Though many characters in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” are members of seemingly polite society in nineteenth-century France, the story often demonstrates ways in which they are considerably impolite—and even outright cruel—to one another. Their cruelty stands in marked contrast to Félicité’s compassion, which never wavers throughout the narrative. By contrasting cruel and compassionate moments throughout the novella, Flaubert demonstrates that all people—regardless of their station in life—are provided with many opportunities to choose cruelty or compassion throughout their lives, and that their choices either way will have both immediate and enduring consequences.
Acts of cruelty abound in the narrative of “A Simple Heart.” Though there are many kinds of interpersonal coldness and abuse that occur in the story, many of these acts are committed when characters choose to ignore the value of others’ lives, priorities, and emotions. For instance, Félicité’s parrot, Loulou, is mistreated by several visitors to Madame Aubain’s home. Though Loulou is Félicité’s prized possession, several characters regard him as a nuisance, and treat him as such. Paul Aubain blows cigarette smoke up the parrot’s nose, for example, and a visitor prods him with the tip of her umbrella. Not only do these characters fail to recognize the value that the parrot has in Félicité’s life, but they also fail to respect the parrot as a living being. Furthermore, by disrespecting the parrot, the other characters are, by extension, disrespecting Félicité and sending the message that she is not important.
Similarly, Félicité’s room, described as “something between a chapel and a bazaar,” is a testament to the ways in which individuals misunderstand the internal lives and priorities of others, thus causing them to act selfishly. Most of Félicité’s belongings are “keepsakes that [mean] so much to her,” but that Madame Aubain regards as disposable. This contrast repeats when Madame Aubain passes away, and her opportunistic son and daughter-in-law strip the house of several items that Félicité holds dear, proving that they are prioritizing only their own material interests and choosing to ignore Félicité’s feelings—and perhaps even the memory of Madam Aubain herself.
Though Félicité’s employers and their well-off friends are some of the most unfeeling characters in the novel, cruelty is not only associated with the wealthier classes in the novella. Though Flaubert’s narrator depicts the wealthy as particularly self-interested, the novella argues that all people are capable of selfish and unkind acts, thus emphasizing that they are afforded the opportunity to choose either at any given moment. Félicité is overjoyed to rediscover her lost family members, but they do not turn out to possess her commendable “natural goodness.” Though her sister and her new family also come from a humble background, the novella implies that they are not good people. Flaubert writes: “Victor had always been treated cruelly by his parents and Félicité preferred not to see them again. They did not get in touch with Félicité either; perhaps they had simply forgotten about her or perhaps poverty had hardened their hearts.” This moment demonstrates that it is not only wealth and privilege that can cause people to act selfishly and coldly toward others, but also—as Félicité surmises here—the bitterness produced by difficult circumstances. Though Félicité comes from the same background of poverty and trauma that her sister does, she chooses not to become bitter or to mistreat others as a response to her circumstances in life; instead, she spends her life helping others who have fallen upon difficult times, like the cholera victims and Polish refugees she cares for in Pont-l’Eveque.
By describing the traumatic effects of cruelty and the healing results of compassion, Flaubert implies that a single moment of cruelty or compassion can profoundly affect the course of a human life; thus, this choice between cruelty and compassion is one of the most important and impactful decisions any person can make. After her beloved parrot dies, Félicité embarks upon a climactic journey to get him stuffed by a taxidermist. When she arrives at an oceanside town to mail the parrot’s corpse, the horrors of her life come back to her, “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.” In this moment, Flaubert demonstrates the way in which Félicité has not only been negatively impacted by her class status and her bad luck, but by the ways in which others have treated her. In her “wretched childhood,” she was abused and undervalued by her employers, and the “disappointment of her first love affair” was the result of Theodore’s decision to abandon Félicité and betray the promises he had made to her. Though at this point in the story, many years have passed since these events, Flaubert implies that they are still firmly rooted in Félicité’s mind.
In the same way that the cruelty of human beings powerfully influences Flaubert’s characters, the fruits of human compassion are evident in the narrative as well. Félicité’s important embrace with Madame Aubain—catalyzed by a moment in which they both grieve over Virginie’s death—does not have a fleeting impact on her relationship to her employer. Instead, “from then on she doted on her mistress with dog-like fidelity and the reverence that might be accorded to a saint.” In this way, it is clear that although Madame Aubain did not commonly engage in acts of kindness, her single act of embracing Félicité was impactful enough to create a notable change in her “from then on,” suggesting the power of such a choice during that emotional time in the women’s lives. The novella thus argues that acts of compassion—like acts of cruelty—have wide-reaching implications and can stick with people for a long time.
Throughout “A Simple Heart,” Flaubert focuses on the ways in which his characters fail to fully recognize the humanity in one another, and contrasts their egotism and malicious intent with Félicité’s unwavering compassion for others. By demonstrating the influential nature of acts of cruelty upon the lives of his characters, and by illustrating the ways in which compassion can have profoundly beneficial results, Flaubert implies that characters would do well to live as Félicité does, and to exercise compassion when presented with such a vital choice.
Cruelty vs Compassion ThemeTracker
Cruelty vs Compassion Quotes in A Simple Heart
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.
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.
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.