(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 1096 words.)