Although Gustave Flaubert professed to be a mystic who believed in nothing, in “A Simple Heart,” he gives us an unironic portrait of guileless faith that melds the hagiographer’s preoccupation with sanctity with the modern fictionist’s oblique incorporation of symbols. In so doing, the professed atheist purifies the cynical soul.

Since doubt was carried into religion through “Christian existentialism,” sincere religious experience “has seemed possible only in the tension between doubt and belief, in torturing one’s beliefs with one’s doubts,” relaxing from the torment only to affirm that the human condition and man’s belief are both absurd. So suggests Hannah Arendt in her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” The clearest evidence of her thesis can be found in the fact that Dostoevsky, “perhaps the most experienced psychologist of modern religious belief, portrayed pure faith” in characters such as Alyosha Karamazov, who is “pure in heart because he is simple-minded.”

Although Gustave Flaubert professed to be “a mystic at bottom and I believe in nothing,” he gave us an unironic portrait of guileless faith that melds the hagiographer’s preoccupation with sanctity with the modern fictionist’s oblique incorporation of symbols. In so doing, the professed atheist purifies the cynical soul. Félicité, central figure of A Simple Heart, suffers from the start. Her unforgiving childhood culminates in a deceptive love affair. As servant of Mme. Aubain, she is fiercely devoted to the widow’s two children, Paul and Virginie, and she is prodigal in her love for Victor, her neglected nephew. All three children, rotating centers of her affection and selfless acts, disappear, either through death or the distance that comes with worldly success. As Caroline Gordon points out, “Félicité’s life follows the same pattern as that of the early Christians. She renounces earthly joys and undergoes many of the same trials that they underwent; she confronts a wild beast when she saves Madame Aubain and the children from an enraged bull” and commits numerous spiritual and corporal acts of mercy; along with “looking after the people who went down with cholera,” Félicité comforts the dying “Colmiche, with his cancerous sores,” who “bears a marked resemblance to the lepers to whom the early Christians ministered.” When he passes, “she had a Mass said for the repose of his soul.” Early readers of A Simple Heart were certain that Flaubert was satirizing, with a soft scorn, his holy heroine. On the contrary, he wrote, the story of Félicité is “not at all ironic, as you suppose it to be, but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to arouse people’s pity, to make sensitive souls weep, since I am one myself.”

If he succeeds in moistening handkerchiefs, Flaubert does so through subtleties that defy the easy sentimentality of Dickens—no mean feat. As Julian Barnes notes in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Imagine the technical difficulty of writing a story in which a badly stuffed bird with a ridiculous name ends up standing for the third of the Trinity, and in which the intention is neither satirical, sentimental, or blasphemous.”

The story does not easily dodge allegations of blasphemy. After a life overflowing with loss, Félicité receives a parrot. Immediately, she associates the bird with her deceased nephew Victor, “for it came from America”—his destination when he died. “Loulou” too meets the fate of all mortals, but Félicité can preserve him in a manner that would be preposterous and disturbing if applied to now gone children she had loved with abandon: She has him stuffed. The taxidermist, in what could be read as an allusion to the resurrection of the body, presents Loulou more beautified in death than he was in life. The stilled parrot comes “biting a nut which the taxidermist, out of a love of the grandiose, had gilded.”

At this point in the story, as her clarity of mind begins to blur, the devout Félicité finds herself “forever gazing at the Holy Ghost, and one day she noticed that it had something of the parrot about it.” In a color print depicting Christ’s baptism, “with its red wings and its emerald-green body,” the Holy Spirit “was the very image of Loulou.” Here she seems to reverse a right relationship between image and actuality. The Holy Spirit is the image of Loulou, not the other way around. However, seen from the vantage of an innocent soul, such a reversal is not immediately sacrilegious. Take, for instance, William Blake’s “The Lamb,” wherein the narrator, talking in a childlike manner to the titular creature, says, “he is called by thy name; for he calls himself a Lamb”; here again, it would seem more proper to say that “thou art called by His name,” but “meek and mild” as He is, Christ’s humility may be better captured in the rendering that gives scandal to an adult too accustomed to hearing songs of experience. Félicité herself, who is in charge of taking her mistresses’ daughter to catechism classes, “loved the lambs more tenderly for love of the Lamb of God, and the doves for the sake of the Holy Ghost.” Notice the enunciate direction of her love. She loves lambs and doves for the sake of God; she passes through these creatures to the Creator. Félicité buys a print of that image of Christ’s baptism that bears an uncanny resemblance to Loulou. Staring now at the print and now at Loulou, she finds “the parrot being sanctified by this connection with the Holy Ghost which acquired new life and meaning in her eyes.”

In “The Idol and the Icon,” Jean-Luc Marion helpfully juxtaposes two modes of representation and seeing. The idol “fascinates and captivates the gaze precisely because everything in it must expose itself to the gaze, attract, fill, and hold it.” The idol, however, is not solely or wholly responsible: The idol “draws the gaze only inasmuch as the gaze has drawn it whole into the gazeable and there expresses and exhausts it.” An idolatrous gaze stops at, rests on/in an idol “when it can no longer pass beyond it.” A person who has succumbed to idolatrous seeing ceases to transcend, to pass through the visible into the invisible. The icon, on the other hand, “unbalances human sight in order to engulf it in infinite depth.” What is essential in the icon “comes to it from elsewhere,” to the point that an invisible “strangeness saturates the visibility of the face with meaning.”

Flaubert seems to make a faithful reading of his fiction uneasy: Has Félicité turned Loulou into an idol, or is the stuffed bird an icon which she passes through in right and just worship? When, after Mme. Aubain dies, Félicité worries that she may lose her lodgings, she fixes an anguished look on the bird: “as she appealed to the Holy Ghost, she contracted the idolatrous habit of kneeling in front of the parrot to say her prayers.” In this state, light sometimes comes into the room; refracting through the bird’s glass eye, it shoots out “luminous rays which sent her into ecstasies.” It is clear that she begins by appealing to the Holy Ghost, but Flaubert seems to indicate that she ends in idolatry, prostrate without passing through to the unseen Spirit. We also know that throughout her life she found it hard to imagine “what the Holy Ghost looked like, for it was not just a bird but a fire as well, and sometimes a breath.” Given this, it would not be unreasonable to presume that she kneels before the seen in order to seize and squeeze a solidified assurance out of the difficult to grasp. Nonetheless, the luminous rays seem, to cite Dr. Marion, to “unbalance human sight,” to destabilize any sort of simplified refuge in materiality; the glass eyes make luminous a light that takes her as close to the mystical as she comes. (In a letter, Flaubert describes her as “devout but not given to mysticism.”)

After Félicité is diagnosed with pneumonia, still living in her increasingly decrepit servant’s quarters (in trepidation that she will be removed, she refuses to ask for repairs), the local priest decides to place the Corpus Christi procession altar on Mme. Aubain’s property, just outside the simple heart’s window. Too weak to make a conventional offering for display on the altar, Félicité offers Loulou. Though the respectable neighbors consider the suggestion “unseemly,” the priest “gave his permission, and this made her so happy” that she wills the priest her parrot when she dies. Unknown to the unseeing Félicité, the bird is being eaten by worms. But Flaubert paints her gift as nonetheless beautiful. The altar “was hung with green garlands and adorned with a flounce in English needle-point lace.” Beside a little frame containing relics, there are “silver candlesticks and china vases holding sunflowers, lilies, peonies, foxgloves, and bunches of hydrangea. This pyramid of bright colours stretched from the first floor right down to the carpet which was spread out over the pavement.” And at last, amidst some rare objects, “Loulou, hidden under roses, showed nothing but his blue poll, which looked like a plaque of lapis lazuli.” In “Félicité’s Holy Parrot,” Myra Jehlen insists that through her decomposing Loulou, Félicité has “reached the outer edge of this material realm, nothing indicates she is going anywhere beyond.” Dr. Jehlen comes down still harder on the story’s subsequent (and final lines). As everyone kneels down before the Blessed Sacrament, a blue cloud of incense wafts into Félicité’s room, and:

She opened her nostrils wide and breathed it in with a mystical, sensuous fervor. Then she closed her eyes. Her lips smiled. Her heart-beats grew slower and slower, each a little fainter and gentler, like a fountain running dry, an echo fading away. And as she breathed her last, she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.

For Dr. Jehlen, there is apparently a strict separation between seen and unseen things; there is no sacramental economy of passing through the visible into the invisible. There are no icons, only idols—material things that suck the soul to themselves and keep them there: “nothing of religion occurs” in this final scene, she says, “only things of the earth: incense, a nose, lips, a heart, and, to top it all off, a vision of a real parrot.” In “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dana Gioia counters the likes of Dr. Jehlen, who scoff at bells and incense: “but God gave people ears and noses. Are those organs of perception too humble to bring into church? For very good reason, participating in Mass involves all five senses. We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.”

The Catholic faith, with its sacramental vision of reality, makes no harsh division between seen and unseen; incense can touch and order the soul. Still, Dr. Jehlen presses on. Félicité’s final vision of the altar-set parrot “makes Loulou an apotheosis but not an incarnation.” He is rather “the final destination of Félicité’s love, not a stand-in.” How do we know this? Because Flaubert tells us that “she thought she saw.” He does not indicate that she thought she saw the Holy Spirit in a parrot’s form: “the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be seen.” Dr. Jehlen grants that Félicité does not intend to disregard the Holy Spirit, and thus “there is no blasphemy in her idolatry.” Nonetheless, “Loulou neither merges with nor represents the Holy Spirit but preempts it.” It is not rash to presume that Flaubert, who “believe[s] in nothing,” immerses us into the beauties of Catholic worship and the sublimity of a parrot’s coloration in order to replace faith with a kind of idolatrous elevation of beauty in a merely aesthetical (that is to say non-transcendental) sense. But unless Félicité has discarded her earlier associations, we must not stay mired in the final paragraph to grasp her dying relation to the parrot. Remember, the parrot became “sanctified by [its] connection with the Holy Ghost,” so that, in Dr. Marion’s words, the icon’s essential meaning is given to it “from elsewhere,” saturating the visible with a “strangeness.” We would have a much more troubled and troubling case if the protagonist had arbitrarily selected an object of personal preference and purportedly “sacralized” it.

In her reading of the altar scene, Caroline Gordon contends that “the exotic is deliberately stressed throughout this passage,” making Loulou appear “not only beautiful but strange.” That exoticism was originally affiliated with America, land of the bird’s origin and her nephew’s destination, but now the bird’s exotic character is affiliated with that final foreign frontier of heaven, toward which the exquisite altar aims to elevate us all. The altar, Gordon stresses, is an “excellent preparation for the Resolution,” where an “even stranger” thing happens: “the heavens open and the Holy Ghost appears in the form of the parrot she has so loved in life.” Is Gordon, a convert to Catholicism, imposing her own wishful thinking in making such a declaration without qualification or contingency?

Dr. Jehlen is not wrong to pinpoint the problems produced by Flaubert’s inclusion of thought. Nor is she wrong to remind us that Félicité sees not the Holy Ghost but the parrot. Flaubert’s letter concerning A Simple Heart seems to give some credence to Dr. Jehlen’s doubts: “when she is on her deathbed,” he wrote, “she takes the parrot for the Holy Ghost.” Immediately after this, he assures us that the tale is “in no way ironic.” Geoffrey Wall, attuned to the difficulties at play, suggests that Flaubert is trying to protect his suffering servant, knowing that there is a “delicate tension in the texture of his story. The writing invites us to renounce the agreeable intellectual aggression that we call irony.” And yet, he seems to test us, tempt us to our limits. By its very nature a parrot mimics, imitates. Félicité taught Loulou to say “Hail Mary!” but these words are bereft of the spirt of prayer, which must be moved by the heart and soul and mind.

Is Félicité’s final vision also an imitation without substance, a parroted surrogate for what Gordon calls “the kind of vision which comes to the saints”? Remember that when Félicité sees the gigantic parrot hovering over her head she sees the “opening heavens” above the bird; that is, she does not see merely the bird; her gaze does not exhaust itself in the parrot to the point that she cannot pass beyond it—as it would in the case of an idol. Still more, although some readers have concluded that the bird she sees is Loulou, Flaubert’s withholds any such outright naming. Further, his description of the bird as “gigantic” establishes its distinction from the small stuffed creature; truly, Félicité’s affiliation between the Holy Spirit and the parrot could be leading her to conceive of God as an immense bird of otherworldly proportions. In Christ and Apollo, William Lynch, S.J. praises images that signify more than themselves “without becoming less actual in so doing.” These symbols make the imagination rise to insight while also remaining rooted in the thick and tangible real.

I find myself doubting, finally, that the faith of Félicité, proven throughout A Simple Heart, is incapable of passing through the density and tang of her fictional vision toward the beatific One. Still, Flaubert has saturated his story with a cautionary ambiguity that leaves us tightrope-walking that difficult tension between an Ignatian embrace of imagination (as evinced in Lynch) and a Carmelite’s cautionary detachment from “all that can enter through the eye, and to all that can be received through the ear, and can be imagined with the fancy.” St. John of the Cross insists that the soul must be “voided” of all such things if she wishes to reach the summits of mystical union. Although Catholicism is intensely sacramental, bidding us to know something of the unseen through the seen, the heights of mysticism demand asceticism. To ascend Mount Carmel the soul “must be like to a blind man, leaning upon dark faith, taking it for guide and light, and leaning upon none of the things that he understands, experiences, feels and imagines.” St. John of the Cross is uncompromising: all of these can cause her to stray: “faith is above all that he understands and experiences and feels and imagines.” He does not repudiate the senses as evil, does not dismiss the imagination as intrinsically inclined toward idolatry. There is no harm in breathing in incense with Félicité’s “mystical, sensuous fervor.” But, the master of the Dark Night teaches, if we always remain circumscribed by the seen and sensed, we will not “attain to that which is greater”—that which is taught totally by faith.

Maybe Flaubert, the mystic who at bottom believes in nothing, was ultimately unable to imagine what faith without sensuousness might “look like.” Far different is that other simple-heart, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who, bereft of tangible gifts which she might place on God’s altar, bids us make a sacrificial offering, yes, even of nothingness: “Even when I have nothing to offer Him, then I will give Him that nothing.”

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The featured image is “Girl with a Parrot” (between 1655 and 1691) by Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt (1640–1691) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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