Why does the world care so much about Loulou, the stuffed parrot in Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (1887)? Julian Barnes was short-listed to win the Man Booker Prize for his book, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which is about this little bird, among other things. David Hockney once did a painting featuring Loulou. When inquiring about the emotional connection between the viewer and the art object, Flaubert’s Loulou is the perfect object to consider. Also, as in all things psychological, our love of an art object, whether it’s a stuffed parrot called Loulou or a painting of a Campbell soup can by Andy Warhol, is a multi-determined affair. So let us proceed with the case of Loulou.

Gustave Flaubert is the father of literary realism, and his ability to describe objects in an objective, neutral, and aesthetic manner is unparalleled. He is a master of language and allows you

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to become absorbed in his work in a nearly hypnotic manner. This is one reason he can imbue a stuffed parrot with power.

Secondarily, his description of the novel’s central character, Felicite, the owner of this stuffed parrot, is notable. She is an uneducated but devoted servant who endures a series of losses throughout the novel starting with a rough fiancée followed by losing her mistresses’ children, then the loss of her nephew, the loss of her hearing, and finally, the death of her beloved Loulou, which leads to her having the bird stuffed.

The simple-hearted Felicite is rendered with such love and affection that the reader is inevitably drawn into her world, which includes her affection for her stuffed parrot. Felicite is undoubtedly modeled after Flaubert’s nanny, who lived with him for 50 years. The obvious respect and affection that Flaubert had for his nanny are felt in every line of this book. The rendering of this character is reminiscent of the way director Alfonso Cuarón portrayed the domestic worker Cleo in his masterpiece Roma (2018), which was also based on Cuaron’s nanny that he had while growing up in Mexico City.

We now have two processes at work, one of which is Flaubert’s groundbreaking literary realism combined with his deeply felt affection for his nanny. But the story does not end there. Many literary scholars have drawn parallels between the anguished life of Felicite and Flaubert’s life of loneliness and loss. They suggest that his great sympathy for Felicite comes from personal experiences of loss. As is often the case with creative geniuses, Flaubert’s ability to sustain even a semblance of normal family life was severely limited and his empathic descriptions of Felicite and her parrot come from his own pool of pain.

This still does not explain the compelling and even magical power of Loulou. Many literary critics have tried to explain the connection between Loulou the parrot and the Holy Spirit of Christianity, especially given the fact that Felicite was described as devotionally religious. But I think this misses a far more interesting point that goes further in explaining the parrot’s power to establish a connection with the reader. For this, we must go back to Phyllis Greenacre’s work on the psychology of creativity and the childhood of the artist. She posits that the gifted child destined to be an artist is endowed with greater sensitivity to sensory stimuli. The gestalt of the gifted child enables them to become attached not only to the

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primary object (the mother) but also to peripheral objects at the same time. She calls these collective alternates, and this leads to the artist’s “love affair with the world.”

This theory helps us to understand how it is that an artist can infuse their art objects with such power and influence over us. The reason that Jasper Johns can sculpt two Ballentine beer cans and actually make them interesting to the viewer must have something to do with his initial love of those particular objects. The reason Andy Warhol was able to paint Campbell soup cans that are interesting to see probably had something to do with the way he really loved Campbell soup. He was being honest with it all and not really trying to be clever, ironic, or satirical. He had Campbell Tomato Soup nearly every day for lunch.

This is the same as Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” when Koons insists that he is quite sincere in his production of these pieces and not trying to be disingenuous. Robert Rauschenberg’s most famous work is called “Monogram” and consists of a stuffed Angora goat with an automobile tire around its midsection. I bet you he loved Angora goats.

Greenacre said that these artists are truly in love with the world and are looking at, describing and replicating the things that they have fallen in love with as kids. Greenacre would say that Flaubert’s two true loves were his nanny and parrots. Of course, this does not bode well for his love life, but it does bode well for the world, which gets to marvel at the way he lovingly describes both Felicite and her stuffed parrot.

To paraphrase, the beloved American writer E. B. White declared that his love of the world was the essence of his books. So, to answer the question of why we find an emotional connection to an art object, we can say our reactions are multi-determined and a primary reason is that we are witness to the way one artist is paying homage to the world he loves. For the viewer, the reader, or the audience to see this happening, we too are held in love’s awe.

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References:

  • Barnes, Julian (1984). Flaubert’s parrot. Jonathan Cape.
  • Flaubert, Gustave (Original work in French, Bibliothèque Charpentier, 1877). A simple heart (in English). Three tales (in English).

Authors:

Tom Ferraro

Tom Ferraro, PhD, is a writer and psychoanalyst whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The London Times. He can be reached at drtferraro@aol.com.  

How to Cite This:

Ferraro, T. (2022). Why the world loves Flaubert’s parrot. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 371-373.

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