover you with my own nakedness”. His feelings for her seem tender, true and real for the first time. But there is more pathos expressed in this moment than we have previously seen, since he is unable to express the depth of what it is in his heart.
All he can do is speak parrot words such as “Hello”, “Pretty”, “Bad Bird” and “Open”. There is also a certain amount of new-found resignation to his situation. These feelings can be seen in his words: “If there are others in your life, even in your mind, there is nothing I can do.” “Your nakedness is touched from inside by the others”. “How can we be whole if you are not empty in the place that I am to fill?” A cruel joke follows this poignant moment as “the cracker comes around the corner”, only wearing his rattlesnake boots. His wife leaves him immediately and joins the man to “laugh and stagger in their embrace around the corner”. He died as a result to prove his [unfounded] suspicions of her, and now that he is a bird, he is forced to witness the actual reality of those suspicions, day in and day out. This is irony and a cruel punishment. But was it worse than death?
To his mind, it seemed so. He sought death as a place where “he could be free of all these feelings, even though he knew there was a barrier. Glass seems like a metaphor here. Seeing the outdoors through it creates the desire to be there, to be free. However, at the same time it beckons, it also acts as a barrier. As a bird he had only one real path to commit suicide. His desire to escape and kill himself was very strong, enough so that he resolved to “throw myself there again and again”. The last three sentences of the story resonate with the reader with the narrator’s sense of sad despair. In the end, I believe his punishment was just. He did not need to go to the other person’s house. The fact that he found nothing and no one there may indicate that there was nothing to find. If he had not done it, he would still be human. Life was trying to teach him that he should have enjoyed his life with his wife instead of being consumed by jealousy.
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