In 1877, twenty years after the publication of "Madame Bovary," Gustave Flaubert published "Three Tales," a thin volume containing the stories "A Simple Heart," "The Legend of St Julian Hospitator" and "Herodias." While Robert Baldick's introduction to the Penguin edition says that "Three Tales" is "still generally regarded as [Flaubert's] most successful and most representative work," it is by no means his best work and does not approach the level of literary genius displayed in "Madame Bovary," "Sentimental Education," or "Bouvard and Pecuchet."
The best of the tales is "A Simple Heart," the story of Felicite, a simple and pious servant girl who "loved her mistress with dog-like devotion and veneration." Orphaned at a young age, she is first taken in by a farmer who, "small as she was, [sent] her to look after the cows in the fields." It is a miserable life:
"She went about in rags, shivering with cold, used to lie flat on the ground to drink water out of the ponds, would be beaten for no reason at all, and was finally turned out of the house for stealing thirty sous, a theft of which she was innocent."
Felicite fortunately enters the service of another farmer who appreciates her devoted, unquestioning work habits. She grows into her adult years working for that farmer and then is retained as servant to Madame Aubain. Felicite's life with Madame Aubain forms the heart of the story, the first sentence of Flaubert's narrative adumbrating the whole: "For half a century the women of Pont-l'Eveque envied Madame Aubain her maidservant Felicite."
Felicite's life is a series of loves: of Theodore, a man whom she falls in love with at the age of eighteen and who leaves her for an older, wealthier woman; of the two children of Madame Aubain, who depart her world in different ways; of a nephew, who leaves on a sailing ship; of a poor old dying man who lives in a pig sty; and, finally, of a green parrot named Loulou. Throughout all these loves, "the years slipped by, each one like the last, with nothing to vary the rhythm of the great festivals: Easter, the Assumption, All Saints' Day."
It is interesting to quote what Flaubert had to say about the end of "A Simple Heart," because it is not entirely clear whether it reflects his true feelings or an ironic denial of irony: "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."
While readers have struggled with whether the three tales are connected in any way, the confusion of Felicite suggests a Flaubertian irony (or perhaps cynicism) that runs through all the stories: that people who live their lives based on religious belief are living lives based on illusion. In the case of Felicite, it is an illusion that is suggested by the confusion of a stuffed green parrot named Loulou with the Holy Ghost. In the remaining two tales, it is suggested in other ways.
"The Legend of St Julian Hospitator" tells the story of Julian, who grows up in a castle and lives a life marked by violence and mysticism. It is the reworking of a well-worn medieval tale depicted in thirty scenes of a stained-glass window Flaubert saw in Rouen Cathedral. It is also a tale that suggests again that the Christian founding myths are perhaps not what they seem. Thus, Julian's dream of life in the Garden of Eden and of Noah's Ark seems like the dream of a world created by a demiurge, a kind of Gnostic vision of brutality rather than harmony and salvation:
"Sometimes, in a dream, he would see himself like our father Adam in the middle of Paradise, with all the birds and beasts around him; and stretching out his arm, he would put them to death. Or else they would file past him, two by two, according to size, from the elephants and lions down to the stoats and ducks, as they did on the day that they entered Noah's Ark. From the shadow of a cave he would hurl javelins at them which never missed their aim, but others would follow them, there would be no end to the slaughter, and he would wake up with his eyes rolling wildly."
There is, finally, "Herodias," in which Flaubert relates the story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome. Like the other two tales, "Herodias" is unsettling to the Christian mythos insofar as it emphasizes verisimilitude and the mundane. Instead of painting a picture of a great historical event, "Herodias" tells a very human tale of politics, jealousy and factionalism in ancient Israel. By doing so, it brings the reader back to the original historical touchstones of writers like Josephus and other contemporaries of Herod, thereby attenuating the centuries of religious mythmaking that followed the real world events. Perhaps this is why no less a critic than Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, commenting on "Three Tales," said that, "these eighty pages teach me more about the circumstances, the origins and the background of Christianity than all of Renan's work."
While not his best work, "Three Tales" nonetheless provides remarkable insight into Flaubert's narrative style and his view of literature. It is a style and a view that consistently departs from romanticism (even though the casual reader perhaps thinks of "Madame Bovary" as a romantic story), using techniques and images that draw meticulous scenes of the real and plumb the psychological depths of the mundane. By all means, read "Madame Bovary" and "Sentimental Education," but don't forget "Three Tales" because it is an equally provocative example of Flaubert's literary endeavor.