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 literature—the lost portrait—and has treated it as a metaphor for a person’s division from himself (or herself), his alienation, in his fears and desires.
At the beginning of Zayde, Consalve, a younger courtier from one of the two most powerful families of the court of León, leaves the court to seek utter solitude on the Spanish coast. There he meets another gentleman, Alphonse, who offers him a place to stay. The two exchange their stories of disenchantment. Consalve’s story concerns his betrayal by his two best friends, the Prince Don Garcie and Ramir. The three of them had discussed whether love arises most strongly in a man for a woman he knows well or for someone he does not know until the moment of surprise, when he finds himself totally and irrationally attracted. Consalve claimed that he could not love a woman he did not know well, adding that he would prefer that she not have any prior sentiment for another. His two friends argued that acquaintance defeats love, and Ramir added that the desirability of the loved object increases if she already is attached to another. When Consalve tells Alphonse this story, he demonstrates the illusory character of the knowledge of his beloved, because he did not know that she had the capacity to leave him for Ramir, and of the knowledge of other people in general, since he was betrayed by his two best friends as well.
Alphonse’s story follows the pattern of Consalve’s, for Alphonse, too, had developed a general concept of human conduct that subsequently failed him. He had decided that he would not marry a beautiful woman, because women in general are faithless and because a beautiful woman, having more temptation to infidelity, would make him unhappy by making him jealous of his rivals. In spite of this resolve, Alphonse had fallen in love and become jealous—to such an extent that he killed his best friend and drove his beloved into a convent. Yet no one was at fault except Alphonse, whose ideas about women were so rooted in his mind that he did not need any real reason to be jealous. In many ways, Consalve’s and Alphonse’s stories are symmetrical. Consalve was betrayed by others in whom he placed excessive trust; Alphonse killed his best friend and ruined the life of his beloved because of an excessive lack of trust. Consalve believed that he knew Nugna Bella well enough to love her; Alphonse did not believe that he knew Bélasire well enough and, indeed, could never be satisfied, no matter how great a quantity of information was supplied to him.
If the vanity of trying to guide one’s life by preconceived notions is not already clear, it becomes abundantly evident in the course of the novel, which is largely devoted to Consalve’s love for Zayde. She is a young woman whom Consalve finds washed up on the beach after a violent storm. Only Zayde and her woman companion have survived a shipwreck. Although they are dressed in Moorish costumes, the hero, accustomed to Arabic because of his frequent military encounters with the foe, does not recognize their tongue. For months, he tries to converse with Zayde and fails, except by using gestures and paintings. He intuits that Zayde finds in his face the likeness of someone else she has loved. Because Consalve is in love, by now, with this person of whom he knows only the name and the “fact” that she has loved someone else, he is jealous when Zayde looks at him with tenderness. He thinks that she sees him only as the image of her absent lover.
The hero has, of course, proved that his initial assumptions about the relationship of love and knowledge are entirely wrong. His “maxim” of conduct does not correspond to his experience. Knowledge and love are, however, related in Zayde, but it takes many adventures and many more inserted tales before Consalve discovers what the relationship is. At the end of the novel, when he and Zayde meet after a long separation, they are able to speak to each other. She has learned Spanish, and he has discovered that her language is Greek and has learned it. He finds that she recognized in him the face from a portrait that had been identified for her as that of the prince of Fez, to whom she had been promised in marriage. This resemblance explains her emotion on seeing Consalve. The portrait, however, is actually a lost portrait of Consalve.
La Fayette concludes her novel with this trite mechanism for undoing complicated plots, but she uses the lost portrait for a specific reason that is quite original. One aspect of love, one that has afflicted both Consalve and Alphonse, is the attempt to impose on the outside world a conception of the way things are or ought to be. In a sense, both Consalve and Alphonse are seeking in love someone who will mirror themselves. Alphonse is punished by his inability to see that Bélasire is not the mirror of his jealousy. Her actions and his jealousy are unrelated. Consalve’s purgatory is the long quest to discover that it is his own image that stands in the way of his love for Zayde.
The Princess of Clèves
Although The Princess of Clèves is briefer than Zayde and has a less difficult plot, this acknowledged masterpiece addresses problems that are fully as complex as those in Zayde. In her second novel, La Fayette also treats the relationship between general assumptions and individual experience, but she does so by tracing the life of a woman, Mademoiselle de Chartres (the heroine has no first name), who comes to the court as an adolescent with her mother, who wants to arrange a good and prestigious marriage for her daughter. Although the setting of this story gives La Fayette the opportunity to analyze the political intrigues of the French court, a milieu she knew intimately, the principal focus in The Princess of Clèves, as in Zayde, is on the relationship between knowledge and experience. Since Mademoiselle de Chartres arrives at the court with neither opinions about nor acquaintance with its ways, she relies entirely on her mother to form her.
(The entire section is 3095 words.)