Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart – Un Coeur Simple was published in 1877 in the collection Trois Contes, the last book that was published in his lifetime. It’s the first novella or short story, depending a bit on how you define novella.
A Simple Heart tells the story of Félicité, the fifty-year-old maid of Mme Aubain, a formerly rich widow. Félicité who is an orphan, has known heartache in her life. She once was in love but the man abandoned her for another. She then moved and found occupation with Mme Aubain. Mme Aubain’s acquaintances often envy her because of Félicité’s dedication and loyalty. The maid has no life outside of this family. She’s particularly devoted to the daughter of the family. Mme Aubain has two children, Paul, the older, and Virginie the younger child. Because Félicité accompanies Virginie to catechism, she is introduced to religion. This will kindle in her a new love, a more mystical love.
Virginie isn’t the only one Félicité is dedicated too. There is also a nephew who takes advantage of her. When both children die, it affects Félicité deeply. But then there’s hope. Mme Aubain is gifted a parakeet, Loulou, and because Félicité is so fascinated, so mesmerized by the bird, her mistress finally gives Loulou to her. They live together in Félicité’s small room under the roof. A room that is filled with memorabilia and things that the family didn’t want anymore.
Loulou is Félicité’s everything. The biggest love of her life. She even sees a representation of the Holy Spirit in him. But since this is a tragic story, the bird, too, will bring heartache.
A Simple Heart is a sad story. It describes the kind of life that many poor, uneducated, single women must have led in the 19th century. Félicité is deprived of almost everything – family, education, companionship, love. Her loneliness runs deep. Her love desperately seeks to find an outlet, whether through someone else’s child, a relative, an animal, or religion.
A Simple Heart is not easy to read because it is quite depressing and a bit icky – I can’t reveal why because I don’t want to spoil the story.
It’s not the first time I’ve read this. I read it before because it’s a story that is famous for the way Flaubert handles time. It’s masterful. In sixty pages, he manages to tell the story of a whole life, alternating between fast-forwarding and slowing down. At the end, we almost think, we’ve read a novel because, thanks to his writing style and technique, there’s so much to find in this novella.
People often ask, when it comes to classic authors, which book would be a good starting point. While there’s no doubt that Madame Bovary is a masterpiece, this short story would make a perfect introduction to Flaubert.