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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Willa Cather

Flaubert's Parrot?

On 1 November 1932, Willa Cather answered an appreciative letter from a young Baltimore seminarian named John Kennedy,[1] who had written to admire Obscure Destinies. After quick amenities, she plunged into a subject she felt ready to discuss with a stranger: short fictions. She even typed this letter herself so that it would be accurately repeatable. Then she said clearly: “I want to do all I can to overcome the provincial American prejudice against stories of that [brief] length.” She added, “This is the only country in which stories of that length are dismissed rather lightly as minor pieces, simply because they are short.” Obviously, she is not only concerned with the three masterpiece stories just published in Obscure Destinies; she is also exercised about the American prejudice against great short stories by anybody. She adds, “The long short story has always held such a dignified and important place in French literature that I wish it might command that same position in our own country.” One such honored French short story seems particularly to have been on her mind for at least three years: Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” That’s the story containing the character Flaubert biographer Frederick Brown describes as “famous for believing her stuffed parrot to be the Holy Ghost” (151).

Cather’s interest in Flaubert began early. Her first biographer, E. K. Brown, recounts her college-girl enthusiasm and reports that Cather “was remembered in Lincoln as a devotee of Flaubert, and of Madame Bovary in particular” (61). Brown’s biography ends commenting that “Obscure Destinies is Willa Cather’s finest book of short stories and in its minute realism and sharpness of outline invites comparison with Flaubert’s Trois Contes” (294). Cather’s connection to “A Simple Heart,” one of Flaubert’s Trois contes (Three Stories), has been acknowledged since serious scholarship on her work began. Even though Cather’s enigmatic phrase in “A Chance Meeting” states that Flaubert’s name conjures “most of one’s mental past” (Not Under Forty 16, emphasis added), one should not hastily guess that she ever outgrew her passion for Flaubert. In the Louise Burroughs letters at Drew, Cather mentions in 1938 that she has just finished rereading Flaubert’s Salammbô for the ninth time. She can count her readings from the dates she has penciled on its flyleaf (folder 15, 9 September 1938). She adds, “I never found it more absorbing, nor was I ever more glad to be absorbed.” We can reasonably conclude that Cather returned to Flaubert’s works early, late, and often.

From this habit of rereading, Cather knew her Flaubert backwards and forwards. So we ask first what she learned from him, and then we ask what she did with it. The most obvious Flaubertian lesson would probably have been, to coin a phrase, that god is in the details. A bit later she would have decided that Flaubert used too many. De-furniture that fiction! she orders, before writing her most démeublé novel, My Mortal Enemy, the one most obviously reminiscent of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. A few years later when Cather wanted to reverse My Mortal Enemy, however, she started thoughtfully to pay special attention to the Flaubert work that is most different from Madame Bovary. Shadows on the Rock, Cather’s reversal, bows repeatedly to “A Simple Heart,” Flaubert’s own reversal of his masterpiece. In her reversal of her “novel démeublé” doctrine, Cather puts that Flaubert furniture back into her work—as many of the mystified have noted. In fact, she mentions furniture in the manner he has mentioned it in “A Simple Heart.” She describes the arrangements and decorations inside her key setting’s key rooms, as she outlines the floorplan which accommodates that key furniture, as well as the interior spaces and divisions which such furniture creates. That is, to write of her simple heart, Cather uses the Flaubert furniture that defines such simple-hearted lives.

Another thing I would guess Cather absorbed from Flaubert was the idea that “We are artists; art is our country: a curse on those who have any other” (Letters 153). Flaubert biographer Brown explains, “His center of gravity was his study and literature, which he likened to a religious discipline entailing vows of celibacy” (265). Now Flaubert’s celibacy was, at the least, highly erratic, but his clarity about the inadvisability of marriage was constant. Cather absorbed and repeated it: “In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting, that there are few men born of women who are strong enough to take the vows. There is no paradise offered for a reward to the faithful . . . only death and the truth” (Kingdom of Art 417). Flaubert also wrote to his mistress Louise Colet, “There are subterranean constructions in everything. . . . Plumb the depths and ye shall find” (qtd. in Gehardi v). Plumbing the depths of Shadows on the Rock leads to Flaubert.

Still another Flaubertian lesson for Cather seems to have been that “literature depends on doing several things well at the same time” (qtd. in Barnes 97). Art should be measured by “the all-inclusive plenitude of history” (qtd. in F. Brown 154). Both writers concluded that sometimes one can manage several things simultaneously, thus suggesting the plenitude of history, by incorporating contradictions and reversals; through them one attains impersonality, a quality Flaubert prized. That is, no attitude or stance, however compellingly stated or dramatized, should ever be identified as the writer’s permanent conviction. Flaubert claimed, “In my view the novelist has no right to express his opinions on the things of this world. In creating, he must imitate God: do his job and then shut up” (qtd. in Parmée vii). Flaubert’s view of history especially attracts Cather’s attention. Paradoxically, she seems especially fond of Flaubert’s violent and sadistic Salammbô. Her surprising appetite for his raw gore exists as a quality quite opposite those we more often associate with her. But as she explains in “A Chance Meeting,” “I like . . . [Flaubert] in those great reconstructions of the remote and cruel past” (Not Under Forty 22).

Finally, I would suggest that Cather learned her letter-burning propensities from Flaubert. No matter how many of his letters are still available to read, she at least absorbed his attitude: “The artist must make posterity believe he never lived” (Kundera 42). “For the artist, death destroys the personality and liberates the work” (qtd. in Barnes 86). In other words, a number of those formative attitudes most basic to the Cather we reverently honor can be traced back to her enthusiasm for this man whom other French writers once saluted as the master.

Abundant evidence shows us that Cather was concentrating on Flaubert’s works around the time she was working on Shadows on the Rock. Foremost, of course, is her charming account in “A Chance Meeting” of her 1930 encounter with Madame Grout. She reacted reverently when she heard that the old lady in Aix-les-Bains was also Flaubert’s niece, whom he once addressed as Caro. He also sometimes addressed Caro, as Cather does not mention, as Loulou, his pet name for a parrot (Letters 75, 197, 215); and Loulou is the name of the parrot of parrots in “A Simple Heart.” Cather says of that old lady once nicknamed Loulou, “It was like being suddenly brought up against a mountain of memories. One could not see round it; one could only stupidly realize that in this mountain which the old lady had conjured up by a phrase and a name or two lay most of one’s mental past. . . . I took one of her lovely hands and kissed it, in homage to a great period” (Not Under Forty 16).

I salute the brilliance and density of this sketch, in which I think Cather practices a subtle and layered literary criticism. For example, she kisses the hand of Madame Grout in homage to a literary period that includes, by her accounting, a number of writers besides Flaubert. Next, she acknowledges hearing in Flaubert’s name a record of her own mental past: By implication, that honored past, now passed, has required growth and change. Cather closes her letter to seminarian Kennedy with the comment, “It is absurd to measure ‘spiritual growth,’ or even intellectual growth, chronologically. Our great enlightenments always come in flashes.” In one such flash she comments on Flaubert’s work in “A Chance Meeting,” his wine is “a little too dry for us.” Yet she adds, “an artist’s limitations are quite as important as his powers. They are a definite asset” (Not Under Forty 24). Some of his admirers may not acknowledge that Flaubert has limitations, but Cather sees and uses them, even when they counter her own aesthetic. In Shadows on the Rock, when she wants to create a French bourgeois lifestyle, led by simple hearts, she creates it as Flaubert did first, knowing full well that Flaubert labeled himself a bourgeoisophobe (F. Brown 175). That bourgeois culture, she tells Governor Wilbur Cross, she “could not accept, wholly, but . . . could not but admire” (Willa Cather on Writing 15).

In 1930, in Aix, as she worked on Shadows on the Rock, Cather would have been especially aware of that “little girlhood” re-created in Flaubert’s affectionate letters to his niece. We can in fact see Cather seeking verisimilitude by watching out for, or participating in, several girlhoods at this time. Her fondness for Harwood Brewster, recounted by David Porter, establishes her interest in such a girlhood (Porter 143). At this time, just before she sailed for Quebec for one last check on her new fiction’s setting, she was thinking of the girlhood of a late-seventeenth-century Quebecois whose task would involve community building. The first thing Cather tells Cross is that “I tried, as you say, to state the mood and the viewpoint in the title” (15). Thus one sentence in “A Simple Heart” stands out: “Félicité spoke to shadows of her own from time to time” (61). A number of simple-hearted women speak to shadows of their own in Cather’s novel, while they concomitantly bind a French community. While Flaubert speaks to inspire tears,[2] Cather valorizes those views that hold a world together on her cold rock.

Of course, to make any comparison at all between the salient features in Shadows on the Rock first to be found in “A Simple Heart,” one must find a parrot. The central symbol of a parrot that metamorphoses slowly from pet to likeness of son and lover to symbol of the Holy Spirit dominates Flaubert’s story. In fact, Julian Barnes’s meditation called Flaubert’s Parrot suggests that a parrot becomes associated with Flaubert, too. In Cather’s novel such a parrot named Coco, not Loulou, arrives on the shoulder of honored guest Captain Pondaven at the party to which Pierre Charron invites the Auclair household and little Jacques. The parrot is the cynosure of the simple-hearted children’s eyes, and has several of ancestral Loulou’s habits. He is slow to speak when looked at or approached by strangers. While Flaubert’s Félicité fears the grocer boy will teach her Loulou bad phrases, Pondaven’s marvelous Coco can masterfully curse the English and then bless the French king. The unsophisticated children stare as rapturously at the talking bird as Flaubert’s simple-hearted Félicité does. All find such a phenomenon not only miraculous but also a reminder that within miracles, “the angels are just as near to us here as they are [elsewhere]” (Shadows 151).

Both “A Simple Heart” and Shadows on the Rock stress centrally the domestic skills that hold a household life together. Both even prominently stress pots and pans. Indeed, Félicité’s “polish on her saucepans was the despair of other servants” (7), while Cécile loves her pots and pans as the tools by which one makes “life itself” (Shadows 227). Loyalty, the dominant trait of both central females, finds expression through domestic service, Félicité is loyal to her mistress, and dying Madame Auclair most applauds the loyalty she finds in her daughter. The domestic skills that Cécile loyally learns at her mother’s knee and that attract her future husband are accounted for as French bourgeois ways of life—what Flaubert identifies as order and regularity (F. Brown 217). And though Euclide Auclair must do the sharp bargaining and food purchasing in the market before his young daughter can grow into the authority for such transactions, Félicité excels in them. She represents “the stubbornest of all bargainers” (7); and vendors “went away filled with respect for her” (13). Such skills—providing groceries, cooking, serving, eating well—are proud accomplishments in both fictions. They lead to the astonishing conviction expressed in Quebec that “At home, in France, we have learned to do all these things in the best way, and we are conscientious, and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe and other nations envy us” (Shadows 32). This line makes more common sense when regarded as Cather’s acknowledgment of Flaubert’s class prejudice—he sometimes even signed his letters Bourgeoisophobus (F. Brown 295). Conversely, disapproval of a sloppier domestic routine in a nearby farmhouse also emerges in both fictions (“A Simple Heart” 19; Shadows 219–24).

What actually keeps the simple lives of these simple hearts happy is religion. Flaubert described his subject as “a poor country girl, devout but not mystical, matter-of-factly devoted, tender with a tenderness redolent of freshly baked bread” (qtd. in F. Brown 516). His description exactly fits Cather’s Cécile, even if the bread is baked next door. Félicité first notices the striking resemblance between her beloved parrot and that Holy Ghost depicted in a local stained-glass window because she sees literally, as Cécile does when she assumes a local church altar exactly replicates the Kingdom of Heaven (77). Cather records tolerantly the credulous Quebec nuns who believe the sick can be converted by swallowing a little ground bone of a saint. As a child, devout but not mystical Cécile loves to hear the stories of founding mothers or nuns, saintly miracles, and martyrdoms in the Canadian wilderness. Indeed, the miraculous transformation of Félicité’s bird into the Holy Spirit can be explained by using the lovely passage from Shadows on the Rock which all Cather readers know: The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another. (160, emphasis added)

That bequeathing[3] of a precious possession is mirrored in these two fictions. First, dying Félicité grows obsessed, even though now deaf and blind, with the Corpus Christi processions about to occur after Easter. She knows that Madame Aubain’s courtyard has been chosen for one outdoor shrine and suddenly wishes to make her contribution. Indeed, she makes the ultimate sacrifice, her most precious possession. She donates her stuffed parrot to the altar, as would be proper for such an icon. The priest permits this intrusion over some protest and hides the now-battered and moth-eaten relic under green garlands and English lace. Yet as Félicité’s death rattle begins, she knows her treasure is a part of the communal worship and dies happy. Cather’s analogy is little Jacques’s sacrifice of his one prized possession, his toy beaver, to the crèche built to display baby Jesus. Both gifts are the most significant ones the givers can bestow. Jacques speaks for both cheerful givers when he says solemnly, in the appropriate language, “Non, c’est pour toujours” (132). He doesn’t want it back; it’s for always.

There are other similarities between the two fictions than these salient ones. Apothecary Auclair refuses to perform the medical practice of bleeding in Shadows on the Rock; Félicité’s adored nephew Victor dies abruptly of over-bleeding in “A Simple Heart.” Good women nurse the sick in both stories: the nuns care for sailors in Shadows on the Rock, while Félicité nurses soldiers in “A Simple Heart.” Artificial flowers prominently enhance provincial church altars in both. Even such small details as a focus on parsley occur in duplicate. Félicité suspects the grocer boy of poisoning her parrot with parsley in one, while in the other Cécile fears enough for her parsley to rise in the cold of night and cover it. Even the bric-a-brac prized in both houses is strikingly similar. Both homes display souvenirs brought home by sailors, Victor and Jacques. Central to one household is a stuffed parrot, while to the other, a stuffed alligator—both tropical.

The evidence that Cather read “A Simple Heart” early and often emerges as a small detail from the story appears in each of her novels. The story becomes one of her “magic touchstones,” like the Aeneid, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, or Henry James’s Roderick Hudson. The repetitions can be as small as a throwaway reference to Queen Matilda’s tapestries (in The Professor’s House) or as large as being chased by a bull (in A Lost Lady). In the latter incident, Flaubert’s Félicité saves mother and children as heroically and effectively as the Holy Mother herself saves them in Quebec. Flaubert asserts, “This adventure was talked of at Pont-l’Evêque many a year” (17). That Shadows has the “shortest foreground in composition of any of Willa Cather’s major works” (Murphy and Stouck 331), as the Scholarly Edition states, is true of its Quebec site but not of its French bourgeois lifestyle. Edith Lewis stresses the “Norman outlines” and the sense of the “extraordinary French character” of Quebec as the things that first excited Cather (153–54). Yet Cather could immediately recall a lifetime of reading that Norman writer, Gustave Flaubert.

I want finally to mention that Shadows on the Rock is as centrally about the plenitude of history as it is about miracles. In this second theme we also find Cather’s thoughts about Flaubert. She summarized those thoughts in 1935, between publishing Shadows on the Rock and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. The two novels represent two different ways of approaching history, and Cather associates the different ways with Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Mann. She explains in her essay on Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers: There are two ways in which a story-teller can approach a theme set in the distant past. The way most familiar to us is that which Flaubert took in Salammbô. The writer stands in present time, his own time, and looks backward. He works and thinks in a long-vanished society. His mind is naturally fixed upon contrasting that world with our own; upon religions, institutions, manners, ways of thinking, all very unlike ours. The reader sees the horrors and splendours of Salammbô from a distance; partly because it was a point of ethics with Flaubert to encourage no familiarity at any time, but particularly because in this book he himself was engaged with the feeling of distance, strangeness, difference. (Not Under Forty 97–98) In contrast, Cather continues, Mann “gets behind the epoch of his story and looks forward” (98).

This pairing suggests what Cather is doing in her two epilogues. Shadows on the Rock depicts in its epilogue the conversation of two old men, Apothecary Auclair and Bishop SaintVallier. Through them we look backward as they look backward and generalize about history—inaccurately. Both agree that nothing ever changes in Quebec, when the facts about the fifteen-year gap occurring since the last chapter catalog catastrophes galore. The seasonal structure of the book, from its multiple time signals in the first sentence, stresses change and loss. This epilogue suggests that one, like Flaubert, can look back from the present if one wishes, but when doing so one is likely to generalize wrong. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, conversely, the epilogue twenty-five years later ends as the child Willa considers the story and forces the reader to look forward, in the manner of Mann. In this maneuver, which bows to her enjoyment of Flaubert’s stylistic masteries, Cather also suggests that looking backward at history is as much a fiction as is guessing at the future. If the instability of fiction is a fact she has been circling at least since The Professor’s House, it explains why she observed Flaubert’s work so acutely, and used it so subtly, in her great central quartet of masterpieces. Obviously, Cather does not parrot Flaubert: she salutes him before she finds her own separate way. But in doing so she still follows his clear advice: “One must know the masters by heart, idolize them, strive to think like them, . . . and then separate oneself from them forever” (qtd. in F. Brown 296).


 1. The letter was donated to the Drew Cather Collection by Barbara A. Kathe, who describes it as “typewritten except for the signature and a correction. It is addressed to Mr. Kennedy, who was John Sexton Kennedy and in 1932 would have been a major seminarian at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. John Sexton Kennedy was ordained a Catholic priest and, in addition to ministry, became the literary editor and finally the editor of The Catholic Transcript for many years until his retirement in the 1980s. He died on October 3, 2000.” (Go back.)
 2. Flaubert says so in a 19 June 1876 letter to Edma Roger des Genettes: “This is not at all ironical, as you suppose it to be, but, on the contrary, serious and very sad. I want to arouse pity, to make sensitive souls weep, being one such soul myself” (qtd. in F. Brown 516). (Go back.)
 3. I register, in passing, the play on the word bequeath in Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin stories, written after Shadows on the Rock (Go back.)


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