“A Simple Heart” by Gustave Falubert: A Critical Analysis
Published 15 Sep 2017
Holiness, saintliness, and righteousness are topics which are dealt with infrequently in literary works. This might be because not so many people find these topics lively, interesting, or amusing. More often than not, it seems that people nowadays would more likely be inclined to read more entertaining stories instead of spiritual and preaching ones. In one way or another, this attitude of modern readers may be reflective of how the themes of righteousness and morality are viewed today. However, it may seem amazing that a work like Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is able to affect a lot of readers considering that it discusses an unpopular theme like saintliness. Flaubert’s A Simple Heart can be considered as one of those books which explore the eternal subject of being saintly and righteous despite the worldly temptations and challenges in life. Yet, in several ways, this book proved to make a difference not by just simple preaching about morality, but by portraying it in a colorful and creative plot.
The story of A Simple Heart revolves around the life of a simple woman named Felicite. Although Felicite exudes a simple and ordinary personage in front of people, she has been the subject of envy of most of the girls of her time because of her friendliness, purity, and unparalleled beauty. However, all these realities never get into Felicite’s head. She remains simple despite the compliments and respects many gentlemen during her time gave her. Aside from her simplicity, Felicite is also admired for her hard work and perseverance. She does different chores for a living, from the lightest to the heaviest that she can shoulder. In spite of all that she has to go through just to earn a living, Felicite still keeps that positive attitude in life, with pure faith and spirit as her weapons to overcome the toughest challenges. Truly, more than a beautiful face and a friendly smile, Felicite is portrayed to be a person worth admiring because of her positive attitude and outlook towards life.
While different from the most of the women her age, Felicite also goes through the usual experiences of young women. She goes out with men and friends, but she never really finds her happiness in those kinds of companies. On her way to adulthood, she tries her best to socialize, but something has always held her back as if socializing—just like what others of her age did—was not for her. Thus, whenever she gets tired, she concentrates on being a humble servant and dedicates herself to her work.
Majority of the story narrates Felicite’s service to Madame Aubian and her family. As a servant, Felicite is presented as a dedicated and selfless maid who submits to whatever her master commands. In this kind of job, Felicite finds her joy in the eyes of Madame Aubian’s children who give her the kind of love and affection that she never felt from any of her peers and her relatives. This ignites the envy of Madam Aubian towards Felicite. Madam Aubian feels like Felicite is stealing her children’s affection and attention which she has been missing and longing for after Felicite came into their life. This has also been the reason why Madam Aubian keeps on separating Felicite from her children which terribly crushes Felicite’s heart. This connection with Madam Aubian’s children would develop Felicite’s fascination and love for children. In several ways, this appears to be her way of fulfilling the love that she failed to have with her former young love. Since then, Felicite has found her simple happiness in taking care and looking after Madam Aubian’s children whom Felicite treats with much love as her own children.
In many ways, Felicite’s story appears to be very monotonous and tiresome. However, if one would look into the difference Felicite has with the women of the current generation, it may spark some sense of inspiration from there. Truly, a woman like Felicite can be hard to find nowadays; it may even be close to impossible. Felicite’s portrayed simplicity, naivety, and goodness may seem too saintly for the contemporary generation. However, this portrayal may be a reminder for the readers that unconditional and selfless love can also come between people without any blood relations.
The life of Felicite has been seen by most readers as a fruitless and futile existence (“A Simple Heart Summary/ Study Guide”). Not all women of today would choose a life of servitude without having the lively and adventurous experiences that youth brings. However, Felicite chose that kind of life—a life without the companionship of any other person but his masters and the other people that she served. In numerous ways, one may wonder why a young, beautiful, and admired woman like Felicite would choose such kind of life. This could be Flaubert’s way of portraying martyrdom and simplicity in its truest sense. Felicite was humble enough to have a down-to-earth outlook in life and simple happiness and desires. Also, she was selfless enough to give up on all her worldly desires just to dedicate her life to the people she considered as her masters. Such portrayal is a common way of presenting saintliness and holiness in a lot of stories. Saints and saint-like characters have always been the kind of people who are willing and ready to give up everything for a pure and sincere purpose. These characters are usually used in many stories to pose a message to the readers that being morally straight is not an always impossibility. Being straight according to what you believe is right depends on a person’s determination and faith despite the temptations and challenges.
In addition to simplicity, saintliness, and martyrdom as themes in this short story, a covert explication of the concepts under the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings also appears prevalent in the entirety of Falubert’s work. One of these concepts is the eternal idea of the Holy Spirit, which Felicite misidentified to be in the appearance of a parrot she called Loulou. This symbolism presents various ideas about the Roman Catholic belief. As a literary artist under the realist perspective, Flaubert believes that no artist must include his personal opinions in his works (“A Simple Heart Study Guide”). Thus, in the story, Flaubert indirectly reputed his critiques and evaluation of the Roman Catholic belief. Nevertheless, through the symbolisms like the parrot as the Holy Ghost in the story, Flaubert was able to convey the strong and solid teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He was also able to express how it is like to submit to such kind of belief and what kind of spirituality the Roman Catholics actually have. This concept of an organized religion has always been associated with stories about saintliness and holiness, and in this story, it may be logical to relate an organized body of belief to the story for Felicite’s holiness would not be complete without the direction of an organized religion.
Many critics have told that this story of Felicite tells a distressing and sad reality about a woman who chose to devote herself to duty and nothing else. Yet, while the story appears to be unusual among the writings of its author, it indeed brings its readers into a world of eternal love, faith, and spirit which empowers and at the same time enlightens one’s character.
- “A Simple Heart: Introduction.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 22 February 2009.
- “A Simple Heart Study Guide.” Book Rags. 2008. Gale. 22 February 2009 http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-simpleheart/themes.html.
- Flaubert, Gustave. “A Simple Heart.” Trans. Arthur MacDowall. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Expanded Edition. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1999. 2338-2362.