Gustave Flaubert Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales, published during the year 1877, when he was fifty-six years old, reflects the variety of styles of his literary production as a whole. “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”) employs the Norman realism of Madame Bovary. “La Légende de Saint Julien l’hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”) reflects the preoccupation with exotic locales and the history of the early Christians evident in The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Flaubert’s travel narratives. “Hérodias” retains this exotic context while focusing on a singular heroine from the past, as Flaubert had done in Salammbô.

These three texts, Flaubert’s only short fiction to be widely read, provide the usual choices for modern readers seeking an introduction to his work. Flaubert wrote them in a spontaneous burst of activity between September, 1875, and February, 1877, as if he were capping his career with a demonstration piece of his various styles.

“A Simple Heart”

“A Simple Heart,” the life story of the good-hearted servant Félicité, draws its material from Flaubert’s own life. In 1825, a servant, Julie, joined the Flaubert household and may have provided a model for the character of Félicité. Critics have further suggested comparisons between Félicité and the old woman Catherine Leroux, who, in the Comices agricoles scene of Madame Bovary (part 2, chapter 8), is awarded “for fifty-four years of service on the same farm, a silver medal—valued at twenty-five francs.” Twenty-five francs may at that time have represented a fairly impressive sum but was nevertheless a mediocre value to place on fifty-four years of service. Flaubert, echoing his habit of undercutting both characters and social conventions with a final, damning detail, ends the official statement addressed to Catherine Leroux on this materialistic note.

In “A Simple Heart,” as in Madame Bovary, the materialism of Norman society appears in the form of a continual preoccupation with money. Yet in both works, this harsh theme contrasts with a persistent romanticism linked to the vain hopes of the various characters. Cupidity in the form of jealousy appears in the very first sentence of “A Simple Heart”: “For half a century, the bourgeois women of Pont-l’Évëque envied Madame Aubain because of her servant, Félicité.” The motivations of characters throughout the story revolve around money, often to the disadvantage of trusting Félicité. Some figures appear prejudged, as society would have classified them economically, from their very first mention in the text. Thus, Madame Aubain’s uncle, an impoverished aristocrat who visits early in the second section of the story, “always arrived at lunch time, with a horrid poodle whose paws spread dirt on all the furniture.”

Even the characters dearest to Félicité do not hesitate to hurt her when money is involved. When Félicité befriends Nastasie Barette, who does exploit her by accepting numerous presents, Madame Aubain cuts off this opportunity for friendship by decreeing their prompt return from Trouville to Pont-l’Évëque. Even Félicité’s beloved nephew, Victor, imposes on her generosity, although he does bring back to her gifts from his travels. His sudden departure on a voyage to the United States throws Félicité into despair, augmented by Madame Aubain’s insensitive incomprehension of her suffering when she learns of Victor’s death.

Throughout, characters are defined, usually in a negative manner, by the objects that surround them, objects that often appear in themselves hostile. The initial description of Madame Aubain’s house in Pont-l’Évëque tells the reader that “it had interior differences of level that made people trip,” and the family members appear through the presentation of their rooms, where the “two children’s beds without mattresses” and the attic room of Félicité testify to the subordinate status of children and servants. Yet appearances can be deceiving, still with a bias toward the negative. Because of her harsh life and limited diet, Félicité “at the age of twenty-five appeared to be forty years old.”

The considerable catalog of objects in these defining descriptions parallels Flaubert’s technique in Madame Bovary and echoes much of the realistic style of Honoré de Balzac, whose death in 1850 had appeared to Flaubert as a great loss. Thus, the detailed menu of the lunch at the Liébard farm recalls the even more expansive description in Emma Bovary’s view of the dinner at the château, and Virginie, after her death, survives in memory in her clothes—reminiscent of the wedding bouquet of Charles’s previous wife that greets Emma upon her arrival at the house at Tostes—clothes that Madame Aubain could bring herself to inspect only when “moths flew out of the wardrobe.”

The central documentation, however, must be that of Félicité’s own room. Flaubert makes a significant decision to withhold this description until the very end of the story. The mention of Félicité’s room in the opening pages tells the reader only that it was in the attic and had a view over the fields. There is no description of the interior. By the time it is revealed, the room contains the debris of Félicité’s life and “had the appearance both of a chapel and a bazaar, as it contained so many religious objects and varied things.” The separation of the religious objects here from the others underlines their dual role. Religion, as will be seen, held great importance for Félicité, but the objects that represent her devotion share with the others in her room echoes of deterioration and loss. Further, the distinction blurs between religious and secular: “On the dresser, covered with a cloth like an altar, was a box made of seashells that Victor had given her.” She retains with religious veneration objects linked to her memories.

Negative emphasis within the realistic catalog again parallels Madame Bovary. The determining events of Félicité’s unhappy memories grow from the same avaricious society that surrounded Emma. The one man she loved, Théodore, abandoned her to marry “a very rich old woman,” an action analogous both to Charles Bovary’s first, arranged marriage to Héloïse and to Paul’s later marriage in “A Simple Heart” to the daughter of a man who could help his career. Victor’s death, attributed to poor medical treatment of his case of yellow fever, recalls Charles Bovary’s unfortunate failure in the operation on Justin, and the heirs who pillage Madame Aubain’s house parallel the actions of Emma’s creditors.

The most obvious negative emphases, however, result from a series of exclusions. The bad can be defined most easily by contrast with the good. Often, this ranking comes from the arbitrary expectations of society, expectations that Flaubert documented in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1910, 1913; Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954). Thus, Charles Bovary bought for Emma “a second-hand vehicle that, once equipped with new lanterns and pierced leather mud flaps, almost resembled a tilbury,” and at the beach at Trouville, Virginie “went swimming in a shirt, for lack of a bathing costume; and her maid dressed her in a customs-inspection cabin that served for the bathers.” Things, not allowed to be as they naturally exist, are described as “almost” something more prestigious.

Those moments of high prestige in which the characters participate, however, disappear from the text. At Virginie’s funeral, for example, readers see the preparation of the body for the burial but not the more uplifting religious ceremony. Flaubert states simply, “after mass, it took three quarters of an hour to get to the cemetery.” Similarly, though romance dominates Emma Bovary’s life, Flaubert never shows her at the moment of central significance when she is a bride in church. Again, he emphasizes distance to be traversed: “The town hall being at half a league from the farm, they went there on foot, and came back in the same manner, once the ceremony was over at the church.” The last phrase, added almost as an afterthought, effectively deemphasizes what could have been the most positive moment of Emma’s life. One may certainly argue that liturgy, with its set patterns, need not be described in detail to be understood. Still, as Alphonse Daudet so aptly demonstrated in “Les Trois Messes basses,” the personal circumstances woven into each liturgy make it a unique event. This must hold especially true for both weddings and funerals.

Although the drama of liturgical moments disappears from Flaubert’s texts, a current of romanticism persists throughout “A Simple Heart.” Linked in part to the religious element in the story, this romanticism includes references both to traditional romantic themes and to other passages in which Flaubert appears to parody such themes. This again echoes Madame Bovary and Flaubert’s dual feelings concerning romantic passion. Emma Bovary’s emotional confusion clearly derives from the false ideas of love, which she had taken from sentimental novels. Immediately after her marriage, she “sought to know exactly what people meant in real life by the words felicity, passion and...

(The entire section is 3849 words.)