Enabling Technology


Jason Yanchuleff

Prof. Bishop

Enabling Technologies


The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly

Jean-Dominique Bauby

        Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly wrote his short book of memoirs after suffering a massive stroke which left him in a condition known as Locked-in Syndrome. This means that he is a paraplegic, having no control of any part of his body except for his right eye, some neck movement, and much labored and mostly indecipherable speech. His book was dictated by a translator who would read through the alphabet stopping at a particular letter when the author would blink. Through a series of short chapters, Jean-Dominique explains his experiences in the hospital on the northern coast of France in which he is now permanently confined, as well as some of his memories of his life before his stroke as the editor-in-chief for Elle magazine.

        The author begins by describing a typical day on which he wakes up, slowly becoming aware of the near nothingness which is his daily reality. He discusses the moment at which he realizes that his condition is most probably permanent, the moment when his doctors push a wheelchair into his room, and the despair that he felt. ""You can handle the wheelchair," said the occupational therapist with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life–sentence."

        He then describes the system by which he becomes accustomed to communicating. By using a manipulated form of the alphabet which places letters in order of their frequency of usage in the French language, he is able to choose the letters one-at-a-time by blinking at the appropriate time as a translator reads through the list. He goes on to explain the difficulty in using this system as different translators put different amounts of effort into determining the meaning of the sometimes hard to determine letter choices.

        He describes the process of his becoming aware of his new surroundings, and the sheer monotony of being confined to the same room day in and day out without even the means to change the channel on the television. He also explains the difficulty he faces in relating to his family and other visitors as they are mostly frightened of his condition and his changed physical appearance due to the paralysis. He reflects while watching a group of other short-term patients he refers to as "tourists" laugh and carry on among themselves: "I would like to be a part of all this hilarity, but as soon as I direct my one eye towards them, the young man, the grandmother, and the homeless man turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke-detector. The "tourists" must be very worried about fire."

        In another comically ironic moment, Jean-Do recalls his affinity for the books of Alexandre Dumas, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. He recalls that it is the only work of classic literature to include a character that is in his current condition, Grandpapa Noirtier. He remembers that he has once had dreams of rewriting the novel with different characters, and remarks: "So I did not have time to commit this crime of lese-majeste. As a punishment I would have preferred to be transformed into Baron Danglars, Franz d"Epinay, the abbe Faria or, at the very least, to copy out one thousand times: "I must not tamper with masterpieces." But the gods of literature and neurology decided otherwise."

        Jean-Do recalls memories of things that happened with his wife, children, and father before the stroke in vivid detail. As he gains the capacity for communication through his alphabet system, he slowly begins to cope with his condition, but still struggles with some of the more basic forms of communication, such as being able to interact with his young son at the beach on Father’s Day. He does, however, seem to take pleasure in dispelling the rumors that have emerged among his old friends, who have now long since deserted him mostly, that he is simply a vegetable, and completely incapable of thinking for himself any longer.

        The title of this book refers to two seemingly random objects; however, these two objects take on the role of personifying Jean-Do’s view of his himself and his condition. In the beginning of the book, he describes the feeling of his waking up in the hospital as that of having a large diving-bell tied to his body, keeping him from movement. As the book progresses however, he views himself more as a butterfly, simply trapped momentarily in a bodily cocoon. The book gives an interesting glimpse into the life of man who has, for the most part, been written off. He is not expected to make much of a recovery, and yet he continues to push on, giving others a look into his rare condition.