UNIVERSITY OF MOSTAR FACULTY OF HUMANITIES ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE DEPARTMENT FOURTH YEAR Nedim Junuzović

Postmodernist Methods in Flaubert’s Parrot
Research paper

Contents
Introduction ............................................................................................................................................. 3 Postmodernist Methods in Flaubert's Parrot ............................................................................................ 4 Postmodernism – history and definition. ............................................................................................. 4 Methods – postmodernist concepts in Flaubert’s Parrot ......................................................................... 5 The death of grand narratives – levels of narration. ............................................................................ 5 Metafiction. ......................................................................................................................................... 6 Intertextuality. ..................................................................................................................................... 6 Hybridity. ............................................................................................................................................ 7 Fragmentation...................................................................................................................................... 8 Dissolution of the one.......................................................................................................................... 8 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................. 10 Literature ............................................................................................................................................... 11

Introduction
As an introduction to this paper, we need to establish a starting point to postmodernism and its characteristics. Afterwards the goals of this paper will be summarized and explained in reference to postmodernism and its methods. Moreover, as postmodernism represents rather a broad thematic sphere, this paper is bound to only postmodernist methods in the novel. Those methods can be used to any given postmodernist novel since the characteristics of this period are found in every writing of that specific time. Postmodernism in itself is a paradoxical and confusing phenomenon. Scepticism is very common through postmodernist work as we will see through the following papers.

Postmodernist Methods in Flaubert's Parrot
Postmodernism – history and definition.

The history of postmodernism dates back to after WW II which had great influence on society because of the existential disillusion after the Holocaust. However, the postmodernist period is more often set to the 1960s because modernism was not productive anymore. In order to understand the term ―postmodernism‖, its reference and meaning, definitions are provided so that the reader gains more access into a whole sphere of (un)related1 meanings:  LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English: ―a style of building, painting, writing etc, developed in the late 20th century, that uses a mixture of old and new styles as a reaction against modernism‖  Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: ―a style and movement in art, architecture, literature, etc. in the late 20th century that reacts against modern styles, for example by mixing features from traditional and modern styles‖ As we can see, the definitions are clear and bound but the idea of postmodernism cannot fit into such a small definition. Postmodernism is rather a way of living, a style of writing, building and creating. It is not manifested in just one human sphere. One can find traces of postmodernism in architecture, painting, philosophy or literature. Nevertheless, the idea of literary postmodernism could be described (not defined) by using the key concepts which are to be found through our novel in question. Those concepts include2:       Death of the grand narratives Metafiction Intertextuality Hybridity Fragmentarism Dissolution of the one

Each of these concepts will be mentioned during the course of the paper.
1

This term is intentionally written this way since postmodernism is more than a definition and it can hardly fit into a dictionary description. Further explanations are yet to come. 2 Jørgen Riber Christensen, Charles Dickens CD-ROM, Systime, Aarhus 2000

Methods – postmodernist concepts in Flaubert’s Parrot
At this point, we have to focus on the most important part of this paper - the concepts that characterise postmodernist writing methods. All six concepts will be defined, explained and put into the right context with reference to the novel.

The death of grand narratives – levels of narration.
The novel is in no possible way a narrative one; it shifts from one story to the other – unrelated to the previous one. The novel consists of 15 chapters, each one telling a different story. Barnes makes it clear through this switching that the reader will not come across a story in the traditional form. Above all, the story is told through the voice of Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired medical physician with an intense interest in Flaubert and his work. Braithwaite also tells the reader that he will tell this story from three perspectives: his own, his wife’s Ellen and Flaubert’s. Moreover, the reader is confronted with four layers or levels of narration. Firstly, there is the story of the physician Geoffrey Braithwaite. At this level, the reader is fronted with various real persons like Jean Paul Sartre, Enid Starky and Christopher Rigs. This is characteristic for the postmodernist period because it relativises the fictional character of Braithwite because he appears together with these real persons. The second level of narration is that of Braithwaite’s fictional character. He is interested in Flaubert who died about a hundred years ago but he is still a real writer of the 19th century. At the third level of narration, we have Gustave Flaubert, his life and relationship with Louise. This level is particularly important because it challenges the first level of Braithwaite and his knowledge about Flaubert. The truth, or rather the information about the truth is questionable because this confrontation of these two levels of narration. The fourth and final level of narration are Flaubert’s writings, in particular his fictious characters. Braithwaite compares his own life with those characters, especially when it comes to the death of his wife Ellen. The reader finds that Braithwaite compares his life mostly with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The parallels between him and this work are that Madame Bovary’s husband is a apothecary whereas Braithwaite is a medical physician. Further on, there is an adulterous wife who committed suicide just like Braithwaite wife Ellen. He thinks that his marriage is anticipated in this novel. The aim of this narrational level is to confuse the

reader and show him how difficult it is to make a distinction between life and fiction. Yet, a narrative exists through the novel – the ever-present connection to Flaubert.

Metafiction.
The next concept of postmodernism is metafiction. Metafiction3 is best described as selfreflexive or self-describing. The metafictional element in Flaubert’s Parrot is the book-in-the book. At the very first level, we have Julian Barnes as the writer of the novel. Further on, there is Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator who tells us the whole story. Then, there is Gustave Flaubert, a writer who died about a hundred years ago. He is Braithwaite’s compassion, his ultimate quest in order to find out the truth through the work and art of Flaubert. This concept is characteristic to postmodern writings. The novel usually contains self-explaining comments on the process of creating. The main character, Braithwaite, is the author of those comments and the whole story is twisted with self-criticising comments about his progression and his overall status therein. Braithwaite seems desperate to find out as much as possible about Flaubert. He even makes it clear in the end that there is no possible way to find out the absolute truth suggesting that the absence of reliable answers is the only reality. Even the parrot becomes the symbol of illusiveness of the truth. In addition to that, the reader finds Flaubert’s writings, comments and his letters.

Intertextuality.
Furthermore, we have intertextuality. This postmodern concept is present through the novel from the very beginning until its last chapter. As its name already suggests, it deals with lots of twisted and unrelated stories. The reader of the novel will come across this concept as soon as the second chapter - Chronology. There are three chronologies and they are contradictory. The first chronology is the most optimistic account of Flaubert’s life and death. The second chronology is a much darker and more pessimistic record of illness, commercial and financial failures, and bereavement at the loss of close friends. In fact, the chronology begins with a death—that of Flaubert’s infant sister—and continues dwelling on deaths all the way through (half of the twenty one entries begin with the recording of one). A perfect example of the difference between the first and second chronologies can be found by

3

meta- (prefix) - beyond or at a higher level (LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English)

comparing the entries from 1836, both of which concern Flaubert’s falling in love with Elisa Schlesinger. The third chronology is composed entirely of self-referential metaphorical statements by Flaubert, taken mostly from his letters. These quotations, as if to culminate and extend the sentiments in the previous chronologies, run from triumphant to foreboding, elegant to absurd. Braithwaite even mentions that Flaubert once remarked he was ―bothered by [his] tendency to metaphor,‖ a tendency he labelled ―decidedly excessive‖. Here we see both his metaphoric skills and his excesses, all marshalled together in an attempt to describe himself. If we take these three chronologies and compare them, we will come to the conclusion that there are difficulties involved in writing history. The reader can see that, in all three chronologies, there are gaps and omissions in order to achieve an overall idea of the author’s life. However, the overall point here is not that there is no truth in these chronologies, but that there are many truths alongside with many omissions and confusions. The idea to offer several chronologies makes sense because not all readers will depict them the same way. The reader’s understanding depends on his point of view, education, social standing etc. Beside this one, the novel contains letters, essays, an exam, a biography, literary and scientific discourse, allusions to other works of art - Madame Bovary, French Lieutenant’s Woman and Lord of the Flies etc. In the end, the reader will come across a total of fifteen chapters. All these facts suggest that this is not a novel in a traditional sense.

Hybridity.
Hybridity is the next concept to be explained. A hybrid is something that consists of or comes from a mixture of two or more other things.4 Those hybrids in the novel are: biography, dictionary, fiction, pastiche and the examination paper which are all different genres combined in the novel to form a whole of (un)supporting parts. Why (un)supporting? As the reader goes through the different parts of the novel, he comes to the conclusion that all those parts are supporting each other but, at the same time, they can stand completely alone as isolated essays, comments or critics and still be understandable each on his own. Within the pages of Flaubert's Parrot, Barnes combines first-person narrative, chronology (chapter 2), literary and personal biography, autobiography, detective story, essay, literary criticism, dictionary (chapter 12), examination (chapter 14).

4

LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English

Fragmentation.
The second-last concept is fragmentation. As we have already concluded, the novel is not in a traditional form in the literary aspect. The reader will not find a clear beginning, middle and an end. As noted above, the novel is abundant with several different aspects of writing (chronology, letters etc.). The reader is confronted with all these parts, or to put it a more suitable way – fragments, and he is the one who makes a whole out of these fragments. Geoffrey is the one who tries to reconstruct history out of these fragments, but this project is set to be a failure from the beginning. He does not know everything and his perspective is limited and subjective which makes it hard for the reader to establish a permanent truth. The discoveries of Geoffrey are illusive and unreliable and just these characteristics are part of our everyday life.

Dissolution of the one.
At the end, we have come to the last concept which is left unexplained – dissolution of the one. We have already mentioned that Braithwaite compares himself with Flaubert and his work. He tries to define his own existence through the reconstruction of Flaubert’s biography. In this way, personal identity is weakened and the individual has no defined role. This is done through the concepts above which, when combined, lure the reader into total chaos. The reader has to be careful when identifying the characters because of the narrational levels, he has to be aware of the intertextuality and fragmentation woven into the story. The overall story is constructed of these multiple texts and discourses. As already mentioned in the previous segments of this work, Braithwaite constantly puts himself and his life to comparison with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. One quotation is worth mentioning here concerning Braithwaite’s point on Ellen’s death: ―Ellen. My wife: someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.‖5

5

Barnes, Julian; Flaubert’s Parrot, FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, DECEMBER 1990

This is important because Braithwaite tries to find out the truth about his life through art and he is obviously aware of the fact that he did not find any more sense or explanation than before Flaubert or the death of Ellen.

Conclusion
Speaking in general, postmodernism is very paradoxical. It is never one thing or the other, there are always both at the same time. The contradiction would be the very second name of postmodernism. We have seen that this is no ordinary story, no ordinary story plot and, above all, no ordinary characters to be dealt with. Readers are not accustomed to postmodernist writings and their methods. Such books demand a specific approach and knowledge about all these methods. In this book, the reader has to make a distinction between real and fictional characters and texts. Yet, at some points it is impossible to distinguish authentic texts from the fictional ones and the point here is to confuse the reader in his attempt to do so. The reader's passion for truth is not satisfied. The image of the parrot is significant in this context, it is a symbol of mimicry (the parrot is the emblem of the writer's voice) but neither Braithwaite nor the reader can say for sure that they would know which parrot is the authentic one. The parrot is the symbol of illusiveness of the truth. Barnes ironises these humanist notions of the narrator, suggesting how pointless it is to keep trying to find out anything about the parrot, or the life of the author, suggesting the absence of reliable answers as the only reality. He suggests this at the very end of the novel. This confusion and masking of the truth is specific for postmodernist writing. The novel ends in Rouanne in France, just where it started, with Braithwaite being unable to identify the right parrot, finding that there could even be the third parrot, indicating that his pursuit was impossible and even unnecessary.

Literature
Barnes, Julian; Flaubert’s Parrot, FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, DECEMBER 1990 Bentley, Nick Contemporary British Fiction, Edinburgh Critical Guides, 2008 ed. James F. English, A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, 2006 Jørgen Riber Christensen, Charles Dickens CD-ROM, Systime, Aarhus 2000 LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.