The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the poignant memoir of a man permanently trapped in his own body, his only way of speaking is blinking the eye that was not sewn shut. Assailed by a massive stroke one December day, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s body was paralyzed, though his mind was functional, a condition called Locked-In Syndrome. This dictated text, accomplished by a modified alphabet (arranged by frequency of use), is Bauby’s last perspective of life as he lies in the “diving bell” at Berck hospital.
Bauby bestows an important tool for readers directly in the title: a metaphor, the diving bell. By giving this image, he allows the reader to understand Locked-In Syndrome in a way not otherwise possible. One can feel the gravity of the water, pulling down the clumsy shell of the diving bell, the limited vision of the single, round eye, and the frightening knowledge that the body is no longer ruled by one’s will.
Bauby uses another metaphor to describe his new life. He claims he was turned into Noirtier de Villefort of The Count of Monte Cristo. Before his accident, he had planned to pen a modern retelling of the book. His punishment for tampering with a masterpiece is to be transformed into “a living mummy, a man three-quarters of the way into the grave, [a] profoundly handicapped creature [who] summons up not dreams but shudders” (47).
Sensory details capture the reader’s skin, his eyes, his ears. Bauby eloquently creates the world of both the diving bell and the butterfly through well-chosen language. It are subtle but transformative.
Also in the title, Bauby introduced the ongoing juxtaposition of the imprisoned body and the free, mobile mind, represented by the diving bell and butterfly. As Bauby lies inert, his mind travels both the real world and the imaginary. He describes this freedom of the mind: “You can … set off for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court… visit the woman you love, slide down beside her … You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams” (5).
In this way Bauby can transverse memory and time, distance and internal landscape. The miracle of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the resilience of the human mind, achieved through practiced hope. Slowly, Bauby teaches himself to release the butterflies – “To hear them one must be calm… for their wingbeats are barely audible… my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better” (97) – but also to pay attention to the diving bell.
In this pursuit he is a victorious hero and his boon is in the pages of this book.
In 2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was adapted for film by Julian Schnabel. The cinematography is beautiful, creating a sensual movie with the same strength of soul, though arguably differing from the atmosphere of Bauby’s memoir.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is intelligent, succint, at times sardonically humorous, and ultimately life affirming. Bauby speaks tenderly about his family, life, memories, yearnings, and meditations. Reccomended for any reader, both those who love creative nonfiction and those who do not normally read it.