Rites of Compassion
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  • Paperback Edition
  • ISBN: 978-1-55861-562-5
  • Publication Date: 11-01-2007
  • Page Count: 152
  • Categories: Fiction

Willa Cather

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Gustave Flaubert

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Rites of Compassion

"Old Mrs. Harris" and "A Simple Heart"
Willa Cather & Gustave Flaubert

Introduction by Mary Gordon

These female-centered narratives written several decades apart by two giants of literature raise uncomfortable questions about the self versus the demands of family. Both works are believed to have autobiographical inspiration. Cather's story, first published in 1930, examines three generations of women in a Midwestern household, focusing on Old Mrs. Harris, the staunch matriarch of the title. Flaubert's tale of the ever faithful, unrewarded servant Félicité, written in 1876, nearly 20 years after his classic Madame Bovary, explores the disjunction between compassionate commitment to others and the exploitation of women who make a family's everyday life possible.

"To pair these two masters of realist fiction—both using the muted lives of two old women to underscore life's essential loneliness—is a stroke of genius. . . . Our reading of these famous stories is deepened and enriched as never before.”

—Vivian Gornick

"Like all great works of fiction, 'Old Mrs. Harris' and 'A Simple Heart' make, on their readers, radical demands. They apply a pressure that creates a crack in the smooth surface of our understanding. . . . Cather and Flaubert present us with two old women whose fulfillment is almost mystical in the completeness of its lineaments—despite the fact that . . . they are used, even ill used, by the people they serve and live among."

—Mary Gordon, writer and professor, Barnard College