Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

Although Three Tales (Trois Contes), the collection which includes ‘‘A Simple Heart,’’ was written more quickly than any of Flaubert's other known works, it is generally considered most exemplary of his mature style. Flaubert began writing the piece in 1875, attempting a more gentle and humanitarian literature, and he completed the three tales in 1877, just three years before his death. In 1878, in the Fortnightly Review, English critic George Saintsbury claimed that ''A Simple Heart'' ''displays exactly the same qualities of minute and exact observation, the same unlimited fidelity of draughtsmanship, which distinguish Madame Bovary and L'Education Sentimentale [Sentimental Education].’’ Commenting on Flaubert's realism, Saintsbury remarked, ''There are few things more curious than the combination of such an imagination with the photographic clearness of observation and reproduction.’’

The book's moral character, unlike that of Madame Bovary, has never been in question. The obscenity trial and notorious controversy surrounding the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857 had had much to do with the ''moral content'' of that book, of course. But that controversy had also to do with Flaubert's realistic writing style; he was not a man given to inspiration and muses—he believed in working very hard and reporting what he saw. He believed in observation and faithful reproduction. That life was closely reproduced in Madame Bovary came as a shock to readers, and this bourgeois repugnance for self-examination showed even in the critical reports. Thus Saintsbury also writes of Flaubert that ''he has to a very remarkable degree the art of chaining the attention even when the subject is a distasteful one to the reader.’’

Furthermore, although some critics at the time suggested that ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ was purely a moral tale, it is generally thought that Flaubert's intentions were, as he said, to write of a simple life, a simple woman. He was writing a tale of consolation rather than desolation, a more humanitarian literature, in response to requests from his old friend and fellow writer George Sand and in light of his own losses and growing empathy for human beings. Albert Thibaudet (in his Gustave Flaubert, sa vie, ses romans, son style) claims that this story heralds a true turning point in Flaubert's life and worldview, a turn toward human pity. Flaubert himself remarked in a letter that perhaps now he would be called humane. Claims about the moral bent of ''A Simple Heart’’ have been largely set aside as less than central. If, according to Brunetière, ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ was simply another attack on human stupidity and the bourgeoisie, how could a reader then explain Flaubert's mood of sympathy for Félicité?

These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. According to critic Ben Stoltzfus (1961), ‘‘Flaubert's treatment of Félicité does represent an increasing sympathy and tolerance towards man, [but] he consciously and artistically had to use symbolism in order to inject his criticism of the church. This criticism is not Félicité's but his.’’ Stoltzfus suggests a dual point of view—that of Flaubert and Félicité—so that readers are able to accept Flaubert's subliminal criticism of organized religion and the Roman Catholic Church because they become sympathetic to Félicité as victim. American critic Robert Denomme (in Studies in Short Fiction, 1970) agrees, saying that ‘‘whatever irony emerges from 'Un Coeur Simple' stems from the respective positions and attitudes of Flaubert and his readers who will evaluate both Félicité and the environment in which she has been compelled to function.’’

Other views, of course, vary: the story has been called a direct attack on the Roman Catholic Church of nineteenth-century France, and it has been hailed as a simple tale of human compassion. It has recently been suggested that, through the elimination of that which is masculine and violent, Flaubert in Three Tales affords his reader a hopeful vision identified with feminine nature. In her Flaubert's Straight and Suspect Saints: The Unity of Trois Contes, Aimee Israel-Pelletier suggests that ‘‘Flaubert's 'swan song' is, ironically for a writer who has been so consistently characterized as a cynic and a hater of humanity, the most hopeful and, aesthetically, the most beautifully crafted of all his works.’’ Whatever the differences, the critical and popular consensus has always held ‘‘A Simple Heart'' as a profound and beautiful story.

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Essays and Criticism