Critical Evaluation

Although critics have disagreed sharply about the ending of this novel as well as the novel’s mother-daughter relationship, the contrasts between appearance and reality, and the meaning of the various representations of love, almost all scholars agree that The Princess of Clèves was the first profound psychological novel written in France. The many different narrative techniques employed by Madame de La Fayette and the changing perspectives lead readers to reach wildly diverse interpretations of the work.

La Fayette includes in this novel several stories told by various characters. These stories illustrate in a subtle manner the feelings of her central characters. In the second of the four parts of The Princess of Clèves, Marie Stuart, who was married to King Francis II of France and later became Mary, Queen of Scots, speaks about the tragic death of Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, whom the duke de Nemours had considered marrying. Marie Stuart attributes the beheading of Boleyn to the irrational jealousy of her husband Henry VIII, who had falsely suspected her of marital infidelity. Marie Stuart suggests that, in addition to being excessively violent, Henry VIII was a hypocrite because it was he and not Boleyn who had committed adultery. Soon after her execution at the Tower of London, he married Jane Seymour. His adulterous affair must have begun before Boleyn’s execution.

At first glance, this story seems to have little to do with the plot of The Princess of Clèves, but when one rereads this novel, one comes to see a similarity between this and the Prince de Clèves’s unjustified jealousy directed against his wife. Moreover, Henry VIII’s obvious infidelity and hypocrisy lead one to believe that the Prince de Clèves and the duke de Nemours probably both had mistresses, although they demanded absolute fidelity from the princess, who had, in fact, remained faithful to her marriage vows. These and other stories in this novel subtly but effectively help one to understand that the Prince de Clèves and the duke de Nemours may not necessarily be as sympathetic as the courtiers believe them to be. Appearance and reality are often quite different in The Princess of Clèves. Although these inserted stories serve to illustrate the moral weakness and the bad faith of the two leading male characters in this novel, many critics have tended to downplay the importance of these stories because the stories are incompatible with the traditional view of the Prince de Clèves and the duke de Nemours as basically...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)