Study Guide

A Simple Heart Suffering

By Gustave Flaubert

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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. She would shiver in her rags, drink pond water lying flat on her stomach, and be beaten for the slightest reason, and was finally thrown out over a theft of thirty sols which she had not committed. (2.2)

If they say bad things come in threes, Félicité must have some on credit. Her childhood is so tragic that it's hard to even imagine living through it. What's even more amazing is that she doesn't seem to be embittered by the suffering. It's more like she sees it as a normal part of life.

Her sorrow was extreme. She threw herself on the ground, screamed, appealed to God, and wept all alone in the fields until the sunrise. Then she returned to the farm and announced that she wanted to leave. (2.15)

Cut to the day Félicité's boyfriend leaves her standing alone in an oat field, having left her for a rich, old woman who can buy his way out of military service. Félicité is the kind of person who gets her suffering over with in quick bouts. Rather than moan on for years about it, she lets it all out that night and literally moves on the next day.

She would carry [Paul and Virginie] on her back like a horse, and Madame Aubain had to forbid her kissing them every minute, which mortified her. But she realised that she was happy. Her sadness had melted away in the warmth of her surroundings. (2.18)

Having lost the love of her life (who wasn't that much of a prize, if we're honest), Félicité finds a new source and object for love. There's nothing like little kids that can pull you out of your suffering, especially if they are jumping on your back and demanding that you neigh and eat hay. Félicité isn't a natural sufferer; she wants to be happy and allows herself to. Maybe it's her name.

Her daughter's absence was very painful at first. But three times a week she would receive a letter from her, and on the other days she would write to her. She would also walk in her garden, or read a little, and in this way she filled the long, empty hours. (3.15)

Félicité isn't the only one who suffers in "A Simple Heart." Madame Aubain herself is a widow, and lost a lot of her family's property after her husband's death. But the separation from her sickly daughter, Virginie, really gets her down. Rich or poor, everyone has their burdens in this story.

The prospect of such a long absence saddened Félicité. She decided to bid him a proper farewell.
[. . .]
Walking back past the roadside cross, Félicité decided to commend to God what she cherished the most. She stood there for a long time, looking up at the sky and praying, her face bathed in tears.

The difference between Félicité's suffering over Victor and Madame Aubain's suffering over Virginie is that Madame Aubain has all day to wander around missing her daughter, while Félicité has to finish her work before she's allowed to feel anything. She has to cry over her nephew's departure in the middle of the night.

Although used to being treated harshly, Félicité was indignant at Madame, then forgot about it. (3.39)

What a sad way to start a sentence. Félicité, whose name means happiness (like, really), is accustomed to being abused, basically. But this one time, her constant and subtle suffering is interrupted by an especially mean gesture by Madame Aubain. It's like adding fuel to an already burning fire.

Félicité collapsed onto a chair, leaned her head against the wall, and closed her suddenly pink eyes. Then for a long time she sat with lowered brow and hands dangling, staring in front of her and every now and again saying, 'Poor lad! Poor lad!' (3.48)

When Félicité gets news of Victor's death, she finally gives herself permission to stop what she's doing on a workday. The description is of utter defeat—notice that she doesn't cry; she just sort of stops. The woman who was once called an "automaton" (because she's such a robotic worker) also suffers in a sort of robotic way.

Madame Aubain's despair was boundless.
At first she rebelled against God, finding him unjust for having taken her daughter – she who had never done anything bad, and whose conscience was so pure! [. . .] She blamed herself, wished she could join her, cried out in distress in her dreams. (3.78)

Once again, Félicité's suffering is juxtaposed against Madame Aubain's. Whereas Félicité has only a few minutes to deal with Victor's death before she gets back to her laundry duties, Madame Aubain's despair is "boundless," as in, has no bounds—no limits. She can suffer all she wants with no work to interrupt it.

She caught a chill, which gave her, first, a sore throat, then earache. Three years later, she was deaf, and she would talk very loudly, even in church. (4.10)

Loulou's temporary disappearance gives Félicité such a shock that she catches a chill that will trouble her for the rest of her life. The deafness that results from the scare is probably rooted in her fear of losing, yet again, someone she loves, who in this case just happens to be a parrot.

All at once she felt weak, and the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, her nephew's departure, the death of Virginie, all swept over her like a wave, rising into her throat, choking her. (4. 24)

It might seem like Félicité is just a simpleton who doesn't really think about the past. But the moment before she sends Loulou off to the taxidermist shows that she actually does carry all of that disappointment and pain with her. She really is a suffering servant, but she suffers in silence.

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