Overview of ‘‘A Simple Heart"

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When Gustave Flaubert wrote to Madame Roger des Genettes that his aim in ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ was ‘‘to move, to bring tears to the eyes of the tender-hearted,’’ he was explaining his intention to create in Félicité a sympathetic character—a central persona with whom we could identify and empathize. He claimed that his story was in no way ironic but rather ‘‘serious and extremely sad.’’ And even when he describes ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ as ‘‘just an account of an obscure life, the life of a poor country girl who is pious but mystical, faithful without fuss, and tender as new bread,’’ he must certainly have been sincere. It is speculated that, though ''A Simple Heart'' was the second tale written in the trilogy Three Tales (Trois Contes ), Flaubert chose to place it first in the collection because it was closest to his heart, most equal to his values at the time. Furthermore, some critics have suggested that the character of Félicité is modeled on a cherished maidservant, Julie, from Flaubert's childhood, although it is said that she was probably more intelligent and worldly than Félicité. He was also hoping to please his longtime friend George Sand, who had admonished him to create a literature of "consolation" rather than "desolation." In ‘‘A Simple Heart,’’ then, Flaubert wished to compose a simple story about a good woman, and most critics agree that he did just that.

Still, there has been much controversy about the interpretation of the story. Ever since its publication and very fond reception in 1877, ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ has been variously interpreted. Some have seen it as a testimony to the futility of faith and religious dogma (witness Félicité's life of loss and exploitation despite her unquestioning love and devotion to all within her reach), particularly centering on the Roman Catholic church of nineteenth-century France. Others take it as a simple declaration of faith in the human spirit and its undying capacity to love (witness again Félicité's unquestioning love and devotion to all within her reach and her steadfast refusal to give in to despair). Both of these readings can apply; in fact, Flaubert has left the ending of his story open to varied and even contradictory interpretations. Many feel that Félicité dies, smiling and with the vision of a giant parrot as Holy Ghost, believing her troubled life is being rewarded at last. Others interpret the delusion of the parrot during her final moments as suggestive of the utter and final misperception of a useless life. Neither of these interpretations, however, or anything one can imagine in between them, fully explains the story. A more complete understanding can be reached if we recognize that on a very fundamental level, ‘‘A Simple Heart'' is the story of women in nineteenth-century France. Viewed from this perspective, Félicité functions as a representative of female class and culture in a particular society. More universally, it can be argued, her character comprises traditional views and perceptions of female behavior and thought.

''She loves, simply and without second thoughts. The pattern of her life is therefore tragic, for she can neither stop herself from loving, nor ever be loved in return, since others see her as made of wood and functioning automatically,’’ says Murray Sachs. That she can be viewed as nothing but wooden, that she is simple, that she functions automatically, that she loves without measure or boundary: all of these qualities suggest archetypal female qualities. To be sure, Félicité is a woman of relentless love and compassion and empathy. When she witnesses the communion of Virginie, the young daughter of...

(This entire section contains 1893 words.)

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her mistress, she is moved beyond sympathetic tendencies to pure empathy:

When it was Virginie's turn, Félicité leant forward to see her, and in one of those imaginative flights born of real affection, it seemed to her that she herself was in the child's place. Virginie's face became her own, Virginie's dress clothed her, Virginie's heart was beating in her breast; and as she closed her eyes and opened her mouth, she almost fainted away.

In fact, critic Victor Brombert suggests that ''vicarious experience goes hand in hand here with utter generosity and lack of self-awareness.’’ Here again we find the exemplary female: complete empathy, complete selflessness, complete and unquestioning servitude to others. This is the story of a truly simple heart, a predictable soul, a female life.

Here is the story of a woman who, not despite but because of her obedience to the rules, worked for next to nothing, had no children, worshipped a dead, stuffed parrot, and yet lived a full life and was fully equipped to deal with loss and tragedy. She died smiling because she lived lovingly. She had stayed, as it were, within the lines, lived well within the expectations and dictates of her class and culture and, particularly, her gender. Thus we can speculate that, consciously or unconsciously, Gustave Flaubert has given us a tale that tells us as much about the simple expectations and constraints of gender as it tells us about God and organized religion.

That many have suggested a relationship between ''A Simple Heart'' and Flaubert's first, notorious, and controversial success, Madame Bovary, is neither surprising nor inaccurate. But readers find Emma Bovary unlikable or unsympathetic for the most part, whereas Félicité is, though uncomplicated, a sympathetic character. Critic Enid Starkie suggests that Félicité ''has nothing to fight against and could be nothing but good.’’ That there exists no temptation to sin, that there is no struggle in her between good and evil explains her purity and suggests a sharp contrast to the character of Emma Bovary. And of course Félicité has all of the qualities of Christian virtue, as critics suggest when they read the story as a critique of organized religion. It is not surprising, then, that she also embodies characteristics, virtues, if you will, frequently attached to the archetypal female: goodness, a pure and loving heart, self-abnegation, charity, and a simple, unself-conscious mentality.

‘‘It is not particularly clear,’’ says Starkie, ''why [Flaubert] should have thought of writing 'A Simple Heart' at that moment, except that he wanted to compose a tale which was entirely kind and consoling, though it need not have dealt with a very unintelligent servant.’’ The intimation that perhaps Flaubert could not make the equation of female goodness with intelligence also argues the contrast to Emma Bovary who, though stupid in action, is not unintelligent, and is also therefore not particularly ''good'' or sympathetic.

This, then, is key: the female characters in these stories exist on a sliding scale from good to evil which directly corresponds to their native intelligence and to their capacity for self-examination. By extrapolation, their "goodness" might also be said to correspond to their level of sexual experience. Virginie dies a virgin at a very young age, in a convent; Félicité dies innocent in almost every way; Madame Aubain, on the other hand, a widow with children, is cold and ungiving and unlikable. She even sends her children away, and, though this may have been the fashion, it contradicts maternal instinct. Emma Bovary, who is intelligent and imaginative, is also promiscuous, as well as expensive and dangerous to her husband and child; in fact, she finds her child ugly. (‘‘It is strange,’’ she thought, ‘‘how ugly that child is.’’) So innocence on any level (physical, sexual, intellectual or spiritual) corresponds to goodness in women, while knowledge—sexual or otherwise—corresponds to evil.

When Flaubert writes of ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ that it is not an ironic tale, rather ‘‘serious and extremely sad,’’ he is suggesting a virtue in Félicité's innocence which exists exclusively because she is viewed, or misconstrued, as an ideal female. With no children or husband of her own, she is accessible and serviceable to all, and with no capacity for self-examination, she lives this way happily. In fact, she outlives everyone she cares for, which is as it should be: the ideal woman ever-present, ever-loving, everlasting. Nobody's mother, she can be everyone's mother, chaste and good.

So here is the story of a simple woman in nineteenth-century France who, by circumstance of her class and gender, lives an unexamined but pure and happy life. Viewed as such, Félicité's life, her reverence for the parrot Loulou, and her possibly blissful death are not so sad and serious. She is trapped by gender and she is a victim of circumstance, but she accepts her fate willingly. There is no contest between good and evil, no self-examination, and, in the end, no painful struggle with conscience or fear of death. Flaubert was indeed sincere when he said that this is not an ironic story, but rather ‘‘serious and extremely sad.’’ For he intended no irony. But in order to create a perfectly sympathetic and, as he said, "good" woman, he found it necessary to make her simple and stupid. ''Flaubert was so constituted that he was unable to see kindness and goodness in a sophisticated and intelligent human being,’’ Enid Starkie concludes of Félicité's character. Nonetheless, this beautiful tale is profoundly moving and is considered one of Flaubert's most exemplary and heartfelt works. Félicité is, in spite of her representation as ideal female, never presented in a negative light, and she is thus an arguably sympathetic character.

In fact, even on a structural level, this story is the story of one woman and one woman only. We may call her stupid, but we like her, and this is Flaubert's tour de force. We like Félicité because she is good, but also because we understand why she sees the world as she does. We are allowed to see both inside and outside her character. This narrative device affords us a particularly poignant and comprehensive view of her life and her circumstances. We do not blame her, as we do Emma Bovary, for example, for her troubles. She is, after all, a good woman; who could blame her? Thus she is sympathetic to the end, when, as she dies, her beautiful female vitality ebbs and flows, ‘‘as a fountain sinks, an echo disappears.’’ Perhaps her life was ridiculous; perhaps she was no more than a peripheral echo, like the utterances of her sacred parrot; but she was good and in the end, real or not, she believed she was being rewarded. So here the story ends and must end, with the end of her life, and the conclusion of her point of view. It is here, finally and completely, that Flaubert shows us—by ending the story where he does—that this is a story about one woman and that, most importantly, her story has been worth telling. (In obvious contrast, Madame Bovary does not end with the death of Emma Bovary; rather the novel continues for many pages and ends, ironically, with Homais receiving the cross of the Legion of Honor.) In ‘‘A Simple Heart,'' Flaubert ends his narration with the humble and even beautiful death of Félicité, and in so doing he emphasizes finally the breadth and depth of her spiritual and moral integrity.

Source: Jacqueline Perret, Overview of ‘‘A Simple Heart,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Perret teaches English at Lake Forest College, in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Felicite's View of Reality and the Nature of Flaubert' s Irony in "Un Coeur Simple"

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Despite Flaubert's vigorous disclaimer to the contrary, a number of critics of recent vintage have been prompted to interpret ''Un Coeur simple'' as an ironic commentary on human stupidity and on stultifying bourgeois attitudes. Flaubert's writings prior to 1876, to be sure, virtually resound with pages of biting satire and bitter irony; Madame Bovary, Salammbô and L'Education sentimentale all attack virulently, at strategic intervals, the vacuity of many social, political and religious institutions. What distinguishes ‘‘Un Coeur simple’’ from the previously completed stories, however, is the discernible shift of tone and mood that the narrative assumes. Indeed, the remarkable fusion of tenderness with what Victor Brombert [in The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques, 1966] so aptly terms ''refined irony'' produces an effect hitherto alien to the majority of the novelist's better-known interpretations of humanity. This notable shift of emphasis may be at least partially explained by the series of unfortunate incidents that befell Flaubert from 1870 to 1876. The critical failures of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine and Le Candidat, the deaths of his mother and of such friends as Louis Bouihlet, Sainte-Beuve, Louise Colet, and George Sand, and the serious financial difficulties he encountered all doubtlessly contributed in some manner in altering his literary vision and modifying his personal attitude. The resulting attenuation in mood and tone, far from emerging as the fitful and short-lived personal reaction to unfavorable circumstances, resulted rather from Flaubert's scrupulous attention to relevant details and his painstaking effort to obtain specific effects; he wrote to his niece, Caroline, on 1 July 1876: ‘‘Je lutte comme un forcené contre les difficultés de mon Coeur simple, qui augmentent de jour en jour'' [ ‘‘I am struggling like a madman with the difficulties of my 'Simple Heart,' which increase from day to day’’]. Flaubert's modified vision of humanity reaches its culminating point in the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, which illustrates, ironically, the intellectual pursuits and failures of two friends without ruthlessly exploiting or condemning them for their folly. Like the two male protagonists, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Félicité in ''Un Coeur simple'' ironically unveils the futility and fatuousness of specific bourgeois practices while enlisting at the same time the undeniable sympathy of the reader.

‘‘Un Coeur simple’’ deliberately refrains from unleashing any direct assault upon the ineffectiveness of organized religion or the narrowness of intellect and attitude that characterizes the typical provincial bourgeois. That any such overt critical confrontation is avoided in the story is attributable to the fact that Flaubert abstains from resorting to his favorite technical device, the style indirect libre [‘‘indirect discourse’’], in order to fashion the portrait of his main character. The style indirect libre, a type of indirect discourse obtained through the momentary association between the consciousness of the character involved and the directing intelligence of the narrator, would have endowed the narrative with a tone radically different than the one achieved in ‘‘Un Coeur simple.’’ It is more than likely that Flaubert, intent on portraying Félicité with sympathy and even tenderness, realized that such a technique, in this instance, would impair him in achieving the desired effects. Félicité, unlike Emma Bovary, is incapable of formulating her thoughts or impressions on any appreciably precise or sophisticated level. The collaboration entered upon by Flaubert and Emma Bovary through the style indirect libre underscores with particular acuity the consciousness of his protagonist's state of mind, thus mercilessly exposing her to the reader's ridicule as the stupidly ironic victim of her own carefully contrived delusions...

Flaubert's heroine in ‘‘Un Coeur simple’’ escapes the ignominy of such exposure primarily because she never experiences such complicated consciousness of her predicament. Moreover, her aspirations are too indelibly imprinted with simplicity and innocence for them to become so easily the brunt of the author's exploitation...

There is no evidence of any compulsion to make of his simple-minded heroine an object for derision. To have exploited Félicité's simplicity in the manner that Catherine Leroux's stupidity was singled out in Madame Bovary would have reduced ‘‘Un Coeur simple’’ to a cynical commentary on fanaticism and ignorance. Such a single-minded interpretation robs Flaubert's story of its richer dimension.

Flaubert endows the heroine of his short story with the kind of homogeneous vision of reality that enables her to retain a remarkably even sense of composure in the face of tragedy and adversity. Félicité's simple view of life contrasts sharply with Flaubert's complex interpretation of reality. The latter's acute awareness of the complications and contradictions inherent in the world that he sought to comprehend inspired him with the voracious desire for understanding that is discernible in all his fiction. The confusion of change and movement, however, prevented him from pursuing such a goal with the kind of detachment he desired; the much-sought collaboration between his imagination and his practical intelligence never successfully took place, and the final homogeneity or synthesis failed to materialize to the extent that he had wished. Thwarted by the acknowledgment that complete truth remains elusive, Flaubert voiced his frustration as he reaffirmed his stubborn intention to pursue the impossible quest: ‘‘Car l'échec de la digestion n'empêche pas sa faim de le pousser vers de nouveaux objects: celle-ci s'exaspère au contraire de l'impossibilité qu'elle éprouve à se satisfaire’’ [‘‘For a failure in digestion does not keep hunger from turning to new objects: my hunger is aggravated by the very obstacles it encounters’’]. To a significant degree, Madame Bovary remains perhaps the author's most cogent statement on the sense of inadequacy resulting from the failure to fashion successfully a homogeneous world from an essentially heterogeneous one. Emma Bovary never succeeds in sustaining her illusory existence for any great length of time because she continually submits her somewhat deficient imaginative powers to the scrutiny of a sordid external reality. She repeatedly becomes aware of her self-deception until she is finally driven to her destruction. Ironically,
Félicité, much more ignorant and certainly much less articulate than Emma, achieves a satisfying homogeneity of vision by transforming ordinary reality through her imagination alone.

Félicité's instinctive retreat into the more predictable world of her private imagination is in fact prompted by the overwhelming confusion and bewilderment she experiences when compelled to face the jarring complexities of external reality. ... In her insecurity, Félicité accepts Théodore's invitation to dance with him but is rudely shaken when she must resist his crude overtures. Thus, her subsequent withdrawal from the pressing requirements of a complex external reality appears as a defensive reaction to which she has recourse when she intuitively realizes that she is ill-equipped to function effectively under such circumstances. Henceforth, Félicité gazes at reality through her imagination and with her innate common sense. The real irony, of course, is that, despite her ignorance and simple-mindedness, she not only manages to function adequately but she is able, unconsciously, to project her own world outwardly to the point of touching and affecting the lives of others.

Félicité's daily existence, like that of Emma Bovary, is defined by the same kind of boredom, disappointment, and discouragement that mar the security and serenity of an ordered life. Unlike Emma, however, Félicité preserves her equanimity: she proceeds with remarkable resilience to repair whatever havoc may have been wrought by personal tragedy, indifference, and even cruelty. Condemned to perform the simplest chores, she escapes from most of the ravages of boredom by lavishing her attention on others: Mme Aubain, Paul and Virginie, Victor, the pèr e Colmiche and Loulou, the parrot. Of all the characters in ''Un Coeur simple'' it is Félicité who emerges most successfully in the battle against frustration through positive and durable activity.... Ultimately, it is Félicité's constructive attitude that allows her to escape the stultifying effects of an uninteresting existence, for like Emma Bovary and Mme Aubain, she is exposed to the same monotonous routine of provincial life. The protagonist of ''Un Coeur simple'' is exposed to the cruel indifference and callousness of society that in one instance nearly succeeds in unnerving her to the point of imbalance. Having suffered the ignominy of the mail-coach driver's whiplash, Félicité makes her way painfully to a summit that commands a view of Honfleur, and momentarily yields to Emma's temptation.... Fortunately, Félicité's nostalgia is short-lived; the gnawing memory of her misfortune doubtlessly is allowed to surface because of her semi-conscious physical and mental state at the time.

What is frequently conveyed in almost antithetical terms is the fact the Flaubert's heroine in ''Un Coeur simple'' differs so radically in attitude from his earlier protagonist, Emma Bovary. Flaubert shows Félicité actively resisting the stultification caused by monotony and by the slow, tragic passage of time. While it remains undeniable that the theme is established from the beginning and sustained throughout the narrative, it is interesting to note the coded and even somewhat ambiguous language in which it is cloaked. In Madame Bovary, the novelist's intended criticism of the deficient romantic personality and of the mechanized gentry is spelled out in more direct and explicit terms. Flaubert's novels understandably allow more importance to dialogue than do the short stories. In Madame Bovary, for example, the spoken language of the characters plays an important role in establishing the kind of private world in which they function. In such stories as ‘‘Un Coeur simple,’’ where dialogue is reduced to a strict minimum, Flaubert has recourse rather to symbols in order to evoke or suggest the various attitudes that he intends to portray. It is no small irony that the older, and consequently more mature artist resorts in his later fiction to the utilization of an outwardly more subjective technique of presentation. The highly suggestive passages describing the rooms inhabited by Mme Aubain and the servant convey with effective symbolism the opposing attitudes of immobility and activity, passive resignation and active resistance....

The progressive shrinkage of Félicité's recognizable universe, brought about through the deaths of those she has loved, the eventual loss of part of the Aubain property and the subsequent impairment of her hearing and seeing faculties apparently condemn her to a life of virtually absolute isolation. Yet the opposite effect takes place. The isolation she experiences in a sense enables her to proceed unhampered and uninhibited by external forces to fashion the kind of private, homogeneous world that brings about the solace and security that she seeks. As her solitude increases, the powers of her creative imagination also increase. What Victor Brombert calls ‘‘the perversion of the Logos’’ resembles in many ways the nature of the child-poet's vision. Like the child-poet, Félicité creates through her imagination a simplified universe in which the jarring dissonances of a complex external world are conspicuously absent. Félicité's hallucinations or willful distortions of reality are in no way identifiable with the complicated malaise endured by Emma Bovary, Frédéric Moreau, and Mâtho. Flaubert's servant in ''Un Coeur simple'' succeeds in inducing the transformations that allow her to rectify the inequities of reality. This is how, for example, she is permitted to take part with Virginie in the first communion ceremonies. In similar fashion, Flaubert invites the reader to penetrate Félicité's imagination at Virginie's funeral procession. The faithful servant rectifies what she considers to be the arbitrary injustice of reality by her decision to mourn both Mme Aubain's deceased daughter and her own nephew, Victor: ‘‘Elle songeait à son neveu, et n'ay ant pu lui rendre ces honneurs, avait un surcroît de tristesse, comme si on l'eût enterré avec l'autre'' [''She thought of her nephew; and because she had not been able to pay these honours to him her grief was doubled, as though the one were being buried with the other'' ]. For the most part, Félicité emerges unscathed from her highly imaginative excursions precisely because she does not seek the corroboration of external reality in her experiences. Since she successfully maintains her own sense of equilibrium in the illusory world that she evolves, she never exposes herself to the destructive consciousness of self-deception and ridicule.

When deafness and virtual blindness finally condemn Félicité to the seclusion of the single room she occupies in the Aubain household, attended only by the mère Simon, she escapes progressively from the requirements of the heterogeneous external reality in which all individuals must learn to function. Old age and eventually illness free her from maintaining any kind of relationship with the harsh world of fact. Her mistaking Loulou for the Holy Spirit, indulgently dismissed as the ranting of delirium, conserves intact the illusions nourished by her imagination in more lucid intervals. Thus Félicité's spiritualization of Loulou achieves the status of a poetic metaphor for the Holy Spirit; as such, it emerges as one of the most exalted expressions of Hugo's romantic synthesis: the sublime residing in the grotesque.

What understandably disturbs the critics who persist in placing ''Un Coeur simple'' in the same ironic tradition established by Flaubert in his completed novels is that one might suspect a double viewpoint: Félicité grossly misinterprets religious dogma and so, logically, she should be victimized by her own delusions. Yet Félicité's illusory world, as limited as it may appear, provides her with experiences that are as rich and personally satisfying as those of Emma Bovary are flimsy and ultimately corrosive. A comparison of Félicité's and Emma's death scenes verifies the positive value that is unfolded in the short story and the negation that is underscored in the novel. Emma's final agony is counterpointed by the ominous song of the blind man, whose words recall and comment on the dying woman's adulterous life:

—"L'Aveugle!" s'ecria-t-elle. Et Emma se mit à rire, d'un rire atroce, frénétique, désespéré, croyant voir la hideuse face du misérable, qui se dressait dans les ténèbres éternelles comme un épouvantement.

[—‘‘The blind man!’’ she cried. And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, hopeless laugh, believing she saw the hideous face of that poor soul frightfully standing in the eternal shadows.]

In striking contrast, Félicité's dying moments are depicted as literally enshrined in the brilliant rays of a golden sun and, if anything, are counterpointed by the joyous religious ceremony of the Fête-Dieu, suggesting the triumphal apotheosis of the faithful servant and of her parrot. Among the variegated objects that magnetically attract the attention of the worshippers is the stuffed parrot, Loulou, transformed by his relationship to the expensive vases and colorful flowers that bedeck the altar on which they are placed: ‘‘Un sucrier de vermeil avait une couronne de violettes, des pendeloques en pierre d'Alençon brillaient sur la mousse, deux écrans chinois montraient leurs paysages. Loulou, caché sous des roses, ne laissait voir que son front bleu, pareil à une plaque de lapis'' [‘‘There was a silver-gilt sugar-basin with a crown of violets; pendants of Alençon stone glittered on the moss, and two Chinese screens displayed their landscapes. Loulou was hidden under roses, and showed nothing but his blue forehead, like a plaque of lapis lazuli’’]. The very rhyming of the ceremony—the slow marching, the silence of the crowd, and the kneeling in reverent gesture—acts as a parallel to the slowing beat of Félicité's dying heart. From her bed, she participates in the festivities: ‘‘Une vapeur d'azur monta dans la chambre de Félicité. Elle avança les narines, en la humant avec une sensualité mystique; puis ferma les paupières. Ses lèvres souriaient" ["An azure vapour rose up into Félicité's room. Her nostrils met it; she inhaled it sensuously, mystically; and then closed her eyes. Her lips smiled’’]. When juxtaposed to the fatuous, pointless dialogue entered into by Homais and Bournisien in the room where Emma lies in state, the death scene of Félicité suggests a striking impression of harmony and respect....

Source: Robert T. Denomme, "Felicite's View of Reality and the Nature of Flaubert's Irony in 'Un Coeur Simple'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 4, Fall, 1970, pp. 573-81.

Realism, Irony, and Compassion in Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple"

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‘‘Un Coeur Simple,’’ published in 1877 in Trois Contes, is a work of Flaubert's maturity. In this realistic nouvelle about the disappointments and bereavements of a self-sacrificing, simple-hearted servant girl from Normandy, Flaubert has certainly not given up the pessimism which found such bitter expressions in Madame Bovary. But, in spite of the inclusion in ''Un Coeur Simple'' of at least one very painful episode, and the general depressing effect of the gradual ‘‘running down’’ of Félicité's life, the overall impression which the reader gets from the short story is not exclusively one of bitterness. Perhaps the tone of the work may be tentatively described as one of sad serenity or ironic resignation. Flaubert views his simple-minded main character and her peculiar deity with some irony; but at the same time he is fond enough of her to include in his narrative scenes which are, as we shall see, almost tenderly conceived. This all-inclusiveness (Félicité is viewed with objective realism, with gentle irony, and with unsentimental compassion) lends to the work a richness and mature complexity which are impressive.

That ''Un Coeur Simple'' is a realistic piece of work there is no mistaking. In the first place, the nouvelle is realistically conceived due to the fact that Flaubert, as so often before, took models in actual life for some of his characters. [In his Flaubert, l’homme et l'oeuvre, 1932, René Dumesnil observes] that Félicité has traits from a fille-mère called Léonie who served in Trouville and also from ‘‘mademoiselle Julie,’’ an old faithful servant who worked for the Flaubert family for years. Dumesnil likewise calls attention to the probability that the characters of the two children Paul and Virginie were modelled on Flaubert himself as a child and his sister Caroline. Like Virginie in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple,’’ Caroline died young. Even the notorious parrot Loulou had models in real life; Flaubert borrowed specimens, both a live and a stuffed one.

The milieu (le cadre) of the short story is realistically depicted throughout, both in the wider sense (the descriptions of the scenery of Normandy) and in the narrower sense (the descriptions of the house of Madame Aubain with the room of Félicité). Flaubert gives more attention, however, to the immediate environment, i.e. the house of Madame Aubain, than to rural Norman landscapes. An obvious reason for this would seem to be that Félicité, as the most important character, ''stays put'' most of the time. She is first of all a servante; applying the sociological terminology of [Honore de] Balzac, we might say that in a sense her character is moulded partly by the house of Madame Aubain, and that she perhaps, in her turn, helps to form it—its atmosphere.

The characters in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple,’’ including the minor ones, are all described in realistic terms, but, despite the inclusion of some rather unpleasant physical details of illness and disease, not in naturalistic ones. One does not find in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple'' such starkly naturalistic touches as the description of L'Aveugle and the scene of the amputation of Hippolyte's leg in Madame Bovary. One should not, however, attempt to make too much of the difference of style between Madame Bovary and ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ (one is, after all, a full-length novel in several types of style, the other a nouvelle) but, perhaps, it is worth noting here that ''Un Coeur Simple'' does show considerable realistic unity and consistency of style and tone.

As it was indicated above, the characters of the short story are conceived in realistic, even deterministic terms with inclusion, as in the case of illness and death, of reasonably unpleasant physical details. We must learn about Félicité, not only after her arrival at Madame Aubain's house, but also about her childhood: the death of her father and mother, her childhood suffering and loneliness; her disappointing love "affair," which, in a sense, accounts for (‘‘determines’’) her later desperate clinging to other people and animals. Her emotional (and sexual) life is thwarted in the beginning of the story by the loss of her only love, Théodore, and her parents; but her craving to love is in no way impaired.

When the characters fall ill and die (and many of them do) we get the amount of physical and medical detail which Gustave Flaubert, the son of Doctor Flaubert, believes that good realism calls for. In all justice it must be admitted, however, that Flaubert shows admirable restraint in his enumerations of the symptoms of the several ailments that his characters suffer from. Still we get our details. Suffice it to list just a few of the many examples. At the deathbed of Virginie, Madame Aubain ‘‘... poussait des hoquets d'agonie" ["... was choking with sobs of agony’’]. The description of the dead Virginie goes like this: ‘‘... elle (Félicité) remarqua que la figure avait jauni, les lèvres bleuirent, le nez se pinçait, les yeux s'enfoncaient" ["... she noticed that the face had grown yellow, the lips turned blue, the nose was sharper, and the eyes sunk in’’]. Even illness of the parrot is observed closely and the appropriate realistic details are given: ‘‘Il devint malade, ne pouvait plus parler ni manger. C'était sous sa langue une épaisseur, comme en ont les poules quelquefois. Elle le guérit, en arrachant cette pellicule avec ses ongles" ["He fell ill and could not talk or eat any longer. There was a growth under his tongue, such as fowls have sometimes. She cured him by tearing the pellicle off with her fingernails’’]. The characters in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ do not, however, have to fall ill for Flaubert to describe them in realistic terms. At times his descriptions hover between the realistic and the naturalistic (the line of demarcation between the two is, of course, vague). When, at the death of Virginie, Madame Aubain breaks down and kisses Félicité, for the first and last time forgetting the difference in rank between mistress and servant, the reaction of Félicité is rendered in the following way: ''Félicité lui en fut reconnaissante comme d'un bienfait, et désormais la chérit avec un dévouement bestial [my italics] et une vénération religieuse'' [Félicité was as grateful as though she had received a favour, and cherished her mistress from that moment with the devotion of an animal and a religious worship’’].

Worms, an unpleasantly realistic symbol of decay, play an important part in the narrative. Making a nostalgic survey of the dead Virginie's belongings, Madame Aubain and Félicité find a little hat, but ‘‘... il était tout mangé de vermine’’ [‘‘it was eaten all over by moth’’]. Nor does the sacred bird Loulou, or rather its physical incarnation, escape the ravages of earthly decay: ‘‘Bien qu'il ne fût pas un cadavre, les vers le dévoraient ..." ["Loulou was not a corpse, but the worms devoured him...’’].

Among the characters of ''Un Coeur Simple'' Félicité is, of course, of paramount importance; the other characters are merely sketched in by Flaubert. They only interest us in their relations with the servant girl. Madame Aubain is simply Félicité's mistress. Paul and Virginie are merely children that are loved by Félicité. The nephew, Victor, is a young man mothered and later mourned by Félicité. Le père Colmiche is an old sick derelict nursed by Félicité and later prayed for by her. And the parrot Loulou, though it has a birdlike personality of its own, only compels our attention because it is loved by Félicité and becomes her God.

The admirable full-length portrait of the simple soul Félicité offers ample illustration of Flaubert's psychological insight, of his ability to render plausible the naïve workings of a mind entirely different from his own. As the title of the nouvelle indicates, Félicité's predominating characteristic is simplicity, combined with a self-effacing devotion to the ones she loves. The following would be a brief summary of the chief components of her character: She is devoutly religious, virtuous, hard-working, economical, efficient, deeply devoted to her mistress and the latter's children, humble to the point of effacing herself. She is ignorant about ''bookish'' things and the information derived from study (note her ignorance about geography, for instance). She is a muddled thinker, easily confused by irrelevant considerations, all, however, dictated by her great loyalty to others. Hurrying frantically to Virginie's deathbed, she is suddenly struck by the naïve, domestic fear that the house of Madame Aubain is left unprotected: ''La cour n'était pas fermée! si des voleurs s'introduisaient?" ["The courtyard has not been shut up; supposing burglars got in!’’] And so she forgets about Virginie for the moment and rushes back to protect the house, like a good servant.

Yet her simplicity is not absolute; it does not extend to the sphere of buying and selling. In bargaining with the tradesmen of Normandy, Félicité gives proof of the considerable practical astuteness of the Norman peasant. No butcher or grocer is going to cheat her! And invariably, when the tradesmen leave her, they are full of respect for her commercial talent and strength of will.

With regard to the realism of incident in ''Un Coeur Simple,’’ there is one episode which stands out from all the others in importance; it may almost be said to form the crux of the story. In the terrible scene of the deaf Félicité, on the road in front of the coach, struck down brutally by the whip of the driver, Flaubert focuses all the injustice and brutality that Félicité has suffered. Félicité's deafness and consequent failure to hear the approaching coach and get off the road in time is interpreted by the driver (understandably enough, perhaps, from his point of view, but otherwise, of course, quite erroneously) as spite or defiance; and so furiously he ‘‘... avec son grand fouet, lui cingla du ventre au chignon un tel coup qu'elle tomba sur le dos’’ [‘‘gave her such a lash from waist to neck with his big whip that she fell on her back'' ]. And the coach, moving like ‘‘une trombe" ["a hurricane’’] passes her by and leaves her bleeding and without understanding on the road. Continuing on her way toward Honfleur with the dead parrot, a little later she realizes the full impact of that terrible experience in a sort of delayed chain reaction in which, in a flash of stupefied insight, all her previous miseries are telescoped into one overwhelming feeling of unbearable pain and defeat: ‘‘Alors une faiblesse l'arrêta; et la misère de son enfance, la déception du premier amour, le départ de son neveu, la mort de Virginie, comme les flots d'une marée, revinrent à la fois, et, lui montant à la gorge, l'étouffaient’’ [‘‘Then a faintness overtook her and she stopped; her wretched childhood, the disillusion of her first love, her nephew's going away, and Virginie's death all came back to her at once like the waves of an oncoming tide, rose to her throat, and choked her’’]. This episode is an extremely pessimistic and a very moving one; but it is rendered with the utmost composure by Flaubert, without a trace of sentimentality. In many ways it reminds one of the fate of Hippolyte in Madame Bovary. Félicité and Hippolyte are both the helpless victims of the callous, indifferent brutality of the world which crushes them, moving like ‘‘une trombe." Felicite is defenseless, in the scene discussed above, because of her deafness which she cannot help, and Hippolyte loses his leg because he is the gullible victim of the ‘‘scientific'' vanity of Homais and the easily aroused, headless ambition of Charles Bovary.

As it has been indicated above, the tone of the narrative in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ is one of great detachment and objectivity. But some readers would undoubtedly get the impression that a mild irony vis-à-vis Félicité and her original metaphysics disengages itself, so to speak, at the end of the story. If irony it is, it is a kind irony, however, not a malicious one like the one Flaubert employs in his satirical account of Emma Bovary's education.... But, readers might argue, after all a parrot is a somewhat grotesque symbol of the Holy Ghost, and if you make your main character lie on her deathbed blissfully viewing the Holy Ghost in the open heavens in the shape of a gigantic parrot hovering over her head, you might at least seem to be implying, ironically and bitterly, that all religion is nothing but delusion. And yet, as we shall see presently, Flaubert's attitude toward this last scene is not mainly ironic.

It is not only the description of Félicité's last moments which is susceptible of an ironic interpretation. The realistic juxtaposition of Félicité's agony and the progression of the quaint religious procession in Madame Aubain's courtyard is presented with a baffling detachment which would unquestionably seem ironic in intent to many readers. The scene is reminiscent of Flaubert's description of ‘‘les Comices’’ in Madame Bovary. As in that scene we have a skilful blending of most discordant elements (the love talk between Emma and Rodolphe; the lowing of the cattle; the pompous speech of the official), so in ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ Flaubert, in a perfectly realistic way, with impassive composure, arranges somewhat incompatible objects on the reposoir. "... et des choses rares tiraient les yeux. Un sucrier de vermeil avait une couronne de violettes, des pendeloques en pierres d' Alençon brillaient sur de la mousse, deux écrans chinois montraient leurs paysages. Loulou, caché sous des roses, ne laissait voir que son front bleu, pareil à une plaque de lapis'' [‘‘... and some rare objects caught the eye. There was a silver-gilt sugar-basin with a crown of violets; pendants of Alençon stone glittered on the moss, and two Chinese screens displayed their landscapes. Loulou was hidden under roses, and showed nothing but his blue forehead, like a plaque of lapis lazuli’’].

In conclusion one might ask the question: is ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ then, exclusively a bitter, pessimistic, ironic work? In his introduction to Trois Contes (Editions Variétés, Avant-Propos, p. 9) René Ristelhueber seems to think so; he observes: ‘‘A la fois bref et minutieux, ce récit, sans un rayon de soleil, a quelque chose de poignant et d'amer" ["At once brief and detailed, this tale, without a ray of sun, has a poignant and bitter quality’’]. We cannot agree with that. Nor can we, on the other hand, agree with Dumesnil, who remarks in his book on Flaubert: ‘‘Dans l'oeuvre de Flaubert, empreinte d'un pessimisme altier, 'Un Coeur Simple' apparaît comme un repos, comme une détente'' [ ‘‘In Flaubert's works, stamped with a proud pessimism, 'A Simple Heart' appears as a rest, as a relaxation’’].

It would seem that a more correct critique of ‘‘Un Coeur Simple’’ must try to take account of both of these extreme points of view. We have noted the pessimism of the nouvelle, especially in the description of the painful scene of Félicité struck down by the driver, and in the general, cumulatively depressing effect of the ‘‘running down’’ of her life. It has been well said that for many of Flaubert's characters ‘‘la vie est une réalité qui se défait’’ [''life is a reality that self-destructs'' ]; and certainly the life of Félicité is a case in point. We have likewise noted the possible, but if so, gentle, irony of Félicité's peculiar metaphysics. But we must not forget the title of the work; we must not forget that Félicité is indeed a simple soul. And this is where Flaubert adds tenderness to his pessimistic realism and objectivity. Of all the persons and things which Félicité loved, the only thing which life permits her to keep is the stuffed, worm-eaten parrot. But her humility and great capacity for love find that a more than acceptable object of affection. Since she is devoutly religious, to a simple soul like hers there is nothing strange or irreverent in the fact that the Holy Ghost and the stuffed parrot should merge in her imagination: the thing she loves most in heaven linked to the thing she loves most on earth. If we may be permitted to combine and paraphrase two of the sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, we could say, with Flaubert we believe: Blessed are the poor in spirit and pure in heart, for they shall see (their) God.

Source: Borge Gedso Madsen, ‘‘Realism, Irony, and Compassion in Flaubert's 'Un Coeur Simple',’’ in The French Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, February, 1954, pp. 253-58.


Critical Overview