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French Forum 27.1 (2002) 45-58



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Lafayette's Confidence Game:
Plausibility and Private Confession in La Princesse de Clèves and Zaïde

Peter Shoemaker


In April 1678, soon after the publication of the comtesse de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, the Mercure Galant proposed the following question, now legendary in the annals of literary history, to its readers:

Je demande si une Femme de vertu, qui a toute l'estime possible pour un Mary parfaitement honneste Homme, et qui ne laisse pas d'estre combatuë pour un Amant d'une tres-forte passion qu'elle tâche d'étouffer par toute sorte de moyens; je demande, dis-je, si cette Femme voulant se retirer dans un lieu où elle ne soit point exposée à la veuë de cet Amant qu'elle sçait qu'il l'aime sans qu'il sçache qu'il soit aimé d'elle, et ne pouvant obliger son Mary de consentir à cette retraite sans luy découvrir ce qu'elle sent pour l'amant qu'elle cherche à fuir, fait mieux de faire confidence de sa passion à ce Mary, que de la taire au péril des combats qu'elle sera continuellement obligée de rendre par les indispensables occasions de voir cet Amant, dont elle n'a aucun autre moyen de s'éloigner que celuy de la confidence dont il s'agit. 1

In subsequent issues, correspondents throughout the provinces responded to the call, offering their own interpretations and judgments of Mme de Clèves's dramatic confession (aveu) to her husband that she was in love with another man, the Duc de Nemours. 2 This outpouring of interest can undoubtedly be attributed to a certain voyeuristic fascination: seldom had a novel gone so far in revealing the inner emotional life of a marriage. Beyond this sensationalistic appeal, however, the scene raised troubling questions about the interplay between marital intimacy and desire. Was it plausible that a woman might take her husband as a confidant so as to regain control over her most forbidden and uncontrollable desires? And what kind of man, conversely, would be willing to be his wife's confessor?

Although both the novel and many of its subsequent critics would have us believe (with some justification, as we shall see) that Mme de Clèves's confession is unique and unprecedented, 3 the aveu only [End Page 45] becomes fully comprehensible when it is inscribed within the broader problematics of confidentiality within the text. A comparison of La Princesse de Clèves with Lafayette's other major work, Zaïde, reveals that confidential ties are central to the narrative and ideological fabric of both novels: confidants are plot devices; they are a basic component of the social universe through which the novel's characters must navigate; and, perhaps most important, they are conduits of information to the reader. Lafayette, of course, is hardly the only (or the first) novelist of her period to exploit confidants in such ways; it will be argued, instead, that her originality lies in the ironic manner in which she plays these various functions off against each other.

Jean-Baptiste Henri du Trousset de Valincour, author of the Lettres à la Marquise [ . . .] sur le sujet de la Princesse de Clèves, was perhaps the novel's most sophisticated seventeenth-century critic. One of his central preoccupations was the question of what (and how) readers know about the fictional universe of a novel:

D'ailleurs, pour revenir à la Princesse de Clèves, il serait difficile à ceux qui voudraient la prendre comme une histoire, de deviner sur quels Mémoires l'historien a travaillé. En effet, les principaux faits n'ont été sus que de ceux qui y ont eu part, et il ne paraît point qu'ils les aient jamais racontés à personne, ni qu'ils aient pu jamais parvenir à la connaissance de l'auteur, que par le moyen d'une révélation particulière. 4

Valincour begins with the premise that the La Princesse de Clèves...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1836
Print ISSN
0098-9355
Pages
pp. 45-58
Launched on MUSE
2002-01-01
Open Access
No
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