An omniscient, third-person narrator leads the reader into the world of Félicité and the Aubain family, laying out the vignettes of daily life that finally combine to form a portrait complete in all particulars. Great care is taken to produce an impression of point-to-point congruence with reality, as if one is reading a biography. Thus, many dates are explicit; the reader learns that M. Aubain died in 1809, that Victor Leroux sailed for Havana in 1818, and that Loulou died in 1837. However, although these dates are scattered throughout the story, they serve as points of reference for an orderly narration and do not overpower it. The tone of “A Simple Heart” is always steady, unemotional, even in dealing with the most touching of scenes. Dialogue is the ordinary, simple expression that predominates. The author’s eye is avid for the homely detail; he exhibits Félicité as she eats her meals, slowly and deliberately, picking up the crumbs of her bread with a moist fingertip, Félicité cherishing little Virginie’s moth-eaten hat as a holy relic, Félicité wearing a traditional Norman headdress whose wings mimic those of the parrot Loulou.
Flaubert’s description of Félicité is framed by his evocation of her whole milieu, with pithy descriptions of typical characters such as the family lawyer, an aged veteran of the Terror of 1793, and Mme Aubain’s daughter-in-law. The reader sees the Norman countryside, breathes the sea air with Virginie, attends catechism class in the country church, and joins the procession on the feast of Corpus Christi. Flaubert is known as a great stylist, forever dedicated to the search for le mot juste, the right word. Here, this famous search produced clear and pungent images, compact yet satisfying, which continue to bring readers into the world of Félicité Barette.
The orphaned Felicite is treated badly in her youth, first by a cruel master and later by jealous fellow servants. Disappointed in love at age 18, she leaves her neighborhood to become cook and general servant for a widowed mother, Madame Aubain. In that position, she lives a life filled with duty, devotion, and affection. Flaubert tells the story in a simple manner which emphasizes the value of Felicite’s humble life.
At Madame Aubain’s, Felicite enters a routine which makes her life seem orderly. By conscientious work, she makes herself necessary to the family. Most important to her happiness is her increased freedom to love.
She loves Madame Aubain’s two children, Paul and Virginia, courageously saving them from an angry bull. She accidentally discovers a lost sister whose family she helps from her tiny income and whose son, Victor, becomes a favorite. Victor and Virginia both die young. Felicite’s grief at their loss is as great as Madame Aubain’s for her daughter. The two women first express simple affection for each other when they one day go through Virginia’s long-kept clothing.
When the children are gone, leaving only Madame Aubain for Felicite to love, she begins to collect objects which remind her of them, such as Virginia’s felt hat. Her prize possession becomes Loulou, a parrot which reminds her of Victor because it came from America, where he died. The parrot becomes so important to her that, upon its death, she has it stuffed. She eventually becomes deaf and loses Madame Aubain. In her increasing isolation, she clings to the image of the parrot, which becomes for her an image of the Holy Ghost, a symbol of what she has loved and of her power of loving simply.
Unlike the other two tales...
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which make up the collectionThree Tales, ''A Simple Heart'' is not a historical reconstruction. It is a story set in the time and the country of the author, and thus it reflects the attitudes and habits of France in the nineteenth century. Félicité represents a realistic picture of a woman living in the France that Flaubert knew and observed.
Romanticism and Realism in Nineteenth-Century France Flaubert figures as one of the leading authors of the realist movement, and ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ is typical of his work in this regard. Realistic writers sought to represent life in its purest form, without exaggeration or embellishment. They considered themselves reporters, attempting to chronicle their worlds honestly and objectively. Conventional morality was not a concern: logic, common sense, and pragmatism informed their literary endeavors. Realism was in many ways a reaction to and a movement away from romanticism, which had dominated French literature in the earlier part of the century. The romantic movement, an artistic and literary tradition established in late eighteenth-century Europe, had been characterized by an interest in nature and an emphasis on individualism, imagination, and emotion. Ultimately, realism became the dominant literary style until the end of the century.
Political and Social Influences in Nineteenth-Century France The school of realism took shape in French literature after the coup d'etat in 1851 that brought Louis Napoleon to power. Louis Napoleon—the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte), who had been forced to abdicate in 1815—had himself proclaimed emperor in 1852, and he ruled as Napoleon III until 1870. In many ways realism represented a reaction against the social climate of this period of the ‘‘Second Empire.’’ While many people made fortunes in this developing capitalist society, the gap between rich and poor seemed to be widening. Meanwhile, wealth ruled, and the bourgeoisie, or entrepreneurial middle class, dominated society and politics. There was a general sense of self-satisfaction, even self-righteousness, among the wealthy classes. Prosperity, respectability, conformity, and order were strong mandates, both politically and socially. At the same time, there was dissension among the lower class: workers were unhappy with their treatment, and social revolution and political anarchy were brewing just below the surface.
The Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century France Although the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a strong position in France in the nineteenth century, its mandates were challenged by positivist philosophy. The invention of philosopher Auguste Comte, positivism rejected the romantic notions of dream, imagination, mysticism, and even God. Anything which could not be proved scientifically or seen with the eye was to be dismissed as whimsy; anything which was contingent upon faith was suspect. As a popular philosophy in French social and intellectual circles, positivism thus threw the mandates of the Church into question. Many critics writing about ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ have remarked on the significant religious symbolism and criticism of the church and its followers. Certainly many of Félicité's attitudes appear to be grounded in her religion, and, as a servant to all and a peasant herself, she may represent the simple, uneducated, and religiously-observant class in nineteenth-century France.
Point of View Critic Victor Brombert has said that Flaubert's great accomplishment in ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ was that he presented a protagonist, or central character, who is completely inarticulate and uneducated, and yet he made the reader view things as she does. The author allowed the reader to view Félicité's character from both the outside and the inside: from the outside, through the omniscient narrator's impassive and factual account of events and of the attitudes of other characters towards her; from the inside, through the narrator's reports of her thoughts, actions, and motives. The contrasts that are introduced between Félicité's generous acts and thoughts and the generally self-centered and callous reactions of the more sophisticated characters around her create sympathy for the main character and an implied critique of her supposed superiors. Since the narrative voice never offers a direct opinion of the action, however, the reader is left to form his or her own interpretation of the story's meaning.
Irony Irony is a use of language in which the intended meaning appears to be different from what is directly stated. The narrative voice in ''A Simple Heart,'' for instance, may be seen as ironic because although it offers no direct commentary on the story, the evidence it reports builds sympathy for the main character and exposes the shallowness and egoism of those who exploit her.
The more subtle the irony, the more difficult it may be to determine exactly what is meant. Critics disagree about the extent and meaning of Flaubert's use of irony in ‘‘A Simple Heart.’’ Much of Félicité's behavior—such as her devotion to her parrot, which eventually approaches idolatry—is so simple-minded as to seem absurd. Yet Félicité herself is so selfless in her love and so unconquerable in her resistance to despair that to most readers she is a likable and sympathetic character; no matter how simple and naive her actions, she herself does not seem ridiculous.
Symbolism Loulou is the most obvious symbol in the story, although there are many more. As a parrot, he can only repeat empty phrases, generally out of context, and thus he is a particularly ironic symbol as the vehicle through which Félicité should experience divinity. Félicité's deafness in her old age is symbolic of her inability to comprehend or interpret the world around her. Many of the names in the story also appear to have symbolic significance, often with ironic overtones. Félicité (whose name, like the English word "felicity," implies both happiness and good fortune) lives a life of repeated misfortune and great sadness, but she dies smiling. Victor is certainly not victorious; Virginie dies before she lives, virginal by default, another life wasted; "aubaine," in French, refers to a godsend or windfall, but while Félicité may see Madame Aubain in this light, one could argue that Félicité was less than fortunate in her choice of employers.
Realism Flaubert was one of the leaders of the realist movement in French literature, which sought to portray life in a realistic manner primarily through the use of an objective narrative point of view and the accumulation of accurate details. He believed in meticulous observation and exact reporting of events. He also held firmly that the writer must not express his opinion through his art—that he must simply tell the story. Thus in ‘‘A Simple Heart,’’ the narrator reports the story of Félicité's life without commentary or reflection. The reader is thus obliged to draw his or her own conclusions—much as in real life.
Sources Brombert, Victor, '‘‘Un Coeur simple': Tenderness and Irony.’’ In The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques, Princeton University Press, 1966, pp. 233-45.
Sachs, Murray, '‘‘A Simple Heart,’’ In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 899-900.
Starkie, Enid, Flaubert the Master, New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Further Reading Steegmuller, Francis, Introduction to Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, The Modern Library, 1982. Steegmuller's comprehensive introduction is very helpful for comparison and contrast and for a general overview of Flaubert's work.