Three Tales consists of three short stories: “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), and “Hérodias” (“Herodias”). Taken together, these three stories reflect Flaubert’s thematic concerns and artistic style. “A Simple Heart” tells the story of Félicité, a simpleminded and religious family servant. Set in contemporary, provincial France, this short story became an exercise in realism and narrative style. “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” reactivates Flaubert’s interest in historical settings and the lives of saints (with a fantastic twist), while “Herodias” shares some of these features (the historical setting) while also incorporating the themes of exoticism and the femme fatale, a theme frequently explored by nineteenth century writers through the story of Salomé, which enjoyed a particular vogue in literature and painting at the turn of the century. Despite these different settings and themes, the three stories present a certain unity through recurrent motifs and patterns.
Stylistically, these stories reveal Flaubert’s mature writing skills, and the minimal use of dialogue gives Flaubert ample room to develop his narrative techniques. Félicité, whose name ironically means “felicity” or “happiness,” is shown through a third-person narrator whose voice blends imperceptibly into a more articulate version of her own inner voice. It is the story of an obscure and overlooked life, told in five carefully structured parts. Félicité lives vicariously through the children of her mistress Madame Aubain, through a nephew, and finally even through a parrot. Just when she seems most unwanted herself, she adopts an unwanted parrot, Loulou, who becomes her companion. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed, and at the moment of her own death she confuses the sight of Loulou with a vision of the Holy Ghost descending from heaven.
Flaubert stated that his intentions in “A Simple Heart” were not to be ironic but to evoke pity. He relied heavily on autobiographical details for the background materials and even brought home a stuffed parrot that he kept on his desk as inspiration during the writing of the story. It was not pity for himself he wished to evoke, even though his recent financial ruin was still a source of pain. Instead, he was responding to a challenge from the novelist George Sand, who had reproached him for being unable to depict simple goodness. Sand died before she was able to see her challenge bear fruit in this story.
This rather muted story stands in contrast to the two historical panels of this triptych, a structure echoing the alternation in Flaubert’s work between contemporary and exotic works. In the companion panels, the reader finds the story of Saint Julian, which invokes the bright colors of a gothic stained-glass window, and the equally colorful, but more barbaric, story of Herodias, also with a saintly figure, that of John the Baptist....
(The entire section is 1243 words.)