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Undying loyalty in return for a lonely, impoverished death? You've got yourself a deal! Well, you would if you were dealing with Félicité, the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert's 1877 story "A Simple Heart." She dedicates her life to her mistress, who treats her pretty badly, but she keeps going mostly through dedication to her dead pet parrot. It sounds sad because it is sad.
The story came out in a collection of three, aptly titled Three Tales, and all of them got great reviews at the time. Some even say that "A Simple Heart" is Flaubert's best work, so if you want to save yourself some time, skip the novels and read the story. Although we're pretty sure you'll want to read the rest of his stuff once you've gotten a taste.
The story is an important example of Realism, because it focuses on the little guy (in this case, the little gal, a servant) rather than a grand hero, and looks at the way pesky stuff like illness is the result of socioeconomic factors.
And even though he was writing well over a century ago, it was on Gustave Flaubert's mind too. The main character of "A Simple Heart" is a maid who, despite mistreatment by her mistress, is fiercely loyal to the family she serves. And it doesn't get her anywhere either. She dies alone and impoverished. This stark vision of life is meant to open readers' eyes to the inequalities in society.
We might not all have live-in maids, but we can still think about the ways that Félicité's story applies to our current situation. What keeps people from rising in socioeconomic status? What keeps them loyal to a system that keeps them down? Flaubert is here to help us understand.
Get to Know Gustave
A website dedicated to Flaubert's biography.
A website on Realism.
Find A Maid's Costume, Quick!
A 2008 French film production of the story.
The Italians Beat Them To It
But there was an Italian version in 1977.
What a Life
A rundown of Flaubert's biography.
A Girl Named George
The love letters exchanged between Flaubert and his mistress, George Sands.
What's It Got in its Pocketses?
An interview about Flaubert's personal belongings, because that's not creepy or anything.
Pique Your Interest
The trailer to the movie version of "A Simple Heart."
A tourism video for a taste of the landscapes in "A Simple Heart."
What's with the Bird?
Julian Barnes talks about Flaubert's parrot.
Listen to the audio version of the story here.
A cartoon engraving of Flaubert.
A photograph of the author.
Polly Want a Book
The cover of Flaubert's Three Tales.
Jacquot want a Cracker?
The French version.