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“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Novel by Bauby Essay

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Updated: Oct 11th, 2021


Analyzing a literary creation is a rather difficult matter due to a number of reasons. First of all, it presupposes great knowledge of literature, its trends, and numerous stylistic and creative devices. And secondly, when the matter of the work is the personal tragedy of a human being, it becomes much harder to analyze it because it is not easy to be objective when dealing with such phenomena. The work that we are going to analyze in this very essay is a bright example of all three points and, what is more important, it was written by a person who experienced all the sorrows and problems he wrote about and died some days after the book was published.

We are going to consider the novel “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by a famous French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby in 1997. This novel is a memoir of his own life before the brain stroke happened to him and made him paralyzed. We are going to consider how the phenomena of imagination, memory, and family are disclosed in the novel by Bauby, who had to write the book blinking with his left eyelid – the only part of his face he could move.

Author and the Novel

The book itself was planned to be a memoir of a paralyzed person, while the author Jean-Dominique Bauby was a healthy man. He often read “The Count of Monte-Cristo” by Dumas, and there was a character with such a characteristic. Bauby was absorbed by this idea, and after the stroke happened to him, he thought that the power of thought was so strong that his idea gave him the chance to write the desired book and experience all the problems in a life of a paralyzed person himself.

Already being in the hospital, Bauby joked that he only had to have an idea of writing about some runner in order to recover from the “locked-in” syndrome having which a person’s mental health is perfect, but the body is totally paralyzed: “To foil the decrees of fate, I am now planning a vast saga in which the key witness is not a paralytic but a runner. You never know. Perhaps it will work.” (Bauby, p. 48)A stenographer typed all that Bauby blinked when a French alphabet was dictated to him, and he chose the necessary letter. The procedure took over two years, and ten days after the book was published, Jean-Dominique Bauby died of pneumonia.

The book titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” presents a memoir of a person who had a family, children, and work and lived a happy life until the illness ruined it all. The author reminisces his past and compares it to what he sees in the present, thus making the conclusion of him himself and the people that surround him.


The concept of imagination takes one of the prominent places in the book by Bauby, although it is not dominant. Imagination became one of the main “weapons” of the paralyzed author, who can only imagine the events that take place in the world behind the walls of the hospital. The author uses his rich imagination also for the purpose of cheering himself and his surrounding up. Bauby draws interesting comparisons between his past and present life, between his state and certain phenomena of the objective reality. All this is done by the author in order to show that he did not lose hope and believes in the possibility of recovery.

But, nevertheless, overwhelming sorrow rules the mind of the author. Although he tries to be strong and take his fate like a man: “Since the demarcation line runs across my mouth, I can only half-smile, which fairly faithfully reflects my ups and downs.” (Bauby, p. 16) We can read the sense of humor that has always singled out the author from the rest of his friends. Even in a situation that left no place for smiles and no hope for the future, Bauby tried to support himself with humor and make his family and friends smile.

In some abstracts of the book, it may seem to the reader that the author loses the connection with reality, and the illness takes him away from the incredible pictures that can be created by his imagination. But reading further, the reader can realize that the author is more realistic than many other writers who do not have such problems with their health. All the strange images born by the author’s mind, as well as sad thoughts expressed by Bauby at the end of his work, are only the thoughts of a person who looks for relief but can not find it.

Addressing some supernatural powers, the author shows how tired he is of his illness and how strong his hope for the recovery is: “Do the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking.” (Bauby, pp. 131 – 132)

Calling his illness “a diving bell,” the author illustrates the state of any person attacked by this disease – a body is almost dead while the mind is healthy and suffers from the impossibility to act and even make the smallest moves. In such a situation, some people would give up and wait for death; others would cry and beg for help. The author chooses to keep on living, although with no move, and acting, thus leaving other people having the same disease the role model and hope.


Needless to say, that the author lived with his memories after he got paralyzed, as everything and everyone he loved left in the past, in the life that he was then deprived of by the illness. Memories constituted the essence of his life after the brain stroke. Memories of his past life were strong in the days spent in hospital, and all he could do is try to find some positive sides in his new state. His imagination helped him, but memories were so significant that he could not help thinking of them and having pain because of it: “Once, I was a master of recycling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories. You can sit down to a meal at any hour, with no fuss or ceremony if it’s a restaurant, no need to call ahead.

If I do the cooking, it is always a success.” (Bauby, p. 36). By this, Bauby tried to cheer himself up and demonstrate his confidence in the future. The author finds his new main activity in “cooking” the memories that he would never even think of but for his disease. It turns out to be very interesting, as far as while remembering his past he paid attention to a lot of things that happened to him but he did not notice them. When he was healthy, he did not have time for such details. Thus, the author demonstrates that the illness taught him a lot, and if he could go back to a healthy life, he would never make the same mistakes again. But it is too late.

Furthermore, there were also painful memories that Bauby had in connection to his illness. While in hospital, he remembered how he predicted his own disease when he was on vacation with his girlfriend and came across a crowd of disabled people. They were waiting for Madonna, who, as they believed, was to appear and relieve them from their sufferings. Bauby said that he would not join them if he was disabled himself, and as it turned out later, the words were prophetic: “Not at all. It could even be dangerous. What if someone in perfect health happened to be here when the Madonna appeared? One miracle, and he’d end up paralyzed.” (Bauby, p. 64)


Memories also were connected with the family of the author, although there was no actual family. He had a girlfriend and two children, but they were not married. Nevertheless, the family was of crucial importance for Bauby. It seemed to the author to be an eternal mistake of all people on Earth – they never appreciate the happiness at the moment and always look for something better, but when their happiness passes by, there is nothing more painful for them than to reminisce it. The same mistake was made by him, but Bauby finds the inner strength to admit it and to try to change it, at least in the last days of his life.

His children were the sense of his life, but Jean-Dominique understood it too late, only when he was incurably ill: “Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar.

But today, we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.” (Bauby, p. 70) This holiday was set by the ex-girlfriend of Bauby, who agreed to bring their children for them to spend time with their father, whom they barely saw and were not sure to see anymore. It was connected with certain problems for Bauby and his surrounding as his new girlfriend was also in the hospital, and both women met face to face. In any case, the real love of Bauby belonged to his new partner Florence, who was with him from day today.

The girlfriend of Bauby was also very important for him as he loved her, and she proved to love him, as she visited Bauby in the hospital every day. Their relationships were very close, although there was a conflict in their life. His children were born by his former girlfriend, whom Bauby called only “the mother of his children.” His new girlfriend’s name was Florence, and it was she who gave the author strength for struggle with the disease.

Bauby mentions her a lot of times in his book as the person with whom the last memories of his past life were connected and as the person whose significance in his life could not be underestimated: “I pressed my forehead against the windowpane to gauge the temperature outside. Florence softly stroked the nape of my neck. Our farewells were brief; our lips scarcely brushindownstairs I am already running downstairs that smell of floor-polish. It will be the last of the smells of my past.” (Bauby, p. 32)


All the above said and considered allows us to make the following logical conclusion of this essay. The book by Jean-Dominique Bauby titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a masterpiece of the world literature as it presents a nice piece of work in the field of psychological prose.

The experiences and 5the memories of a person who was confined to bed because of the “locked-in” syndrome are of great significance from a lot of points of view, but especially from the point that the book was written by a person who could only move his left eyelid to indicate the letter the typist had to type next in the story. The experiences by Jean-Dominique Bauby were painful in many moments, especially it is evident when a reader realizes that the person whose words he or she reads can not move and is bound to spend the rest of his life in this state.

We tried to examine the reflection of such concepts as imagination, memory, and family in the book by Bauby in order to understand his understanding of these fundamental phenomena in the life of every person. We managed to find out that these concepts were of crucial importance for Bauby, especially when he became paralyzed.

Memories helped him to keep the contact with reality, imagination cheered up and gave hope for the future while family supported and displayed their love throughout the course of Bauby’s disease. Having read the book, one can say that despite the fact that Bauby hoped to recover, he died happy as he realized that he had the greatest treasure in the world – people who loved him.


Bauby, J – D. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Vintage, 2007.

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