Why “Un Coeur Simple,” by Flaubert, is not a bad story
Were this remodelled as the story of an educated woman, it might then be read as tragic or inspirational. Since it is “only” the story of a simpleton, readers tend to find Félicité’s delusions ridiculous, as do the “superior” people in the fictional world of the story. At first glance, she comes across as a caricature, and in all likelihood it is her crazy ideas about the Parrot that will stick longest in our minds after we’ve finished reading about her. But the author wants us to think again. He once explained that he wrote it, “pour faire pleurer les âmes sensibles, en étant moi-même une” (to make sensitive souls weep, of whom I myself am one).
Take her name, Felicity. This was obviously chosen by the author for ironic purposes. Or was it? She does have her moments of bliss; they may be few and far between but they’re very intense. Maybe the title is meant to have more than one layer of meaning, too. By the time we have read the whole story we see that her simplicity has connotations of purity and straightforwardness as well as of stupidity. What’s more, perhaps she isn’t as “simple” as she seems at first sight, either; perhaps she has hidden depths, only hinted at in the text.
Note that the title itself focusses on the “heart” of this person rather than what she might outwardly seem to be. Like the trappings in the church – outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace? – perhaps her Quakerly, grey dress and her ageless face are mentioned in the first chapter in order to convey this woman’s subdued, unassuming nature. Or is she merely “a wooden doll driven by clockwork” (next line). Flaubert often makes us look at the world in more than one way at a time. In any case the introductory description of her in middle age is more to do with her job, giving elaborate details of the house she keeps in order, than her personality (or lack of it); this bias mirrors the kind of life she’s leading.
Felicité’s appearance is only ever sketchily outlined. Physically, she’s a shadowy figure, especially at the start of the story, exactly as a servant would appear to her employers, not even altogether human, a mechanical presence. Immediately though, the author begins to disabuse us of this notion by telling us about her youth, her sordidly pathetic “love affair” (a deliberate misnomer) with the exploitative Théodore, who then vanishes from the story exactly as he does from her life. However, his interference with Felicity has left enough of an impression to make us realise that she can suffer, with outbursts of “frenzied grief” that no longer tally with the doll-like automation described in the first chapter.
Back to the Aubains’ house, as if that former “love story” were just a fleeting memory in Félicité’s mind, distressing while she thinks back, but soon dismissed from her mind because “her pleasant surroundings had dispelled her grief,” or so she imagines.
The subsequent short and random depictions of the people who sometimes visit the house are similarly brief intrusions into Felicité’s consciousness, and hence into ours, the readers’. We only glean snippets of information about them because this is exactly how she experiences other people in the world and indeed the world itself, like the arbitrary illustrations the children have shown her in their geography book. The solicitor, M. Bourais, for example, is vaguely portrayed to us, and to her, as a somewhat awesome presence (probably the impression she gets from hearing Mme Aubain talk about him) but we’re not given any corroboration of this, and in fact, by the time we come to the mention of his death in Chapter 4 we realise what a worthless object of the women’s devotion he has been. Félicité’s not the only one who’s duped in the course of this story. Mme Aubain, likewise. We may even feel let down ourselves, when we realise that Flaubert’s adjective “outstanding,” to describe M. Bourais’ personality, was a sarcastic epithet all along. This is a writer who, by degrees, trains his readers not to take anything we’re told at face value.
The children Paul and Virginie are brought into the narrative as examples of Félicité’s objects of devotion. (Their names, incidentally, are an ironic allusion to a popular sentimental novel by Chateaubriand, entitled Paul et Virginie). The description of the children limits itself to the details their maid would have noticed: Paul’s trapping birds in the barn, Virginie’s embroidered knickers, etc. The children’s tutor likewise is merely mentioned as being “famous for his beautiful handwriting and ...had a habit of sharpening his penknife on his boots,” exactly the sort of details that would have stuck in any servant’s mind, when she came across him.
Suddenly, in the story as in the life, we are into the incident of Félicité’s heroism with the bull in the field, although, “it never occured to her that she had done anything heroic,” so we don’t dwell on it for long. Félicité’s never mentioned in the description of the family’s visit to Mère Liébard; in fact she’s ignored by everyone present in this scene of the story as well. To extrapolate from the details given, however, we’re seeing the farm through her quietly observant eyes. Once they get to Trouville, the verbal description gives the effect of an impressionist painting, with all our senses appealed to; we’re not limited to visual impressions either – Flaubert alludes to the heat of the sun as well as the “dazzling bars of light” shining through their blinds, the hammering on the boats and the smell of tar, the wind catching the sails of the boats, the splashing waves, as well as the “quivering fish” in the fishing nets. This seaside episode is one of the absolute highlights of the little life that’s being described in this story, hence the intensity of the description. Félicité, if we think about it, is actually a very sensual woman. One of the most terrible things about her life is that this sensuality is so frustrated and that this was so typical of the women of her station.
Even in the happy situation at Trouville, we’re given inklings of the predominantly sombre side of her life, with Félicité’s relatives, the Leroux family, making an appearance, “bent on getting all they could out of her” and Virginie starting to cough, the first hint that this child won’t live long. Typical Flaubert! (Thomas Hardy's novels have the same pessimistic tone.)
In Chapter 3, Félicité’s “education,” casually begun in a vicarious way via the children’s geography book, etc, continues, when she takes Virginie to her communion classes. Virginie is very young still, and so is her maid, developmentally speaking. So she learns about religion from a child’s perspective and weeps as she listens, Flaubert informs us, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about how the Gospels speak with familiarity to her simple soul. From fatigue (she falls asleep during the religious instruction) if not sheer lack of intelligence, she fails to grasp the Catholic dogma (“neither understood nor tried to understand anything”); thus, with her Simple Heart, she bypasses all the unnecessary baggage of Christianity and comes straight to its essence. Is Flaubert indirectly reminding us of Jesus telling the disciples: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18, v.3)? Félicité will have no such problem. We’re given a hint here of how the story will end, as her literal mind tries to picture the Holy Ghost as a bird, a fire, a breeze or “the sweet music of the bells” – her sensuality alluded to once again, as she delights in the “coolness of the walls and the quiet of the church.”
The secondhand way in which she experiences life is spelled out in a direct manner during the First Communion scene, as Félicité watches Virginie approach the altar it seems “she herself was in the child’s place” and she (the mere watcher) almost faints in appreciation of what Virginie is supposed to be experiencing. This could be seen as spirituality of a high degree, or it could just be that she’s overexcited by a special event. Flaubert leaves it to us to decide. Spelling out the possibilities of interpretation would be too intrusive here, and would ruin his detachment as narrator; as his readers, we must make the connections for ourselves.
When Virginie goes off to school she kisses her mother goodbye. There’s no such mention of the child kissing her maid, who will be likewise stricken when she’s gone. Mme Aubain has “all her friends” to console her for the absence of her little girl, whereas Félicité’s, perhaps equally motherly sense of loss is ignored by everyone (except by the author, of course, and his more sensitive readers) and she carries on with her usual stoicism. The only evidence of her distress is that we’re told her clumsy fingers break the threads when she tries to make some lace and that she can’t sleep very well. Her emotions are trivialised by one means or another throughout the narrative, which means that as readers we must use our imagination, aided by a few hints. How strong her futile affection for her nephew Victor is, we can only work out from the fact (as we learn much later in the narrative) that she keeps his little gift of a shell box all her life long and that she walks ten miles after work to see him off on his ship, and arrives too late (another very Hardy-esque moment).
Unlike Mme Aubain, constantly worrying aloud about Virginie, the maid doesn’t mention her anxiety for Victor. She only does so when she thinks “her own example would comfort her [mistress]” but of course it doesn’t and Mme Aubain is offended by the comparison. “Who cares about a young, good-for-nothing cabin boy? Whereas my daughter...” This is cruel, but Flaubert understates Félicité’s response. The only description of her hurt feelings is that she was “indignant with Madame, but she soon forgot.” Does this show ox-like stupidy, necessity, self-deception or stoicism?
A few paragraphs further on, we may deduce that Mme Aubain later feels guilty for her indifference to Félicité’s feelings. When the news of Victor’s death comes and Félicité almost collapses from the shock, we read that “Mme Aubain was trembling slightly.” Perhaps from the realisation that someone could care for the good-for-nothing cabin boy.
Félicité has tried to visualise the young man in Cuba, so that she can pray for him, and for a moment we see her through the eyes of an outsider, M. Bourais, who humiliates her by roaring with laughter at her ignorance, wanting to find Victor’s house on that page of the atlas. Flaubert's narrative, however, is subtle enough here to give us an insight into M. Bourais’ unattractive character as well, at this point. There’s even the hint that Félicité may not be as stupid as we (or M. Bourais) would like to think, maybe she simply has the unconventional, inquiring mind of a child; at any rate, the narrative indirectly gives us M. Bourais’ opinion of her, “...whose intelligence was so limited that she probably expected to see an actual portrait of her nephew...” (my italics).
Félicité pulls herself together when she hears of Victor’s death and gets on with the washing. This is not from shallowness, but courage. We are told “She held back her grief...until the evening.” This low point in the story is immediately followed by another, the death of Virginie, for which goodbye Félicité once again arrives too late, but she does the necessary things in the place of the mother, a weaker character altogether, it seems. The two women’s lives have overlapped now. Félicité, the better educated in grief, is temporarily the one in control of the other. n gratitude, Mme Aubain gives her maid Virginie’s old hat, and in a moment of revelation, the women recognise one another as equals and embrace. Flaubert concludes this part of the story: “...henceforth [Félicité] loved her mistress with dog-like devotion and religious veneration.” Having identified with her mistress, she is putting herself back into the subservient position, whether consciously or not, at the same time finding another love to replace the loves she has lost, incidentally also hinting (by the inclusion of “henceforth”) that she may not have felt very devoted to her mistress before. All this is implied by the carefully chosen words, not directly stated.
And now, after the one-line paragraph that ends: “...as time went by,” Félicité’s story begins to accelerate, just as life does, when when it becomes mostly monotonous, or when a person ages. There is no reference to historical events in the story, although the temporal setting is given.1
We next read about a regiment in the village – something that may have distracted Félicité momentarily from the general monotony – and of Polish refugees: “one of [whom] expressed a desire to marry her”... this is an astonishing revelation, but on second thoughts, obviously not something to be taken seriously, and not very important. The text simply goes on to state that they “fell out” because she caught him eating one of her salads!
“After the Poles it was Père Colmiche,” the it here presumably meaning the next object of Félicité’s attention, and we’re plunged into another startling paragraph, describing the squalor in which this unexpected character lives, “in a ruined pig-sty.” Flaubert piles on the harrowing detail in order to contrast this with the saintly manner in which Félicité looks after him “without annoying Madame,” who presumably doesn’t know anything about it. The “poor old fellow” (Félicité’s? Flaubert’s view of him?) promptly dies, again leaving Félicité’s existence without a focus; then in the next paragraph comes the first mention of the famous parrot.
Her parrot is her alter ego as well as a symbol for everything she worships, whether mistakenly or not. Like her, the parrot is ridiculed: “Every sneer cut [her] to the quick,” says the narrative, though this was not stated about Félicité when her own, far realer sufferings were sneered at. The bird refuses to talk, though she does teach him to say “Hail Mary!” and “Your servant, sir!” which probably just about represents the limits of her own conversation and the two strands of her outward and visible life. Loulou doesn’t conform to people’s ideas of what a parrot should be, not having a suitable name. He “laughs” at M. Bourais, who in his turn gives it “far from tender” looks (note Flaubert’s humour!). Félicité begins to sympathize with what she imagines are the parrot’s feelings. She is afraid the bird’s antics will make him giddy. When Loulou goes missing for a few hours, she searches for him frantically, “death in her heart”. Is this too extreme a phrase? Perhaps not. We’re thus forced to realise what the parrot means to her and we have our suspicions reinforced when we’re told, “she never really got over it.” The situation thus described is very sad; on the other hand, this could be another instance of Flaubert's sarcasm.
In her pathetic conversations with the recaptured Loulou she speaks “from the heart” (the heart, again!) disconnected phrases that the bird replies to, with the only three phrases that he “knows.” This is clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, a serious business, because she is now deaf: “In her isolation, Loulou was almost a son or a lover to her,” an relationship which, as we know, she has never experienced in reality. This shocking comparison is the sort of analogy that caused Flaubert’s contemporaries to accuse him of bad taste, even of indecency. As she talks to the parrot, she even begins to look and behave like him, so closely does she (subconsciously) identify with him. Flaubert conveys this idea through a description of her clothes and gestures.
The bird inevitably dies and we read of her nightmare journey to Honfleur to get him stuffed. She is nearly killed in a traffic accident, but “fortunately nothing had happened to Loulou,” so she reassures herself on regaining consciousness. This is the ultimate irony; she’s thus shown to care more about a bird that’s already dead than about herself. Either she is being stupid beyond reason or she has become so selfless that she is capable of enduring any degree of suffering with equanimity. At least she tries to ignore the pain, it seems, by eating a “crust of bread”she has brought along. But all the miseries of her past, now associated with the death of her parrot, well up at the sight of Honfleur in the distance, and like Mme Bovary at her moments of crisis, Félicité feels faint and breathless again.
Solace comes to her with the delivery of the newly stuffed parrot. She makes a sort of altar for him in her room or sanctuary, itself stuffed with various other rubbishy objects of adoration, symbolising her whole life, all her veneration of hopeless, helpless creatures. But by contemplating this room, she manages to remember “the smallest details of insignificant actions, not in sorrow but in absolute tranquility.” Therefore from amidst the pathetic muddle of her life, it now seems she has learned to find peace of mind, a remarkable achievement. It is at this point that Flaubert’s narrative starts to describe Félicité’s (blasphemous) confusion of the Holy Ghost with a parrot, this dead one in fact, to whom she begins to pray.
She is by this late stage of her life living in a sort of trance, “in the torpid state of a sleep-walker” only to be aroused by the routine, religious celebrations of the parish and by the death of Mme Aubain, another isolated woman by this time with no further mention of “all the friends” who consoled her once, when her daughter went away to school. Félicité is apparently her only real mourner, being the one person who knew her by heart and the only one who seems to understand how and why the revelations about M. Bourais have destroyed her.
When Paul and the daughter-in-law come to pack up Mme Aubain’s things, Félicité is, as so many times before, “numbed with sadness” and the understatement continues, she sways, and is “obliged to sit down.” It must be something as serious as a stroke. Flaubert doesn’t actually say so, though a couple of paragraphs later he describes her “dragging her leg,” as she struggles about the empty house. At this desperate point, there is a measure of salvation or respite in the progression of her last moments, because another old lady – not previously mentioned in the tale – takes pity on her and begins to look after her. This is Mère Simon “whose grocery business had come to grief,” presumably someone who can therefore feel for others in a sad plight. She must have been known by, but been of very peripheral importance to Félicité before this; suddenly she becomes essential, and that is presumably why the author introduces us to this additional character at such a late stage in the story. Other nineteenth century novelists, such as Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Dickens, also used this structural technique.
Dying in squalor like a Père Colmiche, and in pain from pneumonia like her former mistress, Félicité is troubled by thoughts of “sin” and sends for the priest. Whatever is this sin? Only the unlikely suspicion that Fabu, the butcher’s boy, may have killed her parrot! She asks for his forgiveness. This is a parody of classic deathbed scenes, with a vengeance. Flaubert cannot leave his sardonic humour alone.
The stuffed parrot is now just a worm-eaten corpse with the stuffing leaking out, and broken wings, all highly symbolic of Félicité’s own condition. But being too blind to realise (blind in more than one sense), she tenderly kisses the parrot’s “forehead” and presses him against her cheek. Though she can neither see nor hear, she can still feel touch and her imagination is still active. She visualises the church procession outside her window “as clearly as if she had been following it.”
This last chapter, describing the death of Félicité, is to a large extent still written from the main character’s own point of view – we readers share her vision of the Parrot as Holy Ghost at the end – but Flaubert also shows us the scene from the viewpoint of her friend, Mère Simon, who knows that “one day she would have to go the same way,” and so shall we; we share this uncomfortable knowledge with both fictional characters. The village’s outdoor altar or shrine is described in this chapter without irony, indeed as something rather beautiful, as if Flaubert could not bring himself to detract from the solemnity of the occasion by making fun of it... or so we might assume, until the final paragraph.
Félicité has lost the use of all her other senses but she can still smell, and with her last breath she inhales in the scent of the incense from outside “with a mystical, sensuous fervour.” Here, finally, Flaubert is no longer pulling any punches; he speaks of this poor, deluded servant woman as a mystic. Who is to say the chosen vocabulary is inappropriate? Then, as if scoffing at his own pretentiousness, he shocks us out of the sense of awe he has created by adding, at the very end, “...she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”
What are we to think? In the following century, Bert Brecht was to work the same trick in his plays, deliberately mocking the pathos of a situation, employing what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (Alienation Effect) to stop us becoming over sympathetic with his characters, to shock us into being objective in our judgement of them. Flaubert is a realist in his descriptions, a romantic idealist too, however. He inserts these Brechtian, sardonic touches at the very points where his prose might be in danger of slipping into sentimentality. He does not always do this blatantly, the irony often being very subtle, but the effect on his readers is that, as we read about the characters he describes, we swing from admiration to disgust, from pity to wry amusement. Besides being able to entertain or intrigue us with this story of the eccentric old dear and her pet parrot, he turns a very searching spotlight on the character of this woman, presenting his subject from more than one perspective, and in doing so he teaches us -- whether deliberately or not -- how to pay closer attention to people we might know in the real world, above all to humble souls like Félicité.
1. Actual dates are mentioned. The story having been written in 1875, let us assume that Félicité’s death must take place no later. Guessing from clues given in the text, Félicité enters Mme Aubain's service in 1809 at the age of eighteen. Her life could therefore be dated from, say, 1791 to 1874.