Objective narrative, irony and sympathy in Flaubert's 'Un Coeur simple'

Essay, 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 83 (entspricht 1+)


Generally speaking, the statement is true: the reader does indeed feel sympathy towards Félicité and Flaubert’s use of language certainly contributes to this. How is what needs to be examined.

The judgement that ‘Flaubert’s tendency towards ‘objective’ narrative paradoxically increases the sympathy that the reader feels for Félicité’ also poses many other questions such as what is meant by ‘objective’ narrative? How is it used in Un Coeur simple ? What are the author’s reasons for using such a narrative? And is so- called ‘objective’ narrative really objective or at all possible?

By the way the view is worded, it seems that ‘objective’ narrative and the reader’s sympathy for a fictional character are incompatible and that the increase in sympathy is thus paradoxical. At the moment this may indeed sound impossible but after having had a look at the other factors that come into this equation, which are e.g. the choice of subject matter, the use of style indirect libre and the role of irony – the reader’s increased sympathy should come across as a logical result.

I am aware that it is of course controversial to engage in academic argument over such impressions as ‘irony’[1] or ‘tone’, because such notions are highly subjective and a therefore a certain source of disagreement. Nevertheless, ironology does come up with some interesting approaches to Flaubert’s style and especially his use of style indirect libre and the question whether it actually increases sympathy. I also believe that irony is employed as an important vehicle for sympathy in this story.

Gustave Flaubert’s Un Cœur Simple, published in 1877, is a Realist novella and a third person narrative, which is nevertheless partly focalised through the humble character of Felicité.

In a letter to Mme Roger des Genettes Flaubert himself introduces his story as

L’Histoire d’un cœur simple est tout bonnement le récit d’une vie obscure, celle d’une pauvre fille de campagne, dévote mais mystique, dévouée sans exaltation et tendre comme du pain frais. Elle aime successivement un homme, les enfants de sa maîtresse, un neveu, un vieillard qu’elle soigne, puis son perroquet; quand le perroquet est mort, elle le fait empailler et, mourant à sa tour, elle confond le perroquet avec le Saint-Esprit. Ce n’est nullement ironique comme vous le supposez, mais au contraire très sérieux et triste. Je veux apitoyer, faire pleurer les âmes sensibles, en étant une moi-même. (Flaubert as quoted by Biasi, p45).[2] [3]

It is my opinion that this statement cannot be taken at face value and that there are many indications that it is in itself ironic[4], but it is very interesting for our purpose because he states that the layout of the story is indeed aimed explicitly at sympathy. This is all that we shall take from this quote for the moment[5], because it is always easier to look at the influences of style, when we know what the author aims for by when he uses such devices as ‘objective’ narrative or irony. Let us therefore assume that his main aim was to achieve a reaction of sympathy. If this is true, it is only logical that all stylistic or narrative means must have been employed to achieve this and therefore the fact that his so –called ‘objective’ narrative increases our sympathy for Félicité is not an accident, as it seems to be implied in the question.

Let us first explore Flaubert’s notion of ‘objective’ narrative and the way it is applied here.

Flaubert is often named as the most objective of all author-narrators. He himself said

Je crois que le grand art est scientifique et impersonnel. Il faut par un effort d’esprit se transporter dans les personnages et non les attirer à soi.[6]

Interestingly, Flaubert does not focus on stylistic devices here, but on a question of content and characters. My understanding of this quote is that the author should try and focus his narrative solely on his characters and lead attention away from himself, whereby the characters become not just an invention by the author but are given a life of their own. Objective narrative is therefore a narrative at the centre of which lies the fictional character and not the personality of its creator, who has to ‘step back’ in order to achieve the illusion of independent realist figures, which is why I prefer to call it ‘detached’ narrative.

Obviously, he must have succeeded as short story critic Lohafer[7] praises the ‘meticulous objectivity of ‘Cœur simple’’. But how exactly can this illusion be attained?

A simple answer is through focalising at least part of the narration through a character like Felicité. This is achieved by using the technique of style indirect libre, which according to Ramazani “has long been recognized as a potential vehicle for irony, empathy or a blend of irony and empathy.”,(Ramazani, p.x).


[1] “irony, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder”, Muecke, Compass of Irony, Methuen, London, 1969

[2] The Story of a simple Heart, is just the account of an obscure life, that of a poor country girl, pious but fervent, discreetly loyal, and tender as new-baked bread. She loves one after the other a man, her mistress’s children, a nephew of her’s, an old man whom she nurses, and her parrot. When the parrot dies she has it stuffed, and when she herself comes to die she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost. This is not at all ironical as you may suppose, but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am tender hearted myself. (Translation by Baldick, p. 15)

[3] Robert Baldick argues that Flaubert is himself sympathetic towards Félicité because she is essentially an autobiographical figure. I believe this is rather far-fetched and simplistic.

[4] especially the exaggeration in the last 3 lines.

[5] One could perhaps also argue that this sympathy approach is just a level of reading which Flaubert deems suitable for the lady he is addressing here.

[6] Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance III, Conrad, Paris, 1910, p. 113;( from a letter dated 18th March 1857)

[7] Lohafer and Clavey, p. 277

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Objective narrative, irony and sympathy in Flaubert's 'Un Coeur simple'
University of Canterbury  (School of European Culture and Languages)
83 (entspricht 1+)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
407 KB
Realism, Reader s sympathy, irony, paradox, Erzählperspektiven, Französische Literatur, Flaubert
Quote paper
MPhil Rebecca Steltner (Author), 2001, Objective narrative, irony and sympathy in Flaubert's 'Un Coeur simple', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/12774


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