Pont-l'Évêque, France, first half of the nineteenth century
Good Old Days
"A Simple Heart" takes place around Pont-l'Évêque, a small town in Normandy, France that's famous for its cheese. (Read more about it and practice your French here.) Flaubert himself is from Normandy, and sets many of his works there.
More specifically, the story takes place inside Madame Aubain's home. It's described in detail in the first section. After her husband's death, she was buried in debt and so she moved from her nice home "to another, less expensive one which had belonged to her ancestors, located behind the covered market" (1.3). So obviously the place represents a step down in her living conditions after her husband's death—a double whammy.
The house itself is arranged to look like she's still got things under control, though, full of old furniture and decorations, "souvenirs of a better time and a vanished luxury" (1.5). Being surrounded by the past—and a better past, at that—will take its toll on a body. The characters in the novel (besides Félicité) just seem to have given up.
As the family dies off, the house begins to fall apart. Paul puts it up for sale but doesn't maintain it, and Félicité just stays on there:
Fearing she would be thrown out, Félicité did not ask for any repairs. The laths on the roof were rotting away, and for one whole winter her bolster was wet. After Easter, she spat blood. (4.51)
The dilapidated house literally kills Félicité, who has almost become part of the house, as though she were a setting rather than a character.
The Beat of a Drum
Time marches on in this story in a very specific way. The narrator is sure to remind the reader of the exact dates of different events in the life of the household. Check out this list for a taste of what we're talking about:
- "One Monday, 14th July 1819—she never forgot the date—Victor announced that he had signed on for an ocean voyage" (3.23).
- "In 1825, for instance, two glaziers whitewashed the hall. In 1827, part of the roof collapsed into the yard and nearly killed a man. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame who offered the consecrated bread" (3.84).
- "One night, the driver of the mail coach brought news of the July Revolution to Pont-l'Évêque" (3.85).
- "One morning during the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the hearth because of the cold, she found him dead, in the middle of his cage, with his head down and his claws clutching the bars" (4.16).
- "In March 1853, she felt a pain in the chest, and her tongue seemed to be covered in smoke" (4.40).
References to exact dates or historical events (read up on the July Revolution here) give the story a realistic vibe (and hey, it's an example of Realism…who'da thunk!). It also anchors the family in time. We know that Félicité's employment spans half a century, and these dates mark that time exactly.