29 pages 58 minutes read

Madame de La Fayette

The Princesse de Clèves (The Princess of Cleves)

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1678

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Summary and Study Guide


Madame de Lafayette published The Princesse de Clèves anonymously in 1678. She was acquainted with the manners of Louis XIV’s court, and she drew upon her court experiences when writing the book, adding to the book’s historical fidelity. It was a great success upon its publication. As Robin Buss (whose Penguin Classics translation provides the source for this summary) writes in her Chronology of Mme de Lafayette’s life, The Princess de Clèves started fierce speculation about its authorship, as well as “a heated debate over the question of whether Mme de Clèves was right to confess her feelings for the Duc de Nemours” (185). Some contemporary commentators, including Buss, attribute to Lafayette the invention of the “analytical” novel, or novel of psychological realism, favored by later French authors. Storytelling in 1678 was defined by Arthurian romance and other tales of improbable chivalry; by contrast, The Princesse de Clèves delved into its characters’ inner lives and motivations, concluding that happiness and pain were crucially interlinked.

The story, narrated in omniscient third person, is set more than 100 years before the novel’s publication date, during the last year of the reign of King Henri II. Mademoiselle de Chartres is a 16-year-old ingénue brought to court by her mother, Madame de Chartres, who is searching for a match for her daughter. Mlle de Chartres’s beauty and manners are unparalleled, and soon she becomes the talk of the court. When Mme de Chartres’s plan to wed her daughter to a high-ranking nobleman falls through, the Prince of Clèves is chosen as a suitable match. Though Mlle de Chartres is indifferent to the Prince, she agrees to the marriage.

Soon after, Monsieur de Nemours, considered the most eligible bachelor at court, returns from his ongoing courtship of the English Queen. He and Mlle de Chartres have an instant attraction to one another, yet her wedding to M. de Clèves goes as planned. The marriage is troubled from the start, and M. de Clèves can’t help but notice his new bride’s indifference to him. Mme de Chartres dies soon after, warning her daughter against the evils of infidelity.

Court gossip, a constant element of the book, concludes that M. de Nemours’s attempt at the English Queen’s hand is failing, and that his heart belongs to someone else. The newly married Mme de Clèves does everything she can to avoid M. de Nemours but finds her attempt at seclusion at odds with her social obligations. M. de Nemours takes every opportunity to get close to her, and at one point he is bold enough to steal a small portrait of the Mme de Clèves right in front of her. Later, an anonymous letter falls out of a minor character’s pocket, declaring heartbreak and jealousy. Mme de Clèves briefly ascribes this letter’s provenance to M. de Nemours, and though this confusion is eventually clarified, so too is the troubling but unconsummated affair between Mme de Clèves and M. de Nemours. They are in love but cannot admit it to themselves or to one another.

Increasingly, Mme de Clèves requests trips to the country to remove herself from court and suffers from anxiety. The obsessed M. de Nemours follows her to the country and spies on her. There, he overhears her in conversation with her husband; in her guilt, she admits her feelings for another member of the court but stops short of naming who. Both men become obsessed with the affair. M. de Clèves, for his part, quickly concludes that M. de Nemours is the object of his wife’s affection, though he finds nothing concrete to prove it.

During festivities honoring the King’s daughter’s marriage to Philip II, the King is injured in a joust and dies. This turmoil uproots the court, which begins traveling en masse to soothe diplomatic relations. The Princess de Clèves stays behind, the better to remove herself from M. de Nemours and temptation. The obsessed M. de Nemours slips away from the traveling court and, shadowed by one of M. de Clèves’s attendants, he spies on Mme de Clèves and arranges for meetings at her home, all with the aim of consummating their affair. She rebuffs him at every turn. Nevertheless, M. de Clèves assumes the worst of these meetings and falls into a mortal swoon. Mme de Clèves rushes to her husband’s side, where M. de Clèves reproaches her for telling him the truth about her affections. Unconvinced by her claims of fidelity, he dies.

After a period of mourning, M. de Nemours and the widowed Mme de Clèves finally meet and talk openly about their feelings. M. de Nemours, like M. de Clèves before him, expresses doubts as to the wisdom of wives speaking openly about their feelings to their husbands. For her part, Mme de Clèves seems doubtful that an exceedingly handsome man such as M. de Nemours could ever truly be considered trustworthy. Though technically the path is open for M. de Nemours and Mme de Clèves to wed, instead the Princess spends the remainder of her short life in seclusion, committing herself to the care of a convent for a part of every year.

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