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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

(The entire section is 690 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 485 words.)