Paul leaves home to attend school in Caen, France. He’s happy to go, but Félicité thinks the house is “very quiet without him.” Soon, she is tasked with accompanying Virginie to her daily catechism at the Pont-l’Eveque Catholic church. Though Félicité does not understand the language of biblical scripture, she is profoundly affected by the religious imagery that she is exposed to while observing Virginie’s lessons. In particular, she reflects on the Holy Spirit and wonders what its visible form might be. Félicité develops a relationship with the Catholic faith by witnessing Virginie’s catechism, and she begins engaging in all of the same religious observances. During Virginie’s First Communion, Félicité experiences a moment of spiritual rapture in which she feels as if she herself is Virginie receiving her First Communion.1101
This is a pivotal scene in terms of Félicité’s spiritual development. Though, as the narrative suggests, Félicité was never able to receive a formal religious education, her sincerity, emotional depth, and love for Virginie cause her to experience a moment of profound connection to God and the Catholic faith. Félicité’s commitment to her faith will remain strong throughout the novella, and she will continue to access it through means considered unconventional and even inappropriate in the eyes of others.
Madame Aubain sends Virginie to an Ursuline convent school so that she can receive lessons in subjects that her childhood tutor, Guyot, is unable to teach her. With Virginie out of the house, and Paul still away at school, Félicité begins feeling lonely, and receives permission from Madame Aubain to invite her nephew Victor Leroux to regularly visit her.0100
Madame Aubain’s ability to send Virginie to a religious boarding school in order to improve her educational opportunities is another example of the considerable degree of agency that her wealth provides her. Félicité’s sadness after Virginie’s departure is related to the significant pattern of loss in her life, as well as the comfort she derives from human connection. For these reasons, she does not waste time in filling the void of Virginie’s departure with her nephew’s weekly visits.
Félicité develops a close relationship with Victor as a result of his visits. He brings her gifts from his travels at sea with his father, and she brings him food, alcohol, and even sums of money to take home with him. Félicité is eager to please Victor and feeds him and mends his clothes without complaint in hopes that he’ll continue coming back to visit. Victor begins leaving for trips out to sea, bringing back presents for Félicité each time. Meanwhile, both Paul and Virginie come home for their school holidays, but Félicité finds that they’ve both matured too much for her to continue doting on them as small children.
Félicité’s maternal qualities become even more evident as her relationship with Victor grows stronger. She cares for him, enjoys his company, and gives him numerous gifts at her personal expense. With Paul and Virginie grown, she has even more motivation to turn her maternal energies to her nephew, and over time, she appears more like a mother to Victor than his own.
In the middle of the summer, Victor signs up for a two-year job at sea. Hoping to say goodbye to him as he departs, Félicité runs for ten miles to the port. However, she narrowly misses the opportunity to say goodbye to Victor, and watches the ship as it sails away. Deeply saddened, lonely, and fearful for her nephew’s safety, Félicité prays to God. She considers stopping by the convent to visit Virginie, but decides not to annoy Madame Aubain by returning home late.
In another instance of bad luck, Félicité fails to reach the port in time to say goodbye to her nephew, the only real family she has. Her emotional state after his ship pulls away reaches one of its lowest points in the narrative when she prays for God to aid her in her time of suffering. The incident reminds readers that, because Félicité does not have the ability or material resources to protect herself and her loved ones, her only solace is her Christian faith. Though it appears that visiting Virginie would lift her spirits here, her sense of duty reigns over her desire for comfort.
Félicité worries constantly about Victor, imagining all the tragedies that might befall him. Meanwhile, the nuns at the convent report that Virginie’s health is somewhat delicate again, and Madame Aubain becomes increasingly anxious about her poor condition. When Félicité expresses her own anxieties about her nephew, and particularly the fact that she has not received news from him in months, Madame Aubain remarks that Virginie is more valuable than a “scrounger” like Victor. Félicité is hurt by this comment, but thinks to herself that the two are equally valuable in her eyes. Anxious about Victor, Félicité visits Monsieur Bourais and asks him to show her where Victor is on a map. When he points to a small dot in Havana, where Victor’s ship is reportedly located, Félicité explains that she is confused because she expected to see the house where Victor was living. Monsieur Bourais laughs at Félicité, finding her lack of education a source of great amusement.
This scene exposes the ugly origins of Madame Aubain’s and Monsieur Bourais’ classist biases. While discussing Virginie and Victor, Madame Aubain does not simply state that she is more worried about her own daughter than someone who is unrelated to her; she asserts that Victor’s undesirable, working-class job signifies that his life does not merit as much concern as Virginie’s. Though Madame Aubain’s words are surprisingly cruel, they are consistent with her general distaste for members of lower social classes. When a clearly desperate Félicité asks Monsieur Bourais for help locating Victor, he treats her with the same lack of respect and humanity, turning the incident into a joke at her expense, as well as an opportunity to remind her that she possesses little value in the eyes of polite society.
A letter arrives at the Aubain household to inform Félicité that her nephew Victor has died. Madame Aubain suggests that Félicité go and visit her sister, but Félicité refuses, saying that the death won’t matter to the rest of the family. Though Félicité is devastated by her nephew’s passing, she is initially silent and stone-faced, and she only expresses the true extent of her grief when she is alone in her room at night.
Victor’s death is a traumatic addition to Félicité’s lifetime of loss. Her stoicism after learning the news is the result of genuine shock, but it is also likely due to expectation that domestic servants remain quiet and subservient in the households of their employers during the era in which Félicité lived.
Virginie Aubain, who has still not been cured of her childhood illness, appears to be approaching death. Though she seems at first to be recovering, it slowly becomes clear that she likely has pneumonia and may not live. As she rushes with Madame Aubain to Virginie’s bedside at the Ursuline convent, Félicité suddenly remembers that she has left the front gate of the house open. She jumps out of the carriage and runs home to close the gate. She is unable to return to see Virginie at the convent until the next morning, when she has already died. She stays by Virginie’s bedside for two nights, mourning her death, and cuts a lock of hair to place in her dress, “resolving that it would never be separated from her.” At Virginie’s funeral, Félicité imagines that Victor is being buried alongside Virginie, particularly because she was never able to properly bury him. Madame Aubain’s “despair knew no bounds” after Virginie’s death. She blames God, Virginie’s doctor, and herself, and is tormented by dreams and visions of both Virginie and her late husband.
Virginie Aubain’s passing emphasizes the inevitability of death in the narrative of “A Simple Heart.” Despite the Aubains’ various privileges, as well as Madame Aubain’s attempts to improve Virginie’s health, she passes away —a fact that Madame Aubain struggles to come to terms with as she struggles to find someone to blame. The circumstances of Virginie’s death also call attention to Félicité’s strong sense of duty. In order to protect the Aubain household, she forfeits her chance to say goodbye to Virginie before she dies. Her decision to keep a lock of Virginie’s hair with her is characteristic of her use of objects to remember loved ones throughout the novella, and her imagined burial of Victor is evidence that she did not receive the closure she needed when he passed away.
Years pass. Monsieur Bourais “mysteriously” leaves town, as do most of Madame Aubain’s old friends. The Baron de Larsonniere, a former American consul appointed to a local government position, moves to Pont L’Eveque with his family, accompanied by an exotic pet parrot. Paul Aubain fails to begin a career, and spends most of his time drinking and gambling in bars. Madame Aubain quietly pays off Paul’s debts and Félicité hears her sighing to herself in the evenings.
Paul Aubain’s poor choices in adulthood remind readers that all characters in the novella are capable of committing self-serving and unethical acts; however, because Paul Aubain is a relatively well-off French gentleman, it is much easier for him to recover from these acts than those without an upper-middle class mother to pay off their numerous debts.
Madame Aubain and Félicité continue to mourn the loss of Virginie and discuss her frequently, even many years later. One afternoon, while airing out Virginie’s old possessions and deciding which to keep, the two share a caring embrace that “unites them as equals.” After this moment, Félicité becomes even more faithful to Madame Aubain and “dote[s] on her mistress with dog-like fidelity and the reverence that might be accorded to a saint.”
This is the only real moment of connection between Madame Aubain and Félicité in the novella. Because the two are drawn together by their love for Virginie, and the sadness they share after her death, the scene reflects Flaubert’s indication that love has the ability to connect individuals from disparate backgrounds and circumstances. Though the embrace does not appear to have a permanent effect on Madame Aubain, who is depicted as a generally cold and unfeeling woman, Félicité is deeply impacted by the significance of the moment.
The narrative moves forward through the years, describing the ways in which Félicité maintains—and even “increases”—her goodness over time. Alongside her household duties, she cares for cholera victims, Polish refugees, and an impoverished man named Colmiche who is harassed by the town’s children and suffers from a large tumor on his arm. When Colmiche dies, Félicité arranges for a mass to be said in his honor.
During this portion of the plot, the scope of Félicité’s compassion extends outside of her home and into her larger community. Her decision to care for a man who has been ostracized by French society is consistent with her commitment to kindness and caretaking, but it requires her to spend what little leisure time she is likely given in order to care for him in his unsanitary “hovel,” illustrating the depth and magnitude of her selflessness.
When the Baron de Larsonniere is promoted, and his family prepares to leave Pont-L’Eveque, his wife gives her parrot Loulou to Madame Aubain as a gift. Félicité has always been interested in the parrot, in part because it comes from America, and the idea of America always reminds her of Victor.
Though the Baroness de Larsonniere presents the parrot to Madame Aubain as a valuable token of their friendship, Félicité knows that the Baroness finds the parrot annoying, suggesting that the gift is not quite as generous as it may appear.