“But now what am I, when I suppose that there is somesupremely powerful and, if I may be permitted to say so,malicious deceiver who deliberately tries to fool me in anyway he can?”(Decartes, 19). These words by Descartes seemto correlate directly with the theme of deception in thePrincesse De Cleves.
In a world where appearance is merelya fiction created by necessity and nothing is as it firstseems, the ability to reason through a situation for publicgain is highly coveted and revered. In this courtly sphereof life, the ability to distinguish between that which isreal and that which if deceitful is of utmost importance. This distinction is rationalism in a different form thanthat of Decartes’. The Princesse De Cleves advances theCartesian form of Rationalism and applies it to everydayactions, leaving room for some emotions without allowingthem to control one’s actions. A central theme in the Princesse De Cleves is howactions are viewed in the public eye. As Monsieur deNemours states, “’At least, Sire, if I embark on such anextravagant adventure on your Majesty’s advice and in youservice, I beg you to keep it secret until success justifiesmy ambition in the public eye.’”(9) Nemours is worriedabout what the public will think rather than what the womanthe King wants him to marry is like.
Nemours does notconcern himself with what he feels or what the woman feels,rather, he rationally contemplates the consequences of thisaction in relation to how the aristocracy will perceive him.This rational reaction is the same approach thatDescartes would have. Although Descartes may not agree withthe intent for which this rational thought is directed, hewould agree with the logic of Nemours’ actions because theyare not taken because of emotion or rash reaction to thesenses. Conversely, Nemours becomes one of the leastrational characters in the story. By the end, he allows hisemotions to completely overtake him as he professes his loveDescartes writes that the only things that exist arewhat we make through our senses, but that our sensesconstantly deceive us. Descartes’ rationality is onlyrelated to the thinking self because that is all that hetruly thinks exists. Descartes breaks down everything tothe mind at the very beginning of his Meditations.
Themind, however, cannot be the focus of the Princesse DeCleves because the characaters are the central theme. Though the actions of every character in the Princesse DeCleves are completely self-centered, they are seen byeveryone else in the story. Cleves is viewed as the mostvirtuous and honorable character in the novel because she isthe only one that uses rational thought the entire time. Mme of Cleves thinks through things before she acts, and forthis she receives the greatest reward: honor. When Mme ofCleves is distressed over the way she reacts towards herhusband, she uses thought to relieve her troubled mind. “She asked herself why she had done something so perilous,and she concluded that she had embarked on it almost withoutthinking. The singular nature of such a confession, forwhich she could find no parallel, brought home to her allthe risks it entailed.
”(98) The action of asking herselfthis question shows her as a rational being and is a creditEmphasizing thought over emotions does not, however, seemto give the Princesse any pleasure. The simple fact thatMme of Cleves ends up in a convent in the end is anillustration of this point. Mme of Cleves may be left withher honor, but she is still left alone. The author does nottry to give the reader the impression that this ending isunhappy though. She states in the last line of the novel,“Her life, which was quite short, left inimitable examplesof virtue.” (156).
The thought that Mme of Cleves controlsher emotions through rationality is upheld as virtue by theauthor. This “virtue” is perceived as being much betterthan the rest of the court. Though the outcome may not havemade the Princesse “happy”, the impression that she left onthe aristocracy was far better according to Madame deWhat separates the rational thought of Descartes withthe rational thought expressed in the Princesse De Cleves isthe role played by action. Descartes writes, “I am nowconcentrating only on knowledge, not on action.” (16). Descartes rationalizes thought, but does not apply it toaction.
Mme of Cleves applies Descartes ideas to hereveryday actions. She acts upon her thoughts, by moving tothe convent, in order to uphold the perceptions thatIn the Princesse De Cleves, emotions are considered asign of weakness. They are character flaws that Mme ofCleves does not have. In the closing pages of the novel,Nemours tries to convince the Princesse that she can nowlove him because her husband is dead. Yet, she resists heremotions because she thinks that they are not rational, andeven forces herself into a cloistered life to quash any hopethat Nemours may have.
Her choice is perceived as the rightIn the end, he was obliged to depart, overwhelmed bygrief as only a man could be who had now lost all possible hope of ever seeing again a woman who he loved with the most violent, the most natural, and the most well-founded passion in the world. And yet he still would not give up: he did everything he could think of to make her change her mind. Finally, after years had gone by, time and absence diminished his pain and Nemours was only longing for Mme of Cleves because she wasunattainable.
His “passion” would have abated after hereceived the object of his longing. Mme of Cleves knowsthis and does not follow her emotions and what her sensestell her. Rationalization helps her to uphold her honor andvirtue even when temptation is at its greatest. The notionof rationalization leads us to believe that Mme of Cleves isThe Princesse De Cleves places the highest value onhonor in a situation where many did not seem to possess it. Everyone eventually gives into their emotions except for thePrincesse herself. She doesn’t allow her emotions tocontrol her actions even when the chance to be with her truelove presents itself.
Her honor stems from her ability torationalize a situation and act without emotional conflict. This idea of rationalization before action takes Descartesphilosophy and applies it to the real world.Yet, there is something to be said about emotion in thePrincesse De Cleves. Lafayette views emotion as a humanweakness that can and should be overcome. As is seen in Mmeof Cleves, her emotions exist, they just do not affect her. She refuses to allow them to do so. Her love for herhusband, even though she truly loves Nemours, is proof ofthis.
Madame de Lafayette takes Descartes rationalphilosophy one step further and applies it to the socialsphere. Madame de Lafayette makes rationality more humanthan Descartes could in his Meditations. Descartes would have liked the direction that Madame deLafayette took his idea of “R”ationality and converted itinto more feasable “r”ational action.
His idea of thinkingthings through before action is evidenced by Madame deCleves honor. Even though this rationality is only used forsocial standing, it cannot be denied. It led to a lonely,tortured, life for Mme de Cleves, but it served its purposefor her.
Her honor is seen in as a model to be followed,and this honor emmanates from conscious, rational thought. It could not have been obtained through rash emotion-filleddecisions. This is the direction in which Descartes wouldhave wanted his ideas to flow: Action only after thought…Rational thought controlling irrational emotions.Bibliography:Descartes, Rene. “Meditatations on First Philosophy”.
Translated by Cress, Donald A. 3rd Ed. Hackett: Indianapolis.
1993.Madame de Lafayette. “The Princesse de Cleves”. Translated by Cave, Terence.
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999.