“A Simple Heart” by Gustave Flaubert describes the life, the affections, and the fantasies of a diligent, kindhearted servant named Félicité. This detailed story opens with an overview of Félicité's working life-most of which has been spent serving a middle-class widow named Madame Aubain, “who, it must be said, was not the easiest of people to get on with” (3). However, during her fifty years with Madame Aubain, Félicité has proved herself to be an excellent housekeeper. As the third-person narrator of “A Simple Heart” states: “No one could have been more persistent when it came to haggling over prices and, as for cleanliness, the spotless state of her saucepans was the despair of all the other serving maids” (4).
Though a model servant, Félicité had to endure hardship and heartbreak early in life. She lost her parents at a young age and had a few brutal employers before she met Madame Aubain. In her teenage years, Félicité also struck up a romance with a “fairly well off” young man named Théodore-only to find herself in agony when Théodore abandoned her for an older, wealthier woman (5-7). Soon after this, Félicité was hired to look after Madame Aubain and the two young Aubain children, Paul and Virginie.
Félicité formed a series of deep attachments during her fifty years of service. She became devoted to Virginie, and closely followed Virginie's church activities: “She copied the religious observances of Virginie, fasting when she fasted and going to confession whenever she did” (15). She also became fond of her nephew Victor, a sailor whose travels “took him to Morlaix, to Dunkirk and to Brighton and after each trip, he brought back a present for Félicité” (18). Yet Victor dies of yellow fever during a voyage to Cuba, and the sensitive and sickly Virginie also dies young. The years pass, “one very much like another, marked only by the annual recurrence of the church festivals,” until Félicité finds a new outlet for her “natural kind-heartedness” (26-28). A visiting noblewoman gives Madame Aubain a parrot-a noisy, stubborn parrot named Loulou-and Félicité wholeheartedly begins looking after the bird.
Félicité starts to go deaf and suffers from “imaginary buzzing noises in her head” as she grows older, yet the parrot is a great comfort-“almost a son to her; she simply doted on him” (31). When Loulou dies, Félicité sends him to a taxidermist and is delighted with the “quite magnificent” results (33). But the years ahead are lonely; Madame Aubain dies, leaving Félicité a pension and (in effect) the Aubain house, since “nobody came to rent the house and nobody came to buy it” (37). Félicité's health deteriorates, though she still keeps informed about religious ceremonies. Shortly before her death, she contributes the stuffed Loulou to a local church display. She dies as a church procession is underway, and in her final moments envisions “a huge parrot hovering above her head as the heavens parted to receive her” (40).
Background and Contexts
Flaubert's Inspirations: By his own account, Flaubert was inspired to write “A Simple Heart” by his friend and confidante, the novelist George Sand. Sand had urged Flaubert to abandon his typically harsh and satiric treatment of his characters for a more compassionate way of writing about suffering, and the story of Félicité is apparently the result of this effort. Félicité herself was based on the Flaubert family's longtime maidservant Julie. And in order to master the character of Loulou, Flaubert installed a stuffed parrot on his writing desk. As he noted during the composition of “A Simple Heart”, the sight of the taxidermy parrot “is beginning to annoy me. But I'm keeping him there, to fill my mind with the idea of parrothood.”
Some of these sources and motivations help to explain the themes of suffering and loss that are so prevalent in “A Simple Heart”. The story was begun around 1875 and appeared in book form in 1877. In the meantime, Flaubert had run up against financial difficulties, had watched as Julie was reduced to blind old age, and had lost George Sand (who died in 1875). Flaubert would eventually write to Sand's son, describing the role that Sand had played in the composition of “A Simple Heart”: “I had begun “A Simple Heart” with her in mind and exclusively to please her. She died when I was in the middle of my work.” For Flaubert, the untimely loss of Sand had a larger message of melancholy: “So is it with all our dreams.”
Realism in the 19th Century: Flaubert was not the only major 19th-century author to focus on simple, commonplace, and often powerless characters. Flaubert was the successor of two French novelists-Stendhal and Balzac-who excelled at portraying middle- and upper-middle-class characters in an unadorned, brutally honest manner. In England, George Eliot depicted hardworking but far-from-heroic farmers and tradesmen in rural novels such as Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch; while Charles Dickens portrayed the downtrodden, impoverished residents of cities and industrial towns in the novels Bleak House and Hard Times. In Russia, the subjects of choice were perhaps more unusual: children, animals, and madmen were a few of the characters depicted by such writers as Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy.
Even though everyday, contemporary settings were a key element of the 19th-century realist novel, there were major realist works-including several of Flaubert's-that depicted exotic locations and strange events. “A Simple Heart” itself was published in the collection Three Tales, and Flaubert's other two tales are very different: “The Legend of St. Julien the Hospitaller”, which abounds in grotesque description and tells a story of adventure, tragedy, and redemption; and “Herodias”, which turns a lush Middle Eastern setting into a theater for grand religious debates. To a large extent, Flaubert's brand of realism was based not on the subject matter, but on the use of minutely-rendered details, on an aura of historical accuracy, and on the psychological plausibility of his plots and characters. Those plots and characters could involve a simple servant, a renowned medieval saint, or aristocrats from ancient times.
Flaubert's Depiction of Félicité: By his own account, Flaubert designed “A Simple Heart” as “quite simply the tale of the obscure life of a poor country girl, devout but not given to mysticism” and took a thoroughly straightforward approach to his material: “It is in no way ironic (though you might suppose it to be so) but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move my readers to pity, I want to make sensitive souls weep, being one myself.” Félicité is indeed a loyal servant and a pious woman, and Flaubert keeps a chronicle of her responses to major losses and disappointments. But it is still possible to read Flaubert's text as an ironic commentary on Félicité's life.
Early on, for instance, Félicité is described in the following terms: “Her face was thin and her voice was shrill. At twenty-five, people took her to be as old as forty. After her fiftieth birthday, it became impossible to say what age she was at all. She hardly ever spoke, and her upright stance and deliberate movements gave her the appearance of a woman made out of wood, driven as if by clockwork” (4-5). Though Félicité's unappealing appearance can earn a reader's pity, there is also a touch of dark humor to Flaubert's description of how strangely Félicité has aged. Flaubert also gives an earthy, comic aura to one of the great objects of Félicité's devotion and admiration, the parrot Loulou: “Unfortunately, he had the tiresome habit of chewing his perch and he kept plucking out his feathers, scattering his droppings everywhere and splashing the water from his bath” (29). Although Flaubert invites us to pity Félicité, he also tempts us to regard her attachments and her values as ill-advised, if not absurd.
Travel, Adventure, Imagination: Even though Félicité never travels too far, and even though Félicité's knowledge of geography is extremely limited, images of travel and references to exotic locations figure prominently in “A Simple Heart”. When her nephew Victor is at sea, Félicité vividly imagines his adventures: “Prompted by her recollection of the pictures in the geography book, she imagined him being eaten by savages, captured by monkeys in a forest or dying on some deserted beach” (20). As she grows older, Félicité becomes fascinated with Loulou the parrot-who “came from America”-and decorates her room so that it resembles “something halfway between a chapel and a bazaar” (28, 34). Félicité is clearly intrigued by the world beyond the Aubains' social circle, yet she is incapable of venturing out into it. Even trips that take her slightly outside her familiar settings-her efforts to see Victor off on his voyage (18-19), her journey to Honfleur (32-33)-unnerve her considerably.
A Few Discussion Questions
1) How closely does “A Simple Heart” follow the principles of 19th-century realism? Can you find any paragraphs or passages that are excellent specimens of a “realist” way of writing? Can you find any places where Flaubert departs from traditional realism?
2) Consider your initial reactions to “A Simple Heart” and to Félicité herself. Did you perceive the character of Félicité as admirable or ignorant, as hard to read or totally straightforward? How do you think Flaubert wants us to react to this character-and what do you think Flaubert himself thought of Félicité?
3) Félicité loses many of the people who are closest to her, from Victor to Virginie to Madame Aubain. Why is the theme of loss so prevalent in “A Simple Heart”? Is the story meant to be read as a tragedy, as a statement of the way life really is, or as something else completely?
4) What role do references to travel and adventure play in “A Simple Heart”? Are these references meant to show how little Félicité really knows about the world, or do they lend her existence a special air of excitement and dignity? Consider a few specific passages and what they say about the life Félicité leads.
Note on Citations
All page numbers refer to Roger Whitehouse's translation of Gustave Flaubert's Three Tales, which contains the full text of "A Simple Heart" (introduction and notes by Geoffrey Wall; Penguin Books, 2005).