A Simple Heart (Un coeur simple) by Gustave Flaubert – Classic French Novella – A Post a Day in May

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.

20 thoughts on “A Simple Heart (Un coeur simple) by Gustave Flaubert – Classic French Novella – A Post a Day in May

  1. I read this many years ago in an English translation of Trois Contes. Your account brought back good memories – also of Julian Barnes (sort of) homage in Flaubert’s Parrot.

  2. Beautiful review, Caroline! I have wanted to read ‘A Simple Heart’ for a long time. Now after reading your review, I want to read it soon. It is sad that it is heartbreaking. Oddly, I haven’t read a Flaubert book till now. Need to remedy that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you very much, Vishy. Flaubert is one of the most accomplished writers. Beautiful writing. It is sad. To think how many lives like that existed. I had no idea you haven’t read Flaubert yet. This is an excellent starting point and then Madame Bovary. I’m not a rereader but have read it three times. 🙂 I’d love to know what you think of him.

  3. You know, I’ve had this story on my list of things to read for ages, ever since someone else on here (possibly Guy?) recommended it to me. Your post will be the push I need to try to try it down (once the current restrictions ease up, of course).

  4. I have a funny anecdote about this story. I’d read it in school, and it appears that it was on the curriculum in many other countries as well for learning French. So my ex had studied it at his school in Greece as well. When we first started going out together, I took him to Cambridge to meet some of my friends. One of them was doing a post-doc in French literature and loved this story. My ex started laying into her about what a rubbish story it was, how boring, what a stupid woman she was etc. etc. I could see everyone at the dinner table looking at me with pity. At the time I thought that he just wanted to be controversial because he felt intimidated by the so-called ‘posh Oxbridge set’ (my friends were international postgraduates, mostly on scholarships, and not really posh at all, but still…). Later on, I realised that he really was incapable of empathy or nuance or sensitive reading.
    I am so well rid of him! I just wish it hadn’t taken me that long.

    • What a story. I can picture this so well. Sometimes the alarm bells just don’t ring. With hindsight . . . I think it’s also unfeeling to tell so one who likes something very much how rubbish it is. You might find it boring for taste reasons, OK.
      To be honest, with the things I’ve read about him over the last years/months, I wonder why it lasted so long – but the essential is – he’s in the past now. Giving your time and love to someone unworthy is painful.
      We did actually not read this in s hood. We read Madame Bovary, which was too much for most. I was immediately fascinated.

      • Madame Bovary is almost the opposite of this, isn’t it? The good vs. the ‘bad’ woman – and yet still so much sensitivity and empathy for both. Flaubert is an amazing writer.
        And yes, I suppose the very low expectations I had of men in general (my father was not a particularly good husband and no one I seemed to know growing up was a great role model) kept me in there for far too long.

        • He had so much empathy. And his sentences are so sublime. But he also worked so hard on his writing. It didn’t come as naturally.
          That’s sad, about your dad. Mine was so different. My mother was crushing. Narcissistic.
          So much life lost because of bad parenting. Also speaking for myself.

  5. I haven’t read Flaubert, and your review has inspired me to reach the author soon. I have been reading some dark books in the last two weeks, and I often tell myself that I should read something light, but I don’t have the heart to lean toward the light at all. The call of the dark books is so strong that I want to read more books like ‘A Simple Heart’. While I was reading your post, I was praying for the bird. Maybe, I should pick up the book expecting the worst. I should develop a thick skin and let Flaubert break my heart. Thank you for this beautiful post, Caroline. And you inspire me by writing one everyday.

    • Thank you, Deepika. I hope you’ll give this a try. I think you can find it for free online. It’s very short. I like a mix between dark and lighter but definitely prefer more serious topics.
      I’m not going to say anything about the bird. Just this – nothing is happy in this book.

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