An Analysis Of Flaubert's Short Story, "A Simple Heart"
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An Analysis Of Flaubert's Short Story, "A Simple Heart"

An Analysis Of Flaubert's Short Story, "A Simple Heart"
Alaina Hammond

While over-analysis of name meaning can be tempting in any short story in which the characters have names -- few names have no meaning and are therefore entirely neutral, after all -- it’s important to remember that the author does have immediate control over the names of the characters. Therefore, nothing is entirely accidental or irrelevant when it comes to naming. In the case of Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” the protagonist’s name is not obscure. In its native French, it does not take a linguist to immediately recognize that “Félicité” directly translates into “happiness.”

Given the rather bleak day-to-day suffering Félicité endures with little respite, it begs the question: Is there a reason besides heavy-handed irony that Flaubert would have chosen such an on-the-nose moniker? Not unlike a dark character (in any sense of the word) whose name translates directly or indirectly from Latin into some meaning of “light” -- Blanca, Lux, etc. -- at first glance it seems the stark contrast between Félicité’s lot in life and her name’s meaning only serves to highlight the cruelty of the former. Similarly, the name of her one love interest being derived from “Gift from God” indicates what measly gifts God apparently sees fit to bestow upon her in the form of Théodore.

But perhaps there is another interpretation, one that is both more generous to Félicité and to Flaubert, the real “god” of her story. On the one hand, if Félicité had a better destiny, one which was never empirically fulfilled, and was a naturally happy person whom nature and circumstance betrayed, then the tale is even more depressing than the sum of the events contained within it. In that case, Flaubert is making a strong case not for the cruelty of God so much as for his impotence, or at least the impotence of fate.

Imagine, in contrast, if Oedipus’ fate had been to kill his father and marry his mother, but “fate” had not intervened so much as failed to intervene, and by a few minutes had he avoided his father’s carriage on the road, and lived out his days in happiness and contentment. This would appear to be a positive outcome, yet something in the fabric, in the integrity of existence, would have been undermined. By the same logic, Félicité could have been a simple woman predestined for a simple, happy life, but the accidental death of her father set off a series of events that denied her her metaphysical birthright. It’s not only that she gets worse than she deserves -- for it would take a cold-hearted and ungenerous reader to interpret any of the bad luck that befalls her as in any way just -- but that she doesn’t receive the empirical extension of her soul’s promise. She is a woman destined for happiness, but randomly placed in the wrong story, doomed by the literal fall of a mason from scaffolding, an incompetent Deus ex machina that rains anvils and falling rocks upon her. It’s not only her actual father who has abandoned her due to unlucky circumstance. The world in relation to her existence isn’t indifferent or cruel: It’s worse than that. It’s broken.

In this case, Félicité is perhaps being used by Flaubert as a human symbol for the frailty of not only goodness but coherence. There is perhaps no worse fate than your suffering to be brutally random. Oedipus at least gets the dignity of grandeur, tragedy, import. If there’s no real point to Félicité’s burdens, then she’s a puppet to prove a depressing point, as worm-eaten as Loulou’s eventual rotten corpse, itself a failed attempt to give meaning and beauty to what’s nothing more than a dead bird. Incense and priest aside, she dies as alone as she lived, and just as wastefully. Hamlet gets to live preserved and revived upon the stage, with an iconic skull of Yorick and a beautiful, bittersweet death that makes a point of Man and King, a sweet prince finally having his question asked about whether To Be. Oedipus has a cycle, a doomed lineage of suffering and family betrayal, but a lineage all the same. His daughter Antigone gets howls and resonance following her death. In contrast, to put it bluntly, Félicité is just a poor dumb bitch. Blind, deaf, pathetic in the truest sense. That it’s not her fault doesn’t mitigate the sting; if anything that makes it worse. Her having a fictional narrative surrounding her lack of profundity doesn’t make her any more profound. Neither does her illusion of happiness -- self-delusion, really -- sway the reader as to sharing her joy. The closest thing to a genuine connection she has is a bird? It’s not even Théodore who comes to marry her in the end or her nephew who greets her with a welcoming head. The limits of the human imagination correspond to the limits of what’s been offered. Given little, she settles for less.

There is yet another interpretation that is equally generous to Flaubert’s coherent story-telling ability, yet far more generous to Félicité, and to his treatment of her. What if Félicité, despite all evidence to the contrary, is happy throughout the majority of her life? She’s described as being robotic, good at her duty. “Nobody in her marketing could show more obstinacy.” She is devout in every sense, to her mistress and her god, and just as importantly: to the ritual involved in serving both. Félicité earns the envy of her servant-peers by virtue of her competence. She practices what we would now consider mindfulness, and so each minor task is less drudgery so much as successful completion; the major tasks essentially consist of minor tasks repeated. Moreover, she has, “like everyone else, a love story.” That Théodore proves faithless does not shake her faith or lessen the grandeur of the experience. Moreover, her love for her family -- which includes Virginie -- shows that she is capable of profound familial, Platonic love. The simple heart of the title is “simple” not for its emptiness -- or worse, stupidity -- but for its integrity, its purity. She is happy in her constancy, in her ability to be herself, unflinching in the circumstance that would make most mortals not only flinch but break. The exaggerated bad luck that apparently stalks her is Flaubert’s way of emphasizing her saintly qualities, for saints do not become themselves through normal, average trials and heartbreak. Her grandiosity is directly proportional to her near-unrelenting endurance.

But naturally, it’s near-unrelenting, not unrelenting; saints, of course, must die. Flaubert’s depiction of Félicité upon what must be a physically uncomfortable deathbed is not as awful as appears at first glance. After all, given how her life has prepared her for this moment, what’s a leaky roof to a woman of her character, her Sisyphean satisfaction in a job well done? Sisyphus is not a failure; he’s a character of multiple triumphant. Sure, he has to roll the rock again, but each time he successfully gets it to the top. Félicité’s successes are no less valid. And that her death is less painful than that of a martyred saint doesn’t undermine her years of martyred service; rather it’s a blessing that God and Flaubert allow her to die in peace and joy (as perhaps all saints do, having treated their time on Earth as a blessing). By this interpretation, there is something worshipful in how Félicité treated her own existence -- not herself, but her movement through time and space. A slow eater, savoring every crumb, she might have enjoyed simple bread with a zest that a queen at a feast might have envied. In the end, the visage of a parrot makes her happy enough to reinforce the idea that her life was worth living. By this interpretation, she is happiness made flesh, the concept shown so unbreakable that it stays itself regardless of external attempts to undermine it. Returning to the language of Hamlet, to be happy or not to be happy? Wrong question -- happiness simply Is. Félicité embodies the simple emotion, up to and encompassing her death.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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