Gustave Flaubert Flaubert, Gustave (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Gustave Flaubert 1821-1880

French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and letter writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Flaubert's short fiction works from 1992 to 2001. For criticism of Flaubert's short fiction career published prior to 1992, see SSC, Volume 11.

Among the most influential French writers of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is remembered primarily for the stylistic precision and dispassionate rendering of psychological detail found in his masterpiece Madame Bovary (1857; Madame Bovary). A meticulous craftsman, Flaubert diligently researched his subjects and infused his works with psychological realism with the goal of achieving a prose style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.”

Biographical Information

Flaubert was born in Rouen, where his father was chief surgeon at the city hospital and his mother was a respected woman from a provincial bourgeois family. As a child, Flaubert attended school at the Collège Royal de Rouen. During a summer vacation with his family in Trouville, Flaubert met Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman for whom he harbored a lifelong infatuation. Upon receiving his baccalaureate degree, Flaubert honored his parents' wishes and reluctantly registered for law school in Paris, despite his stronger interest in literature. In 1844, however, he experienced an attack of what is now believed to have been epilepsy; he subsequently abandoned his law studies and devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1845, Flaubert completed the first draft of L'éducation sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education). Following the death of both Flaubert's father and sister in 1846, Flaubert moved to the family home at Croisset, near Rouen, with his mother and infant niece. Flaubert was occupied with the writing of Madame Bovary from 1851 to 1856. After the first publication of the novel in serial form in Revue de Paris, Flaubert was charged with offenses against public and religious morals and an obscenity trial ensued. Flaubert's defense argued successfully that the novel was indeed a moral work, and Flaubert was acquitted. Published in book form two months after the trial, Madame Bovary enjoyed widespread sales and significant critical commentary. Towards the end of his career, Flaubert wrote his short fiction collection Trois contes (1877; Three Tales). With the exception of occasional trips abroad and to Paris, Flaubert lived at his family's home in Croisset until his death in 1880.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Flaubert is remembered for his novels, he produced a collection of short fiction, Three Tales, towards the end of his career. This work presents three stories—“Un Coeur simple,” “La légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier,” and “Hérodias”—ranging in setting from contemporary France to classical antiquity, each of which explores the concept of sainthood and the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. The first tale, “Un Coeur simple,” chronicles the story of a French peasant woman, Félicitié, who works for the same employer as a servant for her entire life. A loyal, kind-hearted, devout woman, Félicitié is left or forgotten by her closest family members and friends. However, her life takes a turn when she inherits a parrot that becomes her constant companion. After the bird's death, she cannot bear to part with it and has it stuffed. Associating its image with the Holy Spirit, she begins to pray to the stuffed body of the parrot. In “Saint Julien,” a young man inadvertently fulfills a prophecy that he will one day kill his parents. As a result of this tragedy, he becomes a reclusive hermit. The final tale in the collection, “Hérodias,” is based on the story of the death of John the Baptist. Many of the characters in the tale are based on Roman and biblical history.

Critical Reception

While some critics have interpreted the stories in Three Tales as moralistic, others have argued that the volume demonstrates Flaubert's belief that history can be divided into three distinct phases: paganism, Christianity, and muflisme, which refers to Flaubert's conception of the nineteenth century as an era marked by the petty values and lifestyles of the bourgeoisie. The role of religion has been identified as the unifying thematic concern of the three stories of the collection, particularly Flaubert's interest in such issues as transcendence, faith, and redemption. Commentators have consistently praised the technical virtuosity of Flaubert's writing—his use of style, structure, imagery, and symbolism. In recent years, some critics have been concerned with the order of the stories in Three Tales, as they do not appear in the order in which they were written. Another area of critical interest has been the presence, or lack thereof, of satire in his short fiction.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

*Trois contes [Three Tales] 1877

Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols. 1885

Oeuvres complètes. 23 vols. 1910-33

Oeuvres. 2 vols. 1946-48

Early Writings of Gustave Flaubert (short stories and essays) 1991

Madame Bovary [Madame Bovary] (novel) 1857

Salammbô [Salammbô] (novel) 1863

L'éducation sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History] (novel) 1869

Lettre à la Municipalité de Rouen (letters) 1872

Le candidat: Comédie en 4 actes [The Candidate: A Humorous Political Drama in Four Acts] (play) 1874

La tentation de Saint Antoine [The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (novel) 1874

Bouvard et Pécuchet [Bouvard et Pécuchet] (unfinished novel) 1881

Novembre [November] (novel) 1885

Par les champs et par les grèves: Voyages en Bretagne [Over Strand and Field: A Record of Travel through Brittany] (travel essay) 1885

Mémoires d'un fou (novel) 1901

*This collection contains the stories “Un Coeur simple,” “La légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier,” and “Hérodias.”

Ann L. Murphy (essay date February 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, Ann L. “The Order of Speech in Flaubert's Trois Contes.The French Review 65, no. 3 (February 1992): 402-14.

[In the following essay, Murphy identifies speech as a unifying element of the stories in Trois contes.]

In his study of Trois Contes Michael Issacharoff argues that unlike the novelist who requires from his reader at least an initial linear reading of his work, the author of a collection of short stories implicitly grants to his reader the freedom to read the stories in any order he chooses (40). Accordingly, as Issacharoff reasons, the reordering to which Flaubert submitted his three tales prior to their definitive compilation in a single volume—“La Légende de Saint Julien L'Hospitalier,” written first, appears second after “Un Cœur simple”—constitutes an explicit invitation to undertake such a non-linear reading (42). The “problem of non-linearity” mentioned in Issacharoff's title is linked to that of discerning unity in the volume. Since there is no way to guarantee that the stories will be read in order, the unity of the whole must somehow be located independently of the order in which its parts are read. Issacharoff finds this unity in the recurrence in each of the stories of specific symbols, and of the dialectic between inside and outside.

Issacharoff's argument for a unity to Trois Contes seems an appropriate response to critics who treat one of the tales and neglect the others, or to those who would deny any unity whatsoever to the triptych.1 Yet his linking the question of unity to that of non-linearity does not appear to address sufficiently the possible significance of Flaubert's reordering of his works for publication. One must indeed wonder about the significance of this gesture, for in switching the positions of “Saint Julien” and “Un Cœur simple,” Flaubert does not totally destroy the order in which the tales were written, since “Hérodias” retains its third position. Thus, rather than viewing it, following Issacharoff, as the disordering of an original order, whereby Flaubert would be communicating to his reader that order does not matter, I prefer to consider it as an ordering of an original disorder, signifying that order is important.

The result of this reordering most underscored by critics is the creation of a temporal regression, a movement back in time from the modern France of “Un Cœur simple,” to the medieval period of “Saint Julien,” and finally to the pre-Christian era of “Hérodias.”2 I would like to argue as well that a less obvious result of this reordering, and one which was perhaps less consciously intended by Flaubert, is a progressive enlargement of the spatio-temporal realm in which an increasingly complex relationship between word and event or act is established. Indeed, a careful examination of Trois Contes reveals that each of the tales places emphasis on a different aspect of speech, and puts forth a specific relationship between word and event of which this aspect of speech is, in turn, a reflection. Tracing, therefore, what is no longer the order of writing (the order of composition), but rather the order of speech, it is possible to show, as I wish to do here, that the linear movement from one tale to the next, in the order in which they are juxtaposed in the definitive volume, creates an “economy” based on an incremental increase, in both breadth and complexity, of the trajectory linking the moment speech is uttered to the moment it acquires meaning, however vague and relative this meaning may be. The aspect of speech highlighted in each tale and the reflection of this aspect in the tale's events describes the unity of the tales taken individually, and the progressively expanding speech trajectory contributes to the coherence of the volume as a whole.

In “Un Cœur simple” emphasis is placed on speech in its iterative and imitative form. This aspect of speech is represented, indeed incarnated, by Loulou, the parrot which the servant Félicité receives from her employer Mme Aubain. The last of the series of objects/people which Félicité, as Flaubert describes, “aime successivement,”3 Loulou is at the same time different from his antecedents. He is, as Michal Ginsburg observes, a “synthetic figure” of the whole series of those who have previously peopled Félicité's affections (171-72). I maintain as well that Loulou duplicates Félicité herself as the locus of certain psychic tics that shape her experience: the first, what Raymonde Debray-Genette, after Freud, has identified as the compulsion to repeat (“Figures” 351), placing the servant at the center of a series of repeated “events,” and the second, her tendency to imitate her surroundings or the experience of those who surround her. Loulou is a metaphoric projection of Félicité as repetition and imitation.

The formula equating Loulou and Félicité is developed precisely when the connection between Loulou and speech is established. Teaching the bird to speak, or rather to imitate her speech, Félicité places him in the same apprentice position that she herself held with respect to Virginie, Victor, and others. Once apprentice, now “master,” Félicité is for Loulou the source of what is to be absorbed and reproduced, repeated and imitated: “Elle entreprit de l'instruire; bientôt il répéta ‘Charmant garçon! Serviteur, Monsieur! Je vous salue, Marie!’” (66)—a repertory which repeats the daily and religious preoccupations of the servant. In this way, Loulou absorbs and reproduces on the verbal level the “experience” of Félicité, just as she absorbed and reproduced her understanding of Virginie's First Communion and Victor's experience at sea. The identification between Félicité and Loulou is reinforced when a later allusion to the parrot's repertory of imitated speech serves as a point of departure for the description of how the bird and the servant duplicate each other physically:

Ils avaient des dialogues, lui, débitant à satiété les trois phrases de son répertoire, et elle, y répondant par des mots sans plus de suite, mais où son cœur s'épanchait. Loulou, dans son isolement, était presque un fils, un amoureux. Il escaladait ses doigts, mordillait ses lèvres, se cramponnait à son fichu; et, comme elle penchait son front en branlant la tête à la manière des nourrices, les grandes ailes du bonnet et les ailes de l'oiseau frémissaient ensemble.


Moreover, if, like Félicité, Loulou attaches himself to one source of “language” and repeats it—here Félicité herself—he, again like Félicité, detaches himself from this source as a single source and reattaches himself to others. Loulou eventually imitates, repeats on the verbal level, several fragments of the aural environment which surrounds him:

Comme pour la distraire, il reprodusait le tic-tac du tournebroche, l'appel aigu d'un vendeur de poisson, la scie du menuisier qui logeait en face; et aux coups de la sonnette, imitait Mme Aubain: “Félicité! la porte! la porte!”


Loulou's voice as the locus of a collection of repeated and imitated sounds joins the less banal and more substantially figured description of Félicité's room, repository of fragments of the life she spent in the Aubain household. Like the bird whose voice is the instrument by which aural reality is reproduced, Félicité—via her fetichistic imagination—is the instrument by which the Aubain household is reproduced. It is significant that both the bird's collection of sounds and Félicité's bedroom eventually become all that remains for the servant of the “reality” they represent: deaf, Félicité's hearing will capture no more the noises which surround her, but will hear only their imitation in Loulou's voice; alone, following the death of Mme Aubain and the sale of the Aubain house, Félicité will live, and eventually die, in its facsimile, among the relics of the past. The original reality disappears, but through Loulou, as through Félicité herself, its repetition, its imitation remains. Absence is transformed into presence.

When Félicité has the dead parrot stuffed, it is the symbol of this repetition, the figure which totalizes this re-presentation, which is itself repeated. It is possible that the parrot's name, being the repetition of two identical sounds—Lou-lou—as well as reproducing, on the level of the signifier, his status as embodiment of repetition and imitation, indicates his “re-embodiment,” in a second life, as a stuffed bird and then as symbol of the Holy Spirit. The stuffed Loulou represents the repetition of the bird's physical being; his identification with the Holy Spirit recapitulates this resurrection of the physical—Félicité finds that the dove which conventionally portrays the Holy Spirit “était vraiment le portrait de Loulou” (75)—and adds to it. In identifying Loulou with the Holy Spirit, Félicité corrects what she views as a flaw in the dove-Holy Spirit connection, and this precisely on the basis of the parrot's capacity to speak: “Le Père, pour s'énoncer, n'avait pu choisir une colombe, puisque ces bêtes-là n'ont pas de voix, mais plutôt un des ancêtres de Loulou” (75). The equation parrot speech = the Word of God, by sanctifying the parrot, grants transcendence as well to repetition and imitation, and to that shrine to both, Félicité's room, over which the stuffed bird presides.

Thus, repetition having become idealized, or sacred, Loulou, the objects in Félicité's room, and Félicité herself all acquire a meaning beyond and superior to the inertness of their existence as matter, as material reality. From this perspective, Félicité's obsession, throughout the tale, with the celebration of Corpus Christi (la Fête-Dieu) acquires a special significance. Echo of Virginie's First Communion and of the street altar she and Félicité make together, allusions to Corpus Christi and to this “moment des reposoirs” punctuate the surface of Flaubert's text through the last page, where the final procession coincides with Félicité's death. Celebrated in honor of the Eucharist, this re-enactment consisting precisely of the symbolic consecration of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ is itself a figure of repetition and transcendence. Thus, despite the objections of Félicité's neighbors for whom placing Loulou on the reposoir “n'était pas convenable” (79), and despite the irony underlying the description of the entire scene, Loulou's presence on the final street altar of the tale is undeniably appropriate.

In “Un Cœur simple,” therefore, speech is the intersection of repetition/imitation and their continuation in a transcendent mode. Through this speech as sort of pivotal phenomenon, Félicité succeeds, albeit imperfectly and unconsciously, in assigning a unity and meaning to her life of devotion, self-effacement, and loss. If the final beat of this “cœur simple,” this space in which are played out successive efforts to create a presence from what is past or lost can coincide with a vision of “un perroquet gigantesque planant au-dessus de sa tête” (83), it is because, as we have seen, speech also fulfills the function of granting presence to what is absent. Notwithstanding the discursive ambiguity conveyed by the much commented “elle crut voir” through which Flaubert introduces this vision and so casts doubt on Félicité's “apotheosis,” the mere possibility that Félicité's last moment of life corresponds to the sight of a parrot-become-God confers unity onto the tale.

In “Un Cœur simple” repeated and imitated speech mirrors repeated and imitated events, the dominant figure of the same reducing the tale's temporality to the timeless present of the identical. In the second of the Trois Contes, “La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier,” the first tale's unity of presence is fragmented and differed by multiple instances of prophetic language which, while it repeats or summarizes the present, also negates it by surpassing it. In this tale, prophetic speech, by announcing a future, creates a distance between the proferring of speech and its resolution; this distance represents, as compared to “Un Cœur simple,” an enlargement of the word's trajectory. In other words, synchronic repetition in “Un Cœur simple” gives way to diachrony and différance in “Saint Julien.”

The diachronic movement in “Saint Julien” is evident from the beginning of the tale. The immediate focus of the description is the universe inhabited by Julien's parents: “Le père et la mère de Julien habitaient un château au milieu des bois, sur la pente d'une colline” (85). Julien's introduction at his birth is delayed by a lengthy and detailed description of the castle and the parents. This structure of delay is reflected and repeated by the two prophetic utterances pronounced, one to the mother and one to the father, soon after Julien's birth. Furthermore, just as allusion to Julien followed the description of his parents, a prophecy addressed to him will join, following a delay, those addressed to his parents. After the pronouncement of the prophecy directed to Julien, the remainder of the text, pushed forward by the future orientation of the prophecies, concerns the closing of the distance which prophetic speech creates between word and event.

The world into which Julien is born is one in which the two dominant, and potentially contradictory values of medieval European society, religion and chivalry, coexist harmoniously. The text's announcement of his birth—“A force de prier Dieu, il lui vint [à la mère] un fils” (87)—repeats this harmonious synthesis of values: praying to God evokes the religious value; the child's maleness, the value of chivalry. However, Julien's birth, while it recapitulates this synthesis of values, is also the event which occasions the utterance of the first two prophecies. The prediction to his mother that her son will be a saint corresponds to her religious preoccupations at the same time that it hyperbolizes them. To the father, it is announced that Julien will be a conqueror, linked somehow to an emperor's family—a prophecy which corresponds to the father's chivalrous values while clearly surpassing them. These prophecies taken together restate the synthesis of religion and chivalry. Taken separately in the manner in which they are actually uttered, however, they fragment this synthesis because neither parent discloses to the other what was heard. Furthermore, in the extraordinary extension of the values from which they emanate, the prediction of sainthood and that of military glory render apparent the latent opposition between religion and chivalry. Thus, the present of harmony and synthesis opens up onto a future of conflict and contradiction.

The third prophecy, addressed to Julien himself, functions in the same manner as those addressed to his parents. Consequently, at the same time that it...

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Nathaniel Wing (essay date fall-winter 1992-1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wing, Nathaniel. “Reading Simplicity: Flaubert's ‘Un Coeur simple.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 21, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1992-1993): 88-101.

[In the following essay, Wing explores Félicité's metonymic relationship to the world in “Un Coeur simple.”]

Cen'est pas une petite affaire que d'être simple.”

—Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, 20 Sept, 1851

It has become commonplace in modern readings of Flaubert to observe that the protagonists of his texts are themselves readers, represented as interpreters of the world of the fiction and that the realization of their...

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Karen L. Erickson (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Erickson, Karen L. “Prophetic Utterance and Irony in Trois contes.” In Modernity and Revolution in Late Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Barbara T. Cooper and Mary Donaldson-Evans, pp. 65-73. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Erickson examines the role of both prophecy and irony in Trois contes.]

Prophecy is a recurrent voice in Flaubert's collection of tales, and provides a parabolic narrative model for a kind of textual transmission rooted in historical social commentary—the visionary challenge to a community through the voice of a prophet.1 In this [essay], I will examine the role of the prophet...

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Christopher Wise (essay date spring 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wise, Christopher. “The Whatness of Loulou: Allegories of Thomism in Flaubert.” Religion and Literature 25, no. 1 (spring 1993): 35-49.

[In the following essay, Wise investigates how the philosophical thought of Thomas Aquinas infused Flaubert's fiction, especially “Un Coeur simple,” and rejects his classification as a postmodern author.]

It is well known that the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas had a significant impact upon James Joyce, especially in shaping Joyce's earliest published fiction, Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916); and, it is equally well known that Joyce was profoundly influenced by the novels...

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Nicholas Cronk (essay date fall‐winter 1995-96)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading ‘Un Coeur Simple’: The Pleasure of the Intertext.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 24, nos. 1-2 (fall‐winter 1995-96): 154-61.

[In the following essay, Cronk explores the function of the allusions associated with the names of the children, Paul and Virginie, in Flaubert's tale “Un Coeur simple.”]

So, they took the curator to where they kept the reserve collection. You want a parrot? they said. Then we go to the section of the birds. They opened the door, and they saw in front of them … fifty parrots. “Une cinquantaine de perroquets!”


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Ron E. Scrogham (essay date April 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Scrogham, Ron E. “The Echo of the Name ‘Iaokanann’ in Flaubert's ‘Hérodias.’” The French Review 71, no. 5 (April 1998): 775-84.

[In the following essay, Scrogham emphasizes the concept of naming in the tale “Hérodias,” citing specifically how it functions as a device of echo, identity, and reciprocity.]

Flaubert's “Hérodias” closely follows the Gospel-record of the events that precede and culminate in the decollation of saint Jean-Baptiste, with the notable exception of the form of the saint's name. While Hérode Antipas surveys Machærous and its environs from the terrace of his palace, a voice rings out, breaking the silence of the...

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Marie Josephine Diamond (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Diamond, Marie Josephine. “Flaubert's ‘Quidquid Volueris’: The Colonial Father and the Poetics of Hysteria.” SubStance 85, no. 1 (1998): 71-88.

[In the following essay, Diamond finds parallels between Flaubert's “Quidquid volueris” and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.]

It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization.

Charles Darwin


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Leonard Marsh (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Marsh, Leonard. “Of Walls and the Window: Charting Textual Markers in Flaubert's ‘Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier.’” Modern Language Studies 30, no. 1 (spring 2000): 157-65.

[In the following essay, Marsh offers a stylistic analysis of Flaubert's “La légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier.”]

The “Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier” is quite different in origin from its two adjacent tales in Flaubert's Trois Contes. Whereas the story of Félicité in “Un Coeur simple” is a fictional narrative and the subject of John the Baptist in “Hérodias” is already documented in the scriptures, the story of Julien is a hagiographic...

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Lewis J. Overaker (essay date winter 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Overaker, Lewis J. “Manifestations of the Holy Ghost in Flaubert's ‘Un Coeur simple.’” Renascence 53, no. 2 (winter 2001): 119-48.

[In the following essay, Overaker suggests that in Flaubert's story “Un Coeur simple,” through the character of Félicité and the parrot named Loulou, one is witness “to a serious and triumphant spiritual journey in which the workings of the Holy Ghost are disclosed.”]

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

—1 Corinthians...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Cervo, Nathan A. “Flaubert's ‘Un Coeur Simple.’” Explicator 55, no. 2 (winter 1997): 80-1.

Refutes Andrea Greenbaum's argument that “Un Coeur simple” is a satire is incorrect, as it fails to stress Flaubert's theme of “simple love.”

Greenbaum, Andrea. “Flaubert's ‘Un Coeur Simple.’” Explicator 53, no. 4 (summer 1995): 208-11.

States that “Un Coeur simple” is “a monumental satire.”

Reynolds, James M. “Flaubert's ‘Un Coeur Simple.’” Explicator 55, no. 1 (fall 1996): 26-8.

Notes the presence of humor, hyperbolic...

(The entire section is 209 words.)