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 and details of intrigue that occupy her novel. The major departure from history is the character of the Princess herself. This is not to say that the character of the Princess is without historical basis: She may have been modeled on Anne d’Este, who married first the Duke of Guise (who also figures in Madame de La Fayette’s novel) and then the Duc de Nemours.
The novel is divided into four “books” of approximately equal length. Each book leads the reader up to a new crisis in the plot, increasing the tension until the final resolution. Thus, the first book ends with the death of Madame de Chartres, the Princess’ mother. This leaves the Princess vulnerable and without an ally, for Madame de Chartres had been her confidante and counselor. Madame de Chartres recognized the difficulty of the ordeal that her daughter faced and in her dying words encouraged her to do her duty and to leave the court to avoid temptation.
When the Princess tries to do the right thing, circumstances thwart her good intentions. Thus, she attempts to follow her mother’s advice to leave court, but ironically it is her husband’s wish that she remain, and in obeying him she is exposed to greater temptation. Such psychological twists add to the dramatic irony of the novel by making the Prince complicit in his own eventual unhappiness.
At other times, the Princess is betrayed by...
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her own feelings in spite of her attempt to control and conceal them. She also learns that love does not bring only happiness; when she believes she has a rival for Nemours’ affection, she experiences the pain of jealousy, a factor that will be important in her final decision.
The Prince of Clèves is also trapped in a similar dilemma. He cannot reproach his wife with dishonesty, but his emotions get the better of him at times. Thus, he proclaims that, because of the value he places on sincerity, he would not react bitterly if his wife confessed she loved another, but when the Princess heeds his words, he finds that he is unable to maintain his equanimity. Although the Princess achieves some peace of mind through her confession (another important factor in her final decision), the shared knowledge drives a wedge between the couple. The Prince is increasingly tormented by jealousy, and he sends spies to watch his wife. As further evidence of his tragically flawed nature, he erroneously concludes from these reports that his wife has been unfaithful, and he falls fatally ill.
The court setting of the novel offers several advantages. Court life constantly combines love and politics, showing at every turn how love and power are interrelated. This background highlights the value of the pure disinterested love felt by the Princess. The contrast between the hypocritical life at court and her sincerity adds to the interest of the main character. The court setting also means that the Princess is constantly exposed to scrutiny and that virtually no action can remain private or secret, which heightens the psychological pressure.
The significance of this novel for women’s literature is twofold. It provides an unusual example of a woman writer whose eminent place in the canon has never been questioned. Although The Princess of Clèves was first published anonymously, the identity of the author was quickly discovered. Because she was the author of the first psychological novel, Madame de La Fayette’s name has not been forgotten. (It is true, however, that her authorship of the novel has been questioned.) There has been a tendency to consider Madame de La Fayette as an exception to the generalization that women of her period did not write, but the trend in contemporary scholarship (in the work of Joan DeJean, for example) is to see her as part of a larger movement of women writers rather than as the token exception.
The second point of significance concerns the central character and the theme of the novel. The Princess of Clèves features a central female character who may be viewed as a role model and focuses on issues of concern to women—love and marriage, and the circumstances in which a woman might reject them. Although the ending has been read as traditional female sacrifice and renunciation, some critics (such as Nancy K. Miller) have also argued that the Princess offers an example of female empowerment by depicting a woman who refuses the traditional marriage plot in favor of less tangible but more important advantages.
*Louvre (lew-vruh). Parisian palace that is the mid-sixteenth century site of the royal court of King Henri II in which the novel unfolds during the last years of the king’s reign. Madame de La Fayette opens her novel with an account of the king’s twenty-year relationship with his mistress, quickly establishing the public nature of romance in this glamorous, pleasure-oriented environment.
Most of the novel’s court scenes take place in the Louvre, the royal French residence until King Louis XIV moved to establish a new palace at Versailles in 1682. Giving almost no physical descriptions of the palace, the novel concentrates instead on its moral-social ambience, summed up at one point as “a sort of ordered agitation” that makes “it all quite pleasant, but also precarious, for a young lady.” So important are decorum, masks, and dissembling at court that “appearances seldom lead to truth.” After King Henri’s accidental death at a tournament, the growing estrangement between the princess and her husband plays out against a court destabilized by major power shifts.
*England. Under Queen Elizabeth I, England is an ally of France during the period in which the novel is set, and the country figures into the novel as the source of a prestigious marriage for the duke de Nemours. De La Fayette establishes her fictional hero’s extraordinary worth by having him court the new English queen, with every chance of success, before falling in love with the French princess.
One of several stories embedded in the novel recounts the romance of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, with her mother, Anne Boleyn. Boleyn had lived at the French court before becoming Henry’s second wife in 1533. This episode not only roots her Protestantism in her French life but also uses the political and sexual intrigues of Henry’s reign to mirror the scheming at the Louvre.
*Brussels. Belgian city that is the duke’s base for his courtship of Queen Elizabeth. His residence here during princess of Clèves’s first arrival at the French court means that he meets and pursues her only after her marriage.
*Spain. Roman Catholic country that is France’s enemy at the beginning of the novel and that becomes its ally. In Book 3, the French court celebrates the wedding of King Henri’s daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, to Philip II of Spain (by proxy). The widower of Mary I of England, who died in 1558, Philip chooses Elizabeth as his third wife to commemorate a treaty he signed earlier with France. As political alliances, such marriages in the novel contrast not only with the duke’s passion for the princess but also with her husband’s unusual marital love.
Coulommiers (kew-lom-YAY). Estate of the prince and princess of Clèves, located a day’s journey from Paris. As a country retreat, Coulommiers enables the princess to obey her mother’s dying wish that she leave the court to protect her virtue and reputation. Twice the duke invades her refuge, his secret presence suggesting the danger his forceful eroticism poses to the princess’s integrity. From an alcove in a pavilion in the château’s gardens, he eavesdrops on the princess’s confession to her husband that she is resisting her love for another man.
Later, when the princess again adjourns from the court to preserve her honor, the duke returns to Coulommiers at night and—while being observed by the prince’s servant—watches the princess sitting in an alcove, knotting ribbons on his former walking stick. After rejecting the duke’s proposal of marriage, the widowed princess retreats entirely from court, first withdrawing to her estate in the Pyrenees, then dividing her time between Coulommiers and a convent.
Merchant shops. Early in the novel, the prince first sees the princess—still Mademoiselle de Chartres—in an Italian jeweler’s shop. At the end of book 4, the duke rents a strategically situated room from a silk merchant for spying on the princess in Paris. In both scenes, valuable merchandise serves as a backdrop for intrusive male appreciation of female beauty.
Danahy, Michael. The Feminization of the Novel. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. A long chapter on The Princess of Clèves in this book focuses on gendered spatial archetypes and patterns of communication.
DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. The extensive chapter “Lafayette and the Generation of 1660-1689” places The Princess of Clèves in a broad historical context and situates it with regard to politics and to other French women writers of the period.
Haig, Stirling. Madame de La Fayette. New York: Twayne, 1970. Contains a very thoughtful overview of Madame de La Fayette’s career as a novelist. Haig describes very well her place in the development of the historical novel as a genre in seventeenth century France.
Henry, Patrick, ed. An Inimitable Example: The Case for “La Princesse de Clèves.” Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. Includes twelve excellent essays which illustrate feminist, sociocritical, psychological, and religious interpretations of this novel. Contains a thorough bibliography of critical studies on The Princess of Clèves.
Kamuf, Peggy. Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Analyzes a number of novels, including The Princess of Clèves, in which the author focuses on the role of Madame de Chartres in “constructing” her daughter.
Kaps, Helen Karen. Moral Perspective in “La Princesse de Clèves.” Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 1968. Contains a thoughtful analysis of the moral dimensions of the major and secondary characters in this novel. Kaps explains Madame de La Fayette’s subtle and effective use of many different narrative techniques in this novel.
Lyons, John D. “1678: The Emergence of the Novel.” In A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. A brief but useful article that situates the novel in its historical literary context.
Miller, Nancy K. Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. This book reprints Miller’s seminal article “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction.” Miller takes up the question of verisimilitude (“plausibility”) to offer a new interpretation of the Princess’ choice as an act of desire rather than renunciation.
Raitt, Janet. Madame de La Fayette and “La Princesse de Clèves.” London: Harrap, 1971. Contains a very clear introduction to this novel. Raitt describes very well the true originality of The Princess of Clèves.
Stanton, Domna C. “The Ideal of ‘Repos’ in Seventeenth-Century French Literature.” L’Esprit Createur 15 (Spring/Summer, 1975): 79-104. Stanton traces the origins and meaning of the term “repos,” one of the key values in the Princess’ moral code.
Tiefenbrun, Susan W. A Structural Analysis of “La Princesse de Clèves.” The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton, 1976. Contains an excellent study of the formal structure of this novel. Tiefenbrun clearly explains the complicated relationships among the princess, her husband, and the Duke de Nemours.