Gustave Flaubert

A Simple Heart

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A Simple Heart Summary

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“A Simple Heart” is a short story by Gustave Flaubert that appeared in his book Three Tales. The story follows the kind and loving maidservant Félicité from her youth to her death and details the many loves that she loses along the way. George Charpentier published it in 1877.

For fifty years, housemaid Félicité has worked for Madame Aubain, keeping house, cooking, darning, washing, ironing, bridling the horses, feeding the chickens, and churning butter. She does this for only 100 francs a year, and Madam Aubain is the envy of the other ladies in Pont-l’Eveque for employing her. Félicité has remained loyal to Madame Aubain, even though she’s not the kindest person.

Madame Aubain was widowed in 1809 while caring for two young children. She was in substantial debt and had to sell all of her property, save two farms that provide her a meager income.

Before she worked for Madame Aubain, Félicité met a man named Theodore at a fair. While walking her home, he threw her to the ground, and Félicité ran away. Later, Theodore asked her for forgiveness, and the two began a relationship. When she went to meet him one night, his friend was there in his stead, and he revealed that Theodore had married an older, wealthy woman to avoid the draft.

Félicité then quit her earlier job and began working for Madame Aubain as a cook. She grew attached to Aubain’s children, Paul and Virginie, and started keeping the house as well.
One day when the family and Félicité are taking a walk on their farm along the seashore, a bull attacks them. Félicité manages to distract the bull from the family and then escapes over the fence.

The bull encounter frightens Virginie, and the doctor diagnoses her as having a nervous ailment. Following the doctor’s advice, the family goes to a beach in Trouville. There, Félicité’s long-lost sister, Natasie Barette, recognizes her and the two become reacquainted. Félicité assists her sister and her three children, and Madame Aubain suspects they are taking advantage of her. She also doesn’t like that Félicité’s low-class nephew, Victor, is befriending her son, Paul.

When they move back to Pont-l’Évêque, Paul goes away to school, and Félicité accompanies Virginie to her catechism classes. Félicité learns the catechism as well, and soon both Virginie and Félicité take communion. Then, Virginie goes to boarding school.

Both Félicité and Madame Aubain are saddened when Virginie leaves, and Félicité asks if Victor can come to visit. Victor visits every Sunday and grows close to his aunt.
One day, Victor decides to go for a two-year stint working on a ship. Félicité walks 14 miles to Honfleur where Victor is to cast off. She arrives just as the ship is leaving. Victor looks up at her before sailing out of sight. She’s distraught and prays for Victor.

Meanwhile, Virginie has contracted another illness, and Madame Aubain is worried. Félicité tells her that she’s sad about Victor, attempting to empathize, and Madame Aubain dismisses her grief as trivial.

Félicité later learns from the pharmacist that Victor has made it to Havana.  All that she knows of geography she learned from a book Paul showed her, so she seeks out Madame Aubain’s lawyer (and lover) to ask if Victor would come back by land or from Cuba. The lawyer takes out a map, and Félicité asks where Victor’s house is, causing the lawyer to laugh.

A few weeks later, a farmer brings Félicité a letter. Madame Aubain reads it to her: Victor has died in the Americas. Félicité falls to the ground, heartbroken. She doesn’t visit her sister, as Madame Aubain suggests, but goes on finishing the laundry.

Virginie was getting better but soon contracts pneumonia. When Madame Aubain and Félicité are preparing to visit her, Félicité realizes she might not have locked the gate and jumps out of the carriage to check. She arrives at the convent the next day to find that Virginie has died.

Madame Aubain shuts herself in her room for months, claiming she’s seen the ghosts of her dead family members in the garden. Her friends stop coming around. Félicité visits Virginie’s grave every day, and Paul spends all his time getting drunk in taverns.

Félicité spends some time volunteering for the war effort. She serves the soldiers cider, helps a wounded vagrant, and tends to refugees and cholera patients.
When the town’s sub-prefect dies, his servant gives his parrot, Loulou, to Madame Aubain. Madame Aubain gives Loulou to Félicité, who loves the bird because it comes from America, reminding her of Victor.

One day Félicité can’t find Loulou and searches desperately for him. The bird lands unexpectedly on her shoulder and shocks her, causing her to take ill and go deaf.
One winter, Loulou dies. Félicité takes the bird to the next town to have him stuffed and is knocked unconscious by a carriage along the way. When she recovers, she takes Loulou to the taxidermist. She compares the stuffed Loulou to the dove of the Holy Spirit ascending and puts him next to a print of the baptism of Jesus.

When Madame Aubain’s lawyer dies, she discovers that he’s been mismanaging her accounts and stealing from her. In her shock, she catches pneumonia and dies.

Paul has since married an unpleasant woman, and he comes to the house and sells some furniture. No one wants to buy the house and the roof leaks in Félicité’s room all winter. She too catches pneumonia. As a priest comes to perform her last rites, Félicité hallucinates. She kisses the broken-down, stuffed Loulou. A procession is outside celebrating Corpus Christi, and when their incense pours into the room, Félicité sees a vision of a giant parrot welcoming her to heaven.

“A Simple Heart” mirrors some of Flaubert’s own life experiences. He once lived in a farmhouse in Normandy and suffered an epileptic seizure like his character Félicité. Originally written in French, the story was translated to English in 1924.