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.