Study Guide

A Simple Heart Mortality

By Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Aubain had married a handsome but penniless young man, who had died at the beginning of 1809, leaving her with two very young children and a mountain of debts. (1.3)

Everyone's life is marked by death in this story, including Madame Aubain's. We never meet her late husband, but his influence reigns in the household. This is partly because those mountains of debt meant that Madame Aubain had to sell everything and move into a smaller house.

Her father, a mason, had died in a fall from some scaffolding. Then her mother died, her sisters scattered, and a farmer took her in and employed her, small as she was, to look after the cows in the fields. (2.2)

Félicité's young life is full of death. Her father dies as a result of his job as a manual laborer (and these were long before the days of worker's comp) and her mother also dies for an unknown reason. It's these two original deaths that determine the difficulties that Félicité and her sisters will experience for the rest of their lives.

At first, she lived in a state of anxiety induced by the 'style of the house', where the memory of 'Monsieur' hung over everything! (2.18)

Monsieur is Madame Aubain's late husband, and she seems to be holding on to him even though he's long dead. She doesn't allow anything in the house to be changed, and even keeps a portrait of him in her bedroom. Maybe his memory makes her feel like she still has status as a widow.

He was dead. That was all the letter said. (3.47)

When Victor dies, Félicité finds out in a shocking way. She doesn't hear from him for months and then receives a letter that she's unable to read (she's illiterate, of course) and only finds out that her beloved nephew is gone in the bluntest way possible. Once again, death is sudden and tragic for her.

Much later, through Victor's captain himself, she learned the circumstances of his end. In treating him for yellow fever, they had bled him too much. Four doctors had held him down. He had died immediately, and the head doctor had said, 'There goes another one!' (3.58)

It must have been particularly painful for Félicité to hear how Victor died. It could have been avoided, if the doctors hadn't bled him so much. (They used to drain sick people's blood in an attempt to heal them, but it was actually very dangerous. Go figure.)

When she was halfway along, she heard strange sounds, a funeral bell. 'It's for someone else,' she thought. (3.69)

Félicité is on the way to the convent where Virginie lives; she didn't get to go the night before because she had to go check that the house was locked up (she's the servant, not a family member, after all). After the recent death of her nephew, it's not surprising she'd slip into denial when she hears the funeral bells.

The good sister said that 'she had just passed away'. (3.71)

The nun tells Félicité that she just missed Virginie. She didn't get to say goodbye to her, even though she was so close, unlike how Victor died far away in Cuba. Death seems to follow Félicité around and take anyone she loves. Notice the quotation marks—a gentle way of delivering the news compared to the letter Félicité got about Victor.

For two nights, Félicité remained with the dead girl. She would say the same prayers over and over, throw holy water over the sheets, then come back and sit down, and look at her. At the end of the first night, she noticed that the face had turned yellow, the lips blue, the nose pinched, the eyes sunken. She kissed them several times, and would not have been terribly surprised if Virginie had opened them: for such souls, the supernatural is something quite simple. (3.74)

It's kind of gruesome that Félicité hangs out with Virginie's corpse, kissing it for a few days after her death. But it's also understandable if you think about the fact that this is the first death we actually get to experience up close in the story. The others occur in the past or far away. As far as we know, this is Félicité's first chance to really say goodbye.

She was thinking about her nephew, and feeling even sadder at the thought that she had been unable to pay him her last respects. It was as if he were being buried now along with Virginie. (3.76)

Virginie, who gets a proper funeral and burial, is fused in Félicité's mind with her nephew, Victor. Besides the fact that both of their names start with V, they're also both young, innocent people that she loved dearly and who died too soon. She unites them in her mind to try to honor Victor, even though he died at sea.

On one occasion, she came back in from the garden quite distraught, pointing to the spot where father and daughter had appeared to her, standing side by side, doing nothing, just looking at her. (3.79)

Death is not final in Madame Aubain's case. Not only is she constantly reminded of her dead husband, but she also starts to see his ghost along with Virginie's after she dies. She's unable to move past the two tragedies; her life is so completely defined by their deaths that she literally lives with their ghosts.

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