After suffering a massive stroke, 43-year-old bon vivant Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes up from a three-week coma to discover that he can neither speak nor move. Entirely paralyzed except for his eyes, an alert Jean-Do is panicked by feelings of claustrophobia. At the Berck-sur-Mer hospital in the French countryside, Jean-Do learns from his doctors that he has locked-in syndrome, a rare condition with little chance of recovery. Completely unable to communicate, Jean-Do is at the mercy of the doctors and their vague promises of rehabilitation. To add to his despair, his right tear duct closes, necessitating that the eye be sewn shut to prevent infection. He watches as the surgeon stitches his eyelid, entombing him even further in his lifeless body and prompting him to imagine being trapped in a diving bell sinking in the sea. Soon Jean-Do is assigned a devoted and beautiful young speech therapist named Henriette Roi, who tells him that he is her most important patient. They begin his first communications by simply blinking once for yes and twice for no. With no way truly to engage in the present, Jean-Do floats in and out of his memories, including Elle photography sessions with lithe models. One day, the doctors announce that he is “good for a wheelchair.” Far from being grateful, Jean-Do laments his verdict as a complete invalid and is horrified to see the reflection of his once-handsome face when he passes mirrors in the hallway. Not only is his body gaunt from weeks of being fed through a tube, his remaining working eye is bulging wide open and his mouth is contorted to the left. One day, a doctor brings Céline, whom they understand to be Jean-Do’s wife, to his hospital room. Unable to correct them, Jean-Do notes to himself that she is merely the mother of his children, a woman he recently left after years of living together. The deeply religious Céline prays for his recovery and offers to bring his children to visit, but Jean-Do refuses. After she leaves, Jean-Do imagines Céline standing alone grieving for him at the Berck train station. Across the platform he sees himself as a young boy waiting with his father. Touched by the images, Jean-Do quietly regrets his previously self-indulgent life and his poor treatment of Céline and the children. He is still consumed with self-pity when Henriette proposes a system for Jean-Do to express words and sentences. While she recites the alphabet in order of which letters are most used, Jean Do is to blink at the letter he wants, thus spelling out his thoughts one letter at a time. Henriette’s heart-felt earnestness prompts Jean-Do’s ridicule. Meanwhile, the nursing staff diligently bathes, exercises and clothes Jean-Do, making him feel like a helpless infant. Strapped to an upright board, Jean-Do is asked to practice moving his tongue in hopes of regaining the ability to swallow and eat. While nurses enthusiastically claim that they see movement, Jean-Do knows there has been none. On another day, acquaintance Pierre Roussin, who was held hostage in Beirut for four years, recounts his feelings of isolation, suicidal thoughts and claustrophobia to the mute man. He reminds Jean-Do that he must cling to his humanity if he is to survive the isolation. Jean-Do is consumed with shame, because, as a favor, he gave Pierre his own air ticket on the doomed flight on which Pierre was captured and chose never to call Pierre after his release. During the day, Henriette tries to engage Jean-Do with her alphabet technique, but he will only spell out “I want death.” When friend and regular visitor Laurent tells him that rumors are spreading that he is a vegetable, Jean-Do, unable to communicate with anyone besides Henriette, jokingly asks himself which kind, a carrot or a pickle. Although Jean-Do’s wry wit is returning, the lack of control of the hospital conditions is maddening. To escape the constancy of banal television and his own limitations, Jean-Do returns to his imagination: floating through fields as a butterfly, making love to beautiful women and living out boyhood fantasies of surfing and skiing. As he becomes more thoughtful, Jean-Do concludes that his life is a series of “near misses,” of never committing to the love that was before him. Developing his technique with Henriette and losing his self-pity, Jean-Do becomes more adept and confident about communicating. He contacts a publisher with whom he has had a book contract. She is at first unbelieving as Henriette tries to explain to her that Jean-Do would like to write a memoir, but finally relents and sends him young protégé Claude to take dictation. Memorizing what he wants to write each morning, Jean-Do begins his memoir, dictating letter by letter to Claude. Included in his thoughts are fantasies about the hospital’s patron, Empress Eugénie, a beautiful young woman featured in a marble bust in the hospital. He imagines a sensuous woman, her voluminous skirts swaying down the hall as she helps the hospital’s first patients, children with tuberculosis. One day, after remembering tenderly shaving his father Papinou upon his last visit to the elderly man, Jean-Do realizes that even in his “fragmented” condition, his presence as a father in his children’s lives is better than nothing. Days later on the beach with his three young children and Céline, Jean-Do plays the child’s game of hangman with them using his alphabet communication and grieves that he is unable to caress his children. As he grows more accustomed to communicating complete thoughts with Claude, she enters his fantasy life, a woman whom he romances with sumptuous meals of seafood and wine. Back in the hospital, Jean-Do, dreading the loneliness of low-staffed Sundays, accepts nurse Marie Lopez’ offer to take him to church. While he imagines multiple deities to whom he prays for health, Marie, despite Jean-Do’s blinks saying “no,” tells Father Lucien that Jean-Do agrees to take communion. As the priest asks God for the restoration of his health, Jean-Do remembers one of his many lovers: She insists that they make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where he breaks up with her because of her obsession with an electric Madonna that blinks and watches over them as they have sex. Back at the hospital, Jean-Do arranges through Claude to speak to Papinou, who is confined to his apartment because of failing health. Unable to tolerate or comprehend the word-by-word replies given by Claude, Jean-Do’s father stutters to find his own words. He laments that they are in similar circumstances, “locked in” to their own small worlds, then tells his son the location of a letter containing his last wishes and tearfully bids him farewell, while Jean-Do cries as well. Claude, having taken down Jean-Do’s most intimate feelings and memories, grows enamored with him and professes her love on a boat trip she arranges for the two of them, presenting him with The Count of Monte Cristo , the book he most wanted to emulate in his initial plans to write a novel. Days later, Inès, Jean-Do’s lover at the time of his stroke, calls while Céline is tending to him. Inès asks Céline to leave the room and then, in private, begs his forgiveness for not being able to see him in his condition. Céline returns to the room just in time to be forced to translate letter by letter his reply, “Each day I wait for you.” As he nears the end of writing the memoir, Jean-Do’s dream-life expands. He imagines that his heartbeat is the beating of butterfly wings. Just as he finds some hope of regaining his voice by grunting and humming songs, he contracts pneumonia. Those closest to him gather around to encourage him, including Céline, Laurent and Claude, who reads the dedication in his newly published memoir, but the author dies just ten days after the memoir is published.