Gustave Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" is part of the Three Tales collection. This review refers to the A. J. Krailsheimer translation, published by Oxford University Press. The book can be ordered from Powell's Books. To go to its page on the Powell's website, click here.
“A Simple Heart,” the opening story in Gustave Flaubert’s 1877 Three Tales collection, is generally considered a masterpiece of the short-story form. It’s not hard to understand why. It combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language to create what is both a perfectly realized character study and a dazzlingly poetic rendering of faith and its fulfillment. What’s most impressive about it is Flaubert’s ability to weave both the realistic and poetic together.
The protagonist of “A Simple Heart” is Félicité, a housekeeper of peasant background who works for a widow in the Normandy region of France. The story is an account of Félicité’s life, and the bulk of it is set in the first half of the nineteenth century. Flaubert divides it into five sections. The first introduces Félicité as the servant of the widow Madame Aubain. The second tells of the hardship of Félicité’s early life, how she came to work for Madame Aubain, and her experiences helping to raise Madame Aubain’s children. In the third, Félicité discovers her faith. She also experiences tragedy in the form of deaths in both Madame Aubain’s family and her own. Madame Aubain dies in the fourth section, and Félicité’s last days are recounted in the fifth.
Flaubert constructs the story around loss, specifically how Félicité deals with the losses of those she loves over the course of her life. He pays scrupulous attention to pace: her relationships with those she loses are treated with increasing detail as the story mounts. Félicité is orphaned at an early age; Flaubert gives each of the parents a sentence. Her fiancée marries another woman; the account of his and Félicité’s relationship is given two pages. Approximately half the story is given over to Félicité’s relationships over time with Virginie, Madame Aubain’s sickly daughter, and Victor, Félicité’s nephew, who dies after going to sea. And Flaubert pays the most attention to Félicité’s relationship with her pet parrot Loulou, which takes up the latter part of the story. The reader is given both the before and after of the parrot’s death, at which point Félicité has the bird stuffed and mounted. She's more devoted to the bird after its death than while it was alive, but Flaubert doesn’t use the parrot to belittle Félicite in the reader’s eyes. Nor does he use it to rub one’s nose in pathos. He doesn’t intend for Félicité’s devotion to the bird to be seen as ridiculous or sad. Apart from Madame Aubain, the parrot is the last of the heartfelt losses in Félicité’s life, and Flaubert, in some of the most extraordinary writing I’ve ever encountered, transforms it into a beatific vision in her deathbed scene. He effects a complete reversal of meaning: a trope for loss becomes one of consummation.
This is achieved through a virtuoso use of metonymy, the assigning or transforming of meaning by simple association, usually with something of proximity. Flaubert is canny enough not to make it feel imposed on the story; he makes metonymy intrinsic to Félicité’s perceptions, and those perceptions in turn guide her actions. This first becomes apparent in the passage in which she finds her faith. The identification of Christ as a lamb leads her to associate that identification with real-life lambs, and she loves them more as a result. As the story goes on, there are many other metonymic associations, such as her identification of Virginie with a plush hat, which she keeps as a remembrance after the girl’s death. Félicité's affection for Loulou is borne of her love for her nephew. She identifies the bird with the Americas, which was where Victor was going when he died. The parrot functions as a living trope for the family member she lost.
Flaubert’s skill with metonymy is apparent in how he transforms the parrot’s meaning in Félicité’s eyes again and again. The bird starts as an emotional signifier for her nephew. After it dies and Félicité takes it to be stuffed, the taxidermist (who lives in another town) takes so long that she becomes convinced she will never see it again. But the mounted bird eventually arrives, and its return signifies everlasting love to her. The parrot is the first thing she has loved that has left her and then come back. It will always be with her, like her holy faith, and she begins to associate it with that faith as well. Flaubert clearly illustrates it in this passage:
In church she always gazed upon the Holy Spirit, and noticed he looked something like the parrot. The likeness seemed still more evident in a popular print of Our Lord’s baptism. […] They became associated in her mind, so that the parrot became sanctified from this connexion with the Holy Spirit, which in turn became more lifelike and readily intelligible in her eyes. […] Félicité would look at the print as she said her prayers, but with a sidelong glance from time to time at the bird.
Félicité’s identification of her bird with holiness leads her to have it placed on an altar of repose for Good Friday. She lays on her deathbed as the altar with her bird passes by in the procession, and with her smelling of the smoke from the swinging censers, Flaubert effects the story’s ultimate metonymic transformation: the parrot goes from being a personal trope for the Holy Spirit to Félicité’s vision of the Spirit itself. It’s a transformation that ranks with those in Ovid and Dante, and unlike their efforts, this depiction of the uncanny isn't one of horror; it's an image of divine fulfillment.
Perhaps even more impressive than Flaubert’s metonymic dazzle is his ability to create a context in which it works. The story never seems overblown or pretentious in its handling of these effects. Partly this is because Flaubert keeps his language very plain, but it’s largely because Félicité’s characterization is so precisely evoked that Flaubert makes it entirely believable that she thinks in these terms. If her associations and identifications seem fanciful in a simpleminded kind of way, it’s because in many respects she is a simpleminded person. That's not to say Flaubert ever condescends to her (something that, given his other work, one might think him inclined to do). Félicité is portrayed as having a considerable pragmatic intelligence. Her housekeeping skills make Madame Aubain the envy of the neighbors. She’s described as being better at haggling and negotiating prices than anyone else. And her cleverness in saving Madame Aubain and the children from a rampaging bull is the stuff of local legend. She’s just not reflective, and she doesn’t think about abstract matters in a critical way. She believes in what she believes in, and makes the abstract associations she makes, and there’s all there is to it.
This depiction is fully in keeping with Flaubert’s realist aesthetic and its emphasis on observation. Working-class people tend to be smart in pragmatic terms, while those in the upper classes are at their best with abstract matters. It’s as perceptive a portrayal as Flaubert’s extraordinary rendering of the interior of the widow’s home or the various aspects of the Normandy countryside. “A Simple Heart" combines precisely detailed realist depictions with bravura poetic treatments of the supernatural, and it does so in a way that makes them seem all of a piece. It locates the sublime in mundane existence more effectively than any prose story I can think of. It’s arguably Flaubert’s masterpiece, and it deserves its standing among the great works of literature.
Reviews of other fiction by Gustave Flaubert: