Madame de La Fayette is frequently described as the first person to write a modern novel (as opposed to a romance) in French. The Princess of Clèves is considerably briefer than the pastoral and chivalric prose romances, often filling thousands of pages, which were fashionable earlier in the seventeenth century. La Fayette’s plot construction clearly distinguishes between the main characters and those involved in the many subplots. The resultant concentration on the heroine allows readers to follow the development of her character and her motivations. Because the reader’s attention is not dispersed over many plots, as in the romances, suspense and empathy are more intense. In fact, the public’s identification with the novel’s heroine reached such proportions that a torrent of letters and pamphlets appeared, taking passionately held positions on the rightness or error of the heroine’s conduct. It is said that engagements were broken off because couples could not agree about the conduct of the princess of Clèves.
In purely literary terms, The Princess of Clèves constitutes a major change in the way fiction relates to history in French literature. Instead of placing her story in the distant past or in an exotic Asian or African country, La Fayette blended real historical persons, well known to her readers, with purely imaginary characters. This proximity of the story to the life of the reader awakened an expectation of verisimilitude or realism that made the reader compare him- or herself with the characters. Reading thus became a critical activity of a new sort, for the reader could claim that a character behaved in an unlikely way or, on the contrary, could decide to identify with the character and try to model real-life action on the fictitious pattern. The so-called quarrel of The Princess of Clèves marks the historical beginning of the attempt to use the novel as a serious tool of social examination, an attempt that culminated two centuries later with Émile Zola.