Student Question

What does Loulou the parrot symbolize in "A Simple Heart", and is Félicité's love for it mocked?

Quick answer:

Loulou the parrot in "A Simple Heart" symbolizes the Holy Spirit to Felicite. Whether or not the narrator is mocking Felicite for her love for the bird is one of literature's great conundrums. Is the bird merely garish and ridiculous, or does Felicite's love and devotion transform it into a beautiful and holy creature? Given the sympathy with which the narrator treats Felicite, one might tend to lean to the latter reading.

Expert Answers

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Loulou the parrot comes to symbolize the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost) for Felicite. She becomes very attached to the bird, who is her companion in her old age. The bird begins to conflate or combine in her mind with a colored picture of the Holy Spirit:

In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou.

After the bird dies, Felicite has it stuffed and keeps it on an altar. She is sure that the dove which is said to represent the Holy Spirit in the Bible really was a parrot.

The question of whether or not the narrator of the story is mocking Felicite's love for the bird is one of the great ambiguities in literature. It all is a matter of how you read the story, and to be honest, having read the story many times, I understand the difficulty. On the side of mockery, the bright colored bird is a garish and ridiculous symbol of the divine. It also can not think for itself but only repeat what Felicite teaches it. In this reading, the parrot becomes a scathing critique of Catholicism, suggesting that the faith is simply empty symbols that we invest with meaning. In this reading, the last lines of the story are comic, laughable:

Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away;—and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.

On the other hand, it can be hard to imagine a narrator who builds such a sympathetic portrait of Felicite wanting to mock or make fun of her in her dying moments. In this reading, the parrot represents the pathos, and what I would call the beauty, of Felicite being able to love and make the most out of the little that crosses her path. The parrot is another creature that gets more love and devotion from Felicite than it deserves. Felicite's love elevates the bird in this interpretation, investing it with a divine stature. Felicite's simplicity and pure heart turns what she touches—the tawdry things of life that surround her—into beauty. In this case, it is touching—and fitting—that Felicite, despite her often sad, narrow life, is able to die with joy; in this reading, the parrot is not ridiculous but truly the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. In the end, I come down on the narrator not mocking the bird, but it would be up to you to decide.

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