Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1243
Three Tales consists of three short stories: “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), and “Hérodias” (“Herodias”). Taken together, these three stories reflect Flaubert’s thematic concerns and artistic style. “A Simple Heart” tells the story of Félicité, a simpleminded and religious family servant. Set in contemporary, provincial France, this short story became an exercise in realism and narrative style. “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” reactivates Flaubert’s interest in historical settings and the lives of saints (with a fantastic twist), while “Herodias” shares some of these features (the historical setting) while also incorporating the themes of exoticism and the femme fatale, a theme frequently explored by nineteenth century writers through the story of Salomé, which enjoyed a particular vogue in literature and painting at the turn of the century. Despite these different settings and themes, the three stories present a certain unity through recurrent motifs and patterns.
Stylistically, these stories reveal Flaubert’s mature writing skills, and the minimal use of dialogue gives Flaubert ample room to develop his narrative techniques. Félicité, whose name ironically means “felicity” or “happiness,” is shown through a third-person narrator whose voice blends imperceptibly into a more articulate version of her own inner voice. It is the story of an obscure and overlooked life, told in five carefully structured parts. Félicité lives vicariously through the children of her mistress Madame Aubain, through a nephew, and finally even through a parrot. Just when she seems most unwanted herself, she adopts an unwanted parrot, Loulou, who becomes her companion. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed, and at the moment of her own death she confuses the sight of Loulou with a vision of the Holy Ghost descending from heaven.
Flaubert stated that his intentions in “A Simple Heart” were not to be ironic but to evoke pity. He relied heavily on autobiographical details for the background materials and even brought home a stuffed parrot that he kept on his desk as inspiration during the writing of the story. It was not pity for himself he wished to evoke, even though his recent financial ruin was still a source of pain. Instead, he was responding to a challenge from the novelist George Sand, who had reproached him for being unable to depict simple goodness. Sand died before she was able to see her challenge bear fruit in this story.
This rather muted story stands in contrast to the two historical panels of this triptych, a structure echoing the alternation in Flaubert’s work between contemporary and exotic works. In the companion panels, the reader finds the story of Saint Julian, which invokes the bright colors of a gothic stained-glass window, and the equally colorful, but more barbaric, story of Herodias, also with a saintly figure, that of John the Baptist.
The story of Saint Julian focuses on the fulfillment of three predictions. Julian’s birth is accompanied by two divine prophecies. The first, that he will be a saint, is delivered to his mother, while the second, predicting military glory, is told to his father. Julian himself receives a third, and more troubling, prophecy. The young Julian is an avid hunter, but when one of his targets, a stag, addresses him in a human voice to tell him he (Julian) will kill his parents, he leaves home to avoid his fate.
The second part of the story sees Julian fulfilling the prophecy of military glory, where he continues to indulge his bloodlust. Like his more familiar counterpart Oedipus, Julian nevertheless cannot escape his destiny, and the narrative leads the reader to the inexorable fulfillment of the stag’s curse. Leaving his palace one night to hunt, Julian returns to find two people in his bed. Supposing them to be his wife and a lover, he kills them in a rage, only to discover that the couple was his own parents, on a pilgrimage, to whom his wife had given up the bed.
To complete the cycle of prophecies, the third segment takes up the prediction of sainthood. Julian has become an outcast to atone for his sins and lives a poor and hermitlike existence. One night, during a storm, a leper asks to be ferried across the river. Julian complies and also grants the leper’s requests for food and shelter. The leper eventually requests that Julian warm him with his own body, and when Julian does this, the leper is miraculously transformed into Jesus, who transports Julian with him to heaven.
Here, Flaubert does not focus on the inner thoughts and perceptions of characters, choosing instead to present them like the naïve characters of the cathedral window that inspired them and to show the workings of tragedy. Julian is a tragic character, doomed by his own love of pointless killing but redeemed by charity and humility. The twin themes of fate and faith link all three stories in this series.
The final panel of the triptych is also similar to the story of Saint Julian by also being depicted on Rouen cathedral, in Flaubert’s hometown, though this time in the form of a stone carving rather than a stained-glass window. “Herodias” throws the reader into the midst of the narrative at a crucial time, precisely when the actors in a tragic drama can yet intervene to change the course of events. In the opening scene of “Herodias,” Herod Antipas is up before dawn, agitated, contemplating the need for decision and action. The timing of the action, which occupies twenty-four hours, from dawn to dawn, gives the story a classical form. Herod must decide how best to use his prisoner John the Baptist (Iaokanann) in his quest to control Jerusalem.
Herod’s situation is precarious. He is planning to celebrate his birthday, and a number of powerful Romans have been invited to attend, but at the same time he is being attacked by the king of the Arabs. Once again, prophecy has a role to play, for it has been predicted that someone important will die in the citadel that day. Herod’s problem is that there are so many important people around, it is not clear who the victim will be. The irony is that Iaokanann is not on his list of possibilities, since he fails to consider him important.
A Roman inspection of the citadel is the pretext for a lavish description of the visiting dignitaries, the fortress, and of Iaokanann himself, setting the tone of intrigue and excitement that dominates. The description, reminiscent of Flaubert’s earlier novel Salammbô, continues with the evening feast, which also serves to illustrate the clash of cultures and to air the growing rumors concerning Iaokanann’s role in a new religious movement.
The climax of the evening is Salomé’s dance. Salomé is the puppet of her scheming mother Herodias, who uses her daughter’s seductive charm to manipulate the powerful men around her. Flaubert maintained that the interest of “Herodias” lay not in the religious theme but in the figure of Herodias as a kind of Cleopatra figure, that is, a study in power and seduction. Herod is particularly smitten by Salomé because of her resemblance to Herodias (Salomé is her daughter by an earlier marriage) and offers her any reward she chooses. Salomé asks for the head of Iaokanann, which is brought to her on a platter.