Analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s Stories

Gustave Flaubert’s (12 December 1821 – 8 May 1880) Three Tales, published during the year 1877, when he was fifty-six years old, reflects the variety of styles of his literary production as a whole. “Un Coeur simple” (“A Simple Heart”) employs the Norman realism of Madame Bovary. “La Légende de Saint Julien l’hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”) reflects the preoccupation with exotic locales and the history of the early Christians evident in The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Flaubert’s travel narratives. “Hérodias” retains this exotic context while focusing on a singular heroine from the past, as Flaubert had done in Salammbô.


These three texts, Flaubert’s only short fiction to be widely read, provide the usual choices for modern readers seeking an introduction to his work. Flaubert wrote them in a spontaneous burst of activity between September, 1875, and February, 1877, as if he were capping his career with a demonstration piece of his various styles.

A Simple Heart

“A Simple Heart,” the life story of the good-hearted servant Félicité, draws its material from Flaubert’s own life. In 1825, a servant, Julie, joined the Flaubert household and may have provided a model for the character of Félicité. Critics have further suggested comparisons between Félicité and the old woman Catherine Leroux, who, in the Comices agricoles scene of Madame Bovary (part 2, chapter 8), is awarded “for fifty-four years of service on the same farm, a silver medal— valued at twenty-five francs.” Twenty-five francs may at that time have represented a fairly impressive sum but was nevertheless a mediocre value to place on fifty-four years of service. Flaubert, echoing his habit of undercutting both characters and social conventions with a final, damning detail, ends the official statement addressed to Catherine Leroux on this materialistic note.

In “A Simple Heart,” as in Madame Bovary, the materialism of Norman society appears in the form of a continual preoccupation with money. Yet in both works, this harsh theme contrasts with a persistent romanticism linked to the vain hopes of the various characters. Cupidity in the form of jealousy appears in the very first sentence of “A Simple Heart”: “For half a century, the bourgeois women of Pont-l’Évëque envied Madame Aubain because of her servant, Félicité.” The motivations of characters throughout the story revolve around money, often to the disadvantage of trusting Félicité. Some figures appear prejudged, as society would have classified them economically, from their very first mention in the text. Thus, Madame Aubain’s uncle, an impoverished aristocrat who visits early in the second section of the story, “always arrived at lunch time, with a horrid poodle whose paws spread dirt on all the furniture.”

Even the characters dearest to Félicité do not hesitate to hurt her when money is involved. When Félicité befriends Nastasie Barette, who does exploit her by accepting numerous presents, Madame Aubain cuts off this opportunity for friendship by decreeing their prompt return from Trouville to Pont-l’Évëque. Even Félicité’s beloved nephew, Victor, imposes on her generosity, although he does bring back to her gifts from his travels. His sudden departure on a voyage to the United States throws Félicité into despair, augmented by Madame Aubain’s insensitive incomprehension of her suffering when she learns of Victor’s death.

Throughout, characters are defined, usually in a negative manner, by the objects that surround them, objects that often appear in themselves hostile. The initial description of Madame Aubain’s house in Pont-l’Évëque tells the reader that “it had interior differences of level that made people trip,” and the family members appear through the presentation of their rooms, where the “two children’s beds without mattresses” and the attic room of Félicité testify to the subordinate status of children and servants. Yet appearances can be deceiving, still with a bias toward the negative. Because of her harsh life and limited diet, Félicité “at the age of twenty-five appeared to be forty years old.”

The considerable catalog of objects in these defining descriptions parallels Flaubert’s technique in Madame Bovary and echoes much of the realistic style of Honoré de Balzac, whose death in 1850 had appeared to Flaubert as a great loss. Thus, the detailed menu of the lunch at the Liébard farm recalls the even more expansive description in Emma Bovary’s view of the dinner at the château, and Virginie, after her death, survives in memory in her clothes—reminiscent of the wedding bouquet of Charles’s previous wife that greets Emma upon her arrival at the house at Tostes—clothes that Madame Aubain could bring herself to inspect only when “moths flew out of the wardrobe.”

The central documentation, however, must be that of Félicité’s own room. Flaubert makes a significant decision to withhold this description until the very end of the story. The mention of Félicité’s room in the opening pages tells the reader only that it was in the attic and had a view over the fields. There is no description of the interior. By the time it is revealed, the room contains the debris of Félicité’s life and “had the appearance both of a chapel and a bazaar, as it contained so many religious objects and varied things.” The separation of the religious objects here from the others underlines their dual role. Religion, as will be seen, held great importance for Félicité, but the objects that represent her devotion share with the others in her room echoes of deterioration and loss. Further, the distinction blurs between religious and secular: “On the dresser, covered with a cloth like an altar, was a box made of seashells that Victor had given her.” She retains with religious veneration objects linked to her memories.

Negative emphasis within the realistic catalog again parallels Madame Bovary. The determining events of Félicité’s unhappy memories grow from the same avaricious society that surrounded Emma. The one man she loved, Théodore, abandoned her to marry “a very rich old woman,” an action analogous both to Charles Bovary’s first, arranged marriage to Héloïse and to Paul’s later marriage in “A Simple Heart” to the daughter of a man who could help his career. Victor’s death, attributed to poor medical treatment of his case of yellow fever, recalls Charles Bovary’s unfortunate failure in the operation on Justin, and the heirs who pillage Madame Aubain’s house parallel the actions of Emma’s creditors.

The most obvious negative emphases, however, result from a series of exclusions. The bad can be defined most easily by contrast with the good. Often, this ranking comes from the arbitrary expectations of society, expectations that Flaubert documented in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1910, 1913; Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954). Thus, Charles Bovary bought for Emma “a second-hand vehicle that, once equipped with new lanterns and pierced leather mud flaps, almost resembled a tilbury,” and at the beach at Trouville, Virginie “went swimming in a shirt, for lack of a bathing costume; and her maid dressed her in a customs-inspection cabin that served for the bathers.” Things, not allowed to be as they naturally exist, are described as “almost” something more prestigious.

Those moments of high prestige in which the characters participate, however, disappear from the text. At Virginie’s funeral, for example, readers see the preparation of the body for the burial but not the more uplifting religious ceremony. Flaubert states simply, “after mass, it took three quarters of an hour to get to the cemetery.” Similarly, though romance dominates Emma Bovary’s life, Flaubert never shows her at the moment of central significance when she is a bride in church. Again, he emphasizes distance to be traversed: “The town hall being at half a league from the farm, they went there on foot, and came back in the same manner, once the ceremony was over at the church.” The last phrase, added almost as an afterthought, effectively deemphasizes what could have been the most positive moment of Emma’s life. One may certainly argue that liturgy, with its set patterns, need not be described in detail to be understood. Still, as Alphonse Daudet so aptly demonstrated in “Les Trois Messes basses,” the personal circumstances woven into each liturgy make it a unique event. This must hold especially true for both weddings and funerals.

Although the drama of liturgical moments disappears from Flaubert’s texts, a current of romanticism persists throughout “A Simple Heart.” Linked in part to the religious element in the story, this romanticism includes references both to traditional romantic themes and to other passages in which Flaubert appears to parody such themes. This again echoes Madame Bovary and Flaubert’s dual feelings concerning romantic passion. Emma Bovary’s emotional confusion clearly derives from the false ideas of love, which she had taken from sentimental novels. Immediately after her marriage, she “sought to know exactly what people meant in real life by the words felicity, passion and intoxication that had appeared so beautiful to her in books.” Flaubert’s use of the word félicité in this description of Emma’s disappointment anticipates the irony in the choice of the word as the name for his heroine in “A Simple Heart.” Félicité does occasionally achieve joy but only despite the numerous forces working against her happiness.

Religion provides the central solace of Félicité’s life. At the beginning of the story, she rises at dawn to attend Mass and falls asleep each night with her rosary in her hand. She derives a dual joy from attending catechism classes with Virginie. She admires the beauty of the stained-glass windows, much as Emma Bovary “rather than following the mass looked at the holy pictures framed in azure in her book,” and thus Félicité gains a rudimentary religious education, such training “having been neglected in her youth.” The repeated images in the church of the Holy Spirit in the form of a bird prepare for Félicité’s vision at the end of the story.

Along with religion, a romantic joy in external nature touches Félicité. In a way that underlines her solitude, however, these fleeting moments of happiness come to Félicité only with the rare experience of love. Flaubert tells the reader very early that Félicité “had had, like anyone else, her tale of love,” thus deemphasizing this formative experience. Still, during her interlude with Théodore, they were surrounded by the beauty of nature: “The wind was soft; the stars shone,” but as Emma could not regain the luxury of the ball at the château, Félicité only rarely returns to the joys of nature. One other such interlude does occur when she accompanies the Aubain family to the countryside. This enjoyment coincides with the fulfillment that Félicité feels in taking care of Paul and Virginie when they are children, but even here there is a sense of deterioration from a better state of things past. The house they visit “was all that remained of a vacation house, now disappeared.”

Consistent with the romantic pathetic fallacy identifying elements of nature with the emotional condition of the protagonist, nature remains pleasant in “A Simple Heart” while Félicité is relatively happy. Later, as she worries about Victor, who has gone to sea, she focuses on violent storms and finally learns that, “as in a memory of engravings in a geography book, he was eaten by savages, trapped in a forest by monkeys, or dying on a deserted beach.” Like Emma, she takes her imaginings from an overly literal application of material from books.

As Flaubert cites these tales of savages and monkeys, modern elements of romantic travel literature, he draws on a rich source of contemporary allusion. Elsewhere, the names of Paul and Virginie he chooses for Madame Aubain’s children recall the novel Paul et Virginie (1788), by Jacques-Henri Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, the exotic setting of which provided a model of preromantic nature description. Later, the appearance of the de Larsonnière family with their black servant and their parrot continued this current of exotic allusion.

Flaubert’s critique of romanticism leads him to use a degree of exaggeration that approaches parody. When their uncle gives the children a geography book with engravings, “they represented different scenes of the world, cannibals with feathers on their heads, a monkey carrying off a young girl, bedouins in the desert, a whale being harpooned. . . .” These dramatic choices may have been typical of geography books of the time, but in Flaubert’s description of Virginie after her death, the choices are entirely his own. He begins with a conventional tableau, where Virginie’s pale face contrasted with a black crucifix echoes the contrast of light and darkness dear to the Romantics. As Félicité remains “for two nights” near the body, however, the description, drawn from Flaubert’s realistic medical observations, inclines toward the grotesque.

Grotesque exaggeration linked to the theme of death culminates in the story of Félicité’s parrot. She had become so attached to the bird, the last voice audible to her as she became progressively deaf, that she had it stuffed after its death. Its place among the religious objects in her room reinforced an association: “In church she always contemplated the Holy Spirit and observed that he somewhat resembled the parrot.” The bird, however, badly preserved, deteriorated. At the end, when Félicité’s friend brought the parrot to her to kiss, “worms were devouring it.”

Félicité does not see the deterioration of the parrot. Her eyes as well as her ears are failing. The brief fifth and final section of the story brings the reader at last to the perspective of Félicité herself, who, thanks to the very narrowness of her perceptions, achieves the happiness promised in her name. Earlier references have slighted Félicité’s intelligence and alluded to her lack of education, but what she does not know may protect her. The fifth section opens with the line “The grass sent the odor of summer,” appealing to one sense that Félicité retains and bringing back to her the sense of joy in nature. A religious procession is about to pass by the house, and readers see it through Félicité’s imagination. The holy sacrament is displayed on an altar containing many objects representative of life in the local area, including the stuffed parrot, Loulou. This accumulation of mismatched objects, however, no longer conveys the lack of aesthetic sense that it might have represented earlier. It has become a “mound of bright colors” amid which “Loulou, hidden under some roses, showed only a blue forehead, like a piece of lapis.” Properly selected and arranged, even the realistic debris of village life can present a formof beauty. At the end, Félicité is vindicated in that her “simple heart” had led her to make instinctive choices that protect what beauty there was in her world.

The complex style of “A Simple Heart” derives from the tension between its realistic and romantic elements. A similar contrast in “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), however, produces a much simpler narrative, where quantities of relatively generic images replace the nuances of the objects in Félicité’s surroundings.

The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler

“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” conveys the life of its protagonist from birth to death, neatly divided into three parts: the growing violence of the young man, who fears that he will fulfill a prophecy that he will kill his parents, a period of flight that ends with Julien unwittingly killing his parents when they come to seek him, and his final repentance and salvation.

The story, set in a vaguely described medieval Europe, contains numerous exotic elements that link it to Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Although Antoine spends the greater part of his story doing penance and resisting temptations, however, Julien’s violent years dominate a story with only a brief phase of penitence. The fairy-tale opening of “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”—“Julien’s father and mother lived in a chateau, in the middle of a wood, on the slope of a hill”—contrasts with the more theatrical style with extensive dialogue that dominates The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Exotic elements proliferate in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” from the very first description, where the family’s castle contains armaments of foreign origins, to the Asian merchants and pilgrims from the Holy Land who describe their journeys and to the diverse adversaries whom Julien faces during his extensive travels as a soldier. The analogy with the story of Oedipus, similarly destined to kill his father, adds a foreign element, but description in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” lacks the details and contrasts of the Norman scene. When Julien kills animals while hunting and later finds himself surrounded by beasts intent on avenging his excessive savagery, the catalog of creatures retains the artistic sense of animals highlighted in a tapestry: “A marten slipped quickly between his legs, a panther bounded over his shoulder, a serpent wound around an ash tree.” Except for the stag that speaks to Julien to warn him of his fate, the animals and other objects Julien encounters remain generic, devoid of descriptive detail.

Similarly, the pathetic fallacy linking landscape to emotion disappears in this text. When, in the second part, Julien marries and attempts to lead a settled life, the sky over his château “was always blue.” Even in the emotional hunting scene that reawakens his savagery and leads to the death of his parents, readers see him surrounded by natural beauty: “The shadows of trees spread out across the moss. Sometimes the moon dappled the clearings.”

Occasionally, description does serve, as elsewhere in Flaubert’s work, to define the mood of characters. As Julien grows more ferocious in hunting, he returns home one night “covered with blood and dirt, with thorns in his hair and smelling like savage beasts.” Flaubert, however, continues here, “He became like the beasts.” The symbolism is more explicit and heavy-handed than in Flaubert’s more realistic texts. A night lamp “in the form of a dove” symbolizes his parents’ care for Julien but with a more simplistic suggestion than that in Félicité’s vision of the Holy Spirit.

If the characters are not seen as motivated by the objects that surround them, a strong theme of fate provides an alternate controlling force. When Julien’s thirst for blood is first aroused and he begins to kill birds with stones, “the wall being broken at that place, a piece of stone happened to be under his fingers. He turned his arm and the stone knocked down the bird.” The stone, not Julien, is responsible, and later, when Julien attempts to repent, violent dreams come unbidden to renew his desire to kill.

Fate finds its voice in the prophecies governing Julien’s life. At his birth, a beggar, “a Bohemian with plaited beard, silver rings on his arms, and blazing eyes,” warns Julien’s father of the violence to come, much as the beggar in Madame Bovary foreshadows Emma’s death. At the end of the story, the leprous traveler whom Julien rescues flashes the same blazing eyes just before Julien is carried off to heaven. This salvation, ordained by Christ, responds to another kind of external—this time divine—manipulation.


Just as Julien’s story follows what has been preordained, “Hérodias” must not depart from the set sequence of events from the biblical story. This time, Flaubert narrates not the entire life of his protagonist but the events of a single day. During the first two parts of the story, a delegation arrives from Rome and, while searching Herod’s cellars for treasures, finds the imprisoned John the Baptist, called here Iaokanann, who rails against Herod’s incestuous marriage. The third part narrates the banquet where Salomé’s dance earns Iaokanann’s death.

Again, Flaubert uses a considerable amount of description, much of it derived from his own visit to the shores of the Dead Sea, but the view remains that of the camera, avoiding detailed analysis of the characters’ emotions. Readers first see Herod on a terrace with a panoramic view of the surrounding country. The descriptive catalog of the terrain and Herod’s embattled position parallel the situation at the beginning of Salammbô. Later, an enumeration of armaments in Herod’s cellars recalls the similar listing in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler,” but very little of this relates to character exposition. Only the menacing “hot wind with the odor of sulfer” that blows as Hérodias, Herod’s wife, arrives hints at the personal confrontations to come. Even when, at the end of the first part, Herod’s view of a beautiful young girl on another terrace foreshadows Hérodias’s manipulation of him, the portrait of the girl herself has the impersonality of an Asian painting.

A principal animation of “Hérodias” comes from recurrent animal imagery. Iaokanann appears in prison, covered with animal skins, “in the depths of his lair.” He screams that he will cry out “like a bear, like a wild ass” and forces Hérodias finally to “roar” like a lion. Contrasting with this animal imagery, however, Salomé’s dance appears mechanical. In a parallel scene in Salammbô, the heroine dances with a python “placing the middle of its body around the back of her neck,” but Salomé, instructed by her mother, remains externally controlled “like a flower shaken by a storm.”

Almost inevitably Iaokanann is beheaded. The story ends as two Christians carry the head away toward Galilee: “Since it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it.” This final realistic touch parallels the closing of “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler,” where Flaubert adds, “There is the story of Saint Julien l’Hospitalier approximately as one finds it on the church window in my country.” Each story, exoticism notwithstanding, ends grounded by a realistic touch.

Flaubert’s instinctive return to realism reflects the importance of the documentary style, founded on his detailed observation of Norman life, through which he orchestrated objects to reflect the psychological composition of his characters. A comparison of “A Simple Heart” with Flaubert’s more exotic short stories reveals a shift in the latter toward a formal objectivity. Animals like those of a tapestry and the image of a girl portrayed as if in a painting distance themselves from the emotional content of the story.

Flaubert’s realistic manner bridges this distance. In “A Simple Heart,” as in Madame Bovary, he develops a complexity that relies on the careful selection of objects to define both the feelings of his characters and the societal forces that often conflict with them. This conflict, closely tied to the clash of romantic and realistic elements, provides the basic tension that gives life to Flaubert’s work.

Major works
Plays: Le Château des coeurs, wr. 1863, pr. 1874 (with Louis Bouilhet; The Castle of Hearts, 1904); Le Candidat, pr., pb. 1874 (The Candidate, 1904).
Novels: La Première Éducation sentimentale, wr. 1843-1845, pb. 1963 (The First Sentimental Education, 1972); Madame Bovary, 1857 (English translation, 1886); Salammbô, 1862 (English translation, 1886); L’Éducation sentimentale, 1869 (A Sentimental Education, 1898); La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1874 (The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895); Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1881 (Bouvard and Pécuchet, 1896).
Miscellaneous: The Complete Works, 1904 (10 volumes); OEuvres complètes, 1910- 1933 (22 volumes).
Nonfiction: Par les champs et par les grèves, 1885 (with Maxime Du Camp; Over Strand and Field, 1904); Correspondance, 1830-1880, 1887-1893; Dictionnaire des idées reçues, 1910, 1913 (Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954); Notes de voyage, 1910; Correspondance, 1981 (Alphonse Jacobs, editor; Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, 1993); Gustave Flaubert-Alfred Le Poittevin, Gustave-Flaubert- Maxine Du Camp: Correspondances, 2000 (Yvan Leclerc, editor).
Short fiction:  Novembre, wr. c. 1840, pb. 1885 (November, 1932); Trois Contes, 1877 (Three Tales, 1903).

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
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Greenbaum, Andrea. “Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple.” The Explicator (Summer, 1995): 208-211.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Library Press, 1972.
Porter, Laurence M., ed. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Stipa, Ingrid. “Desire, Repetition, and the Imaginary in Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 617-626.
Unwin, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Categories: French Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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