While Madam Bovary and L'Éducation sentimentale may be Gustave Flaubert’s best-known works, his Trois Contes (Three Tales), first published in 1877, may be his finest achievement. Although Flaubert lacks the narrative sweep and social perspicacity of George Eliot, as best exemplified in Middlemarch, or the sustained philosophical and moral seriousness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as best exemplified in The Brothers Karamazov, he is able in his Three Tales to provide three remarkable pen portraits of the human condition, both in its perversity and its frailty.
The three stories are set in the 19th Century, the Middles Ages and at the beginning of the so-called Common Era.
A Simple Heart tells the story of Félicité, an uneducated servant girl who retains her faith despite a life of loss and despair. The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, inspired by a stained-glass window in Rouen cathedral, describes the fate of a sadistic hunter fated to murder his own parents. Finally, Herodias, a reworking of the biblical account tale of Salome and John the Baptist, similarly explores the relationship between faith and cruelty.
While all three stories have religion as their setting, these are not religious stories in the sense that they offer overt theological perspectives on the lives of their protagonists. Rather their greatness lies in the precise way in which Flaubert is able to delineate the predicaments and dilemmas of his characters both in terms of their psychology and their immediate environment. Style is not just about the use of appropriate language, but also about accurate observation and effective imagination. Nowhere is this perhaps better illustrated than at the end of the A Simple Heart where Flaubert writes:
“As she [Felicite] was unable to communicate with people, she lived in a sort of somnambulistic torpor. The processions of Corpus-Christi Day seemed to wake her up. She visited the neighbours to beg for candlesticks and mats so as to adorn the temporary altars in the street.
“In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou. Having bought the picture, she hung it near the one of the Comte d’Artois so that she could take them in at one glance.
“They associated in her mind, the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her eyes, and more comprehensible. In all probability the Father had never chosen as messenger a dove, as the latter has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And Felicite said her prayers in front of the coloured picture, though from time to time she turned slightly towards the bird.”
Flaubert’s Three Tales is a joy to read. It’s stylish certainly but, more importantly, it’s also honest and compassionate.