The Princess of Clèves is generally considered to be the first psychological novel in French and one of the best examples of the emerging novel genre in any language. Although many of the secondary characters are not developed, the behavior and decisions of the Princess of Clèves are given thorough psychological underpinning and treatment.

This is not to say that everyone agrees on the degree of realism; indeed, this very problem of “verisimilitude” has been much discussed. In particular, Madame de La Fayette’s contemporaries cited two scenes they found especially unbelievable: the confession scene (when the Princess tells her husband that she loves another) and the renunciation (when the Princess decides not to marry Nemours even though she is free to do so). Close attention to the text shows that Madame de La Fayette prepares and defends these choices on the part of her heroine. The Prince practically invites such a confession, and when the Princess makes it, she reiterates that she is aware of how unusual it is. In addition, the “frank and open disposition” of the character is stressed. In the case of her decision not to marry Nemours, this is prepared carefully in the text (by the emphasis on duty, by the moral weight of death-bed promises, by the Princess’ experiences of the pain of jealousy and the value she places on peace of mind).

An important formal aspect of the novel is the use of embedded narratives...

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