The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Summary

Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Summary

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a memoir by the French writer Jean-Dominque Bauby, the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke in 1995 and had to live with locked-in syndrome, a debilitating condition which prevents those affected from communicating or even moving any part of their body except for their eyes. In the book, Bauby looks at his life both before and after the stroke, highlighting not only the power of the human spirit to survive, but also the capabilities one’s mind has when put to the test.

Bauby’s world changed on December 8, 1995, when at the age of 43 he suffered a stroke, which left him in a coma for twenty days. When he finally woke up, he was aware of his surroundings, but unable to communicate in any way except for his left eye, which he could blink to signal his awareness of what was going on.

With the help of a therapist, Bauby used a code to communicate with the outside world. First, the therapist would begin going through the alphabet. At the next letter Bauby wanted, he would blink his left eye. This allowed Bauby, over ten months (working four hours a day) to complete The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in addition to communicating with the people around him.

The memoir takes us through various activities that Bauby has to deal with on a day-to-day basis as someone living with locked-in syndrome, such as the monotonous repetition of his day—which includes baths and therapy as well as the occasional trip outside. Despite not being physically mobile, Bauby lets his mind wander—fluttering around like a butterfly. It is during these times that Bauby conjures up his life before the stroke. He thinks about wonderful meals, trips he’s taken, and a wide variety of other events that he will never be able to experience again. In addition to remembering these different experiences, Bauby also composes a wide variety of creative works in his head—from songs and stories to whole plays, all of which help him escape the physical prison his body has become for him.

The physical therapy Bauby takes part in daily, readers learn, may only yield minimal improvement after several years of it, yet Bauby still engages in it every day in hopes of regaining control of his speech and his breathing. Bauby’s speech therapist also creates a special code for Bauby that is predicated on the popularity and use of letters in the French language. It is this form of code that is used by Bauby to write The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. One of the drawbacks to this code, readers learn, is that because of the intense, laborious nature of it, many people write it off, not bothering to learn how to use it in order to facilitate communication with Bauby. This creates a sense of aloneness for the author, which is felt often in the memoir. Despite this feeling of being alone, however, Bauby persists, working on his therapy and reliving various exploits and adventures in his own mind every day.

The chapters of the memoir look at different activities and events, each helping to highlight some of the key themes of the book. The first key theme in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly looks at disability and what it is like to live in a body you cannot truly control. With so many people having written him off as a vegetable, Bauby must learn to make the best of the cards he has been dealt. This ties into a second theme of the memoir, strength of mind. Since it is one of the only things he still has facility over, Bauby must use the power of his mind to persist. It would be easy to give up, yet he doesn’t, engaging in the laborious task of spelling out words one letter at a time for multiple hours every day to communicate with people.

The book was published in 1997, but unfortunately, Bauby died two days later due to pneumonia, unable to see the successes his book had or the subsequent film that was made based on the book.