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HARRIET RAY ALLENTUCH The Will to Refuse in the Princesse de Cleves The Princesse de Cleves is the first of French novels to move relentlessly towards its conclusion. Thus it stands out from most of the love stories of the same and preceding periods - episodic, sentimental, and heroic romances whose plots twist around obstacles separating faithful lovers and postponing, though not indefinitely, their happy union. Camus emphasizes this distinguishing feature of the Princesse de Cleves in an article entitled 'L'Intelligence et l'echafaud.' Novelists of the family of Mme de Lafayette, he writes, refuse to run irrelevant errands. 'Leur seul souci semble etre de mener imperturbablement leurs personnages au rendez-vous qui les attend ... Ce qu'ils ont en propre, c'est I'unite de !'intention." Again for this reason, in addition to her many affinities with both Racine and Corneille, critics have long believed in the influence of the contemporary classical theatre upon Mme de Lafayette. Her novel enjoys, for its date (1678), unusual structural simplicity. Not only does the denouement determine the action, but the number of digressive episodes, vestiges of a leisurely tradition, fond of collateral stories wound around the plot, never diminishes the reader's sense of an onward rush toward climax.2 The crucial rendez-vous that awaits the Princesse de Cleves at the end of the narrative is with her lover Nemours. In the final chapter, once attention shifts from the digressive episodes, the secondary characters, and the magnificent court ceremonies, and settles on the activities and inner feelings of the lovers, the novel seems to move at an accelerated pace. Then at last they meet, free for the first time, of all obstacles to their union. Given the momentum, the scene affects the reader like an application ofthe brakes. For the Princesse refuses to marry the man to whom she is irresistibly drawn and who has demonstrated his passion by an emotionally arduous pursuit in the face of her diffidence and remoteness. While her refusal is seldom termed 'invraisemblable: for the novelist carefully prepares it and grounds her heroine's behaviour in moral principles, long in evidence, the Princesse unsettles the reader as well as Nemours. Such a denouement, withholding rewards for suffering, contradicts expectations raised by a tradition in the literature of love to which this novel, despite its departures in form, clearly belongs. Critics have provided varied glosses upon the novel's ending in the UTQ, Volume XLIV, Number 3, Spring 1975 186 HARRIET RAY ALLHNTUCH three ~enturies since its publication. In the first full-length critique of the work, Valincour's Lettres II Madame la Marquise sur Ie sujet de la Princesse de Cleves (published in 1678), two opposite opinions, both of which stand at the head of a tradition, find expression. Valincour imagines a dialogue about the denouement between himself and an admirable woman 'que tant de qualites extraordinaires elevent au-dessus de son sexe.'3 For his part, he insists on the courage and virtue of the Princesse, whose refusal of Nemours constitutes a heroic sacrifice to the memory of her recently deceased husband whom she never loved. Valincour's admirable feminine interlocutor, on the contrary, less charitable to women, deems the Princesse's motives based on fear and teasingly expressed: 'Et qU'est-ce que l'interet de son repos? Cest la crainte de n'etre plus aimee de Monsieur de Nemours apres qU'elle l'aurait epouse. Cela lui parait un si horrible malheur, qU'elle emploie sept ou huit pages aIe depeindre avec des termes de la plus raffinee coquetterie' (p 224). The same clash of opinions reappears today. One group of scholars, with representatives still coming forward {to mention a few - Lanson, Raynal, Dedeyan, and Kaps),4 see in the Princesse a heroine whose aspirations transcend those of normal humanity. She appears, in their judgment, as an avatar ofthe Cornelian protagonists who place honour above life. Another group, most of whose number are contemporary, challenge an idealizing tradition they associate with psychological naivete, and portray the Princesse as frigid, incapable of love, egocentric, or self-deceiving {for example: Vigee, Fraisse, Doubrovsky, and Tumell).5 The two interpretations of the Princesse's refusal dictate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 185-198
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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