How does the voice of otherness function in Robert Olen Butler’s "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot?"

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Answered by: Stephanie, An Expert in the Genres, Themes and Subjects Category
In his book on animal intelligence, "If a Lion Could Talk," Stephen Budiansky addresses the animal perspective by stating: "If a lion could talk we probably could understand him. He just would not be a lion anymore” (Budiansky). During my brainstorming process of this piece, I researched the animal POV many times on the internet. When I came across this gem of a quote, I had to ask myself, in regard to Robert Olen Butler’s story, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” is the parrot in this story really a parrot? Is he really a man? Is he something else? Instead of focusing solely on the animal perspective in this paper, I wanted instead to concentrate on the parrot as Other and how Butler uses the contrivance (jealous husband reincarnated in a parrot’s body) to characterize the speaker/narrator through the voice of otherness.

Butler others his narrator in two obvious ways. First, he places the main character in the body of a parrot. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Otherness as “a person, group, or entity perceived as being the opposite of or completely separate from or alien to oneself or one's group” (“otherness”). The narrator in this story has not only been separated from his body, through death, but has been reincarnated in the body of another species altogether. Second, Butler others the narrator (pre-bird form) by creating a character that is predisposed to paranoia and fits of anger/jealousy.

The next step in defining and analyzing the voice of otherness, keeping the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry in mind, is to focus on the narrator’s physical separation from the “outside world.” In the opening paragraph, the narrator states, “I never can quite say as much as I know” (71). The reader is already given clues as to the content of the story (i.e. the title), but the first line takes us a step further. This narrator is separate; this narrator is Other. When the narrator’s wife leaves the door of the birdcage open, the narrator flies out, feels a calling to the outside and smacks into the window. In referencing his escape attempt, the narrator states, “I tried once and I learned a lesson” (76). At this point in the story, the narrator is content in his separate world, as long as he can continue to catch a glimpse of the outside (normal) world.

The narrator appears to embrace his newfound otherness in regard to his physical body. Consider the following section: The cage is “full of bird toys. That dangling thing over there with knots and strips of rawhide and a bell at the bottom needs a good thrashing a couple of times a day and I’m the bird to do it” (73). The narrator has accepted his physical form, has come to find delight in bird-like activities like thrashing the rope. Furthermore, the narrator uses a hybrid voice at times, a voice both human and bird:

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 (77).

Because the narrator has physically become a parrot, he emotes through bird-related sensory details. Returning to one of the original questions posed for this paper: is the narrator a bird? Is he human? Is he a human soul in a bird body? Butler merges the voices (human and bird) in such a way that the reader loses sight of these questions. Perhaps the story isn’t about the human/bird connection but rather, the voice of the Other, regardless of who or what that Other is.

When Butler takes the narrator into reflective moments throughout the story, the reader learns that the narrator struggled with otherness before his new incarnation. Upon hearing his wife talk about the “new guy” in the shipping department at her work, the narrator begins to become paranoid that she is having an affair. The narrator explains,

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 [in the bathroom] (74).

The narrator then relays an incident where he finds the shipping man’s name and address, goes to his house, climbs a big tree so that he could look inside the upstairs bedroom window and falls to his death. As comical as the moment is for the reader, it further illustrates the narrator’s otherness, albeit in human form. The reader might chuckle at the idea of a man fishing around for a name and address, driving to someone’s house and climbing a tree to catch his wife in what he perceives as a torrid affair. But, the narrator makes no excuse for his actions, he only reminisces that he should have been able to flap his wings and fly off, that “it all seem[ed] so avoidable” (75).

Butler’s voice in “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” works effortlessly. Not only does he put the reader in a precarious/fantastic situation, but he sidesteps the need for us to believe the rules of his world, to understand them, to place them under a microscope. In the end, it’s not about whether or not we believe the contrivance, but rather, that we are capable of investing in the characters of the story—namely the main character. Though Butler others his narrator throughout the story, he manages to tap into the Other within us all, the Other that wonders what it would be like to give that rawhide bell-toy a good thrashing. Maybe we aren’t the birds to do it, but Butler certainly makes us believe we can.

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