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Her ability to love was her gift.

November 7, 2010 11 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)

 

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