Madame Bovary is his chef d’oeuvre, of course, and probably rightfully so. But what makes Flaubert stand out among his contemporaries is an interest in depicting the exotic and the distant past as realistically as he portrays his own times. His first foray into this interest, Salammbô, with its setting during the1st Punic War and its detailed descriptions is exoticism personified and flies far afield from the incisive descriptions of mid 19th century bourgeois French life of Madame Bovary. His next novel, the brilliant Sentimental Education (his most powerful work in my opinion), returns to his contemporary France and explores the effects of materialism and selfishness on the lives of people not unlike Flaubert himself. This alternation between his detailed, realistic depiction of his own world and his penchant for giving the same perspicacious attention to distant times and places characterizes what was to be his most financially successful book and the subject of this review, Three Tales.
There are, as the title notes, three “tales” (actually “long stories” or, more arguably, novellas) in this work: “A Simple Heart” (“Un Coeur Simple”); “The legend of St. Julian the Hospitator” (“La Légende de Saint-Julien l’hospitalier”); and, finally, “Herodias” (Hérodias”). The story with the most power as a story (by this I mean in its ability to affect reader emotions) is the first, “A Simple Heart.” It tells the tale of a simple peasant girl, Félicité, who becomes the servant of a bourgeois widow, Madame Aubain, and spends her entire life living vicariously through the widow and her children, a son and daughter. Félicité’s loving preservation of the discarded detritus of their lives (including, exotically enough, a parrot!) serves as a beautifully realized commentary on power in relationships, human sentiment, and the desire and need to love and be loved.
The other two “tales” distance us (historically and artistically) from their events and actors in ways that “A Simple Heart” does not. “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitator” is a retelling of a medieval legend. Julian is “accursed,” as they say in medieval lit, and, despite his best efforts, ends up fulfilling the curse – and killing his own parents. His “atonement” – the tending of a river crossing – serves as a sort of Siddhartha-like redemption/enlightenment. The level of detail is wonderful – but the story falls flat. It feels contrived, over planned, too obviously neat.
“Herodias” is a retelling of the beheading of John the Baptist. The most interesting character is Antipas (Herod Antipas) who, manipulated by his wife Herodias (she of the story title), responds to the sexually suggestive dance of Herodias’s daughter (the well documented Salomé) and grants her request for the head of the aforementioned John who is subsequently executed. Antipas’s fearfulness and diplomatic/survival skill Flaubert’s story delineates with richness and depth. The power and passion of Christianity (Christ himself is a minor, offstage figure in the proceedings) and its interpolation against the political power of Rome (and Herod Antipas, its ally/vassal) make the story compelling. We know the outcome of this struggle – of the ultimate triumph of Jokanaan and his successor Jesus; Flaubert helps us know those who did not know that outcome in a way that few writers could.
Ultimately, Flaubert’s desire to dazzle with his knowledge and attention to detail, which serves him beautifully in “A Simple Heart” ( and, to a lesser degree in “Herodias”) but ultimately fails him in “The Legend of St, Julian the Hospitator” makes Three Tales an uneven work – but the uneven work of a great writer – and therefore well worth the reader’s time.