Psychoanalysis refers to Sigmund Freud’s work centring on the unconscious self. That is, our hidden, repressed desires and aggressions which are held in a part of the brain which cannot consciously be accessed. Flaubert’s A Simple Heart tells the tale of Félicité, a house maid who lives her life without worry, upset and with unguarded love. Psychoanalysing a text enables the reader to develop a deeper comprehension of its workings. An understanding of the author’s life and person can often lend itself to the cognitive process behind the plot or the characters’ personalities. Freud’s psychoanalysis work was best known for the interpretation of dreams as a representation of our subconscious self. In a literary context, the theory can be used to make inferences about characters or the author’s purpose to gain a richer understanding.
One psychoanalytical reading of Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is that it could be a projected image of how the author would have preferred his life to be: simple, sweet and not fussed over. Had Flaubert lived today, he was undoubtedly have been diagnosed with suffering from depression as he frequently suffered from bouts of deep melancholy. He was often at odds with his Father: “The journey brought small comfort to Gustave; his father and he were not of the same opinion as to what things were interesting to see.” (Tarver 36) indicating that, he and his Father, had less in common than would usually be preferred in such a relationship. Flaubert was also unaware of his wife’s unhappiness in their marriage: “Flaubert remained ignorant for years of the intensity of Caroline’s unhappiness in her marriage.” (Steegmuller 280) This conscious melancholy is not reflected in A Simple Heart as Flaubert’s protagonist is fundamentally happy, even in the face of such adversities as being raised as an orphan: “Her father, a mason, had been killed by falling off some scaffolding. Her mother died, her sister scattered” (Flaubert 8), and her fiancé choosing to marry a richer, older woman: “He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again.” (Flaubert 11) The ability to remain positive after such saddening events would have seemed like an unobtainable gift to Flaubert and so he enables his character to live such a life.
In creating the character of Félicité, Flaubert has created a character that is sympathised with by the reader but not by her fellow characters. Her suffering is great as she works very hard for very little pay: “She received four pounds a year” (Flaubert 5) This suffering may be a reflection of the author feeling trapped in an existence where there were expectations held for him, and that he and his wife were half-forced into their marriage to one another as part of these expectations. The simplistic nature of Félicité’s existence is enviable only to a person who is fundamentally unhappy as a direct result of their wealth and the extravagance of their life. Flaubert is implying that wealth does no bring happiness and that, Félicité’s lack of education (“Paul explained these engravings to Félicité: and that, in fact, was the whole of her literary education” (Flaubert 14)) allows her to have an un-wavering faith in her beliefs and her attitude to life. It seems that Flaubert subscribes to the school of thought that, for some, ignorance is bliss.
Félicité’s love for the parrot grows whilst she educates him in the stock phrases a parrot must know. Through having no family of her own, she comes to think of him “almost as a son, a love.” (Flaubert 45) Towards the end of the book, Félicité begins to make comparisons about the appearance of the parrot and the Holy Ghost: “They associated in her mind: the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her mind.” (Flaubert 54) Félicité’s equation of Loulou the parrot and the Holy Ghost may seem as though they have idolatry notions, but actually Félicité’s empty life is filled by the love she feels for the parrot, and as a result he comes to represent ‘love’ as a whole for her, as many feel about their belief in God. This emptiness being filled by love is again, a representation of what Flaubert desired in his own life. His unsuccessful, loveless marriage was echoed by a less than fruitful correspondence with a Mrs Tennant because of Flaubert’s need to look after his sick mother. Arguably, Flaubert felt an emptiness in his life: his melancholy times would have definitely made him feel desolate and without a purpose and so by giving his character, Félicité, a love and a passion, he is declaring his desire for such a life-fulfilling event.
Authors such as Flaubert would use their fictional models to represent their inner desires and thoughts, even if they were not consciously aware of the process. By looking a little closer at the choice of words and ideas, the reader can gain a far deeper understanding of what fuelled the book’s plot and the character’s actions. In A Simple Heart, Flaubert presents the reader with a character with the simplest of natures: a desire to please, a positive attitude and the need to fill an empty space in her life. Inadvertently, Flaubert is also presenting us with an in-depth portrait of himself as a man who is unsatisfied by wealth and his marriage and seeks more meaning from life.
Flaubert, Gustave. A Simple Heart. New York: New Directions, 1944. Print.
Tarver, John Charles. Gustave Flaubert As Seen In His Works and Correspondence. Montana: Kessinger Publications, 2005. Print.
Steegmuller, Francis. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.