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 sympathetic characters and not as victimizers of the Princess de Clèves.
Another technique La Fayette used well in this novel is her descriptions of scenes from the point of view of several different characters. Excellent examples of this narrative technique can be found in the descriptions of the courtship and wedding of the princess and her decision to retire permanently from the royal court near the end of this novel. Each character reveals part of what actually happened, and readers must decide on their own what each scene means for them and the fictional characters.
The preparations for the wedding of Mademoiselle de Chartres to the Prince de Clèves illustrate nicely La Fayette’s skill in presenting several different perspectives. The Prince de Clèves and Madame de Chartres are eagerly making plans for an elaborate palace wedding reception. For them, this was to be a glorious social event, but Mademoiselle de Chartres approaches this wedding with a complete lack of enthusiasm. She feels betrayed by her mother, who wants to force her to marry a man for whom the sixteen-year-old princess “felt...
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no particular attraction.” She tells the prince that she will agree to marry him if both Madame de Chartres and he insist, but she points out to him that she could never love him, although she intends to remain faithful to her marriage vows out of respect for herself and because of her desire not to risk her immortal soul by committing the mortal sin of adultery. Readers admire her honesty, but they suspect that the wedding reception was not an especially joyous experience for the new couple. The Princess de Clèves views this arranged marriage as yet another example of the exploitation of women by insensitive men such as her husband.
Another example of La Fayette’s skill in using this narrative technique can be found at the end of the novel when the Princess de Clèves, whose husband has just died, decides to leave the royal court to seek inner peace on her country estate in the Pyrenees. Once the duke de Nemours realizes that she would probably never return to Paris, he asks numerous influential people at the royal court, including the queen herself and the princess’s uncle, the vidame de Chartres, to write to her in an effort to persuade her of the foolishness of her decision to abandon courtly pleasures for what he and many literary critics considered a boring existence in a small and remote country village. While she is staying at her country estate, the young widow falls gravely ill, and the narrator suggests that this close brush with death has caused the princess to “see the things of this life differently from the way they appear when one is in good health.” La Fayette is perhaps suggesting that the princess is preparing herself spiritually for the next life, whereas those still at the royal court are indifferent to such thoughts. Her behavior is incomprehensible to superficial characters such as the duke de Nemours, but it makes perfect sense if one concludes that she experienced a spiritual conversion shortly before her death.
La Fayette ends this psychological novel with the following comment on the title character: “Her life, which was quite short, left inimitable examples of virtue.” This is a very sensible interpretation for readers who agree with the narrator, but it seems utter madness to readers who share the duke de Nemours’s belief that no intelligent person would ever want to leave the apparent splendor of a royal court. Ever since its first publication in 1678, The Princess of Clèves has remained a marvelously ambiguous novel whose meanings for readers depend on those characters with whom they identify.