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Madame de La Fayette Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 3,095 words.)