Félicité Barette is “the envy of all the good ladies of Pont-l’Evêque.” She has this reputation because she works very hard for little pay as housemaid of Aubain household. What’s more, she’s loyal to her mistress, Madame Aubain, who is “not the easiest of people to get on with.”
From the beginning of the novella, readers are inundated with examples of the hardships that Félicité faces throughout her life Because of this, the information that Félicité is envied by other women in her community seems difficult to reconcile with the challenges of her life as a working-class woman living in 19th-century France. However, the fact that the Flaubert emphasizes that the women who envy Félicité are “good” suggests that these women are not necessarily jealous of Félicité’s circumstances, but of her characteristic kindness and virtue.
Madame Aubain, Félicité’s employer, is forced to confront her husband’s “substantial debts” after his death. In order to pay them off, she sells several properties and relocates to a smaller home in Pont-l’Eveque with her two children.
The narrative of “A Simple Heart” is punctuated with death, and Monsieur Aubain’s death, which occurs before the story begins, is the first in the novella. Though Madame Aubain is certainly faced with difficulty here, the fact that she is able to sell most of her assets and still relocate to a spacious home in Pont-l’Eveque, where she ends up living a relatively comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with her children, indicates that she possesses significant financial resources. The Aubains’ privileges, as well as their ability to effect changes in the conditions of their lives, thus far outweigh Félicité’s. Félicité must work to survive, and has little autonomy or agency over the course of her life.
Madame Aubain’s home in Pont-L’Eveque contains “reminders of better days and of more expensive tastes”—that is, before the Aubains were obligated to downsize—as well as upper middle-class comforts, such as superfluous space (the parlour, for example, is never used; it remains locked with its furniture covered in dust sheets). Félicité’s room is on the second floor of the house, overlooking the surrounding fields. After rising at dawn, Félicité works tirelessly until evening. She never wastes food, appears much older than she is, hardly ever speaks, and moves woodenly, as if she is “driven by clockwork.”
Flaubert’s attention to detail in this portion of the narrative reflects the French bourgeoisie’s interest in purchasing and displaying objects that reflect their class status. Here, readers see the evidence of a period of time in which the Aubains were wealthier as well indications that they are not as well-off during the action of the story. Nevertheless, the fact that Madame Aubain keeps the “reminders of better days and more expensive tastes,” rather than selling them off along with her other assets, implies that she is still invested in keeping up appearances, and ensuring that her home maintains at least a few indications that she is a cultured French woman with style and taste. Furthermore, the good condition of the Aubain home is clearly a result of Félicité’s hard labor, a quality that is celebrated here along with her other virtues. It is likely because of this labor, and the requirements of her position as a housemaid, that Félicité appears “wooden,” as well as older than she is.