The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Summary and Study Guide

Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

  • 60-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 28 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a English instructor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 60-page guide for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 28 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Resilience of the Human Spirit and Will to Life and The Paradoxical Coexistence of the Magical and the Mundane.

Plot Summary

This memoir is a series of autobiographical vignettes that was composed over the span of two months (July-August, 1996) by Jean-Dominique Bauby, with the help of a publishing assistant named Claude. He dispatches from room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, France. The vignettes do not follow a chronological order, and interweave recollections of various eras in Bauby’s life with his contemporary reality.

Bauby suffered a massive stroke on December 8, 1995 that left him with locked-in syndrome: almostcompletely paralyzed, save for a limited ability to move his head, and to blink his left eye, the faculties of his mind were nonetheless left completely intact. Using a special alphabet ordered according to the frequency that each letter is used in the French language, Bauby’s interlocutors (his various visitors, Claude, and some hospital staff) read out the letters and wait for Bauby to blink in correspondence with the letter he desired. In this manner, he was able to both carry out labored conversations and compose his memoir.

The book begins with a prologue that details Bauby’s physical and mental state. He likens his physical state to being inside of a diving bell, while a butterfly symbolizes the intact agility of his mind. The book then launches into a series of vignettes, which cover a range of topics. Bauby relays episodes from his former life in crisp, vibrant detail and recounts the imaginary musings and vivid dreams which take his mind on flights of fancy while his body lies in his hospital bed. He also depicts the medical staff that cares for him, the travails of his new life, and the tender, wistful joy that characterizes his continuing relationships with his loved ones. These include his former partner Sylvie, the mother of his young children Théophile and Céleste, and his assortment of close friends.

His narrations of his previous life include several episodes from his childhood, a day at the horse races spent with his good friend Vincent, a traveling vacation with a former lover named Joséphine, and his days at the offices of Elle magazine, of which he was editor-in-chief. The vignettes from his new life with locked-in syndrome includea recounting of a day spent at the beach with his children and Sylvie, a visit from an ill-tempered ophthalmologist, and depictions of the staff members and fellow patients which whom he shares the hospital. His imaginary or dreamed excursions include his imagined conversations with Empress Eugénie—the wife of Napoleon III, an extremely vivid dream in which he and Bernard have been caught up in political intrigue in a speakeasy hidden in an automobile graveyard, and his somnolent wanderings in a wax museum that enshrines his hospital experience.The penultimate vignette relays, in great detail, the day of his grievous stroke, effectively mirroring the prologue by grounding the reader in the chronological and material reality of his situation, and reining in (for a moment) the more fantastical elements of the narrative.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died on March 9, 1997—a year and three months after the catastrophic stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, and just two months after the publication of The Diving Bell and the…

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Prologue