Félicité Barette is a poor housemaid in 19th century France who lives in the town of Pont-l’Evêque works very hard loyally serving her mistress. Madame Aubain is Félicité’s employer, whose husband has passed away and left her with a great deal of debt. Madame Aubain sells off her assets and relocates to a cheaper home with her two children, Paul and Virginie, in order to pay off these debts. Félicité is fastidious, diligent, and seems to others to have aged before her time.
The next portion of the narrative moves back in time and describes Félicité’s youth. Félicité’s parents died when she was a child, and she was separated from her sisters after their deaths. She is taken in by a farmer, who neglects her, beats her, and accuses her of stealing money from him. After that event, she goes to live with a different farmer, where she is well-liked. When Félicité is eighteen, she meets a man named Théodore at a village dance. Though she is initially shy and hesitant, Théodore determinedly pursues her, and she eventually falls in love with him. Shortly after proposing to Félicité, Théodore reveals that his parents paid another man to serve in the military in his place, and that he fears the scheme will be discovered. When Félicité next goes to meet him, she discovers that he has married a wealthy widow in order to yet again escape conscription, abandoning her in the process. Devastated, Félicité leaves her current employment and travels to Pont-l’Eveque, where she meets Madame Aubain and is hired as a cook.
Félicité quickly settles into the routines of her new life at the Aubains’ home, and she finds that Madame Aubain’s children give her a great deal of joy. One evening, while picnicking their family farm in Geffosses, Madame Aubain and her children are confronted by an angry bull. Félicité saves the family by throwing dirt clods in the bull’s face. Though her actions during the incident become the talk of the town, Félicité thinks little of her own bravery. Virginie Aubain is so frightened by the incident that her health takes a turn for the worse, and the family’s doctor, Monsieur Poupart, recommends that the Aubains travel to Trouville, a town on the coast of France, so that Virginie can benefit from bathing in the sea.
On the way to Trouville, Félicité and the Aubains stop at the home of the Liébards, a family who lives on the Aubains’ property in Toucques and has worked for the Aubains for generations. After they arrive in Trouville, the Aubains enjoy a restful holiday by the sea. One afternoon, a fisherman’s wife approaches Félicité on the beach, and that woman turns out to be one of the sisters she was separated from as a child. Félicité’s sister, Nastasie Leroux (Barette), now has a husband and three children. Félicité is excited by the reunion (even beginning to buy things for the family, who is quite poor), Madame Aubain does not trust them, believing that the Leroux family is trying to take advantage of Félicité’s generosity. Soon, the family returns to Pont-l’Eveque, and Paul leaves home to receive an education.
Félicité is saddened by Paul’s departure, but her mind soon becomes occupied by Virginie’s catechism, which she attends daily but does not directly participate in. She is profoundly moved by the Bible scripture and religious imagery she is exposed to while accompanying Virginie. Though she never received a formal religious education herself, she learns Catholic traditions and begins practicing the Catholic faith through Virginie’s catechism, and she even experiences a moment of spiritual rapture during Virginie’s First Communion. Shortly after this event, Madame Aubain decides to send Virginie to an Ursuline convent school so that she can receive a better education. When Virginie leaves home, Félicité begins feeling lonely, and receives permission from Madame Aubain to receive visits from her nephew Victor. They enjoy each other’s company and develop a close relationship. After some time, Victor signs up for a two-year job at sea, and Félicité runs for ten miles to see him off. However, she narrowly misses the opportunity to say goodbye to him as his ship leaves the port.
Madame Aubain becomes increasingly anxious about Virginie’s declining health, and when Félicité expresses her fear about the lack of news from Victor, Madame Aubain remarks that her daughter is more valuable than a “scrounger” like Félicité’s nephew. Félicité soon learns that her nephew has died, which devastates her. Virginie Aubain passes away shortly after Victor, and Félicité misses the opportunity to say goodbye to her as she is dying. Virginie’s death also brings both Madame Aubain and Félicité great sadness.
Several years pass with little event until the Baron de Larsonniere, a former consul in America, arrives with his family in Pont-l’Eveque. The Baron’s family quickly strikes up a friendship with Madame Aubain. Around this time, Paul Aubain develops a drinking habit and fails to establish a career, and Madame Aubain pays off the debts he incurs through his expensive lifestyle. Madame Aubain and Félicité continue to grieve for Virginie, and share a caring embrace after airing out Virginie’s possessions in her old bedroom. After that, Félicité feels even closer to Madam Aubain and serves her even more loyally than before. Félicité continues to care for the downtrodden members of her community as she grows older. She cares for a variety of downtrodden people: cholera victims, Polish refugees, and an impoverished man named Colmiche.
When the Baron de Larsonniere is promoted and his family is about to leave Pont-l’Eveque, the Baroness gives her pet parrot to Madame Aubain. However, finding the parrot to be an annoyance, Madame Aubain gives the parrot to Félicité. Though visitors to the Aubain house also seem to find the parrot unimpressive and disruptive, Félicité develops a deep affection for her pet, who is named Loulou. One day, after taking Loulou outside for some fresh air, Félicité loses track of him and spends the day running throughout the entire town looking for him, only to find him back in the Aubains’ garden. Running for so long in the cold causes Félicité to develop tonsillitis, and she ultimately becomes deaf as a result of complications of the illness. Eventually, Loulou dies, which distresses Félicité so much that Madam Aubain suggests that she get the parrot stuffed by a taxidermist. She does, and is so concerned that the parrot will not be delivered safely on the ship intended to carry the package that she travels for miles on foot in order to safely hand-deliver the bird’s corpse to the ship’s captain. Six months later, Félicité receives Loulou in the mail and mounts him to the wall of her bedroom, alongside her other beloved possessions.
Meanwhile, Paul Aubain secures a job at the Registry Office and marries the daughter of a colleague. During this period of time, Madame Aubain learns that her longtime friend and property manager, Monsieur Bourais, has committed suicide. She also learns that he had an affair that resulted in an illegitimate child, and spent years committing acts of fraud and embezzlement. This news distresses Madame Aubain so much that she ultimately develops pneumonia and dies. Félicité grieves deeply for her mistress, and lives alone for her remaining years in Madame Aubain’s house as it falls into disrepair. Toward the end of her life, Félicité’s habit of glancing at Loulou as she prays evolves into a habit of praying in an “idolatrous” way directly to the stuffed parrot itself.
Madame Simon, the former owner of the town grocery, cares for Félicité as she reaches the end of her life. On Corpus Christi, Félicité’s favorite day of the year, she has Madame Simon place Loulou on the altar located at the Aubains’ home, an addition that she asked the local priest has approved. As the priest and the rest of the Corpus Christi procession arrive at the house to bless the altar, Félicité peacefully listens to them singing as she passes away. In her final moments of life, “she imagine[s] she [sees] a huge parrot hovering above her head as the heavens [part] to receive her.”