“A Simple Heart” is set in nineteenth-century France, a period of time in French history in which wealth disparity and class conflict were deeply woven into France’s social fabric. Flaubert’s protagonist, Félicité, is born into the French working class, where she remains for the entirety of her life. Through the character of Félicité, Flaubert highlights how the disadvantages of poverty are wide-reaching and affect every area of a person’s life. He also points out how unjust it is that the members of the upper classes look down upon those in the lower classes, and suggests that lower-class characters such as Félicité don’t deserve such treatment because they are able to live a life of value even without money.
In “A Simple Heart,” the wealthy have clear autonomy in their lives, and they are able to exert considerable influence over their material conditions. Félicité, on the other hand, has little choice in the way in which the events of her life unfold because of her deep poverty. When Madame Aubain’s husband leaves her “substantial debts,” she is soon able to sell almost all of her assets and still maintain two additional properties. Similarly, Félicité’s first love, the wealthy Théodore, is able to pay his way out of compulsory military service for the second time by utilizing his position in society to marry a wealthy woman. And though Paul, Madame Aubain’s son, begins his adult life drinking away his career opportunities, he eventually establishes himself in a civil service office with relative ease. Additionally, when Paul’s sister Virginie becomes sick, the Aubain family is able to holiday by the sea in order to attempt to restore her health. In each of these instances, well-off characters are able to influence their circumstances by way of their financial means. Madame Aubain escapes poverty, Theodore escapes conscription into the military, Paul builds a profitable career after squandering his youth, and Virginie is provided with the space and time to rest.
On the other hand, Félicité is obligated to move from employer to employer whenever her material conditions require her to do so. When her parents die, she must seek work with an abusive farmer, and then seek work again when the farmer falsely accuses her of theft. When she becomes ill herself, she must quietly live in a dilapidated home with the hope that no one will discover that she is living there illegally—unlike Virginie, she does not have the resources to vacation by the sea in order to improve her health. While wealth allows the novella’s middle-class characters to be the captains of their own lives, the deeply impoverished Félicité is left floundering.
One of the ways in which classism is most apparent in the novella is in the way in which Flaubert’s characters assume that members of the French working class are valueless and simple-minded due to their position in society’s socioeconomic hierarchy. For example, after Félicité shares her anxieties about her nephew Victor—whom she has not heard from in months—with her employer Madame Aubain, the wealthy woman dismisses her servant’s nephew as a “mere ship’s boy” and a “scrounger” who is “not worth bothering about” because of his undesirable profession. It is clear that Madame Aubain cannot see Félicité’s anxieties as equal to hers because she does not believe that Victor—who occupies a low rung on the social ladder—is valuable enough to worry about. Madame Aubain showcases her prejudiced attitude again when she first meets Victor’s parents. She assumes that because they are poor, they obviously intend to take advantage of Félicité. Madame Aubain even becomes offended by the way they speak “familiarly” to Paul. She believes that their low social status requires them to treat Paul—a wealthy young gentleman—with subservience and respect. Madame Aubain, like many other well-to-do characters in the novella, views members of the French working class as worthless and beneath her just because of their lack of wealth and status.
The narration frequently points out how deeply entrenched class issues have become in the period in which the novella is set, but its praise of Félicité’s virtues implies that a formal education and a high class status are not needed to live a life of value. Along the same lines, the novella suggests that material wealth cannot overcome all of life’s obstacles, nor can it provide all of life’s meaningful gifts. Though well-off characters appear more capable of altering the courses of their lives than Félicité does, Flaubert points out the many ways in which the machinations of the wealthy—despite their various privileges—are often fruitless in the end. For example, though Madame Aubain places Virginie’s life at a higher valuer than Félicité’s “scrounger” cousin, she dies in a convent despite all her mother’s resources. And though Madame Aubain is intent on placing Paul in the best school possible, he wastes years drinking and incurring debt before settling on a career. In this way, though the privileged individuals of Flaubert’s novella attempt to use their purchasing power to improve every aspect of their lives, Flaubert suggests that money does not allow them to cheat death or entirely avoid the consequences of their own failures. Flaubert also establishes the fact that some virtues do not have a price. For instance, though Félicité doesn’t have an expensive religious education, and “of church dogma she understood not a word,” she still has a profound religious experience during Virginie’s First Communion. After that moment, she reflects: “Seed-time and harvest, the fruits of the vine, all those familiar things mentioned in the gospels had their place in her life too.” In this way, although she was never afforded the opportunity to study catechism herself because of her poverty, she is still able to enjoy rich religious experiences and live a life of value (which the novella firmly positions as a devout Christian life). Thus, Flaubert shows how the classist prejudice that abounds in French society is unwarranted, as lower-class characters like Félicité can still have worth and live rich lives even without money.
The upper classes of French society would likely interpret Félicité’s “simple heart” as reflective of her “simple-mindedness,” or just another feature of her lack of class and sophistication. But Flaubert’s depiction of the pretention of his wealthy characters serves as a significant critique of classism. His celebration of Félicité’s religiosity and morality, on the other hand, highlights how those in the lower classes can still live meaningful lives even without status or wealth.
Classism and Class Disparity ThemeTracker
Classism and Class Disparity Quotes in A Simple Heart
On the first floor, there was Madame’s bedroom, a very large room, decorated with pale, flowery wallpaper and containing a picture of ‘Monsieur’ dressed up in the fanciful attire that was fashionable at the time. This room led directly to a smaller bedroom which housed two children’s beds, each with the mattress removed. Next came the parlour, which was always kept locked and was full of furniture draped in dust-sheets. […] The two end panels of this bookcase were covered in line drawings, landscapes in gouache and etchings by Audran, a reminder of better days and of more expensive tastes that were now a thing of the past.
At twenty-five, people took her to be as old as forty. After her fiftieth birthday, it became impossible to say what age she was at all. She hardly ever spoke, and her upright stance and deliberate movements gave her the appearance of a woman made out of wood, driven as if by clockwork.
She was dressed in mere rags, she shivered with cold and would lie flat on her stomach to drink water from ponds. She was regularly beaten for no reason at all and was eventually turned out of the house for having stolen thirty sous, a theft of which she was quite innocent. She was taken on at another farm, where she looked after the poultry and, because she was well liked by her employers, her friends were jealous of her.
He then announced something rather disturbing: a year ago his parents had paid for someone else to do his military service but he might still be called up at any time. The prospect of serving in the army terrified him. Félicité took this cowardice as a sign of his affection for her and it made her love him all the more.
Thinking that it would help the children to derive some enjoyment from their studies, he bought them an illustrated geography book. It depicted scenes from different parts of the world […] Paul carefully explained all these pictures to Félicité. In fact, this was the only time anyone ever taught her how to read a book.
For lunch she served a sirloin of beef, along with tripe, black pudding, a fricassee of chicken, sparkling cider, a fruit tart and plums in brandy, all accompanied by a stream of compliments…not forgetting their dear departed grandparents whom the Liébards had known personally, having been in service to the family for several generations. The farm, like the Liébard’s themselves, had an old-world feel to it. The beams in the ceiling were pitted with woodworm, the walls blackened with smoke, the window panes grey with dust.
She wept at the story of Christ’s Passion. Why had they crucified a man who was so kind to children, fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, and who had chosen, out of his own gentle nature, to be born amongst the poor on the rough straw of a stable? Seed-time and harvest, the fruits of the vine, all those familiar things mentioned in the gospels had their place in her life too. They now seemed sanctified by contact with God.
His parents always told him to make sure he brought something back with him, a bag of sugar, a piece of soap, a little brandy or even money. He brought with him any of his clothes that needed mending and Félicité always did the work willingly, glad of any opportunity of encouraging him to visit her again.
Although Félicité had been fed such rough treatment since she was a child, she felt very offended by Madame Aubain. But she soon got over it. After all, it was to be expected that Madame should get upset about her own daughter. For Félicité, the two children were of equal importance; they were bound together by her love for them and it seemed right that they should share the same fate.
Much later, she came to learn the circumstances of Victor’ s death from the captain of his ship. He had caught yellow fever and had been bled too much in the hospital. Four separate doctors had given him the same treatment and he had died immediately. The chief doctor’s comment was, ‘Good, that’s one more to add to the list!’
They found a little chestnut-coloured hat made of long-piled plush, but it had been completely destroyed by the moths. Félicité asked if she might have it as a keepsake. The two women looked at each other and their eyes filled with tears. Madame Aubain opened her arms and Félicité threw herself into them. Mistress and servant embraced each other, uniting their grief in a kiss which made them equal.
He thoroughly irritated Madame Aubain and so she gave him to Félicité to look after. She decided she would teach him to speak and he was very soon able to say, ‘Pretty boy!’, ‘Your servant, sir!’ and ‘Hail Mary!’ She put him near the front door and a number of visitors were surprised that he would not answer to the name ‘Polly’ […] Some people said he looked more like a turkey or called him a blockhead. Félicité found their jibes very hurtful. There was a curious stubborn streak in Loulou which never ceased to amaze Félicité; he would refuse to talk the minute anyone looked at him! Even so, there was no doubt that he appreciated company.
As she came to the top of the hill at Ecquemauville, she saw the lights of Honfleur twinkling in the night like clusters of stars and, beyond them, the sea, stretching dimly into the distance. She was suddenly overcome with a fit of giddiness and her wretched childhood, the disappointment of her first love affair, the departure of her nephew and the death of Virginie all came flooding back to her like the waves of an incoming tide, welling up inside her and taking her breath away.
Félicité wept for her in a way that servants rarely weep for their masters. That Madame should die before her disturbed her whole way of thinking; it seemed to go against the natural order of things; it was something unacceptable and unreal.
Ten days later, just as soon as they could get there from Besançon, the heirs arrived on the scene. Madame Aubain’s daughter-in-law went through all the drawers, chose a few pieces of furniture for herself and sold what was left. […] On the walls, yellow patches marked the places where pictures had once hung. They had taken away the children’s beds, along with their mattresses, and the cupboard had been cleared of all Virginie’s things. Félicité went from room to room, heartbroken.
A cascade of bright colours fell from the top of the altar down to the carpet spread out on the cobblestones beneath it. In amongst the flowers could be seen a number of other treasured ornaments: a silver-gilt sugar-bowl decorated with a ring of violets, a set of pendants cut from Alençon gemstones glittering on a little carpet of moss, two Chinese screens with painted landscapes. Loulou lay hidden beneath some roses and all that could be seen of him was the spot of blue on the top of his head, like a disc of lapis lazuli.