La Princesse de Clèves  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel, regarded by many as one of the first European novels and a classic of its era. Its writer is most often held to be Madame de La Fayette.

Published anonymously in March 1678, and set in the royal court of Henry II of France a century earlier, it recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character except the heroine is a historic figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record.

Plot summary

Mademoiselle de Chartres is a sheltered heiress ("in her sixteenth year", i.e. aged 15) whose mother has brought her to the court of Henri II (which is simply a disguised version of the court of Louis XIV) to seek a husband with good prospects, financially and in society. Old jealousies against a kinsman spark intrigues against the young ingenue and the best marriage prospects withdraw. She accepts her mother's recommendation and the overtures of a middling suitor who admires her, the Prince de Clèves. However, after her marriage, she meets the dashing Duc de Nemours, and the two fall in love, yet do nothing to pursue their affections, limiting their contact to an occasional visit in the now-Princess of Clèves' salon.

The Duc becomes enmeshed in a scandal at court that leads the Princess to believe that he has been unfaithful in his affections. A letter from a spurned mistress to her paramour is discovered in the dressing room at one of the estates. The letter is actually to the Princess' uncle, the Vidame de Chartres, who has also become entangled in a relationship with the Queen. The Vidame begs the Duc de Nemours to claim ownership of the letter, which ends up in the Princess' possession. The Duc has to produce documents from the Vidame to convince the Princess that his heart has been true.

Eventually, M. de Clèves discerns that his wife is in love with another man. She confesses it to him, and he relentlessly quizzes her until he learns the man's identity, eventually resorting to trickery to get her to reveal it. After he sends a servant to spy on the Duc de Nemours, M. de Clèves believes that his wife has been unfaithful in more than just her emotions, and he becomes ill and eventually dies (either of his illness or of a broken heart). On his deathbed, he blames the Duc de Nemours for his illness and death, and begs the Princess not to marry him.

Now free to pursue her passions, the Princess is torn between her duty and her love. The Duc pursues her more openly, but she rejects him, choosing instead to enter a convent for part of each year. After several years, the Duc's love for her finally fades, while the Princess passes away in obscurity at a relatively young age.

Popular reception

The novel was an enormous commercial success at the time of its publication, and would-be readers outside of Paris had to wait months to receive copies. The novel also sparked several public debates, including one about its authorship, and another about the sensibility of the Princess' decision to confess her adulterous feelings to her husband.


One of the earliest psychological novels which is also the first roman d'analyse (novel of analysis), La Princesse de Clèves marked a major turning point in the history of the novel, which to that point had largely been used to tell romances, implausible stories of heroes overcoming odds to find a happy marriage, with myriad subplots and running ten to twelve volumes. La Princesse de Clèves turned that on its head with a highly realistic plot, introspective language that explored the characters' inner thoughts and emotions, and important but few subplots concerning the lives of other nobles.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "La Princesse de Clèves" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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