The Princess of Clèves

by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne

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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 (subplots or secondary stories narrated or “nested” within the framework of the main story). There are four of these in the novel. Although they have sometimes been viewed as digressions that distract the reader from the main plot, a comparison between the themes of the main plot and the embedded narratives reveals that they are closely linked. The four embedded narratives occur in the first two books and at the beginning of book 3. Occasionally, they serve to form a bridge between one chapter and the next. Each of the four narratives concerns the love life of a female character and contains a lesson for either the Princess of Clèves or Nemours. The first narrative, told by Madame de Chartres, answers the question (posed by the Princess) of what attracts Henry II to his older mistress, Diane de Poitiers, by telling the story of Diane’s political triumph. It illustrates the point frequently articulated by Madame de Chartres that anyone who judges people at court by appearances will be deceived. The second embedded narrative concerns the deception of Madame de Tournon, the mistress of one of the Prince’s friends. This story also illustrates the deceptiveness of appearances, but its main importance is that it provides the occasion for the Prince to tell his wife that he would be sympathetic if she were in love with someone else. The third narrative concerns Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII of England. It suggests that love does not survive marriage: In the story, Anne Boleyn is Henry’s mistress for nine years, but after they are married, he suddenly becomes jealous and has her executed. One of the factors that the Princess weighs when she decides not to marry Nemours is her belief that he will not remain faithful once she marries him. The final narrative tells the story of the Vidame’s friendship with Queen Catherine and highlights the dangers of deception.

From an examination of the psychological motivations of the characters and the structural composition of the novel, The Princess of Clèves appears to be a carefully composed and expertly written novel.

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Critical Evaluation