Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart tells the story of Félicité , a lifelong servant, and her search for someone to love.
Félicité lives a very limited life, only rarely leaving the home of Madame Aubain her employer for over fifty years. In her youth, Félicité has one great love who abandons her to marry into enough money to keep him out of military service. She then enters service herself, taking a position with Madame Aubain, to whom she remains devoted for so long. She helps to raise Madame Aubain’s daughter whom she loves only to be abandoned again when the girl leaves for boarding school. She then begins meeting with her young nephew who leaves her to become a sailor as soon as he is old enough to enlist. Finally, through a strange set of circumstances, Félicité is given a parrot, Loulou. She devotes her affections to the bird who returns them with complete devotion.
Along the way, she becomes a devout catholic, though she has only a limited understanding of church doctrine. What she really wants is someone to love. Since she has had few people to love in her life, she focuses on Loulou and on God.
That’s a lot to put into a 62 page novella. Melville House is generous with their use of white space here as they have been in all The Art of the Novella series. (I think the amount of white space between the lines has increased in general over the last 15 to 20 years anyway.) But in this short space, Flaubert creates a life, not as full a life as most of us would want granted, but Félicité has stayed with me much longer than I expected. She is a character I will keep with me for a long time. That’s a lot to say for someone who is completely fictitious.
I can’t say that her life is particularly tragic; there is no great drama in A Simple Heart. I suppose what moves me about her story is that she does find people to love, and she is loved back, but she out lives her love every time. That’s what got to me.
There’s much more that I could say about A Simple Heart. This is only the second time I have read Flaubert, Madame Bovary back in graduate school was the first. I prefer A Simple Heart not because it’s the better book, it’s been too long since I read Madame Bovary for me to say, but because it touched me in a way Madame Bovary did not.
But, in any case, I should read more Flaubert.
And I really liked the parrot.