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Short Story Analysis: Jealous Husband Returns…

A coward, by definition, is a person who lacks courage, especially one who is shamefully unable to control his fear and so shrinks from danger or trouble.

In writing the short story, Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot, Robert Olen Butler illustrates the cause and effect of cowardly behavior. In this story, a jealous husband dies as a result of the cowardly approach he chose in dealing with his wife’s cheating ways, only to return in the form of a parrot–and die, once again, as a coward. As demonstrated by the husband, who is the main character in this story, cowardly behavior can be caused by weaknesses as relatively common as uncontrollable emotion and in-the-moment compulsion, combined with an aversion to attacking life’s problems head on. However, the effect of this behavior is even more sinister and saddening; it can be the ultimate demise of what could have been a long and otherwise meaningful life.

The cause of the husband’s cowardly behavior is expressed in this story as a deadly combination of powerful emotions. Evidently, he suffered from a crippling feeling of inadequacy, low sense of self worth, and fear of losing his wife if he were to confront her with allegations of having extramarital affairs. As a parrot, he expressed his feeling of jealousy, and of inadequacy as a husband. He described one of his wife’s lovers, “A guy that looked like a meat packer, big in the chest and thick with hair, the kind of guy that I always sensed her eyes moving to when I was alive. I had a bare chest and I’d look for little black hairs on the sheets when I’d come home on a day with the whiff of somebody else in the air” (104).

The husband’s emotional problems, however, did not stop at feeling inadequate as a husband. He also showed serious signs that he lacked a sense of self worth as a person. He seems to base his worth on his wife’s affection toward him, and expressed almost a feeling of helplessness without her. He belittled himself and his role in the relationship, stating, “When we held each other, I had no past at all, no present but her body, no future but to lie there and not let her go. I was an egg hatched beneath her crouching body, I entered as a chick into her wet sky of a body, and all that I wished was to sit on her shoulder and fluff my feathers and lay my head against her cheek, my neck exposed to her hand” (106). By comparing himself to a chick, the husband expressed an inherent need to be cared for, and showed no sign of capability in coping with life on his own. This appears to be the causal link between the jealous husband’s emotions and his cowardly actions.

A huge potential for disaster in the husband’s marriage was realized as he displayed a pitiful lack of assertion. He was more than aware that his wife was engaging in an affair, but fear of losing her kept him from confronting her the way he could have. He described his cowardly dilemma, stating, “Hey, I’m not stupid. She said another thing about him and then another and right after the third one I locked myself in the bathroom because I couldn’t rage about this anymore. I felt like a damn fool whenever I actually said anything about this kind of feeling and she looked at me like she could start hating me real easy and so I was working on saying nothing, even if it meant locking myself up” (105). This lack of assertion was likely the main cause of the cowardly behavior that led to the husband’s death, and is consistent with the symbolism of his life as a parrot, in which he was locked in a cage, just as he was locked in the bathroom as a man.

The husband, in his parrot life, compares his lack of communication in his marriage to his absolute inability to say what he thought as a parrot.  He described his frustration, stating, “I flap my wings and I squawk and I fluff up and I slick down and I throw seed and I attack that dangly toy as if it was the guy’s balls, but it does no good. It never did any good in the other life either, the thrashing around I did by myself” (105). In this statement, the husband seems to have become aware of his cowardliness, and the behavior that caused this torturous predicament.

The husband explored other possible causes for his cowardly situation, stating, “I am a faithful man, for all my suspicions of women. Too faithful, maybe. I am ready to give too much and maybe that’s the problem” (107). It seems that this statement implies that he believed if he hadn’t been such a pushover, his wife would not have cheated in the first place, which would have eliminated the potential cause for his cowardly behavior all together. However, there could be an endless number of possible causes for the husband to act so foolishly. He couldn’t change what happened though, and the more important issue at hand was the husband’s resulting state of being. Sadly, the husband paid a very high price for his mistakes. Unfortunately, as a result of his cowardly behavior, he boarded a fast track to his final demise.

The effects of the jealous husband’s cowardly behavior are painful to imagine. His human existence ended abruptly, and with his life in a state of turmoil. He described the event, stating, “I was holding on to a limb with arms and legs wrapped around it like it was her in those times when I could forget the others for a little while. But the crack in the shade was just out of view and I crawled on along till there was no limb left and I fell on my head” (105). Instead of confronting his wife or her lover, he engaged in an act of snooping, which ended his human life, and turned him into a parrot.

As a result of the husband’s cowardliness, he endured a hellish existence as a parrot. He lived in a cage in his own home, and witnessed his wife (whom he still loved desperately) sleeping with other men. He described the painful situation, saying, “When she keeps the door open I can see the space at the foot of the bed but not the bed itself. That I can sense to the left, just out of sight. I watch the men go in and I hear the sounds but I can’t quite see. And they drive me crazy” (105).

The most heart-wrenchingly sad part of the husband’s story, however, is not just that he had his heart broken daily and was dead in the heart of his wife; it was the simple fact that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He sat in a cage, wanting desperately to speak his mind, and express his love to his wife, but he couldn’t. He made the thought-provoking statement, “I can never say what is in my heart to her. Never” (108). The effect of his cowardly behavior, by not saying what was in his heart in his human life, had made it even more impossible to communicate after he had fallen out of the tree and died. Cosmic irony had come into play, and when he made the statement, “I can never say what is in my heart to her,” he was likely referencing both the cause and the torturous effect of his cowardly behavior.

In the end, the jealous husband (in the form of a parrot) committed his final cowardly act: he made the decision to purposely fly into the window and kill himself. This act was the most absolute and appalling effect of his cowardly ways. The last lines of the story are an insight into the husbands suicidal thought process.  He said, “And I spread my wings. I will fly now. Even though I know there is something between me and that place where I can be free of all these feelings, I will fly. I will throw myself again and again there. Pretty bird. Bad bird. Good night” (108).

With this story, Robert Olen Butler describes, in detail, the cause and the effect of his character’s cowardly behavior. As a result of uncontrollably strong emotions, insecurities, desperately compulsive actions, and failure to engage in direct confrontation with his offenders, the husband died a sudden and cowardly death, only to return as a parrot, and suffer the intolerable consequence of witnessing his wife’s heart-breaking promiscuity. The ultimate result of his existence as a coward was his suicide, which closed this cowardly tale with an appropriately cowardly ending. This story could be interpreted as a testament of failure to challenge a person’s own fears. If this story is relevant to life, it is likely that devastating consequences, such as the ones experienced by the jealous husband, can be avoided by facing fears with courage, and standing up for one’s self with conviction, in spite of danger or trouble. After all, according to the definition provided in the preface of this essay, a coward is a person who lacks courage, especially one who is shamefully unable to control his fear and so shrinks from danger or trouble. I propose that we each should challenge our own fears, and carefully examine their rationality for the purpose of living a longer and more meaningful life.

Signing off,

Kristy Senko-Hall

Straighten your panties, and don’t hurt yourself.

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4 thoughts on “Short Story Analysis: Jealous Husband Returns…

  1. Nicole on said:

    this is great! what an insight to this bizarre and sad story thank you

  2. Jessie B on said:

    I have to disagree! I don’t think the narrator was a coward at all, I think the story’s conclusion insinuates that he finally decides to leave his cheating wife and that the body of the story is an extended metaphor that illuminates a flaw of the wife’s, not his own. I don’t think he ever died a first time or reincarnated as a parrot. I think that the author portrayed himself as a parrot as an extended metaphor for the way he feels in his marriage. He feels trapped (by his love to her) and unable to communicate—like the parrot in the story, trapped in a cage with only a few words to choose from. The choice of the parrot is important for this reason: It is the only animal that is able to talk, however, it is still only an animal. Therefore it cannot communicate effectively. I don’t think that this represents the speaker’s lack of communication (or his cowardice as you interpreted), but rather an inability of the wife’s to hear and believe his words and love. The wife is that half empty person that will never be able to accept the love of others; she is broken. And it nearly breaks him too. This story encompasses the lesson that sometimes no matter how much you love a person they will never ever be able to love you back; you can’t fix people. He finally realizes this and decides to leave her and I think this is strength, not cowardice.

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