Male Narcissism vs. Female Desire in M-me Fayette’s Princesse de Clèves

51LssXi4QpLOn the 18th of March 1634, French writer Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette, was born (or according to some records) baptized in Paris. She was the author of La Princesse de Clèves, France’s first documented historical novel. Published anonymously in March 1678, the story is considered rather modern for its penchant for psychological analysis – a roman d’analyse (novel of analysis), cleverly dissecting the characters’ emotions and attitudes. This style of writing was to become a constant in French fiction until the era of Romanticism, when writers fully immersed themselves in the experience of feelings rather than their analysis.

The action of the novel takes place in mid-16th century at the royal court of Henry II of France, recreating the era with remarkable precision; each character is a real historical figure except for the heroine, Mademoiselle de Chartres, later Princesse de Clèves. There is a documentary feel to the way in which events and intrigues are recorded.  It’s the reign of Henri II and Mary Queen of Scots is safely ensconced in France. It’s a time of dangerous liaisons when one wrong step could ruin the reputation of a woman and her family. In a social milieu where adulterous romances were normally the sole existing romances, wedded bliss remained a distant ideal. Married off young, the naïve Princess finds herself admired, taunted, and gossiped about, while she falls helplessly in love with the Duke de Nemours. Intrigue keeps them apart and the two can hardly do anything to pursue their romance, yet somehow a confessional love letter is discovered by the princess’ husband and she is forced to confess her feelings for the Duke. Her husband subsequently dies of a broken heart and blames the Duke on his deathbed for his suffering, begging his wife not to marry him. Once he passes away, the princess is free to pursue her dream, yet, what is perceived by most commentators as an internal conflict between duty and passion, something stops her from doing so. She chooses to intermittently retire to a convent, while their feelings dwindle and eventually disappear.

Lafayette’s classic portrayal of a woman in the throes of adulterous passion has remained controversial since its publication in 1678, the scenes in which the princess deals with her attraction for the Due de Nemours, in particular: “She went to Coulommiers, taking with her two big pictures which had been copied for her from originals painted for Madame de Valentinois’s beautiful house at Anet and which represented all the outstanding events of the King’s reign. Among others there was the siege of Metz, with portraits of all those who had distinguished themselves there; M. de Nemours was one of these and perhaps that may have been the reason why Madame de Clèves was so anxious to own these paintings (…) 41NXq93HvbL._She took a candlestick and went up to a big table which stood before the (…) portrait of M. de Nemours. She sat down and gazed at this portrait with a far-away look that only love can give.” (The Princesse of Clèves). Meanwhile, “the duke has sneaked onto the secluded property to spy on the princess. As he, unbeknownst to her, watches her from his hiding place in the garden, he experiences something verging on that supreme form of sexual pleasure known in French and now also in English as jouissance.” (Naomi Schor, ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman: Representing Men in (French) Women’s Writing’, in Bloch & Ferguson’s Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy, University of California Press, 1992).

“How to express the feelings of M. de Nemours at this moment? What lover can ever have seen, at night, in the most perfect spot imaginable, the person he adored, have seen her without her knowing it and have seen that she was only occupied with things which had to do with himself and the love she kept hidden from him? Such things had never been enjoyed or imagined by any other lover. The Prince was beside himself, so much so that he forgot the precious minutes were ticking away as he stood there looking at Madame de Clèves.” (The Princesse of Clèves). This voyeuristic moment in which the Duke admires the Princess is spurred by narcissistic motives as he can see her looking longingly at him and playing with objects that had belonged to him:. “She lay on a day-bed and on a table beside her there were several baskets full of ribbons. She was picking over these ribbons and choosing out certain ones, and M. de Nemours saw that these were the very colours he had carried at the tournament, and then he saw that she was making knots and bows to go on the unusual malacca cane which, having used it for some time, he had given to his sister. Madame de Clèves had taken it from her without seeming to recognize it as having once been his. She worked away with a grace and a look of pure goodness which reflected the state of her soul.” (The Princesse of Clèves).

Naomi Schor proposed that,The duke’s blissful vision of the princess’s occupation with “things that had to do with himself” both confirms and exploits the metonymic and metaphoric links between the portrait and the cane. The double scene that the duke beholds stages the generally hidden, should I say veiled relationship between the phallus and representation in a society ruled by men.Capturem In other words, what the diegetic contiguity of these two objects lays bare is the phallicity of the representation and the iconicity of the phallus.” (N. Schor, ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman: Representing Men in (French) Women’s Writing’). Interestingly, Schor points out that the final refusal of the Princess of Cleves to accept the Duke of Nemours as lover or husband, once she is widowed, is in fact her female instinct refusing to give in to the unwritten rules of a society ruled by male narcissism. So, her incomprehensible decision to join a convent rather than be with Nemours has a more complex explanation than just her taking the moral high ground and respecting her late husband’s wish. We find out that Nemours had in actual fact been unable to keep his indiscreet moment of illicit admiration of the princess to himself. He had shared it with his friend and travelling companion, the Vidame de Chartres. This indiscretion may have tipped the scales to his disadvantage as the Princesse found out about it; she possibly decided to put an end to his ego trip by keeping herself for herself and retiring from a world in which men were much too used to get what they wanted.