Scene: In Pont-l’Eveque, a town in France, Felicite is a servant to madame Aubain, a widow with two young children. Working for a pittance, Felicite dutifully (and cheerfully) keeps the family running smoothly. She cooks, cleans, washes, irons, mends, and does other household chores.
Sentence: “She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption, until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand.”
When I reread A Simple Soul, I always linger on this sentence. Not because of the dazzling quality of its prose, but because of the sheer number of prosaic details that Flaubert effortlessly conveys. The sentence is clean, orderly, and meticulous, almost hygienic in its self-respect. Just as Flaubert condenses a single day, with its habitual comings and goings, its tasks and activities, into a single, graceful sentence, so he condenses a 50-year span in thirty pages (!) and still produces a considerable aesthetic effect in the reader of having participated in Felicite’s undistinguished yet meaningful life.