Contact   |   À propos du site

Comparisons and bontrasts between Madame Bovary
and Un Coeur Simple


1. Origins

Although Flaubert worked on the text of “Madame Bovary” from 1851 until 1856, the idea for his most famous novel dates from an earlier journey to the Middle East. In a letter from Constantinople in 1850, mention is already made of a plan for “mon roman flamand de la jeune fille qui meurt vierge et mystique, entre son père et sa mère, dans une petite province”. This is not in itself the subject-matter of “Madame Bovary”, except that much later, in 1857, in a letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, we learn: “L'idée première que j'avais eue était d'en faire une vierge, vivant au milieu de la province, vieillissant dans le chagrin et arrivant ainsi aux derniers états du mysticisme et de la passion rêvée.” Is this not exactly what Flaubert incarnates later in the character of Félicité in “Un Cœur Simple”, minus the ‘chagrin' ? He modified his first plan, and announced to Louise Colet, his long-time mistress and muse, on September 20th, 1851, that he had started work on the novel as we know it. How did it come to pass that a mystical Flemish girl became the adulterous, middle-class Norman woman that we see embodied in Emma ?

Although Flaubert stated that Madame Bovary was a pure invention, it would appear that two of his friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, drew his attention in 1851 to the death in 1848 of the second wife of a doctor, Eugène Delamare, who had been unfaithful to him. There was also the Lafarge case, a celebrated and vivid story of poisoning from the beginning of the century. But if he did use any real events as models, Flaubert certainly embellished them and gave them his own slant.

The first obvious forerunner to “Un Cœur Simple” in Flaubert's work occurs in a story written in 1836, called “Rage et Impuissance”, where the old maidservant is described in this way: “C'est dans ses souvenirs d'enfance qu'errait ainsi son imagination, et la vieille Berthe se retraçait ainsi toute sa vie, qui s'était passée monotone et uniforme dans son village et qui, dans un cercle si étroit, avait eu aussi ses passions, ses angoisses et ses douleurs.” (It should be noted en passant that Berthe is the name Flaubert gives to Emma's daughter, in honour of a name she had heard at the ball at la Vaubyessard, the highlight of her life).

Flaubert had originally conceived the character of Emma as an old maid, imbued with mysticism. However he came to realise without a doubt that this central character would not be capable of sustaining a novel. He put something of this character into Catherine Leroux, the humble, pious old woman who is awarded a silver medal at the ‘Comices Agricoles' for fifty years hard labour on the same farm. The germ of the character of Félicité, portrayed so intensely in the short-story form of “Un Cœur Simple,” is to be found here: “Quelque chose d'une rigidité monacale relevait l'expression de sa figure.” And then: “Puis, quand elle eut sa médaille, elle la considéra. Alors un sourire de béatitude se répandit sur sa figure, et on l'entendit qui marmottait en s'en allant: “Je la donnerai au curé de chez nous, pour qu'il me dise des messes.”” But here the great difference between Catherine and Félicité is that there is no sense of admiration in Flaubert for the former. Indeed we see a contained, cold fury at the treatment meted out to Catherine: “Ainsi se tenait devant ces bourgeois épanouis ce demi-siècle de servitude.”

Although “Un Cœur Simple” was only written in 1876, various aspects of the story had remained with Flaubert throughout his creative life, especially the idea of devotion to a parrot, which he had noted as early as 1845. Flaubert had deeply personal reasons for the creation of the sympathetic character of Félicité. He had frequently been scolded by George Sand for his impartiality, and had always upheld the impersonal ideal of the absence of the author from his work. She found such objectivity depressing, describing his literature as ‘désolation' and hers as ‘consolation'. As he worked on “Un Cœur Simple”, Flaubert had in the forefront of his mind the idea of proving to her that he could show sympathy for his characters. He was thwarted by the fact that she died before she could read the work dedicated to her, as he wrote to her son, Maurice: “J'avais commencé “Un Cœur Simple” à son intention exclusive, uniquement pour lui plaire.”

2. Treatment of Location and Historical Events

Both stories are set in Normandy, in landscapes which Flaubert knew so well. But in both cases we are far more concerned with the social origins of the main character than with the countryside itself. It is of course true that a ‘petit bourgeois' atmosphere has a profound effect on the way in which characters conduct their lives, but this is not directly linked to geographical location. Nevertheless Charles Bovary's first wife labels Emma ‘une demoiselle de ville' because of the advantage of her convent education. This immediately draws the reader's attention to the fact that when Emma comes to marry Charles, she is likely to find boredom in the kind of life in small country towns that Charles, on a low rung of the medical ladder, is able to offer. Even at the time of her wedding, Emma has aspirations beyond the traditional, Norman country celebration with its 16-hour meal which began again the following day. She was disappointed in her desire for a romantic, midnight, torchlit wedding. It becomes ever clearer that Emma dœs not fit in with the surroundings into which she had been born, probably as the result of different perspectives given her by her convent education, which had impregnated her with Catholic symbolism and sensuous mysticism. But far from giving her any idea of service, this education had merely pampered to her selfish nature: “Il fallait qu'elle pût retirer des choses une sorte de profit personnel; et elle rejetait comme inutile tout ce qui ne contribuait pas à la consommation immédiate de son cœur - étant de tempérament plus sentimentale qu'artiste, cherchant des émotions et non des paysages.” In fact she hated the countryside she had been forced to live in, and views Charles' arrival as a stroke of providence. Flaubert already issues a grim warning, however: “elle ne pouvait s'imaginer à présent que ce calme où elle vivait fut le bonheur qu'elle avait rêvé.”

The ball at la Vaubyessard, which opened her eyes to a different world, only makes Emma dream more of Paris and fine society, so that the countryside becomes an ever greater source of boredom: “Elle avait envie de faire des voyages ou de retourner vivre à son couvent. Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris.” Dimly aware of her boredom and distressed state of mind, Charles proposes the move from Tostes to the slightly larger Yonville. For a while Emma is preoccupied with motherhood and incipient love for Leon, but after his decision to leave for Paris, the same dull melancholy overtakes her as after the ball at la Vaubyessard. Her environment weighs down on her just as heavily. Her aspiration to rise above the mediocre world in which she finds herself anchored is perhaps best symbolised by the ‘Comices Agricoles' scene, as she stands at a window with her potential new lover, Rodolphe, looking down on a scene redolent of Norman country life, with a special prize going to Catherine Leroux for 54 years of unadulterated drudgery. Even in her adultery, her sensations are very different from what the down-to-earth Rodolphe had in mind, and so she cannot be satisfied in the world as she knows it: “Elle entrait dans quelque chose de merveilleux où tout serait passion, extase, délire; une immensité bleuâtre l'entourait, les sommets du sentiment étincelaient sous sa pensée, et l'existence ordinaire n'apparaissait qu'au loin, tout en bas, dans l'ombre, entre les intervalles de ces hauteurs.” And then Flaubert continues to mock her with huge irony: “La légion lyrique de ces femmes adultères se mit à chanter dans sa mémoire avec des voix de sœurs qui la charmaient.”

If we had doubted before that Emma was better suited to urban than rural life, her reaction to the glamorous setting of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the opera in Rouen would have dispelled such doubts. The sheer romantic element brings home to her the love that she has never found and reminds her of the novels she read as a convent schoolgirl. This is the background to her desperate fling with Léon, who arrives as if on cue.

At the start of “Un Cœur simple,” we are given an immediate idea of the tedium of day-to-day existence in a small Norman town through the petty preoccupations of Madame Aubain, living as she dœs in the past. In her youth, Félicité had been dazzled by the ‘assemblée de Colleville', with rather the same effect as the ball at la Vaubyessard on Emma, except that the brutal conclusion with the attempted rape by Théodore and the limited scope of her own imagination meant that it could never supersede her day-to-day activities as happened with Emma. Because Félicité's practical side is far stronger than her imagination, she is able to overcome extreme emotion. She is also equally at home in the country or the town, saving Madame Aubain and her children from the bull and being perfectly content with her daily drudgery in the house. Unlike Catherine Leroux, and of course Emma herself, Félicité is not ultimately crushed by life, but is rewarded by lasting happiness. Because of her character and her upbringing, she lacks the objectivity to see her own position from the outside and become depressed by it, except on one brief occasion, just after being struck down by the postillion on her way to Honfleur to take Loulou, her dead parrot, to be stuffed: “Alors une faiblesse l'arrêta; et la misère de son enfance, la déception du premier amour, le départ de son neveu, la mort de Virginie, comme les flots d'une marée, revinrent à la fois, et, lui montant à la gorge, l'étouffaient.”

Although it is a time of momentous historical events, only the July revolution is mentioned briefly en passant. This is because in the short-story form we are only concerned with reality as it affects Félicité, a simple, concrete reality firmly set in nineteenth century, rural Normandy. Quite clearly, the setting itself was vital to Flaubert's conception of the story - he waited until the weather had cleared sufficiently to enable him to revisit the locations before writing it. But he had to restrain himself from too much description, the temptation of the novelist, as he made clear to his niece: “dans le commencement, je m'étais emballé dans trop de descriptions. J'en enlève de charmantes: la littérature est l'art des sacrifices.”

3. Sympathy for Characters

Flaubert's acidly candid view of human beings and their imperfections is everywhere perceptible in “Madame Bovary,” beginning with the derisive description of Charles' hat when he starts at school and ending as he dies in Emma's bower with a lock of her hair in his hands.

His heroine, with all her aspirations to escape from the stifling environment in which she lives, is the very last person to be spared. We see all her failings and even at the moment of death, described in vivid but totally objective terms, it is evident that the author feels no real pity for her. Even where more minor characters are depicted in less detail, Flaubert often finds an epithet to sum up their futile existence mercilessly, as in the image of Charles' father “qui restait à fumer au coin du feu, crachant dans les cendres.” Huge irony is often mixed with lack of sympathy. Part of Charles' initial attraction in Emma's eyes came about because he healed her father's broken leg, yet it is the abject failure of the operation on Hippolyte's clubfoot that so turns her against her husband. Charles' love for Emma lacks all the romanticism that she desperately wished to find in her marriage, and he is completely impervious to this, but the author accentuates it brutally: “Il s'en allait, ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu'ils digèrent.” Emma searches for her romantic ideal throughout her life, but is let down both by circumstances and her own character, which, as Flaubert shows, is totally unable to adapt to her surroundings: “Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l'on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d'ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.”

Even when we see Emma at the ball at la Vaubyessard, the highlight of her life, her eye is taken not by some dashing, handsome young blade, but by the aged Duc de Laverdière, not for his current qualities, but because he had led a life of debauchery, having supposedly swallowed up a fortune and slept with Marie-Antoinette  ! Flaubert shows us that even the romantic aspirations by which she lives tend in all the wrong directions, as we are shown more vividly in her relationship with Rodolphe. She simply dœs not know how to channel her dreams: “Elle avait envie de faire des voyages ou de retourner vivre à son couvent.” Flaubert mercilessly pulls her back to present drudgery. Just before the move from Tostes to Yonville, she comes across her wedding-bouquet, dried up, and pricks her finger on it symbolically as she throws it into the fire: “Elle le regarda brûler. Les petites baies de carton éclataient, les fils d'archal se tordaient, le galon se fondait; et les corolles de papier, racornies, se balançant le long de la plaque comme des papillons noirs, enfin s'envolèrent par la cheminée.”

Flaubert at once gives vent to his cynicism about pharmacists when we meet Homais at Yonville. He dœs not have a diploma to practise medicine and has many enemies in the town, but nonetheless appears as a pompous know-all. The tapestry of bourgeois, small-town life is completed by the portraits of Lheureux, the usurer, who knows how to prey on his clients' weaknesses, and the Abbé Bournisien, who has no time for the spiritual needs of his parishioners, if he could even recognize them ! At the time when Emma is still proud of her own virtue, Flaubert dœs not allow us to be taken in, as he brilliantly captures the adulterous nature of her thoughts about Léon: “et ses penéees continuellement s'abattaient sur cette maison, comme les pigeons du ‘Lion d'Or' qui venaient tremper là, dans les gouttières, leurs pattes roses et leurs ailes blanches.” Flaubert brutally shows up the contrast between Emma's romantic longings and Rodolphe's motivation when they first meet, leaving us in no doubt about what the outcome of their dalliance will be. “Il était de tempérament brutal et d'intelligence perspicace, ayant d'ailleurs beaucoup fréquenté les femmes, et s'y connaissant bien. Celle-là lui avait paru jolie; il y rêvait donc, et à son mari.” He is already thinking of how he will be rid of her, even before he has attempted seduction. The scene at the ‘Comices Agricoles', with its famous juxtaposition of pseudo-romantic seduction and prizes for farm-animals, shows Flaubert at his most cynical and mischievous. If possible, he becomes even more vicious with her after she has yielded. What she has in mind from the relationship is as far from reality as it could be with the brutal, down-to-earth Rodolphe.

None of the main characters is safe from Flaubert's barbs, as we see yet again with Charles' hapless performance as a surgeon on Hippolyte's Achilles tendon, but by and large he is concerned with revealing Emma's delusions one by one, and casting her ever downwards into an abyss from which it is impossible for her to escape. As he dœs so, with such brutal objectivity, it may just be that he causes the reader to feel some sympathy for her in her plight, even if she is ultimately able to do little to help herself. Her suffering, even when self-inflicted, can seem more than enough for one human being to bear. There is a strong parallel drawn between the dashing of Emma's romantic hopes and the sordid nature of the financial plight into which she sinks. In neither case has she found anybody to help her in her dream of rising out of the mediocre existence in which she finds herself enmeshed. Even her loftiest aspirations are ridiculed by the author: “Elle entrevit, parmi les illusions de son espoir, un état de pureté flottant au-dessus de la terre, se confondant avec le ciel, et où elle aspira d'être. Elle voulut devenir une sainte.” Her end is inexorable as she plumbs the depths of despair and degradation, begging for money to survive, only for an upsurge of pride to seize her and make her take the fatal step. As Flaubert delights in giving the reader full details about the trappings of death, he cannot resist including  a grotesque argument between Homais and Abbé Bournisien about prayer over Emma's corpse.

At the start of “Un Cœur simple,” Flaubert shows us once again his objective, dispassionate side as he underlines all the labours that Félicité carries out for next to no reward. Despite this, we see at once that she is the most perfect servant any mistress could have.

There is a distinct parallel to be drawn between the ball scene at la Vaubyessard in “Madame Bovary” and the scene at ‘l'assemblée de Colleville' in “Un Cœur simple.” Both Emma and Félicité were dazzled by what they saw, and it affected the rest of their lives. In Emma's case, with her fertile imagination, the images which she retained were to be a constant reminder of a different world to which she aspired, a constant reminder too of the mediocrity of her everyday existence. For Félicité the brutal conclusion with the attempted rape by Théodore and the limited scope of her imagination meant that what she had seen could never supersede her day-to-day activities. Because of her practical side, she is swiftly able to overcome the disappointment of abandonment by Théodore and find happiness in the service of others. We see a hint of admiration on the author's part for Félicité in her practical dealings with everybody and above all her exceptional modesty. Madame Aubain on the other hand is treated with absolute cynicism by Flaubert because of her cruelty towards Félicité, especially when the latter encounters her long-lost sister at Trouville.

We are increasingly shown how Félicité needs an obsession to take over her mind and fulfil her yearning for love. In this she becomes a figure out of the ordinary. Comprehension is unimportant, but faith is vital, and this leads her ever closer to a form of sainthood. There is evidently a degree of irony in Flaubert's treatment of his heroine, but it is very difficult to know how deep this gœs. One by one the objects of Félicité's love disappear or are removed, until only the stuffed parrot remains. Flaubert calls Félicité's devotion by turns ‘bestial' and ‘une vénération religieuse.' Because of increasing deafness, she becomes ever more self-enclosed. When she contracts pneumonia, her religious zeal becomes mingled with her feelings for Loulou, the one remaining object of her love (she has to have an object). As she takes her last breath, she thinks that she sees a huge parrot in the sky and the smell of incense from outside wafts up to her nostrils. The question is whether Flaubert is mocking her faith or showing real sympathy for such wholesomeness.

However one views it, there is no doubt that Félicité is treated completely differently from the other characters in the short-story. Flaubert is as vicious as ever with his other characters. Madame Aubain is shown to be cruel and self-centred, only overcome by emotion once, many years after her daughter Virginie's death, when she and Félicité re-enter the untouched bedroom, see Virginie's clothes and fall into each other's arms. There is absolutely no pity for the know-all Bourais, who commits suicide far from home because of his dishonest dealings. Félicité rises above all this, and it is surely no accident that her story is one of a trilogy involving St. Julian and St. John the Baptist.

4. Use of Irony

Flaubert is never sparing in his use of irony, either at the expense of the ‘petit-bourgeois', Normandy society that he evokes or of the characters who people it. He delights in describing the foibles of the notary, the chemist or the priest and through them invoking the characteristics that he hated most about the society in which he lived.

Emma is a helpless prisoner in a world from which she aspires to escape without having the means to do so. As readers we can feel sympathy for her plight, her entrapment possibly mirroring something of our own situation, but the author is completely merciless, and explores the weaknesses of her character to the fullest depths. It would be easy to mock her for her sentimentality, but it has to be remembered that the flights of romanticism and later spirituality that overtake her have their roots in her convent upbringing and the literature she sampled in those days. Unlike many of the other characters, she was aware of another world beyond practical, day-to-day reality, and it is her tragedy that she lacked the intellectual, financial or emotional strength to be able to rise above her station.

But Flaubert is pitiless in the treatment he metes out to his unfortunate heroine. Even in the earliest stages of her marriage, it is clear that Emma is seeking something that Charles cannot provide: “Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l'on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d'ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.” This segment of her life ironically and symbolically comes to an end as Emma pricks her finger on her wedding bouquet, which she was throwing into the fire.

Despite Homais' pomposity and desire to impress the new doctor and his wife on their arrival in Yonville, Flaubert is both cynical and ironic about his lack of a diploma to practise medecine. The author continually vents his spleen on the medical profession, as he dœs later on usurers in the person of Lheureux and the clergy through Abbé Bournisien.

At the same time, Emma has met Leon, and just as she is raised on a pedestal in the community and everybody begins to admire her, Flaubert brilliantly captures the adulterous nature of her thoughts: “et ses pensées continuellement s'abattaient sur cette maison, comme les pigeons du ‘Lion d'Or' qui venaient tremper là, dans les gouttières, leurs pattes roses et leurs ailes blanches.” He reveals how thoughts and sentiments intermingle in her mind: “La médiocrité domestique la poussait à des fantaisies luxueuses, la tendresse matrimoniale en des désirs adultères.” When Emma makes her way to the church, seeking a belated return to the mystical devotion of her youth, she is met by a priest only interested in creature comforts, who cannot remotely visualize what she is looking for. Flaubert clearly enjoys himself hugely in the justly famous ‘Comices Agricoles' scene, with Rodolphe seducing Emma on the first floor while animals receive prizes below and the loyal Catherine Leroux is rewarded for 54 years service at the same farm by a silver medal worth 25 francs.

It is highly ironic too that Rodolphe, who is only seeking sexual gratification, should have no idea of Emma's needs. Flaubert of course cannot resist the temptation of showing how everything is confused in Emma's mind: “La légion lyrique de ces femmes adultères se mit à chanter dans sa mémoire avec des voix de sœurs qui la charmaient.” Indeed at such times Flaubert can hardly escape the charge of going over the top.

After the failure of the club-foot operation, which Homais had encouraged Charles to carry out, the former reveals his hypocrisy after he is staggered by Doctor Canivet's diatribe against medical advances: “aussi ne prit-il pas la défense de Bovary, ne fit-il même aucune observation, et, abandonnant ses principes, il sacrifia sa dignité aux intérêts plus sérieux de son négoce.”

During her convalescence from her long illness after being abandoned by Rodolphe, it is hugely ironic that Emma should be unaware, not only of Charles' devotion, but also of the timid love felt for her by Justin, Homais' apprentice: “Elle ne se doutait point que l'amour, disparu de sa vie, palpitait là, près d'elle, sous cette chemise de grosse toile, dans ce cœur d'adolescent ouvert aux émanations de sa beauté.” Her aspirations have always taken her beyond the realm of her everyday existence, and will continue to do so until the end. Cleverly Flaubert uses the figure of the person who admires Emma most, Justin, to be the unwitting instrument of her suicide.

On her deathbed Emma is taken back to her convent days by the sight of the crucifix that Bournisien places before her: “Le prêtre se releva pour prendre le crucifix; alors elle allongea le cou comme quelqu'un qui a soif, et, collant ses lèvres sur le corps de l'Homme-Dieu, elle y déposa de toute sa force expirante le plus grand baiser d'amour qu'elle eût jamais donné.” The similarity with Félicité's death at the end of “Un Cœur Simple” is striking, as we shall see later.

Although it was Flaubert's avowed intention (to George Sand) to show that he could describe sympathetically one of his main characters, it is nevertheless true that “Un Cœur Simple” is laced with typical irony from the start. One needs to look no further than names - Madame Aubain or ‘aubaine', a windfall for whom ? - and Félicité, surely not blissful according to usual judgements pertaining to human behaviour ? Yet in Félicité's eyes, her existence is happy, and there is only one brief moment when she is overcome by the realisation of all that she has suffered, after she has been struck down by the coachman's whip on the road to Honfleur: “et la misère de son enfance, la déception du premier amour, le départ de son neveu, la mort de Virginie, comme les flots d'une marée, revinrent à la fois, et, lui montant à la gorge, l'étouffaient.” But it is hard to escape the conclusion that apart from this one moment Félicité achieves the goodness and even saintliness that we see in her precisely because she has no reflective life, no dreams, and is firmly anchored in everyday existence. After all she cannot imagine the Lamb of God as anything but a living animal and always requires a physical object as the repository of her affections, like a child.

Even as she dies, it is as if the swinging of the incense-holders mirrors the fading of her heartbeat, and she thinks she sees a huge parrot in the sky. This begs the question as to whether Flaubert is mocking her faith or showing real and genuine sympathy for her wholesomeness. However it is surely significant that “Un Cœur Simple” is the first of the “Trois Contes”, the others concerning the fate of St. Julian and St. John the Baptist. Flaubert must have had a reason for printing these three stories together, and although he was certainly far too honest and objective to abandon his pessimistic view of the harshness of the world, he was keen to demonstrate that there can be exceptions, and noble ones like Félicité, who will not allow themselves to be crushed by life, like Catherine Leroux in “Madame Bovary”, but who are rewarded with ultimate happiness. She has to come from a humble milieu and be totally preoccupied by her work as a servant - there is but one brief allusion to the momentous historical events of the time - because if she had been more ‘educated', she might have seen things differently and become depressed. Flaubert had been bitterly ironic as he destroyed Emma's illusions one by one, but here he bolsters them into something essential to Félicité's survival.

5. Conclusions

In creating the character of Félicité, it seems that Flaubert was in many ways intent on depicting the very antithesis of Emma, and yet as he dœs so, the parallels and sometimes mirror-images of the two spring from the pages.

The major difference is that at all times Félicité's affections are selfless and she spends nearly all her time living outside herself in others. Perhaps Flaubert was suggesting that, however difficult, this is the way to live and it best approaches his ideal of sainthood: “Autant que possible, il ne faut jamais rêver qu'à un objet en dehors de nous; autrement on tombe dans l'océan des tristesses.” A classic example is when Félicité watches Virginie taking her first communion: “Quand ce fut le tour de Virginie, Félicité se pencha pour la voir, et, avec l'imagination que donnent les vraies tendresses, il lui semblait qu'elle était elle-même cette enfant, sa figure devenait la sienne, sa robe l'habillait, son cœur lui battait dans la poitrine... Le lendemain, de bonne heure, elle se présenta dans la sacristie, pour que Monsieur le Curé lui donnât la communion. Elle la reçut dévotement, mais n'y goûta pas les mêmes délices...”

Flaubert focusses constantly on his central character with strong, simple evocations of concrete reality. The impression of sympathy is strengthened by the way in which other characters and their attitudes are presented. The supposedly educated, like the pedantic solicitor, Bourais, are treated with derision and scorn - even the parrot laughs at him. He comes from the same school as Homais, although naturally enough he is not depicted in the same detail. Irony is the hallmark in both cases, because although “Madame Bovary” ends with the apotheosis of Homais and Bourais' life is completely destroyed, it is made quite clear that Flaubert has no time for either.

As we have seen, Emma and her aspirations are treated with great cynicism in “Madame Bovary.” She is incapable of living outside herself for others, and is indeed totally self-centred. Despite the monotonous, turgid circumstances of her daily existence, Flaubert leaves us in no doubt that the majority of her suffering is self-inflicted. Even her death is messy in the extreme, and despite her longing for spiritual consolation, we are treated instead to gruesome physical details of her final moments, while Félicité clearly transcends earthly life at the moment of death.

Moreover, unusually for a short-story, Flaubert embraces the whole of Félicité's life rather than a single, central incident, even if he dœs concentrate in the main on a few major incidents in her life. The single-minded approach that he adopts in his portrayal of the ultra-loyal servant, the utter selflessness of her comportment, the lack of irony at her expense are all in marked contrast to the tone that he adopted in his treatment of Emma Bovary, and leave us in little doubt about the author's fascination for a person of such humble origins with so little intellectual baggage, who nevertheless achieves the stature of a saint within the confines of the narrow world in which she operates.


“Madame Bovary” (ed. Folio)
“Trois Contes” (ed. Nelson Harrap - introduction by Colin Duckworth)
Guy Riegert, “Madame Bovary”, (ed. Hatier)
A.W. Raitt, “Flaubert - Trois Contes” (ed. Grant and Cutler)

Notes about the author

Nigel Prentki studied French and German at St. Peter's College, Oxford, under the auspices of Reg Perman and Gilbert McKay. He was formerly Head of Modern Languages at Haileybury, Hertford, Headmaster of The International School of Paris and was also Headmaster of The British School, Warsaw.

Mentions légales