Although it is frequently neglected by readers because of its exaggerated reputation as a difficult and complex novel, Madame de La Fayette’s Zayde (often spelled Zaïde) is a highly polished, thoughtful work, containing many of the elements of La Fayette’s undoubted masterpiece, The Princess of Clèves. Like the latter, Zayde contains a principal plot interrupted with less important plots appearing in inserted tales—that is, stories told by the characters. The inserted tales in Zayde are longer than those in The Princess of Clèves and differ also in that the characters in Zayde tell their own stories and not stories about other people. This constant changing of narrative voice and of character does make Zayde somewhat harder to follow than the later novel, but Zayde is simple and clear by comparison to such earlier works as Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astraea, 1657-1658).
Thematically, Zayde is closely linked to The Princess of Clèves by the characters’ probing of the nature of reality in contrast to their presuppositions and fears about it. The heroes are their own worst enemies. They are paralyzed by assumptions about life and other people that simply do not match experience. In Zayde, La Fayette’s hero, Consalve, is literally afraid of himself, for the novelist has used a banal motif of Baroque...
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