Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Princess of Clèves presents a new twist on an age-old dilemma, the conflict between love and duty. As the title of the novel suggests, the main focus is on the Princess of Clèves and her predicament. On the one hand, she has a duty toward her husband, but on the other, she seeks gratification through her love for Nemours. The novel explores the competing demands of duty toward others and toward oneself; it does this by presenting a sympathetic and complex heroine, one of the first such female characters in literature and one with enduring importance. The psychology of other characters is important insofar as it contributes to this dilemma, but otherwise remains undeveloped.

The core of the drama is whether the Princess should follow love or duty. When she marries, she is honest with her husband—an honesty consistent with her open disposition—and tells him that although she respects and honors him, she does not love him. At the time, the Prince of Clèves is satisfied with unrequited love, hoping that someday their affection will be mutual, but as he becomes aware of his wife’s feelings for Nemours, the challenge of keeping his word becomes increasingly difficult. His death leaves the Princess free to fulfill her desire and remarry, this time to her true love, the bachelor Nemours, but her controversial decision at the end of the novel to remain a widow and retire from society appears to place duty before love.

The novel is set principally during the reign of Henry II, particularly in the years 1558 and 1559, and it draws considerably on historical events. Thus, when the novel opens, Elizabeth of England has just succeeded to the throne of England and Mary Stuart has just married the heir to the throne of France, the dauphine, events that took place in 1558. Toward the end of the novel, Henry II is killed in a tournament and peace for France is achieved through a series of arranged marriages alluded to in the novel, events that took place in 1559.

The author, Madame de La Fayette, scrupulously observes the historical record for the most part, but within this framework she invents the conversations...

(The entire section is 879 words.)