Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Felicite and Her Bird)

Felicite never understood Church dogma.  She didn’t even try.  She loved going to church and attended daily Mass.  But Felicite would fall asleep when they tried to teach her dogmas like the Trinity.  “She found it (particularly) hard to visualize the Holy Ghost; for he was not only a bird, but a flame as well, and at other times a breath.”  Felicite isn’t alone.  Much ink has been spilled by scholars trying to explain the Trinity.  Sharper minds than Felicite’s have failed to grasp this great mystery of Church dogma.

The bird.  As the years passed Felicite grew older and the years were not kind to her.  She knew the deep tragedy of losing both her beloved nephew Victor and Madame Aubain’s daughter Virginie.  And Felicite never married.  “Years passed, one like another, and uneventful except for the recurrence of Holy Days.”  Then one day joy came into her life in the form of a bird.  There’s an old story about a little girl who was as confused about the Holy Spirit as Felicite was; instead of saying “the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete” this girl would always say “the Holy Spirit, the parakeet.”  Felicite’s bird wasn’t a parakeet.  It was a parrot.  And this wasn’t just any old parrot.  It was Loulou.  Felicite threw her whole heart and soul into that bird.  Strangers couldn’t understand her devotion.  “They would say he looked like a turkey, or even like a chunk of wood; comparisons that cut Felicite to the heart.”  Felicite had no parents, no husband or children, and no close friends.  She only had Madame Aubain and Loulou.  In the end she had many bad memories; “her wretched childhood, the disillusionment of her first love, her nephew’s going away, and Virginie’s death.”  Felicite’s room became a kind of museum or shrine; a reflection and memorial of everything she had loved and lost in her long life.  Then she became deaf and “her small circle of ideas shrank even more.” 

The vision.  As the poet (W.B. Yeats) says, things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  And so it was with Felicite.  Physically she was falling apart.  Eventually she became not only deaf but blind too.  Under these circumstances “without sorrow, rather brimming over with peace, she would remember how things used to be.”  Today we would say she retreated into a shell and maybe even suffered from clinical depression.  On the outside it appeared that way.  “Having no communication with anyone, she lived in a kind of sleepwalker’s trance.”  And yet her interior life was still rich and satisfying.  It was just in a quirky kind of way.  She saw things according to her own interpretation.  Felicite reasoned, “It would not have been a dove the Our Heavenly Father had picked to be the bearer of His Word.  Nobody ever heard a dove talk; it must have been an ancestor of Loulou’s.”  Is this the reasoning of a devout 19th century Catholic heart?  Or is it just plain old apostasy?  Had Felicite’s faith blossomed with personal heartfelt devotion?  Or had she reverted to the ancient practice of worshipping creatures instead of the Creator?  At the end of her life a strange thing happened: “with her last breath there appeared to her, while the heavens opened, a gigantic parrot, hovering directly over her head.” 

Was it really the Holy Ghost?  Or was it just a figment of Felicite’s overworked imagination?  Flaubert doesn’t say.  It’s up to the reader to decide.  That’s what makes A Simple Heart a great story worthy to be included in The Great Books Series.  Flaubert never preaches.  He paints a picture with words: a gigantic parrot hovering over a woman looks either hilarious or scary; unless you’ve read the story of Felicite and Loulou.     


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