We must beware of standard accounts. In tracing the development of the novel, or perhaps its fall, from idealized romances to particularized realism, literary historians have too often overlooked one of the most significant and enthralling novels of the seventeenth century. Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves was published in 1678, halfway between Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. Abstract terms like duty, gallantry, and esteem, which characterize its formal style, make the novel sound more like an episode from King Arthur’s court than like the investigation of everyday life it really undertakes.

We know that it was written by an enthusiastic Sunday novelist and salon hostess linked to the court of Louis XIV. Having borne two children, Madame de Lafayette settled in Paris in 1659. Her husband remained in distant Anjou. At age twenty-five she considered herself exempt from the inconveniences of love and gallantry. Yet she had an enduring fondness for the great composer of maxims, the duc de La Rochefoucauld. He probably helped her write the novel. It appeared anonymously with a note saying “he” (the author) would reveal himself if the book succeeded with the public. It made a great splash, both before and after publication, but the author clung to anonymity.

Behind its historical façade, La Princesse de Clèves explores an eternally contemporary subject: love fright, wariness of deep emotion and of its expression in sexuality. The heroine lives through the essential saga of forbidden knowledge in the domain of romantic love.

Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel has a lame explanation for why he fails to discuss this French novel. He acknowledges its “elegance and concision” and goes on to say: “French fiction from La Princesse de Clèves to Les Liaisons dangereuses stands outside the main tradition of the novel; we feel it is too stylish to be authentic.” It is precisely because her stylishness accomplished an authentic portrayal of the women and men of her milieu that we should be impatient with Watt’s summary dismissal.

One further reason why a history of the novel is incomplete without Madame de Lafayette’s masterpiece lies in its challenging action. Every detail and digression in La Princesse de Clèves helps explain how a woman’s aching indecisiveness about her life moves gradually toward the resoluteness she finally achieves. Carefully trained and educated before being presented at court at age sixteen, the Princesse de Clèves marries an excellent man who loves her very much and wins her esteem, not her love. Later she meets the Duc de Nemours, the most gifted and attractive nobleman in the King’s entourage. Though they barely exchange a word during the balls, jousts, and salon gatherings of life at court, these two paragons fall in love “by fate.” In a scene that has become famous, the Princess brings herself to confess her love to her husband without naming its object. One implausibility is matched by another: the Duc de Nemours himself is eavesdropping outside the window. Great tension builds up on both sides of the marriage. Nevertheless when the Prince de Clèves finds out from other sources that his rival is the Duc de Nemours, the discovery leads to another astonishing exchange, or rather to an unforgettable silence. The Prince de Clèves is speaking to his wife while they are alone in her room.

“Of all men Monsieur de Nemours is the one I was most afraid of, and I see your danger. You must control yourself for your own sake and, if possible, for love of me—I don’t ask it as a husband, merely as a man whose happiness depends on you and who loves you even more tenderly and passionately than you love that other man.”

As he spoke, Monsieur de Clèves broke down and could hardly finish what he was saying. His wife was penetrated to the heart, and bursting into tears she embraced him with such tender sorrow that his mood changed a little. They stayed like this a while and separated without having spoken again; indeed they had no more strength for words. 1

A confident author knows when to renounce the lifeblood of narrative: words. Here that authorial renunciation relates closely to the action unfolding around the stricken Princess.

False information implying his wife’s unfaithfulness causes Monsieur de Clèves to fall ill. Before he dies, she almost convinces him of her virtue. In due course the Duc de Nemours presses his suit again. Nothing now stands in the way of Madame de Clèves’ accepting the pleasures of reciprocated passionate love under favorable conditions and with everyone’s approval, even the King’s—nothing, that is, except her remorse over having contributed to her husband’s distress and death, and her sense of duty. Her “scruples” go very deep.


The Duc de Nemours arranges a surprise meeting with Madame de Clèves alone. Summoning all her courage, she acknowledges that she returns his love but that she cannot face the possibility of seeing his sentiments for her diminish with time. At the climax she hides nothing and refers loyally to her husband, who has died of love for her. She is pleading for something as rare in life as in fiction: integrity of feeling, a blend of passion and lucidity. It controls the smoldering words Madame de Clèves addresses to Monsieur de Nemours during this final interview.

“Monsieur de Clèves was perhaps the sole man in the world capable of sustaining his love in marriage. My fate did not see fit to let me enjoy that happiness. His passion may also have continued because he found none in me. But I would not have the same means of conserving yours: I even believe that all the obstacles you have met in me have produced your constancy up to now.”

Her controlled impetuousness hits every nail on the head. She holds firm against the Duc’s impassioned pleading for their marriage and maintains that by renunciation her feelings for him will not die. As in the story of Héloïse’s violently enforced separation from Abelard, this elected separation leads not to the displacement of feelings we call sublimation but to an intensification of response related to fanaticism and idolatry.

That night Madame de Clèves examines her situation. Some of the analytical language in this passage has been used earlier to describe how someone falls in love, especially the word étonnement, astonishment. It means a sudden and wrenching self-beholding. We are almost at the end of the novel.

Madame de Clèves was not in a state to sleep. It was such a new experience for her to have relinquished the constraint she had imposed on herself, to have for the first time in her life allowed someone to tell her he was in love with her, and to have said the same to him, that she did not recognize herself. She was astonished [étonnée] at what she had done. She repented; she was happy: all her feelings were full of murkiness and passion. Once again she examined the reasons of duty which opposed her happiness. She was pained to find them so strong and repented of having shown them so completely to Monsieur de Nemours.

It is not difficult to see why this has been called the first psychological novel, a category usually reserved for the following century. This kind of introspective analysis takes the place of the classic scene with a confidant and anticipates the probings of interior monologue. Madame de Clèves is amazed at herself, even irritated with herself, on two counts. She has told the truth to the very person from whom decorum requires she withhold it. Equally remarkable, she has acknowledged most of the truth to herself. Her feeling of “astonishment” represents the shock of self-consciousness. That state does not free her to follow her inclinations; it obliges her to recognize how complex her inclinations have become. In these concluding pages, she finds a higher selfishness (to remain a widow rather than to risk the pangs of jealousy in marrying Monsieur de Nemours) that coincides with a higher duty (to shun the man implicated in the death of her husband). To realize her love would, she fears, destroy it. She will preserve it by suspending it in the amber of her past. The novel ends undramatically with a long journey followed by a longer illness and partial retreat to a nunnery. In calm formal sentences we are informed that Madame de Clèves finds peace of mind before she dies.

Soon after publication in 1678 La Princesse de Clèves was engulfed in two vigorous controversies. One concerned its genre. The roman, or romance, dealt usually with high chivalric or pastoral adventures in an inflated style and often included implausible and supernatural episodes of shipwreck and families miraculously reunited. The nouvelle favored simpler, shorter narratives that developed less extravagant codes of conduct. This anonymous story presented the seemingly fantastic action and personages of a roman in the down-to-earth settings and style of a nouvelle. The controversy about the book’s vraisemblance (plausibility, believability, verisimilitude) covered much the same ground and focused on a few celebrated scenes, most of all on the scene of the avowal. Would or should a well- behaved wife ever confide to her husband that she had fallen in love with another man? Contemporary maxims could be quoted on both sides: a wife should never alarm her husband; a wife should tell her husband everything. To this day critics do not agree to what extent Madame de Lafayette’s episodes overtax our credulity and weaken the novel.


Behind its reliance on psychological and narrative conventions still far removed from realism, I find La Princesse de Clèves revealing and convincing as a kind of pedagogical novel. The resolute character of the Princesse de Clèves and the recognition of her virtues by two exceptional men throw into relief the importance of her education. Innocence must be prepared for the trials and corruptions of life at court through the telling of appropriate stories fortified by maxims and rules. Accordingly the book is full of narrative digressions, which are really cautionary tales about the depredations of love. How much should an aristocratic young girl be told? Does knowledge about the temptations of the world temper the passions or arouse them? Madame de Lafayette believes in full disclosure. Therefore, with all its stylization, the novel tells a great deal about life at the French court in the seventeenth century.

Madame de Clèves is not a saint. Her asceticism owes more to psychology than to religion. Human, not spiritual, motives impel her to renounce what she most passionately desires. She will not choose pleasure in the short run because, if she does so, she foresees suffering and despair in the long run. Her difficult yet resolute decision springs as much from an instinct for survival as from strong moral feelings. This residual, self-protective selfishness esteems the mysteries of love more than it rejects them.

We can appreciate the singularity of this attitude by comparing Madame de Lafayette’s novel to two celebrated epistolary novels of the eighteenth-century, Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761, a runaway best seller) and Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). In a hundred years France changed from a conformist society which supported an absolute monarchy enacting its daily rituals on the stage of Versailles to a decaying aristocracy opposed by a strong bourgeoisie and by an articulate band of free-thinking libertins and philosophes who criticized religious and political traditions in the name of reason and nature. One of the libertins, Rousseau wrote his novel about a passionate yet submissive woman torn, like the Princesse de Clèves, between attachments to two men.

In Book XI of his Confessions Rousseau brags about his enormously successful La Nouvelle Héloïse: “Without fear I place its Fourth Part alongside La Princesse de Clèves.” Rousseau’s two-volume saga explores social and emotional terrain that he considered an extension of Madame de Lafayette’s confined universe. Like Abelard and the original Héloïse, like Paolo and Francesca, Julie and her tutor, Saint-Preux, fall in love and briefly become lovers. Her father has promised her hand to a worthy friend, Wolmar. After her mother’s death, caused by her discovery of Julie’s lapse, Julie feels she must obey her father. Saint-Preux proposes secret, virtuous adultery. Julie undergoes a “revolution” and finds in honor the motive of virtue. “Yes, my good and worthy friend,” she writes to Saint-Preux, “in order to love each other forever we must renounce each other. Let us forget all the rest; be the lover of my soul. So tender an idea is a consolation for everything else.” Tens of thousands of eyes across Europe wept over the passage. The story is only half told.

Happy among her children, Julie confesses everything to her understanding husband, Wolmar. Saint-Preux comes to live—chastely—near their estate, where total frankness creates an open society, a model farm, “a house of glass,” and an apparently ideal ménage à trois. A few years later Julie’s last letter to Saint-Preux, written on her deathbed after a long illness, carries the situation one step further. She still loves him passionately; her temporary “cure” saved both her virtue and their love. “The virtue that kept us separate on Earth will unite us in the eternal life.”

Unlike the Princesse de Clèves, Julie finds a way to renounce her cake and to have it too. In her transparent household, duty and honor do not have to suppress all forms of exaltation in forbidden love. Healthy sublimation? Rousseau hopes so. Yet for all her gushing feelings Julie relies on a half-repressed hypocrisy to sustain in her marriage a fantasy adultery. The Princesse de Clèves firmly avoids such sentimental complications by retiring to a convent.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published on the lip of the Revolution, depicts a milieu not of sentimentality but of extreme cynicism. A trained soldier, later a general under Napoleon, Laclos wrote about the Machiavellian sexual connivings of two depraved aristocrats without a court who seek to take revenge on former lovers and to besmirch any innocence or virtue they encounter. These free-lance predators, Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, admit no duties or scruples to restrain their desires. Love is reduced to a series of competitive power plays described in their letters with chilling cruelty and vanity. As with Molière’s Dom Juan, all satisfaction arises from conquest—sexual, intellectual, moral. Every conquest leads to new levels of jealousy and envy, which undermine the very possibility of attachment. The contemptuous and sometimes bantering style of the letters makes it difficult to decide whether Laclos is condoning or condemning the exploits of his two dedicated libertins. The Marquis de Sade was reaching maturity in this society of systematic depravity.

La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Liaisons dangereuses describe the deflection of love in the eighteenth-century novel into extremes of sentimentality and cynicism. A century earlier both the passion and the calculation portrayed in La Princesse de Clèves have more intensity than those elements as represented in the later novels. Neither Rousseau nor Laclos could occupy the psychological space opened up by Madame de Lafayette in a much shorter work than either of theirs.

Madame de Lafayette’s portrayal of a woman’s fear of compromising her love by consummating it cannot be dismissed as a period piece, an old-fashioned story, an aberration. The Princesse de Clèves does not, as some students have suggested to me, lose her mind after her husband’s death. Nor do I find evidence that her marriage has remained unconsummated or that she is frigid. She feels rather the impulse to withdraw from intimate encounter with a person toward whom she is attracted by passionate love. The impulse to withdraw blends psychological and moral scruples into what I have referred to as higher selfishness and into a story of undeniable tragic force. That story does not deny love but internalizes it and cherishes it—while suffocating it, some would say.

On the downward path to wisdom the Princesse de Clèves resolves to reach wisdom without the stage of experience, relying on her imagination to close the gap. She seems to grasp the immensity of the challenge. As one might expect, there is not a huge number of literary works that explore this austere moral lucidity—or blindness. We are drawn more to the lives of sinners than of saints. Yet stories about renunciation of love have held a secure place across the centuries and provide the full setting for Madame de Lafayette’s novel.

In the sequence of speeches on love that make up Plato’s Banquet or Symposium, Socrates does not speak last. That position is reserved for Alcibiades’ half-drunken account of how Socrates rejected his amorous advances. Gently and firmly, Socrates had refused the proffered love of a strikingly handsome warrior, still youthful and already celebrated.

Socrates, beautiful in his own fashion and not unmoved, honors love by knowing when to decline its physical expression. The Symposium “opens up” Socrates like a nested doll to reveal a remarkable moral agent whom the “sacred frenzy” of philosophy leads not to debauchery but to abstemiousness.

Likewise, all George Eliot’s novels concern renunciation in some form. In the most melodramatic of them, The Mill on the Floss (1860), a young woman as beautiful and as ardent as the Princesse de Clèves turns down two men in favor of deeper ties represented by her upright brother. “I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery”—that is, out of hurt inflicted on friends and family. But in their immense lucidity both Maggie, the heroine, and Eliot, her creator, know that a major decision like renunciation will not solve everything. “The real problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it.” This profoundly paradoxical sentence deserves long consideration and leads us close to forbidden knowledge in its most intimate form. To call this complex notion moral agnosticism improves not a whit on Eliot’s carefully turned sentence or on the vital novel that contains it. The sentence, in context, also affirms that no moral abstraction or maxim will provide a “master key” to any such dilemma. One must know the full story in all its human circumstances—as Eliot here provides.2

Compared to the five hundred full-blooded pages of The Mill on the Floss, the Symbolist-decadent drama Axël (1890) reads like a cartoon. Yet the half-forgotten work has genuine significance for the subject of renunciation. Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931) takes its title and its theme from this play by Villiers de l’Isle Adam.3 Count Axël of Auersburg lives in austere isolation in a Gothic-Wagnerian castle in the Black Forest, a castle beneath which is concealed a vast treasure. When Sara, a mysterious young intruder of noble blood, discovers the treasure, Count Axël catches her in the act. They fight with pistols and dagger, survive with insignificant wounds, and of course fall passionately in love. They now have everything, including each other. The world lies before them. The last scene in the crypt of the castle carries the title “The Supreme Option.” In the crucial passages it is difficult not to hear a parodic echo of La Princesse de Clèves with the sexes reversed.

SARA: Axël! (He is pensive.) Axël, are you forgetting me already? The world is out there. Let’s go live!

AXEL: No. Our existence is already fulfilled. Our cup runneth over. All the realities, what will they be tomorrow compared to the mirages we have just lived?

His speech goes on a long time and remains deadly serious. Axël’s most famous line is in no way meant as a joke. “Live? Our servants can do that for us.” Sara and Axël poison themselves without consummating their passion, thus affirming the primacy of imagination over reality.4

Wilson chooses this stilted yet impressive drama to represent a major aspect of the Symbolist attitude: withdrawal from life into thought and language. Axël’s refusal to run the risk of living corresponds to a profound current in the Symbolist attitude toward language. Musicality, delicacy, deliberate obscurity, la chanson grise—all these elements of Symbolist poetry represent an extreme point in the history of Western literature. The essential poet of this amorphous movement, Stéphane Mallarmé, set down the most succinct statement of the Symbolist approach to language.

To name a thing is to destroy three-quarters of the poem’s enjoyment, which consists in getting at something little by little, in gradually divining it. The ideal is suggestion.

(L’Evolution littéraire)

This pronouncement deserves thought beyond the confines of Symbolist doctrine. Mallarmé’s two sentences imply that there are feelings and states of mind so delicate as to be best approached indirectly, by mere hints, by evocation in sound and sense. If I use a word so explicit, so obvious as, for example, embarrassment or anger, I reduce a complex psychological state to a stereotype, to a convention we think we share, to a caricature of itself. Paul Valéry drew the full conclusion, “To see a thing truly is to forget its name.” The most exciting enterprise of language is to avoid using language according to its conventional forms. Don’t make anything too clear. The imagination needs a milieu of mystery to work in. Flaubert was talking about the same kind of literary purity when he refused in outrage to allow Madame Bovary to be illustrated. That would be worse than naming names! For all her reliance on abstract psychological terms like esteem and duty, I believe that Madame de Lafayette displays in La Princesse de Clèves a sense of this withdrawal from naming when she uses the word étonnement to designate what happens to her heroine when subjected to shock or passion. Like the Symbolists, Madame de Lafayette had a strategy: at key points, don’t say it; suggest it. Her stylishness (if that is the right word) consists essentially in a rare subtlety of expression, an aesthetics of discretion.5

Someone told me as a child how to see a star at night: don’t look directly at it; look slightly to one side of it. It was years before I learned about the physiology of rods and cones on the retina. This indirect approach to the subtleties and complexities of the world lies at the heart of Symbolism as described by Mallarmé. And I believe that we can go at least one step further. Both in the tumultuous self-denials of La Princesse de Clèves and of Axël, and in the emotional and stylistic reticence of Symbolism, one can discern a state of mind in which asceticism or self-denial approaches close to aestheticism, the cultivation of art and beauty. For both asceticism and aestheticism entail an activity of the imagination that is the contrary of closing one’s mind.

Apart from the vast category of saints’ lives, literature has not tended to favor the motif of asceticism. Still, La Princesse de Clèves has more, and more important, neighbors than I have mentioned. The trail leads us from seventeenth-century France across the Atlantic to nineteenth-century Massachusetts. There, in Amherst, Emily Dickinson composed poems and letters that pursue themes of experience and renunciation into further regions. In her hands, those regions become both darker and brighter than life at the court of Louis XIV.

This is the first of two essays.

This Issue

June 6, 1996