“A Simple Heart” follows the life of protagonist Félicité, a poor domestic servant in nineteenth-century France, as she endures seemingly unending tragedy and is given every reason to become both bitter about her lot in life and cautious in her relationships with others. However, even in the midst of sickening heartbreak—after her only love abandons her for a wealthy woman, and even when she’s abused by cruel employers—Félicité never wavers from her ethical principles or capacity for kindness. Unlike her privileged employers and their circle of affluent friends, who are morally transgressive but enjoy comfortable lives, Félicité prioritizes her religious faith and morals before all else. Even then, however, she does not reap the benefits of these commitments during her mortal life. Flaubert thus makes the argument that people don’t necessarily deserve their lots in life. But given the story’s religious underpinnings, Flaubert also argues that moral transgressions will ultimately be punished and virtue rewarded—if not in this life, then in the next.
Over the course of the novella, Flaubert clarifies what, exactly, makes Félicité morally upright, ultimately connecting her goodness to her authenticity, humility, and sense of duty. On several occasions, Flaubert asserts that Félicité’s goodness is not learned, but inherent. He writes that her “natural kind-heartedness increased” as she aged, making it clear that Félicité’s goodness—her “simple heart”—is neither an act nor an obligation, but rather an essential part of her personality and character that she chooses to foster over time. Félicité remains humble throughout the novella. Even when she saves her employers, the Aubain family, from a violent bull, she does not think much of the event. Flaubert writes: “People in Pont-l’Eveque talked about this adventure for years afterwards. But Félicité never boasted about it and hardly seemed to realize that she had done anything heroic.” The fact that she “hardly seemed to realize” that her actions were impressive suggests that she does not hold her personal qualities in very high regard.
Félicité’s sense of duty is so strong that she endures significant difficulty in order to do what is expected of her: “For just one hundred francs a year, she did all the cooking and the housework. […] What is more she remained faithful to her mistress, who, it must be said, was not the easiest of people to get on with.” This litany of chores speaks to Félicité’s commitment to her work, but the statement about Madame Aubain, Félicité’s mistress, speaks even more powerfully to her capacity to prioritize her loyalties before her own comfort. It is this unwavering sense of duty, in addition to her authenticity and humility, that makes Félicité so morally upright.
The story, steeped in nineteenth-century Christianity, suggests that morality and religion are intimately linked—thus, those who couple moral uprightness with religious devotion will be rewarded for their efforts through eternal life in heaven. In her later life, Félicité cares for an impoverished old man named Colmiche, who is the frequent target of harassment and derision from the townspeople. Colmiche is “rumored to have committed terrible atrocities” during wartime, lives in a pigsty, and has a grotesque tumor. But Félicité commits to improving his life, even though she herself has few material comforts, because her Christian faith guides her to care for the downtrodden. After Colmiche has passed away, she asks for a mass to be held in his honor, solidifying the spiritual underpinning of her decision to care for him. Though the story focuses on Félicité’s devotion to causes like Colmiche’s, she is never explicitly recognized or rewarded for her efforts during her lifetime. After a lifetime of hardship, Félicité dies in a moment of spiritual ecstasy. Moreover, she dies on Corpus Christi, a religious occasion that means a great deal to her, precisely at the moment when her local congregation arrives at the altar she has organized for the occasion. As she dies, her beloved parrot Loulou—whom she has come to believe is an embodiment of the Holy Spirit—appears to open the gates of heaven for her. This striking, though certainly unconventional, image suggests that Félicité, a devout Christian woman, has been rewarded for her decades of virtuous behavior in a very personal, direct way.
Conversely, many privileged characters in the novella lack Félicité’s goodness but still live comfortable, middle-class lives. However, just as the novella suggests that Félicité will be rewarded for her efforts, it demonstrates that morally transgressive characters will eventually meet unhappy fates, even if their earthly lives seem to be full of rewards. One such example is Monsieur Bourais, a “retired solicitor” and friend of Félicité’s employer, Madame Aubain. Though he enjoys a comfortable middle-class life, his morality does not align with these privileges. He commits fraud and adultery, and ultimately commits suicide. Madame Aubain is so upset and anxious about the “sordid nature” of Bourais’s actions—which would be considered doubly shameful in a Catholic society that views suicide as a sin—that she grows ill herself. Though Madame Aubain does not pass away in a manner that people of her time would consider shameful, her fate, like Monsieur Bourais’s, is ultimately a tragic one. Although Madame Aubain enjoys the benefits of wealth in her lifetime, she is cold and often selfish, which catches up to her in death. When dies, “she [has] few friends to lament her death.” The novella thus implies that the cost of Madame Aubain’s self-absorption is a lack of close friendships, which consequently means she will largely go unmourned and unremembered. While Félicité approaches her difficult life with humility and grace (and is ultimately rewarded for it), well-to-do characters like Madame Aubain are ultimately punished for their moral failings, even if only at the end of their lives.
Because Félicité is a housemaid with very few qualities desired by French society, it appears initially confusing that she is described as “the envy of all the good ladies of Pont-l’Eveque.” It’s also jarring at first that despite the constant presence of tragedy in this novella, Flaubert gives her the French word for happiness as a first name. But given his treatment of her death, and compared with his depiction of the fates of less virtuous characters, it appears that Flaubert’s choice is not an ironic nod to Félicité’s difficult circumstances, but instead a sincere assessment of the benefits of religious devotion and moral uprightness.
Faith and Virtue ThemeTracker
Faith and Virtue Quotes in A Simple Heart
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 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.
One of the Poles even said he would like to marry her, but they had a serious argument when she came back one morning from the angelus to find him ensconced in her kitchen, calmly helping himself to a salad which she had prepared for lunch.
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.
In her anguish she would gaze at him and beg the Holy Spirit to come to her aid. She developed the idolatrous habit of kneeling in front of the parrot to say her prayers. Sometimes the sun would catch the parrot’s glass eye as it came through the little window, causing an emanation of radiant light that sent her into ecstasies.
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.
Her eyes closed and a smile played on her lips. One by one her heartbeats became slower, growing successively weaker and fainter like a fountain running dry, an echo fading away. With her dying breath she imagined she saw a huge parrot hovering above her head as the heavens parted to receive her.