‘The Widow and the Parrot’ is not one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known works. But then how many people familiar with The Waves or Mrs Dalloway are even aware that Woolf wrote a short story for children? Woolf wrote ‘The Widow and the Parrot’ in the early 1920s for the family newspaper edited by her nephews Quentin and Julian Bell (who, amazingly, nearly rejected it for publication because of its strong ‘Victorian’ moral message).
You can read ‘The Widow and the Parrot’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Woolf’s story below.
‘The Widow and the Parrot’: plot summary
The story is set in Spilsby in Yorkshire. Mrs Gage is an elderly widow who lives with her dog Shag. She is lame in one leg and doesn’t have much money. One day the postman delivers a letter informing her that her wealthy brother has died, leaving his house and money to her. Mrs Gage travels down to Sussex to see the house that she has inherited.
Inside the house, a village woman named Mrs Ford introduces Mrs Gage to James, the pet parrot which had belonged to Mrs Gage’s brother. The next day, Mrs Gage goes into the town of Lewes to see Mr Stagg, of the firm of solicitors named Stagg and Beetle, to claim the £3,000 her brother had left her in his will.
However, Mr Stagg has bad news to give her: they have been unable to locate the money mentioned in the will, and the house is in such poor condition that she will probably receive little money by selling it – barely enough to cover the solicitor’s fees. As Mrs Gage walks back to the house, struggling because of her lame leg, she reflects on how miserly her brother always was: how he’d hide his pocket money in a tree when they were children, for instance.
It takes her so long to walk back that day turns into night, and she worries about crossing the ford over the river, which she had been warned about. Just as she is despairing about crossing it, the ford is lit up – by the bright flames of a fire in the distance. Her brother’s house is on fire. She is taken to Mrs Ford’s cottage to sleep, but she can’t stop thinking about her brother’s parrot and whether he has perished in the blaze.
The next morning, she’s awoken by a tapping at the window: the parrot has survived the fire. She follows him to the charred remains of the house, and the parrot taps insistently on the kitchen floor. Intrigued, Mrs Gage notices some unevenness about the flooring, and investigates.
She unearths her brother’s money, which the solicitors had been unable to locate, underneath the floor. She then travels back to Yorkshire with the three thousand gold sovereigns – and the parrot.
Some time after, as she lies on her deathbed, she confides that she believes the parrot started the fire deliberately, for two reasons: to light her way across the river so she didn’t drown in the dark, and to expose the clever hiding-place where her brother had concealed his fortune. Shortly after Mrs Gage dies, the parrot falls off his perch, dead.
‘The Widow and the Parrot’: analysis
‘The Widow and the Parrot’ is unusual among Virginia Woolf’s fiction in that it has a clear moral message: the very reason Julian Bell disliked it and didn’t wish to print it in the family newspaper. Instead of the impressionistic style of her fiction for adults, Woolf gives us a clear, plot-driven narrative with a strong moral. But what is the moral?
Note that Mrs Gage’s actions are far more intuitive and implied than they are literal. She doesn’t go into the flames to try to rescue the parrot when the house is on fire, not least because she’s a lame, elderly woman and so such actions would be beyond her power. However, she can treat the parrot with respect and consideration, and she does this, speaking to him as though he were a human being.
What she lacks in physical ability she makes up for, then, in kindness. And in some respects, the parrot supplies what she lacks: saving her from drowning by starting the fire and then guiding her to the money concealed under the kitchen floor, which would have remained hidden if he had not started the blaze. The parrot rewards her kindness by ensuring she gets the money she needs, and survives to claim it in the first place. He is, in turn, rewarded by her companionship as she takes him back with her to Yorkshire to live with her and her dog, Shag (also, incidentally, the name of the family dog when Woolf was a child; Rodmell, by the way, is a nod to the village where Woolf lived with her husband in Sussex).
But this perhaps over-simplifies the chain of cause-and-effect in the plot of ‘The Widow and the Parrot’. Mrs Gage may believe the parrot’s actions were deliberate, simply because they had such a fortunate outcome for her. And it’s true that the parrot does deliberately help her to locate the ‘buried treasure’, as it were, under the kitchen floor. But perhaps its actions were simply fortuitous and it started the fire by accident.
We cannot be sure, and Woolf leaves the matter open to question. There may not be much ambiguity in ‘The Widow and the Parrot’ compared with, say, ‘A Haunted House’ (another Woolf story with ‘buried treasure’ and featuring an old house, though otherwise a very different text from ‘The Widow and the Parrot’), but this aspect is left for us to decide for ourselves.
Nevertheless, Woolf’s story is another example of her interest in the kinship between humans and their pets, something she would explore on a considerably bigger canvas in her 1933 book Flush, a ‘biography’ (semi-fictionalised, and very funny) of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel. It is enough that Mrs Gage treats James the parrot with kindness and respect; everything else follows from that.