Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
“A Simple Heart” embraces in only a few pages the story of an entire life, that of a woman born into the most unfortunate and narrowest of circumstances, a woman who lives within the narrowest frame of reference. The story is divided into five distinct sections. The first gives an overview of the Aubain household and the daily routine of Félicité Barette. For fifty years, the surrounding world sees her as a possession of Mme Aubain, a paragon of domestics: frugal, hardworking, unchanging. She seems an automaton, a wooden woman. The human being behind the mask is seen in the subsequent parts of the story.
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Félicité, an orphan reared haphazardly as a barnyard laborer, exposed to want and abuse, is without personal attractions or affections. She is courted briefly by a brusque young farmer who is looking for an establishment and safety from the draft. When he marries a wealthy, older widow, Félicité spends one night in the fields, weeping, then gives notice and leaves her farm for the small town of Pont-l’Eveque. In front of the inn there, she meets the young Mme Aubain, a widow in reduced circumstances, and is engaged as a domestic after a brief conversation, because she is full of such goodwill and makes so few demands, although she is very ignorant. Félicité’s early involvement with the Aubain household centers on her affection for the children of her employer. She also orients herself within a weekly round of visits from a set circle of acquaintances of Madame and occasional idyllic visits to the Aubain property in the countryside. On one such visit, Félicité saves the family from a charging bull, bravely holding it at bay until all escape. She ignores her newfound reputation for heroism. A more far-reaching concern is Virginie Aubain’s resulting nervous invalidism, treated by ocean baths at Trouville. There Félicité is reunited with a long-lost sister and meets her young nephew Victor, another child for her to love. This second part of her story ends with the breaking of the Aubain family circle as Paul is sent away to school
Virginie is now sent to catechism lessons, in preparation for her first Communion, and Félicité is introduced to the world of religious faith, which she accepts, despite her years, in a childlike manner. She trembles in sympathy with each step of Virginie’s initiation into the Church, feeling more of a thrill as the beloved child accepts the Host than when she herself goes to Communion. However, Virginie, in her turn, must go away to school, and Félicité is desolate. She and Mme Aubain lead parallel but nonintersecting affectionate lives. Madame can attempt to fill the void with letters, but the illiterate Félicité invites her nephew Victor and lavishes her love on him. As he grows older, he becomes a sailor, bringing her small gifts from his first short voyages. His first long voyage takes him to Havana. Félicité, with her childlike vision of the world, cannot comprehend the distances involved, does not understand when shown a map, and imagines a world of cigars and cartoon blacks. Virginie Aubain’s worsening illness obscures Félicité’s anxieties over Victor. When he dies of fever and poor doctoring in Havana, her grief is enormous, but she stifles its expression and continues her round of work. Virginie’s death at the convent school prostrates her mother. It is the servant who must care for the little body, praying over her darling and wishing for a miracle, Félicité who must care for and groom the little grave. In time, Mme Aubain recognizes this silent anguish, and her acceptance of Félicité’s grief in one moment of sympathy binds the servant to her with a devotion that is quasi-religious.
The fourth part of the story is dominated by Loulou, a parrot that is swept into the domestic backwater of the Aubain household by faraway political events. Bright in color, quaint in his actions, he fascinates Félicité and fills her life with affection again. The details of his life absorb her. When he escapes, briefly, she devotes such fervor to searching for him that she catches a severe chill, suffers from angina, and eventually loses her hearing. The parrot’s shrill voice becomes her only link to the world of sound, but in 1837 he dies, during a severe cold spell. On Mme Aubain’s suggestion, Félicité sends Loulou to Le Havre to be stuffed. On his return, he becomes her idol, placed in her small room along with all the religious and personal relics of her life. Here, with the passage of time and her increasing isolation from the world, the parrot comes to represent the Holy Spirit. She sleepwalks through life, rousing only to preparations for the yearly celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. The even tenor of the years in broken by three events: Paul Aubain marries, the old family lawyer kills himself amid shameful circumstances, and Mme Aubain, disheartened by both events, sickens and dies. Félicité is deprived all at once of her reasons for living; she remains in the Aubain home, maintained in her attic room by a legacy from Mme Aubain, but Paul sells the other contents of the home and leaves it empty, up for rent or sale. Life is narrowed to the smallest scope possible, and many years pass with no change in externals, except that the house grows more and more dilapidated. One damp, cold winter, Félicité coughs blood, and around Easter, she develops pneumonia.
The final movement of “A Simple Heart” brings the death and transfiguration of Félicité, lying blind, deaf, and cared for out of charity by a kind neighbor. The temporary altar used for display of the Host during the procession of Corpus Christi has been built in the Aubain courtyard, and Félicité has sent her only treasure, Loulou, to adorn it. She creates the procession, the gay sights and sounds in her mind as she lies dying, the typical small-town personalities amid the excitement and flowers of the summer festival. When the neighbor climbs up and peeks out Félicité’s attic window, Loulou is seen, a brilliant blue patch amid the surrounding profusions of flowers, laces, and personal treasures given to enrich the altar. Félicité smells the incense rising to her room, and in communion with the festival below, slips gently out of life into a Heaven whose opening skies reveal a gigantic parrot hovering in welcome.