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In the short story, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot”, Robert Olen Butler tells the story of a man reincarnated as the pet parrot of his previous wife. The man’s strange predicament, which well portrays a life of a prisoner, demonstrates the negative affects that incarceration may have on people. Although much of the man’s situation was of his own doing and in his control, he still lives a life feeling trapped and constantly yearning to escape it. Because the man never fully understands that he is the sole reason he is “imprisoned”, he is never able to be free.
The man, stuck living with his past-life wife in parrot form, finds himself in his very own idea of a prison. He illustrates his experience from inside the cage: “When she keeps the bedroom door open I can see the space at the foot of the bed but not the bed itself…I watch the men go in and I hear the sounds but I can’t quite see. And they drive me crazy” (Butler). Forced to live with his old wife and watch her bring a different man home each day, there are not many worse places for the old husband to find himself trapped in. Worse, he is without even a voice to express himself, where his wife cannot and “does not understand all that is behind [his] ‘hello’” (Butler). If there is a hell, this man has found it.
Even before the man finds himself trapped as his widow’s pet parrot, he feels imprisoned by his emotions and his fear to express himself to his wife. Due to never-ending paranoia, the man lives a miserable life believing he has an untrustworthy spouse who has no love for him. He even mentions his suspicious and jealous tendencies, always “[looking] for little black hairs on the sheets when [he’d] come home on a day with the whiff of somebody else in the air” (Butler). To add to his issues, he refuses to confront her out of fear that she will leave him. The man does mention challenging her on occasion, and then immediately feeling “like a damn fool [for] saying anything” (Butler). In addition to being too self-conscious to express himself to his own wife, the man also rejects the idea of ever leaving his wife himself because he “[is] whole with her”; without her, he believes to have no worth (Butler).
When the husband finds himself stuck in a cage in his old wife’s house with wings and a beak, he describes his feelings on the situation, stating:
“But now all I can do is try to let it go. I sidestep down to the opposite end of the cage and I look out the big sliding glass doors to the back yard. It’s a pretty yard. There are great placid maple trees with good places to roost. There’s a blue sky that plucks at the feathers on my chest. There are clouds. Other birds. Fly away. I could just fly away.” (Butler)
The man’s thoughts and emotions in the passage perfectly represent imprisonment. Like most prisoners, freedom can seem so close, but so far away at the same time. Given all the time in the world to think, there is not much the man thinks about aside from his misery and his strong desire to be free.
When the man is human, he feels just as trapped as he does as a parrot even though he is as free as a man can be. He creates the prison he is living in as a man, mentioning how he “was working on saying nothing” to his wife about his true concerns “even if it meant locking [himself] up” (Butler). It takes him being reincarnated as a parrot and being caged with his wife to realize this, however. As a man, he feels speechless. As a parrot, he is speechless. As a man, he feels caged. As a parrot, he is caged. In either scenario, he is imprisoned: one by his own will, one by fate. In the end, both of his “prison” terms lead to his demise.
What the text is ultimately implying is that in order to find freedom, a prisoner must escape his or her prison. This may seem way too self-explanatory of a theory, but those who create their own prison often let this fly right over their heads. In his human form, the man’s prison was his jealousy and self-worth issues. Had he tackled them, he surely could have found freedom and lived a meaningful life. However, he let his emotions get the best of him, which ultimately led to his demise. In his parrot form, he has fewer options to escape from his prison, and therefore finds suicide to be the only option. In addition, the text also clarifies just how crippling this imprisonment can be. In both human form and parrot form, the man’s “prison” completely destroys him and, in both lives, he loses his life due to it.
As a human, the man was a prisoner to his emotions. As a parrot, the man was a prisoner both emotionally by his bitter feelings toward his wife and physically by his cage he was placed in inside his old home. In both circumstances, the man lets his prison get to him and sacrifices a perfectly meaningful life because of it. If a man refuses understand the control he has over his prison, mental or physical, and the power he has to free himself, it can be detrimental to him and ultimately consume him to a point of no return.
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