Gustave Flaubert uses the story of Félicité to study the transcendence of the qualities of love, courage, and faith in a life firmly anchored in the most tragic, sordid, and limited circumstances. Félicité has no pretensions to beauty or intellect, and every aspect of her life has its burden of sorrow. She has glimpses of the tragically barren nature of her life in general, forever a servant, her loves lost to death or betrayal. However, her own capacity to love and serve beautifies and transforms this life. It is impossible to discuss Félicité without reference to the strong Christian framework given by the writer, both through Félicité’s faith and through her embodiment of an ethic expressed in the Gospels. She is a loving, suffering servant, feeding the hungry, caring for the dying, ever humble and childlike in her faith.
The parrot, Loulou, invested by Félicité with qualities of a religious image, embodies the paradox of Félicité’s faith. There is much that is comical and grotesque in the old servant’s love for the gaudy bird. However, there is much that is also an element of purest mysticism, which transforms Loulou into a fully satisfying symbol of the divine in Félicité’s life, the power of the Holy Spirit, imperfectly understood yet leading the soul to transcendence. The reader shares Félicité’s deathbed vision and trusts its clarity as the heavens open before her.
It has been suggested that Flaubert based the characters and plot of this story on autobiographical elements. Félicité corresponds to Julie, a faithful servant in his mother’s house; Mme Aubain resembles the author’s mother; geographical names and descriptions are those of Flaubert’s youth; and some specific incidents of the plot, such as the death of Virginie Aubain, parallel events in the life of the author’s family. Such biographical details, however, are not essential to an understanding of “A Simple Heart” and, in fact, may detract from the impact of the story. By the power of art, deeply felt, intimately personal material is generalized and transformed, and the transfiguration of the simple Félicité parallels the reweaving of Flaubert’s story into hers.
God and Organized Religion As in many of his earlier works, in ‘‘A Simple Heart’’ Flaubert dealt with notions of simplicity, sainthood, religious faith, and duty. Many critics have interpreted this story as a profound but veiled critique of organized religion—particularly the Roman Catholic church in nineteenth-century France—and of its unquestioning following among the bourgeoisie, or middle class. As a realist writer, Flaubert believed the artist must not express his opinions in his works. The story's reputed critique of the Church is not explicit—critics find it conveyed through such techniques as irony and symbolism. Félicité's vicarious devotion to the church through Virginie's first communion experience, while passionate and profound, is also arbitrary and circumstantial. She comes upon her faith by chance, by the simple accident of being required to accompany her young charge to her religion classes. Her devotion to the church is not based on an embrace of its beliefs: ‘‘Of doctrines she understood nothing—did not even try to understand.’’ Rather, it stems from an emotional reaction to the stories told by the priest, full of familiar images of country life, and to the mystery and pomp of the communion ceremony. Moreover, Félicité's religious devotion eventually becomes indistinguishable in her mind from her devotion to her dead parrot.
Duty and Responsibility A not-unrelated theme is that of duty and responsibility. In her simplicity, which makes possible her tremendous capacity...
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to love, Félicité never questions her duty or her responsibility. Her determination in this respect is dogged, whether or not it is admirable. She works relentlessly for half a century for a ridiculously low wage, without complaint. When she rescues the family from the raging bull, she endangers her own life without a second thought. When she walks through the night to bid adieu to Victor, she does not question the wisdom of or reason for her task, and when she is knocked over while taking her dead parrot to be stuffed, she simply picks herself up and continues her journey. Her simplicity makes her virtually unstoppable, except by death. While Félicité herself is never portrayed in a negative light, her consistent history of disappointment, loss, and exploitation by others throws into question the value of such blind and unswerving devotion in the face of a thankless and unrewarding world.
Innocence and Ignorance Félicité embodies innocence and Christian charity; she is virtuous and self-abnegating and good. At eighteen she does not at first seem to suspect that Theodore, the young man who befriends her at a dance, has any ulterior motive—when he makes sexual advances she is frightened and cries out. Later, the narrator remarks that ‘‘she was not innocent as young ladies are—she had learned knowledge from the animals—but her reason and the instinct of her honour would not let her fall.'' After saving her mistress's family from the bull, she has ''not the barest suspicion that she had done anything heroic.’’ She is ignorant in some ways—for example, ‘‘so stunted was her mind’’ that she thinks one can see a particular house on a map, and though she takes Virginie to catechism, she understands nothing about doctrine. She cannot read. When Virginie dies and Félicité keeps vigil, the narrator notes that if Virginie had revived during her watch Félicité ''would not have been immensely surprised ... to minds like hers the supernatural is quite simple.’’
Wealth, Poverty, and Exploitation Simple, uneducated, and poor, Félicité is repeatedly exploited and victimized, from her early days as a farm worker to her relationship with Theodore to her service with Madame Aubain. She is used by everyone she loves; everyone leaves her; sadness repeatedly threatens to destroy her. Yet she is so unaware of evil, so accepting of good, that she is incorruptible. Her heart, as the title suggests, is simple enough to be pure, and her capacity to love is her wealth.
Death, Time, and Loss While death is a recurring theme in ''A Simple Heart,’’ time and loss seem more important to the story as a whole. Death is ever-present, a product of time and a vehicle of loss. Félicité is orphaned at an early age and separated from her siblings. When she does locate one of her sisters, the woman seems primarily interested in taking advantage of her. With the passage of time she suffers the loss of Theodore, her only human lover, of Virginie, Victor, Paul, and even of Madame Aubain. Always poor, she is threatened after her employer's death with eviction from her home. She seems to have no control over her losses. When her parrot disappears, her frantic efforts to find him prove fruitless, although the bird comes back on his own. Victor's ship disappears just as she arrives to see him off. She loses the chance to see Virginie before the girl dies, arriving too late because she stayed behind to lock the house out of duty to Madame Aubain's interests. Toward the end, she is physically diminishing, growing smaller, becoming deaf. She hears, literally and figuratively, only the voice of the parrot, and the parrot can only repeat empty phrases. ‘‘The little circle of her ideas grew narrower and narrower.’’ Thus her small world becomes ever smaller, until it is reduced to a single vision of a dead parrot as the Holy Ghost. The related themes of time as erosive, of loss as inevitable, become one theme as her death approaches.