A Simple Heart – Gustave Flaubert
A Simple Heart is a heartrending sincere story of a maid, Félicité Barette, and her kind-hearted and forthright life, even when faced with abuse, poverty, loss and loneliness. Gustave Flaubert wrote this short story under encouragement from his good friend and author George Sand, to create the main protagonist that was very different to the satirical and corruptible characters in his previous novels, such as Madame Bovary.
The vivid images of the historic towns and countryside are beautifully portrayed by Flaubert and the landscapes adorn this profound story. A Simple Heart is a literary piece which can be interpreted by the reader in an ironic or metaphorical manner. However, the suggestion that Flaubert’s intent is to portray the life of a simple, pious and powerless woman who spends her life in servitude, maybe more accurate, especially as she’s based on his own family’s maid. Félicité is unconditionally loving, regardless of abuse and adversity. She is conspicuously diligent, with only a meagre reward and selfless without expectation.
“Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.”
Félicité endures hardships in her early life often being beaten and wrongly accused of theft. During a particular period she met a young man Théodore whom she was romantically involved, only to be relayed a message that he married an older woman to avoid conscription into the army. She eventually goes to work for Madame Aubain as cook, housemaid and nanny to her young children, Paul and Virginie. Félicité undertakes her duties with the utmost dedication and remains in the employ of Madam Aubain for fifty years.
Throughout the fifty years as a maid, Félicité establishes a bond with the children especially Virginie and her nephew Victor, who is a sailor. Both die young of pneumonia and yellow fever and leave a heart-breaking toll on Félicité. As the years pass she becomes more kind-hearted, helping soldiers, refugees, victims of cholera and other sicknesses. One day a friend of Madame Aubain’s, Madame de Larsonniere, leaves a noisy parrot to the household and eventually Félicité. The parrot is called Loulou and it played an important part in the remainder of Félicité’s life – both alive and stuffed after its death. In fact, on her death-bed, she sees a vision of the Holy Spirit in a large form of her parrot.
“A blue vapour rose in Félicité’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. 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.”
The context of the parrot in the story is open for debate, is it a parody of an expectation which awaits the pious person at the end of life or does it represent her last love come to escort her to heaven?
I would recommend reading this book for its beautiful prose and as an insight into Gustave Flaubert. Interestingly he placed a stuffed parrot on his desk while he wrote this story and detested the sight of it, come the end.