Summary and book reviews of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

A Memoir of Life in Death

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
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  • First Published:
    May 1997, 144 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 1998, 144 pages

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Book Summary

Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned. By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body.

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young children, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem. After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. In the same way, he was able eventually to compose this extraordinary book.

By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body. He explains the joy, and deep sadness, of seeing his children and of hearing his aged father's voice on the phone. In magical sequences, he imagines traveling to other places and times and of lying next to the woman he loves. Fed only intravenously, he imagines preparing and tasting the full flavor of delectable dishes. Again and again he returns to an "inexhaustible reservoir of sensations," keeping in touch with himself and the life around him.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died two days after the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

This book is a lasting testament to his life.

Prologue

Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

Up until then I had never even heard of the brain stem. I've since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. That day I was brutally introduced to this ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Author Blurb Edmund White
Was it Hemingway who defined grace under pressure? No matter who said it, the words have never been more pertinent than in speaking of this heroic book, dictated against the worst imaginable adversities. Although every word cost the author a superhuman effort, the prose is not sickbed telegraphese but rather as light as the sprightliest humor, as pungent as the taste of cooking apricots, as vigorous as the step of a young man setting out on a first date. Read this book and fall back in love with life.

Author Blurb Edmund White
Was it Hemingway who defined grace under pressure? No matter who said it, the words have never been more pertinent than in speaking of this heroic book, dictated against the worst imaginable adversities. Although every word cost the author a superhuman effort, the prose is not sickbed telegraphese but rather as light as the sprightliest humor, as pungent as the taste of cooking apricots, as vigorous as the step of a young man setting out on a first date. Read this book and fall back in love with life.

Author Blurb Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D.
To read this most extraordinary of narratives is to discover the luminosity within a courageous man's mind. Locked into his own world but not locked out of ours, [Jean-Dominique Bauby] explores images, memories and an entire landscape of fantasy and love. His incomparable final gift to us is a heartbreaking and yet glorious testament to the wrenching beauty of the human spirit.

Author Blurb Andrew Weil
As riveting as a narrative from an explorer of deep space, this communication from a mind imprisoned in an unresponsive body is remarkable for its utter lack of self-pity or sentimentality. Though 'locked in' the author's consciousness freely roams through worlds of memory, fantasy, sense, impression, and contemplation of the human condition. An unforgettable read.

Author Blurb Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D.
To read this most extraordinary of narratives is to discover the luminosity within a courageous man's mind. Locked into his own world but not locked out of ours, [Jean-Dominique Bauby] explores images, memories and an entire landscape of fantasy and love. His incomparable final gift to us is a heartbreaking and yet glorious testament to the wrenching beauty of the human spirit.

Author Blurb Elie Wiesel
This heartbreaking story by a uniquely gifted writer is about transforming pain into creativity, human despair into literary miracle.

Author Blurb Andrew Weil
As riveting as a narrative from an explorer of deep space, this communication from a mind imprisoned in an unresponsive body is remarkable for its utter lack of self-pity or sentimentality. Though 'locked in' the author's consciousness freely roams through worlds of memory, fantasy, sense, impression, and contemplation of the human condition. An unforgettable read.

Reader Reviews

Agrippah

Bauby's book voices a caged bird
I came across this book about eight years ago. I have seen quite many since then. But the contents of this one always cross my mind more than once every day.The circumstances were beyond difficult. Jean-Dominique proved that the attack was less of a ...   Read More

Peter

Surrounded by thousands of books, none have informed me more about the human spirit than this beautiful expression of life. Bauby has given me a hand to hold, a conversation to continue.

Rabbi Steve

Originally this book was recommended to me by a vp from Ford Motor Co. I picked it up and was overwhelmed with guilt over the persistant pity parties I hosted. How a man, not deeply religious, but full of faith, endured so long and so successfully ...   Read More

Shane

Quite simply a marvellous book that belongs on everyones bookshelf - be they Doctors or nurses, Builders or Lawyers. This is one of very few books that I can continually re-read. The words "triumph of the human spirit" could have been ...   Read More

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