Analysis: Astrea

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The setting of Astrea is the Forez, in which Honoré d’Urfé lived and with which he was very familiar. He situates his novel during the fifth century, a time that witnessed the invasion of barbaric tribes. Nevertheless, the Forez shepherds, under the benevolent rule of Queen Amasis and the guidance of the high priest Adamas, enjoy a life of abundance and tranquility. When the novel opens, Celadon, the shepherd hero, is in love with the beautiful sheepherder Astrea. Astrea mistakenly believes that Celadon loves Aminthe and has been unfaithful to her. In her jealousy, she orders him not to appear before her again unless it is by her express command. Like the knights in chivalric romances that precede Astrea and that influenced it, Celadon vows never to disobey the wishes of his beloved. He despairs at incurring her wrath and throws himself into the currents of the Lignon River. His suicide attempt fails, and he is rescued by a group of nymphs, who look after him until he has recovered.

Keeping in mind Astrea’s interdiction never to appear before her, Celadon decides that he will live the life of a hermit in the forest. There he builds a temple to Astrea and renders homage to her by an austere existence. Celadon continues to grow progressively weaker until he is discovered by Adamas, a high priest and one of the principal figures in the novel. Adamas tells Celadon that his appearance has changed so much that Astrea will never recognize him. He convinces him to disguise himself as a woman in order to be near Astrea again. Celadon dons the garments of a woman and takes the name of Alexis, thereby rejoining Astrea and living in her company without her knowing it. The long episode of Celadon’s disguise is one of the central intrigues of the novel and occupies several volumes. At the novel’s end, and with the help of Adamas and various shepherds, Astrea orders Celadon to appear before her. Celadon finally reveals his identity and the lovers are reconciled. D’Urfé’s tragicomedy ends with the marriage of the hero and heroine.

The story of Celadon and Astrea is interspersed with lengthy digressions, stories, and numerous secondary episodes involving a multitude of characters. The five volumes of the novel form a lengthynarrative catalog of fine points in love, honor, etiquette, and courtly devotion. Critics have frequently noted that the stories in Astrea are marked by the ideology of Neoplatonic love inherited from the writers of the Italian Renaissance; they also recall the love dialogues of Marguerite de Navarre’s L’Heptaméron (1559; The Queene of Navarres Tales, 1597; also known as The Heptameron, 1959), the writings of Marsilio Ficino, and the pastoral romances of Jorge de Montemayor.

Astrea presents two fundamentally diverging conceptions of love. The first position is represented by the jovial shepherd Hylas; he finds his pleasure in a carefree inconstance, or infidelity, to his lady. According to Hylas, his changing affections conform to the fundamental instability of the natural world that surrounds him. Hylas almost never experiences misfortune in love; he erases any...

(The entire section is 1303 words.)