The narrative shifts back in time to Félicité’s childhood. Félicité was born to working-class parents who died when she was a child, and she was subsequently separated from her siblings. Though she is taken in by a farmer who arranges for her to watch over his cattle, he does not care for her in return. Instead, he neglects to provide for her basic needs, beats her, and falsely accuses her of stealing thirty sous from him.
These episodes of Félicité’s childhood demonstrate not only that her life was characterized by tragedy from the start, but also that all of Flaubert’s characters—not simply the wealthy ones—are capable of profound acts of selfishness and cruelty. Though the farmer that took Félicité in came from a humble background just like she did, he repeatedly abused her and failed to treat her with the kind of compassion that she herself would prioritize as she grew older.
After her first employer turns her out, Félicité goes to work at a different farm. There, she cares for the poultry and is well-liked by her employers. After Félicité turns eighteen, she meets a man named Théodore at a village dance. Théodore determinedly courts her after their initial meeting, and though Félicité hesitates to trust both him and his intentions, she eventually falls in love with him. He proposes marriage to her, intrigued by her cautious nature, but she is unsure whether he’s serious.
Though Félicité’s good sense initially prevented her from trusting Théodore, his persistence—which likely appeared even more imposing due to the fact that he occupied a higher social position than she did—eventually wears her down. Félicité’s caution over the course of the affair signals that her good sense was alerting her to flaws in Théodore’s character; however, in this case, she chose to believe that his intentions were sincere.
Not long after the marriage proposal, Théodore reveals that his parents paid someone to serve in the military in his place, and he confesses his fear that the scheme will be soon be discovered. Félicité perceives his fear as a sign of his love for her and grows even more fond of him. But when Félicité next goes to meet Théodore, his friend appears instead, and informs her that Théodore has married a wealthy widow in order to make sure that he won’t be conscripted. Devastated and heartbroken by Théodore’s decision to abandon her, Félicité leaves her employment at the farm and travels to Pont-l’Eveque, where she happens upon Madame Aubain and is hired as a cook.
Théodore’s confession reveals that he has benefited significantly from his class status. Because his parents paid someone to serve in the military in his place, he was able to avoid participating in violent military conflicts and lead a life of leisure in rural France. The fact that Théodore repeats this unethical act not once, but twice, reveals that he has few qualms about his self-serving attempts to avoid conscription, and that he is even willing to break Félicité’s heart for his own personal gain. Félicité’s decision to leave a mutually beneficial work situation, which was clearly difficult to come by in her community, highlights the profound impact this heartbreak had on her life.
Félicité finds that she is soon able to recover from the pain of Théodore’s betrayal by settling into her duties at the Aubain household. She easily develops a strong and abiding affection for Madame Aubain’s children, Paul and Virginie, and finds that caring for them brings her a great deal of joy. Félicité receives Madame Aubain’s various guests with considerable skill. On Mondays, she greets Monsieur Robelin and Monsieur Liébard, two of Madame Aubain’s tenants, but does not fall prey to their attempts to sell their wares. She also graciously escorts Marquis de Grémanville, one of Madame Aubain’s uncles who has “squandered his money in loose living,” out of the house when he has had too much to drink and begins behaving inappropriately. Félicité particularly enjoys visits from Monsieur Bourais, a retired solicitor who manages Madame Aubain’s properties, and whose knowledge and elegance convinces her that he is a “great man.”
Félicité’s love for children, like her commitment to those in need, is described as part of her natural tendency toward maternal qualities such as warmth and compassion. Though Madame Aubain initially hires her only as a cook, her relationship with Paul and Virginie—as well as her admirable ability to deal with the variety of challenges that Madame Aubains’ guests present—gradually expands her role to that of a housemaid and caretaker.
One evening while Félicité and the Aubains are returning home from enjoying a picnic at one of the Aubains’ remaining properties, a farm in Geffosses, the group is confronted by a raging bull. Félicité provides the Aubains time to climb through a fence to safety by throwing dirt clods in the bull’s face. Though her actions during the incident become the talk of the town, Félicité does not recognize her behavior as brave or noteworthy.
This event, which constitutes the most intense moment of action in the novella, illustrates that Félicité is not simply the protagonist of Flaubert’s novella, but its brave and admirable heroine. However, though she essentially saves the lives of each member of the Aubain family, and several members of her community call attention to the remarkable courage it must have taken to confront a raging bull, Flaubert underscores Félicité ‘s humility by explaining that she thought very little of her role in the event.
Though the bull did not ultimately harm anyone, Virginie Aubain is so frightened by the incident that her health takes a turn for the worse. The family’s doctor, Monsieur Poupart, recommends that the Aubains take Virginie to a coastal town named Trouville to receive the medical benefit of bathing in the ocean. 0100
Though Virginie Aubain is faced with illness for a large portion of her youth, the way in which her anxiety seems to worsen her physical ailments is a characteristic phenomenon of the novella. Later in the narrative, for example, her mother’s shame and sadness after the death of Monsieur Bourais worsen her pneumonia. Monsieur Poupart’s recommendation is reflective of a historical reality, as many doctors in the 19th century touted the medical benefits of bathing in the ocean. But the Aubains’ ability to follow such a recommendation, on the other hand, is reflective of the mobility and opportunity that their wealth affords them.
On the way to Trouville, Félicité and the Aubains stop in Toucques at another one of their properties: a farm currently occupied by the Liébard family, who has worked in service of the Aubain family for generations. Madame Liébard showers the Aubains with compliments as she serves them lunch in the Liébard’s home, which is unclean, in disrepair, and cluttered with tools and dishes. 0100
Flaubert employs the Aubains’ visit to Toucques to draw important comparisons between the Aubains’ comfortable property in Pont-l’Evêque and the Liébards’ cluttered and somewhat dilapidated farmhouse. The class disparity evident in this comparison is also evident in Madame Liébard’s deferential behavior in the lunch scene. She serves the Aubains a great deal of food and flatters each family member, knowing full well that, as Madame Aubain’s tenant, she is expected to treat the Aubains with subservient respect, even when they are dining in her own household.
The Aubains enjoy a restful holiday in Trouville, and Virginie’s health quickly improves. They all particularly enjoy watching the fishing boats come into the harbor. One afternoon, a fisherman’s wife approaches Félicité on the beach. This woman turns out to be Félicité’s long-lost sister, Nastasie Leroux (Barette), who now has a husband and three children. Félicité is excited by the reunion and spends lots of time with Nastasie and her family, even buying gifts for them. However, Madame Aubain does not trust them. She believes that the Leroux family is trying to take advantage of Félicité’s generosity, and she also “[takes] objection to the familiar way in which the nephew [speaks] to Paul.” The weather worsens, and Madame Aubain decides that the family should return to Pont-l’Eveque.1110
Félicité’s reunion with her sister is an example of the recurring role of luck and happenstance in the novella; it also complicates the way in which “A Simple Heart” exposes the bourgeoise’s biases against the working-class poor. Though Madame Aubain is characteristically upset by Victor Leroux’s failure to act in a properly submissive manner around her son, her distrust of the Leroux family eventually proves to hold merit. Though the Lerouxs are not condescending or classist like Madame Aubain, they do take advantage of their relationship with Félicité to obtain material gifts.