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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Essay

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former French editor of Elle magazine, told from his perspective after he suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. Both the book and its film adaptation illustrate the full life of the man before his stroke and his struggle afterward to live and communicate with those around him in spite of being a victim of “locked in syndrome”.

The metaphor of the diving bell and the butterfly is illustrated in both the book and the movie as a way of making the viewer and reader understand life in Bauby’s post-stroke state. The book and the film both introduce the reader and viewer to Bauby after his accident, so the outsider to whom he is narrating has no knowledge of his life before he was paralyzed. The book begins by telling the reader what life looks like as the sun starts to rise and he wakes to it through his window.

Though both present the story from Bauby’s physical and visual perspective, the book gives a much more straightforward look into his thoughts and personal opinions about his condition. As he takes the reader through his day of being attended to and describing the humiliation of being bathed and dressed by nurses, he says, “I see in the clothing a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere” (Bauby 17). This is an illustration of his spirit that makes the metaphor of the butterfly that much more accurate.

Bauby describes repeatedly the frustrations of not being able to communicate with his colleagues and family, of the humiliation of physical therapy and not being able to change the television channel himself, and of his depression at the thought of being in his current state for the rest of his life. But in his insistence that he still wants to be himself, Bauby represents a butterfly that still wants to spread its wings and feel alive, no matter what environment it is trapped in. The film represents Bauby’s diving bell, which is metaphorical for the post-stroke state of his body, with footage of a real diving bell.

An old diving bell, complete with the spherical helmet, or bell, is shown treading in murky, dark water. This is a visual representation of how Bauby felt. The film presents a more complete picture of how Bauby’s condition affected those around him by showing colleagues that are uncomfortable visiting him in the hospital and his wife being unwilling or unable to visit him because she wants to see him and remember him as he was before the stroke. Bauby knows that he has been physically transformed by the stroke; in the book he says that, “There are no words to express it. My condition is monstrous, iniquitous, revolting, horrible.

Suddenly I can take no more” (Bauby 71). But the film shows how his physical transformation and new limitations also affect those around him. One of the most shocking visual representations of Bauby’s feeling of being trapped as if under the weight of a diving bell is when the doctor sews his eyelid shut because he can’t blink one of his eyes. The film depicts this happening from Bauby’s point of view, and the viewer sees it happening as if it were their own eyelid being stitched shut. This scene is difficult to watch both because of the imagining of the physical sensations and because of the oppression and confinement that it represents.

The scene with the eyelid is just one of many scenes in the film that utilizes Bauby’s point of view as the camera’s main angle. The camera is placed at Bauby’s point of view when his children move out of his line of sight, when people are being instructed to stand to one side of him so that he can see them, and several times when he tries to move his head or open his mouth and can’t. This use of the camera’s angle as Bauby’s point of view helps the viewer to understand the frustrations of Bauby’s confinement.

In contrast, his attempts to retain some level of his freedom or independence can be interpreted by the repeated references to the butterfly mentioned in the book and the choice of music in the film. He describes himself as a butterfly to convey how his imagination still allows him to move freely, in a sense: “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly” (Bauby 5). In the film, music like “A Day in my Life” by the Beatles helps to convey how being around his children and friends, along with remembering his happy memories from life before his stroke, help him to find happiness and be somewhat at peace.

The two objects mentioned in the book’s title represent confinement and freedom. Bauby struggled with both concepts after being confined and limited by locked-in syndrome. In describing his physical and mental state in relation to these two things, he is allowing the reader or viewer to imagine being trapped inside their own body, unable to communicate their thoughts and wishes to those around them or even function on their own, but still striving to be themselves and express themselves freely.

Both the book and the movie thus utilize metaphor to allow the viewer or reader to experience a physical state that otherwise could not be understood. It also conveys the strength of heart and will with which Bauby dealt with the hand that life dealt him and how he maintained whatever control he could over his dramatically altered state of being. Works Cited Bauby, Jean Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Le Scaphandre et le Papillon. Pathe Renn Productions, 2007.

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