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Irony in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”
A multitude of works have been written on the subject of irony and rightly so, since we would be
hard pressed to find an author who does not make use of this device. D.C. Muecke presents a few
examples from the literary canon, from Homer to Brecht as well as from all time periods and
Western European cultures between them, including, of course, Flaubert. He implies that irony
1and "great literature" are inextricably related. To define the term, however, seems an almost
impossible task. Muecke lists fifteen different types of irony that, as a whole, defy a unified and
2precise definition. The most common type of irony in the literary realm is probably verbal
3irony. Though generally maintained that verbal irony tends to make a statement but imply its
opposite, Japp also points out that the hidden text may simply signify something different from
the literal (and superficial) one, rather than necessarily its opposite. The ironist can also be better
understood by being contrasted with the liar. The latter intends only the literal text and states the
4opposite of what he knows. The former, on the other hand, implies a contradiction to what he
says. When we refer to entire literary works as ironic, we are, however, no longer in the realm of
verbal but rather literary irony. This type of irony is far more complex, because the literary
device here is more dependent on interpreation. Another factor that should be noted briefly is
that irony is also dependent on certain expectations. If we talk about stylistic irony, then these
expectations are undermined. At the same time, however, the expectations that a reader brings to
the text are required for the irony to function as such. Sperber and Wilson have defined this
1 D.C. Muecke, Irony and the Ironic (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 4.
2 Muecke, p. 12.
3 Uwe Japp, Theorie der Ironie (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983), p. 38.
duality within irony as an "ironic echo," where irony both undermies and reflects given
5expectations. It is this duality of irony that I would like to analyze further in the following
Irony certainly can have an undermining effect and, consequently, even be destructive of
a given text, but, at the same time, it can also act to preserve. To clarify this assertion, I will
6employ Flaubert's A Simple Heart. Many critics see an ironic level to this work. I would like to
take this view a step further, however, by including Flaubert's own reservations about language
and his frustrations with the inevitable inability to express himself originally through language.
To discover the extent of his concern with the repetitiveness and lack of originality in language,
7one need only glance through his Dictionary of Received Ideas which is essentially an
incomplete tabulation and definition of clichés and worn-out phrases. We can find a further
example of Flaubert's dilemma about language's lack of originality and our consequent inabilty
8to disclose an "original" feeling in Madame Bovary. When Emma proclaims her love to
Rodolphe, her words clearly mirror the trite romance novels that have formed the basis of her
emotional development. For Rodolphe, her declaration is equally trite, since he has encountered
similiar emotional outbursts before.
He had heard these things so many times that they no longer held any interest for him.
Emma resembled all his old mistresses, and the charm of novelty falling away little by
4 Japp, p. 38.
5 D. Sperber and D. Wilson, "Les ironies comme mentions" in Poétique 36, 1978, p. 410.
6 Gustave Flaubert, Three Tales, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1991), 1-40. All references to this edition will be given by abbreviated title ("TT") and page
7 Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received Ideas, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London:
8 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Mildred Marmur (New York: Signet, 1964). All
references to this edition will be given by abbreviated title ("MB") and page number(s).
little like articles of clothing revealed in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of
9passion, which always assumes the same forms and speaks the same language. (MB
What Rodolphe does not realize, however, is that behind these apparently vacuous words lies a
great deal of emotionalism and with it, a level of sincerity betrayed by language. Flaubert feels
sufficiently motivated about this matter to allow the narrator to enter the text, an occurrence
which is certainly quite rare, since he values the objective narrator as one of the most significant
literary devices. His famous free indirect discourse permits this apparent objectivity and allows
the narrator to remain in the background. "[L]'artiste ne doit pas plus apparaître dans son oeuvre
10que Dieu dans la nature." In this scene, however, the narrator bursts into the text, no longer
being able to stand on the sidelines, in order to make the reader aware of Rodolphe's lack of
No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The
human language is like a cracked kettle on which we bear out a tune for a dancing bear,
when we hope with our music to move the stars.
With this passage, little doubt remains that Flaubert is deeply troubled by language's constraints
and its inability to communicate an individualistic thought. And it is also this scene which can
help us understand paradigmatically the duality of irony as applied to language.
On the one hand, as has been demonstrated, irony undermines a text and, therefore,
language itself; on the other, however it allows language to take on a new meaning. Clichés and
the mere repetition inherent in language can achieve new signification. Since the literal or cliché
meaning is only on the surface, irony allows signifiers to take on an endless string of new
9 my emphasis.
10 Gustave Flaubert, "A George Sand," in Corréspondence,
signifieds without changing the system of language itself. The possibilities are so numerous since
irony is highly dependent on context as well as reader expectations that as soon as the conext
changes, an underlying meaning to a text would be altered accordingly.
Now that irony's duality has been presented, I would like to apply this hypothesis to
Flaubert's tale. The basis for the subsequent analysis will be the animal imagery within the text,
but since irony permeates other areas as well, I will then expand my analysis to other specific
examples in the story.
The use of animal imagery is certainly not a novelty in Flaubert. The way in which this
imagery carries with it the duality of irony with regards to language, however, is. In this story,
there are four specific instances of animal imagery: Félicité, the protaginist and maid to Mme
Aubain achieves sexual awareness not through any formal education, her parents, or peer gossip,
but rather by watching other animals. We are also told that she would give rides to the seven year
old Paul and four year old Virginie on her back "like a horse." (TT 7) Later, when the family is
on an outing and the two women are attacked by a bull, Félicité saves the day, barely escaping
herself. The final and surely most significant instance of animal imagery is Loulou, the parrot,
which develops from a friend and companion to a lover and, eventually even to a religious icon.
The narrator leads us to believe that Félicité was in love only once during
her life, namely with Théodore. Even though he attempts to rape her, she forgives him and is
quickly deceived in by his deceptive advances. The fact that she is unable to recognize his
insincerity suggests a severe ignorance, inexperience, and and overall sense of naiveté. When we
learn that her sexuality is based on an assimilation of animal techniques, this information
20 December 1875.
expands her naiveté and cements the incredible ignorance of an adult woman. Flaubert is surely
not criticizing her, however, since we are clearly told that the only formal education she has
enjoyed is looking at the pictures in a second-rate geography book. Ironically, however, "her
reason and innate sense of honour kept her from loosing her virtue" (TT 6), and, thus, the
minimal knowledge of sexuality acquired from the animal realm is more than she will ever use in
her lifetime. Since Flaubert uses this rather "base" sexual imagery in connection with Félicité
coupled with the fact that she is an exceptionally devoted, humble simpleton whose sense of
fulfillment often derives from her capacity as servant, one can only assume that he is equating
Félicité's life with that of the unaware, inherently ignorant animal. As we will see later, however,
this analogy becomes the ultimate irony in the story.
When Félicité is compared to a horse because she allows Mme Aubain's children to ride
on her back, she is unveiled for what she really is -- at least within the Aubain family -- namely a
work horse. She fulfills all of a servant's duties and never complains. She treats the mistress'
children as if they were her own. When she kisses the children affectionately, Mme Aubain tells
her to refrain, implying an inherent difference between her children and her maid, almost as if
they were being kissed by an unsanitary animal and thus reiterating Félicité's assigned position
In the bull-scene, we begin to see how this animal imagery is ironically undermined.
While strolling through a pasture, the family encounters a bull that subsequently attacks Mme
Aubain and Félicité. It is presumably no coincidence that the bull is said to attack "the two
women." (TT 9) In view of this overtly male threat, the two women assume a position of equality
in their predicament as potential victims. Not only is Mme Aubain now "lowered" to the status of
Félicité due to their shared fear, but the maid's instinctual reaction begins to undermine the
accepted hierarchy of the master-servant relationship. Through her reaction of throwing sand at
the bull, thereby distracting him long enough for the mistress to escape, Félicité displays an
instinctual quality that is generally ascribed to the animal realm. It is this animalistic, non-
intellectual characteristic of the servant that saves the mistress. The self-sacrificing quality of
permitting Mme Aubain to escape the threat before she does, catapults Félicité into the realm of
heroicism. The consequent respect that she gains, undermines the social structure of the story
and, thereby, subverts the hierarchy of the master-servant relationship. The subversion which
takes place here will again be discussed below, in conncection with the dual undermining nature
The final and most significant instance of animal imagery can be found in the parrot
Loulou. The bird is initially given to Mme Aubain as a "momento and token of her respects" (TT
28) by Mme Larsonnière. Since the mistress finds him to be a nuisance, however, she gives him
to Félicité who immediately begins to train him. "Nice boy! Your servant, Sir! Hail Mary!" (TT
28) are the first words that the parrot learns from his mistress, i.e., Mme Aubain's servant. The
mindless repetition of "Hail Mary" identifies this phrase as mere religious dogma. It is said
automatically, just as the automated response, "Your servant, Sir." The fact that a parrot utters
these various phrases, suggests Flaubert's difficulty with language's originality. The parrot can be
trained to repeat phrases completely void of any signifieds (for we do not associate a parrot to be
able to grasp a system structured around signifiers and signifieds) just as people acquire and use
language -- a structured system of symbols that inhibits originality by its very definition. By
learning and employing language, we subordinate ourselves to its rules and to the inherent
inhibitor of original expression for the purpose of communicating by a common standard.
Loulou, completely unconsciously, of course, unveils this apparently unavoidable fact about
language. Even his name --the repetition of the single morpheme "lou" -- suggests the mocking
and repetitious quality inherent in the functioning of language.
Flaubert even stresses this point further immediately following the description of
Loulou's "new" acquisitions, since a number of people in the story are apparently surprised that
the parrot is not named Jacquot, a popular name not unlike the English "Polly" for the African
parrot. This assumption shows the extremes that this problem in language can attain. These
people are taking a specific name and using it to identify the generic thing. The similarity to
Saussurean linguistics is only too striking. The obvious randomness of language as applied to the
identification of a signifier is unveiled. Whether the parrot is identified as "parrot" or as
"Jacquot" is essentially irrelevant. It has no effect on the thing itself. The ramifications for
Flaubert and language, however, are quite significant. Through this brief remark, Flaubert
manages to disclose the entire frustrations with language with the subsequent dilemma of how to
express an original thought within a regulated system that exchanges originality for
The answer to this dilemma lies with irony. This device permits a level of expression that
would not be possible simply within the structure of language itself. As I already mentioned,
verbal irony implies either the opposite or at least a different meaning form the literal one.
Therefore, depending on the context, the language used may be the same, but the underlying
intent may be significantly different in every case. Irony thus permits the expression of a thought
without actually using the structure to say it, thereby circumventing the limitations placed on
language by its functioning. Critics may argue that irony itself can only be conceptualized
through language, and they would certainly not be mistaken; however, language's repetetiveness
and lack of originality can certainly be improved upon through the use of irony, and it is this
advantageous viewpoint that can help to alleviate at least some of the frustrations felt by Flaubert
and countless others.
To demonstrate how Flaubert manages to portray the dual nature of irony, let me again
11refer to Loulou. Throughout the tale, Félicité becomes increasingly attached to her parrot,
conversing with him, imagining him in the role of lover and, after his death, having him stuffed
and augmenting the corpse to the level of religious icon. On one level, one can certainly view a
certain irony in the analogy between Félicité's belief and the dogmatic belief inherent in the
12practice of religion. The parrot's repetition of the Hail Mary supports this claim as well.
Stoltzfus also feels that Félicité's apparent hallucinations are ironic prior to her death, since she is
13said to have thought she say the parrot, thereby implying an absence of comfort. Stirling Haig,
however, points out that Flaubert was by no means as denigrating of religion as Stoltzfus and
14 15others have suggested. In fact, Flaubert had rather ambiguous feelings on this matter. The
absence of comfort, however, is only from the viewpoint of the reader, not from the servant's.
Unlike Stoltzfus' attempt to imply otherwise, whether the apparition reflects Flaubert's own
viewpoint on religion remains ambiguous at best. She is indeed very comforted by what she
believes to see. The religious dogma to which she subscribed her entire life culminates in her
11 Anthony Thorlby, Gustave Flaubert and the Art of Realism (London, 1956), p. 59.
12 Ben Stoltzfus, "Point of View in `Un Coeur simple,'" in French Review, 35 (1961), p. 23.
13 Stoltzfus, p. 24.
14 Stirling Haig, The Madame Bovary Blues (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
1987), p. 116.
peaceful passing at the very end. So, on the one hand, there is clearly a sense of subversive irony
present that appears to negate Félicité's stated contentment. On the other, however, irony is
permitting Flaubert an escape from the confinement of a language without this device, just as
Félicité feels an overwhelming sense of comfort prior to her death brought about through the
"device" of religion.
Even in the name of the protagonist, we can find the duality of irony. Many critics have
pointed to the obvious irony of "Félicité," who treads through a life that could be described as
16anything but happy. And yet, it may well be the ultimate irony of the story that Félicité is,
indeed, content with her life overall. It is again only from the viewpoint of the reader -- the
educated, literate intellectual --that irony's subversive nature takes its toll. This dual meaning,
however, does not imply that Flaubert wishes to support the claim that "ignorance is bliss," or
that he would prefer a return to an existence void of consciousness and knowledge prior to the
Fall of man. There would be little evidence to support such a claim. Rather, Flaubert, being
painfully aware of the limitations imposed on him as a writer by the restraints of language, has
managed to circumvent -- at least temporarily -- his linguistic confinement. Flaubert, not being
an overtly religious man himself, certainly uncovers some of the hypocrisy surrounding religious
institutions and their dogmaitc practises. At the same time, however, he recognizes a level of
comfort that the unreligious will probably never attain, even if it based on illusion. It is through
irony that he manages to convey both the frustrations of his religion, i.e., language, and the
possiblity of seeking refuge within that systematic structure by suggesting a hidden text that
exceeds the apparent limitations of language. The irony here may undermine religious dogma,
15 For Flaubert reference, see Haig, p. 116.
but it also reiterates Félicité's strength, neither of which is overtly stated in the text, but merely
implied by the use of this literary device.
We can, therefore, observe the ultimate irony in naming the protagonist Félicité. As
alluded to earlier, Flaubert presents the servant essentially as ignorant and instinctual in nature,
not unlike the characteristics of an animal. Since she learns sexuality from animals, shows the
devotion of a dog, can fight on the instinctual level of animals in the bull-scene, and feels a
communicative compatability with a parrot, the claim that she appears closer to the animal realm
than to the human one is not especially surprising. It is through the use of irony that Flaubert can
make this claim. Her incredible patience and kindness is never referred to as animalistic, but the
frequent use of animal imagery allows this subtext to surface. Even though the irony generally
undermines the literal text, it manages successfully to convey a new level to worn-out language,
thereby determining its dual nature.
The irony, however, is not limited to animal imagery alone. Every time Flaubert makes
use of this device, its duality emerges allowing him to attain a moment of linguistic individuality.
There are numerous instances concerned with Victor, her nephew, and his family. Even though
Félicité has finally located a lost sister, the latter only exploits her materialistically. Throughout
the story, she becomes very attached to her nephew. She provides meals for him to the point of
sacrificing her own comfort. When Victor decides to make his fortune in America, Félicité walks
sixteen kilometres to see him off, but arrives too late, only to see the ship leave port.
Nevertheless, she immediately thanks God for having provided her with all of her good fortune.
It is difficult not to see this remark as a criticism of institutionalized religion, where the poor and
16 Paul Mankin, "Additional Irony in `Un Couer simple,'" in French Review, 36 (1962), p. 411.
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