Anyone who has read Madame Bovary will recognize that Flaubert had a peculiar gift for searching the human soul
for all its weaknesses and displaying them in novels that arouse pity, perhaps scorn, and often disgust or repulsion. Here are three short stories that cover
all of these emotions and more. They all depict human beings caught in some kind of struggle, whether inward or outward, seemingly having the cards stacked
against them, either by their own poor life choices or fate. All three have spiritual or religious themes.
In A Simple Heart, it is Félicité, a poor, simple, uneducated housemaid that arouses our compassion and sorrow. In many ways she is pathetic, yet probably doesn't see herself in that light at all. Orphaned young, she works at a farm where she is abused. Against her caution, she falls in love only to be jilted, and runs away. She is hired as a cook to the widow Mme. Aubain and two young children, and there she faithfully remains for the rest of her life.
She is plain and quiet and goes about her work persistently and uncomplaining. We know very little about her personality—her emotions, her dreams, or anything which defines her self, other than through her powerful ability to love, to care, to be loyal. And we know that, though she understands little about religion, in her own way she is extraordinarily devout and pious.
Because she loves so deeply, she suffers greatly as those she loves most pass away. First it is her nephew Victor, then Mme Aubain's young daughter, Virginie. But she always finds someone else to love: poor people, vagrants, and eventually a parrot named Loulou. Years pass, yet life stays the same. Loulou dies and Félicité is devastated. She has him stuffed, however, so he may be with her always. She sees Mme. Aubain's acquaintances die one by one. Félicité goes nearly deaf, and then loses her mistress, age seventy-two. The son, Paul cares little for the family, and his snobby wife ransacks the house after her mother-in-law's death. Félicité is told she will have to leave because the house will be sold, but it never happens. More years go by. She survives on her small pension and her garden vegetables. She goes blind, then becomes very ill. In the end, hugging and kissing Loulou, she donates him for the alter of the church procession shortly before she dies.
This is truly a heartbreaking and bittersweet story, pathetic in many ways—the nearly entire life of a person who seems to have done very little as far as accomplishments, yet in her own way was able to profoundly affect the lives of all with whom she came in contact. A truly great story!
In The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller, we perhaps find much less to evoke compassion. It is a retelling of the story of a real Catholic saint who obtains grace for his evil deeds by self-imposed relinquishment of all but the barest needs of survival.
He is born of a noble family who dote upon him with great love. Both parents separately receive messages that he is destined to become great.
However, he is born with a lust for death, beginning at an early age in finding pleasure in watching an animal die from his cruelty. He becomes obsessed with the hunt, slaughtering every animal who comes in his path for no other purpose than enjoyment. One day he slaughters an entire herd of deer helplessly trapped in a valley. But one stag refuses to die until he confronts Julian and puts a curse on him that he will kill his own parents.
Julian runs away, and forms an army, continuing his passion for killing, only now it is humans. He becomes known as a great warrior and eventually is offered the daughter of an emperor for marriage. He withdraws from the hunt, yet it pains him. His wife, who knows about the curse, finally encourages him to take up his bow again, saying that by this time his parents are probably already dead anyways.
So he goes out, and an elderly couple arrive at the castle. Julian's wife speaks to them, and learns that they are her husband's parents, who have given up all their wealth to travel for years to find their son. She is overjoyed, and puts them up in her bed to rest before Julian returns.
But when he comes back, he thinks that another man is in bed with his wife, and slaughters them both. When he learns that the prophesy has been fulfilled, he permanently exiles himself from society and lives in extreme poverty and self-denial. He finally finds a way he can be of service to humanity, and is put to the ultimatel test.
Herodias is about the beheading of John the Baptist, as seen from Herod's point of view, shortly before the appearance of Jesus. Herodias, Herod's lover, was wife to his brother, giving up her daughter in the process. At the time John is Herod's prisoner, and Herodias hates him for pointing out her sinfulness. But she is ruthless and conniving, and has thrown a birthday party for Herod. Little does he know that her daughter, Salome, sensual and irresistible, has been set up by Herodias to seduce Herod with her dance during the celebration, which she does with perfection. In return, she demands the head of John the Baptist on a dish.
These three stories are well worth reading. The first two are easy, the last a little more difficult in understanding the identity of the characters, and the political situation at the time makes it somewhat confusing.
St. Julian the Hospitaller: Fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio
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