Because He Could Not Stop for Death:
Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales
Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Gustave Flaubert was a literary perfectionist who spent year after year crafting a relatively small number of extraordinary novels, but even though it was his first published novel, Madame Bovary, that made him famous (or, rather, infamous), it was his last completed book, Three Tales, that was his best-received work during his lifetime. Time has elevated Madame Bovary to its rightful place as one of the finest of all prose narratives, and his other novels form an oeuvre that in retrospect both defines and outshines his era, while Three Tales has become far less well known than A Sentimental Education or Salammbô, which may or may not be a just reversal of fortune. This late collection of tales is a tiny masterpiece and is essential reading for anyone at all interested in Flaubert, or in short stories—and could even serve as a quick primer for a reader who’s never encountered Flaubert’s shimmering mastery.
The most widely known of the Three Tales is the celebrated “A Simple Heart,” which Flaubert wrote as a response to his friend and fellow novelist George Sand’s complaint that his writing too often conveyed the more negative or depressing aspects of humanity. Flaubert interrupted work on his (subsequently unfinished) last novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, to write “A Simple Heart,” but Sand died before he completed the tale. Flaubert was so shaken that he broke down at her funeral, and perhaps it was this loss that ironically made him color the loving mood of this strange and beautiful narrative with some of his most funereal hues. The story encapsulates the life of a naive and faithful servant named Félicité who devotes her existence to the service of people wholly unworthy of her, including not just her mistress’ family, but her own relatives. Félicité’s life is unenviable, but her spirit and her faith in the goodness of life rarely waver, which in some ways makes her a much more fortunate soul than anyone else in her circle. Félicité may possess a simple heart, but she’s no Dostoyevskian holy fool, however (Flaubert and his friend Ivan Turgenev made great fun of Dostoyevsky’s inane pieties). As her peculiar mind degenerates with age, Félicité develops a grotesque spiritual relationship with a pet parrot that Flaubert devotee (and fan of holy fools) Flannery O’Connor would certainly interpret (and imitate) as grace through transfiguration, but Flaubert isn’t writing a simple salvation tale or hagiography. Félicité receives the holy spirit that’s already inside her inner self, and even though her parrot serves as a kind of word-made-flesh embodiment of her relationship to the divine, it’s through her own particular grace that she lives and dies.
In the collection’s second tale, “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” Flaubert does take up the subject of hagiography, but his extrapolation of the varying medieval accounts—primarily Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend and the window-narrative found in the Rouen cathedral, among countless other sources that the thoroughgoing Flaubert no doubt took in—he takes the story to such outlandish extents that it startles the reader into seeing just how outlandish the story is in the first place. Flaubert doesn’t seem to be making fun of religious legends or beliefs, exactly; it’s more like he’s freely exploring the utterly fantastical reaches of the religious imagination and urge. In Flaubert’s version of the legend, Julian’s path to sainthood seems to be the result of a kind of madness—a very specific kind of madness, but one whose monomania seems to be shared by many of the medieval saints. As a youth, Flaubert’s Julian kills a pesky mouse that’s gnawing away at his ability to enjoy a church service, and then in a series of escalating steps he gradually develops an insatiable bloodlust that leads him to become a nearly genocidal hunter. At the end of a particularly harrowing free-for-all, a great talking stag (who also appears in the confused and conflated legends of several other saints, most notably SS. Eustace and Hubert) curses Julian and tells him that he’ll end up murdering his own parents. After accidentally almost killing his mother, Julian flees home in terror and becomes a soldier of fortune, which leads him to commit vast human slaughter and to attain incredible riches and fame. Naturally, an Oedipean twist of fate leads him to kill his parents and then to renounce all killing and to devote himself to human service. The tale’s intensity doesn’t end there, though. Julian becomes a tireless ferryman, rowing any passenger or load for free and submitting himself to any degradation or abuse. This is the stuff of nearly all hagiography, but Flaubert’s account is relentless—and relentlessly beautiful—and when Julian encounters a horrific leper and takes step after gruesome step to aid the man’s suffering, he reaches an apotheosis that’s as breathtaking as anything Flaubert ever wrote.
The collection’s third tale, “Herodias,” continues the exploration of religious history, this time retelling the story of how Herod Antipas’ wife, Herodias, used her daughter, Salome, to bring about the death of John the Baptist. Although Flaubert is somewhat free with his historical dates and with his account of political alliances, “Herodias” is less a religious tale than it is a fascinating account of the complex webs of political, religious, ethnic, and personal interests that composed the daily texture of first-century Palestine. Here, Antipas is a brooding and defensive ruler who even fears his wife’s power, while John the Baptist and his followers are merely one very complicated aspect of his worries. Flaubert had been to Palestine, and his descriptions of the landscape and light are stunning (and accurate), making this very specific day in the life of the Tetrarch of Galilee as vivid as it is portentous.
Writing this strongly near the end of his life, it’s possible that Bouvard and Pécuchet could have become Flaubert’s greatest work, had he been able to weave it all together with more vivid and compelling threads than exist in the book’s extant draft of picaresque adventures. But his friend Sand’s life and death interrupted, which is how life and death work for writers and nonwriters alike, and so rather than lamenting what could have been, we can marvel at Three Tales’ gemlike triptych and encounter a master at his most distilled. And of course we can still read the unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet and imagine that it was as perfectly hewn as Three Tales.