16 March, 2011

Part Two: Flaubert

Performance is central to Austen’s aesthetic, both technically and philosophically. Flaubert’s meticulously-crafted short story, “A Simple Heart,” is similarly concerned with exploring the relationship between external action and the essence of a person, but unlike Pride and Prejudice, this tale of a simple servant woman with an extraordinary capacity for love does not focus on the relationship of personality to character. Félicité is, rather, a woman in whom choice and disposition are so fully integrated that there is no tension between the consistently selfless actions she undertakes and the sentiment towards which she is disposed. As we see in the following passage, Flaubert’s objective, removed narrator focuses not on tensions within Félicité’s character, but on the external challenges that the continual stripping-away of all the objects of her affection presents to her outlook on the world.

“For two nights Félicité never left the dead girl. She said the same prayers over and over again, sprinkled holy water on the sheets, then sat down again to watch. At the end of her first vigil, she noticed that the child’s face had gone yellow, the lips were turning blue, the nose looked sharper, and the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times, and would not have been particularly surprised if Virginie had opened them again: to minds like hers the supernatural is a simple matter. She laid her out, wrapped her in a shroud, put her in her coffin, placed a wreath on her, and spread out her hair. It was fair and amazingly long for her age. Félicité cut off a big lock, half of which she slipped into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.” (39-40)

The death of the beloved young girl is only one in the series of losses that forms the substance of the narrative. Whatever brings Félicité joy—the arrival of a long-lost sister, the visits of her nephew, Victor, or the parrot Loulou—is stripped away from her, either by others or by circumstance. Yet despite every trial her character remains constant in its uncomplaining fidelity. The narrative voice juxtaposes the fidelity of the vigil with detail upon detail of the corpse’s inexorable decay, yet despite this narrative objectivity, the analytical comment “to minds like hers the supernatural is simple matter” does not leave the reader unaffected. Despite its objectivity, this observation, paired with the relentless material realism used to describe the corpse, propels us towards Félicité in sympathy while leaving us astonished at the constancy inherent in her response. Her simple, repetitive action culminates when she cuts lock of the girl's hair, preserving the single part of the corpse that retains its former beauty. This impulse to continue the vigil long past its material extent leads her to memorialize her lost loved one: a movement that she undertakes again and again in the story. Whether collecting a lock of Virginie’s hair or preserving Loulou’s stuffed body, Félicité accumulates material objects as tiny memorials to fill the shabby little room that is all that is left to her by the end of her life. In committing them to her memory, Félicité maintains her loving vigil, while the narrator's focus on these external manifestations of her memorialization avoids the sentimentality that might mar the description. Félicité's character is untarnished by loss because she has preserved all that she loves within an interior that the vagaries of the material world cannot access. Just as the narrator can access Félicité’s interior self only through the image of the time-worn room filled with bric-a-brac, so the ravages of time can only affect the external beings that contribute to her happiness, without accessing the core of joy that remains within herself.

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