"Simplicity" is indeed the keyword in this story of a servant called Felicité. She is a peasant woman with no education - even illiterate - and also without property, husband or children. Without her mistress, she wouldn't even have a roof above her head. She had a great love when she was young, but the man suddenly left her to marry a well-to-do woman "to avoid conscription." After that, Felicité left the farm and headed to the city to start working as a servant in the house of the widow Mme Aubian. Mme Aubian is no easy mistress, but Felicité is loyal and easily bestows her affections on the two children of the house. In fact, she is utterly selfless and lives only for those around her. This also includes her relatives such as a poor nephew she tries to help.
The sad fact is that all she gives to are unworthy of her generosity and take advantage of her. But she is unaffected by this, for true altruism is a reward in itself. Felicité can deal with anything that comes her way. Her belief in the basic goodness of life makes her happier than those around her - although she also knows sorrow when, one after the other, the daughter of her mistress and her nephew die. At the same time she is no Dostoyevskian holy fool (an inane figure Flaubert loathed) but "stands with both feet in the clay" (as a Dutch saying goes).
In later life, Felicité obtains a parrot (which reminds her indirectly of her nephew who died as a sailor in the tropics) and becomes very much attached to the bird. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed. She develops a sort of spiritual relationship with the parrot, who becomes the embodiment of her relationship to the divine. At the same time, the love she shows the parrot is symbolic of her lifelong altruism. When she dies, Flaubert invokes the image of the parrot floating above her as a sort of Holy Ghost... It is a wonderful apotheosis.
As usual, Flaubert combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language. He truly is masterful in this perfectly realized character study. He also shows he was educated as a doctor: like in Madame Bovary (see my post here) he gives eerily detailed descriptions of illness and death.
"A Simple Heart" was the inspiration for the novel by Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot.
English translation at Gutenberg
French audio version
Flaubert site of University of Rouen (French)