Home > 19th Century, Classics, Flaubert Gustave, French Literature, Short Stories > Her ability to love was her gift.

Her ability to love was her gift.

November 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Un Coeur simple, by Gustave Flaubert. Read by Marie-Christine Barrault. English title:  A Simple Heart.

A Simple Heart is a short story first published in 1877 in the book Three Tales. It tells the life of the servant Félicité in the Normandy of early 19th Century. Right from title, Flaubert sums up Félicité. Indeed, in French, “des gens simples” (‘simple people’) are a way to call decent people from the working class. “Simple”, applied to mind, also describes someone with a limited intelligence. (‘simple d’esprit’). “Avoir du coeur” (to have a good heart) is used to picture generous people. That’s Félicité: hardworking, loving and with a slow intelligence. It is confirmed by the two first sentences:

Pendant un demi-siècle, les bourgeoises de Pont-l’Évêque envièrent à Mme Aubain sa servante Félicité. Pour cent francs par an, elle faisait la cuisine et le ménage, cousait, lavait, repassait, savait brider un cheval, engraisser les volailles, battre le beurre, et resta fidèle à sa maîtresse,-qui cependant n’était pas une personne agréable. For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Evêque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Félicité. For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress—although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.

As soon as Mme Aubain hires Félicité, the latter’s food and shelter are assured. She will never lose that and it is already important for the time.

However, her temper is to love without expecting anything in return. She loves Théodore, then her mistress’ children, her nephew, her parrot. Every time a dreadful event deprives her from the object of her love, she finds another one. She never complains. Flaubert is sometimes ironic about her but I never felt like mocking her, even when she decided to have her parrot stuffed in order to keep him near her after he died. After each misfortune, she weeps, like in the following quote, when Théodore marries someone else, and then moves on with her life:

Ce fut un chagrin désordonné. Elle se jeta par terre, poussa des cris, appela le bon Dieu, et gémit toute seule dans la campagne jusqu’au soleil levant. The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise.

The translation uses the word “frightful”, which corresponds to Flaubert’s idea. But the word he used “désordonné” means “untidy” or “disorderly” and it is not a word commonly used to describe sorrow. Yet it pictures really well the scene.

I would like to comment the names of the characters. Félicité means felicity. This sounds a little ironic as I am not sure it is a state of mind she often felt. Mme Aubain’s name reminds me of the word “Aubaine”. In French, an “aubaine” means a godsend, a bargain. The meeting between Félicité and Mme Aubain is indeed a godsend for both of them. Of course, Mme Aubain had a good, faithful, brave, hardworking servant. But, although Mme Aubain was not an agreeable woman, Félicité was not ill-treated in her house and her life was sweeter than the one she would have spent in a farm. The children’s names are Paul & Virginie. I can’t help thinking it is a reference to the novel “Paul & Virginie” by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. It is the symbol of pure love.

I enjoy Flaubert’s prose. Every word is at the right place. He only needs a few sentences to perfectly describe a room and an atmosphere. He shows us the simple life of Provincial people, with their joys and sorrows. These people try to float on the flow of events that fate throws in their lives. They accept them, they suffer, they adapt with dignity. 

It is a short text and here are the files, if anyone is interested: GUSTAVE_FLAUBERT-Un_coeur_simple (in French) A_simple_heart (in English)


  1. November 7, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Reminds me of poor Anna Edes–so much work and so little appreciation….


    • November 8, 2010 at 8:05 am

      I have added Anna Edes to my reading list. Kosztolányi’s style has similarities with Flaubert’s.

      I think you’d like A Simple Heart too.


  2. November 8, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I have a collection of his short stories sitting here gathering dust.


    • November 8, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      One of these days you’ll pick them up then. You seem to have a lot of books. Lucky you!


  3. November 25, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    I just managed to read this finally (I’m buried at work at the moment). It’s fascinating to see the implications of the names, Flaubert is just a wonderful writer too.

    Simple has the same meanings in English too, and some once spoke of the simple folk in much the same vein.


    • November 25, 2010 at 10:26 pm

      That’s probably something you’ll like if your work leaves you time to read it.

      Thanks for the explanation of “simple”. I see the meaning is the same here. Sometimes the same word doesn’t have the same meaning in English and in French, like deception / déception (disappointment). Francophones get confused.


  4. April 19, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Thanks for pointing me here, Bookaround. I enjoyed your take on A Simple Heart.

    The impact of translation always raises interesting points, and often makes me regret my lack of facility with languages. ‘Frightful’ is kind of a throw away word, which doesn’t add anything to the description which follows, whereas ‘untidy’ jars slightly, causing one to picture the scene with more attention. And, yes, the word does work.

    I note that we share a similar reaction to Félicité: I could see the irony but for me Félicité was a character invoking sympathy and admiration.


    • April 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks for your message. I tend to pay more attention to translations as I type quotes in two languages. I see it can be useful.


  5. February 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    A great review, thank you!
    A vintage postcard reminded us so strongly of Felicite of the Simple Heart we bought it, we also visited Pont l’Eveque to see her home for ourselves
    Have a look at the postcard and more here http://www.normandythenandnow.com/a-simple-heart-at-pont-leveque/


    • February 9, 2014 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks for the link to the picture. It could be her, you’re right!


  1. December 19, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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