Essay question: 'The hero of the book is the Prince de Clèves'. Discuss this statement with close reference to the book



The hero of Classical French tragedy was a person, noble by birth and by character, who encountered tragic adversity because of a weakness in his nature. In Racinian tragedy this weakness is a fatal love. By this definition the Prince de Clèves ranks also as a Classical hero. In the novel "La Princesse de Clèves" we see the vicissitudes brought into the life of this noble man as the result of his unrequited love for his wife. The development of this relationship brings us the same drama and high pathos which we meet in the masterpieces of Classical tragedy.

Part One

1 He is noble by birth
page 4 Summary notes

We are told that the Prince de Clèves is the second son and worthy heir to his noble father the Duke de Nevers. The fact that he was not the eldest son and heir made him fear at first that the ambitious Mme de Chartres would not accept him. However, the book shows us that his rank was sufficient to give him an active role at court and he was later honoured by the King with the responsibility for accompanying his daughter, Elizabeth, to Spain after her wedding to Philip of Spain.

2 He is noble by character
1 The qualities of his characterand his wisdom are recognised by both Mme de Chartres and her daughter before he proposes marriage :
Page 22 (Book) - page 5 summary notes

'Il y avait tant de grandeur et de bonnes qualités dans M de Clèves et qu'il faisait paraître tant de sagesse pour son âge'

3 The steadfast lover

(i) He was struck by LOVE for her from the first moment he saw her at the Italian Jewellers. Shortly afterwards he respectfully reminded her of his devotion from the start:
  'il la supplia de se souvenir qu'il avait été le premier à l'admirer et que, sans la connaître, il avait eu pour elle tous les sentiments de respect et d'estime qui lui étaient dus'

(ii) By his steadfastness in the face of the court intrigues, before his proposal is accepted, he proves that he will face any opposition to marry the woman he loves.

The Duke de Nevers did not wish his son to marry into the House of Chartres, as he was a friend of Diane de Poitiers who was hostile to the head of this family - the Vidame de Chartres..
The Duc de Nevers supposed that he could persuade his son against the match, but, to his surprise and anger, the Prince was absolutely determined to marry Mlle de Chartres (page 17 book- page 4 summary notes)
The real obstacle to his love was the ambition of Mme de Chartres to marry her daughter to a prince of royal blood. However, the hostility of Diane de Poitiers - the greatest power in the land - thwarted these ambitions.

We see how resolute the Prince was in his love, for after the death of his father and as soon as the period of mourning was over:
'il ne songea qu'aux moyens d'épouser Mlle de Chartres'

The Prince de Cleves marries his bride at a time when no-one else at court dares think of her, because of opposition in high places

(iii) The devoted husband

During the illness of Mme de Chartres and during his wife's mourning, the Prince offered continuous support and comfort:
'M de Clèves y passait aussi presque tous les jours et, pour l'intérêt qu'il prenait à Mme de Chartres et pour empêcher sa femme de s'abandonner à la tristesse, mais pour avoir aussi le plaisir de la voir, sa passion n'était point diminuée'

The devoted husband decides that after the death of Mme de Chartres the best course would be to take his wife away to the country:
'Son mari ne la quittait point et, sitôt que Mme de Chartres fut expirée, il l'emmena à la campagne, pour l'éloigner d'un lieu qui ne faisait qu'aigrir sa douleur'

When Mme de Clèves' portrait goes missing the Prince is very upset for her, because he loves herl just as passionately as ever. In fact, M de Clèves loves his wife with something more than the devotion of a husband. On her deathbed, he confesses that, although his breeding had prevented him from showing this, he had loved his wife with the sensual passion which a gentleman feels properly only for his mistress.
His passion he says:
 'a été au délà de ce que vous en avez vu, madame; je vous en ai caché la plus grande partie, par la crainte de vous importuner ou de perdre quelque chose de votre estime, par des manières qui ne convenaient pas à un mari'

(iv) He shows a similar loyalty to hs friends:

He was a faithful confidant and adviser to his friend Sancerre in his perplexing love affair with Mme de Tournon and after her death, he stayed behind in Paris to comfort Sancerre.

(v) He is trusting and sincere

The Prince is sincere and trusting - his nature is seen from the conclusion which he draws from Sancerre's unhappy love affair.
                'la sincérité me touche d'une telle sorte, que je crois que si ma maîtresse, et même ma femme, m'avouait que quelqu'un lui plût, j'en serais affligé, sans en être aigri, je quitterais le personnage d'amant ou de mari, pour la conseiller ou pour la plaindre'

His trust in his wife is such that he feels no jealousy for any other man and allows her total freedom in the court and leaves her alone with Nemours. As a result, his wife's confession comes as a shattering blow to him.


Part two

The tragic situation of the Prince de Clèves passionately in love with a girl who cannot return his love

1 His unrequited love
Both before and after his marriage the Prince de Cloves was saddened by
the realisation that the feelings of the girl he loved did not go beyond esteem and gratitude. (page 23- book page 5 my summary) Practically every day he complained to her that her responses were those of a bride in a marriage of convenience:
         'Vous n'êtes pas plus touchée de ma passion que vous le seriez d'un attachement qui ne serait fondé que sur les avantages de votre fortune, et non pas sur les charmes de votre personne'
Thus like a Racinian hero eg Orestes and Pyrrhus he suffers the torment of unrequited love.

2 The crisis:

The CONFESSION (page 109- book. page 19 summary notes) : the realisation that the wife who does not love him loves someone else.

When Mme de Clèves confesses to him at Coulommiers, M de Clèves is put immediately into a state of great distress, sitting with his head in his hands. He tells his wife he is hurt that he cannot arouse her love and yet she loves someone else.
As in Racine, the great destructive power of jealousy begins to reveal
itself. M de Clèves immediately puts false constructions on past events. His wife had given the lost portrait to her lover. She had, shown her feelings to other people while hiding them from him. He needs to know how her lover has shown his love to her.

However his nobilty of character is still in control at this stage. He finally apologises for the injustice of his reaction to her confession. (Page 19 my summary notes)
 'Vous avez raison, madame, reprit-il, je suis injuste; refusez­moi toutes les fois que je vous demanderai de pareilles choses, mais ne vous offensez pourtant pas si je vous le demande'
He was still confident enough in his wife to grant her total liberty, knowing that her conscience would restrict her more than any rules he might impose.

3 The progress of jealousy -

i) A trick reveals Nemours' identity

Devoured by jealousy, M de Clèves sought to discover whom his wife loved. He believed it was either the Marechal de Saint-André, the Chevalier de Guise or Nemours. When he noticed that his wife was unconcerned about rumours that one of the first two gentlemen would accompany them to Spain, he devised a trick to confirm his suspicions about Nemours. On leaving the King's room he whispered to his wife that Nemours had been nominated for the escort to Spain.

Mme de Clèves’ immediate disapproval of this eventuality told him the truth about her feelings. After this incident, however, the noble husband again alerted himself. (Page 21 of my summary) He apologised for his unworthy trick - he said he feared Nemours most of all as a rival. He asked her to stay faithful to him while he loved her so much. Both husband and wife broke down in tears embracing each other in silence.

ii) A cruel trick of fate increases the husband's suspicions

By an incredible trick of circumstance, Nemours had overheard Mme de Clèves confession to her husband. Engrossed by his turbulent emotions, Nemours had told his unreliable friend the Vidame, claiming that the incident had occurred to a friend. The Vidame had inevitably told the story to his mistress and then to the court, implicating Nemours in this.
Both husband and wife knew that they had not divulged the secret and so both were obliged to blame the other, however incredible it might seem. They were now estranged as they had never been before:
Page 22 my summary  'ils furent longtemps sans parler, et ils ne sortirent de ce silence que pour redire les mêmes choses qu'ils avaient déjà dites plusieurs fois, et demeurent le cœur et l'esprit plus éloigné et plus altéré qu'ils ne l'avaient encore eu'

5 The Prince's growing distrust of his wife '(page 23 my summary)

One day, two ladies who had just visited Mme de Clèves, mentioned to M de Cleves on their return to court that Nemours had arrived at her house just as they left. Jealousy was rekindled in the Prince's heart, this time even more violently than before. He rushed home to find Nemours had left and that his wife had refused to see him. He reproaches her and she points out her irrationality in blaming her for not seeing Nemours. His wild words show the frantic man. In a pathetic outburst he tells her that reason is now beyond him:
Page 24- summary notes                

'Comment pouviez-vous espérer que je conservasse de la raison? Vous aviez donc oublie nue je vous aimais éperdument et que j'étais votre mari. l'un des deux peut porter aux extrémités: que ne peuvent point les deux ensemble'

As with a hero of Racine, love and hatred are closely allied in this state of despair.
                'Je vous adore, je vous hais, je vous offense, je vous demande pardon'
Yet again the noble character of the Prince asserts itself and he asks for forgiveness.

Separation brings a truce to the hostility between them. The sweet terms of their letters successfully restores peace. Yet at the same time the idea of Nemours recurs constantly to the Prince each time more strongly than before.

6 The CLIMAX of the relationship: The prince de Cleves becomes convinced of the worst

The secret visit of Nemours to Coulommiers confirms his worst suspicions

Overhearing a conversation at court M de Clèves rightly guessed that Nemours intended to visit his wife secretly at Coulommiers. He sent a servant to keep watch. The servant was only able to report that he had seen Nemours go into the grounds of the house on two nights, returning only in the morning.

The jealousy of the Prince de Clèves has by now reached such a point that this forms for him incontrovertible proof of his wife's infidelity (Page 26 Summary notes.)

                'peu d'hommes d'un aussi grand courage et d'un coeur aussi passionné que M de Clèves ont ressenti en meme temps la douleur, que cause l'infidélité d'une maîtresse et la honte d'être trompé par une femme'

7 The death of the hero

Shattered by this news, M de Clèves was struck down that very night by a very serious fever. The doctors despaired for his life. On his deathbed he tells his wife that the disappointment of his love has caused his death. (Page 26 Summary notes.)
 'Vous versez bien dés pleurs, madame, lui dit-il pour une mort que vous causez'
Although Mme de Clèves is able to reassures her husband of her virtue, it is now too late to avert his death.
FATE has decreed that LOVE will destroy another totally admirable, noble human being.


Of the two men involved in the triangle of love that this story relates, Nemours predominates in the story and it can be argued that he is equally the victim of the hazards of sexual attraction and is equally smitten by the charms of a young girl. He could also be called the hero of the story. If by "hero", however, we mean the more admirable man of the two, then the Prince de Cleves would merit this title.

In the context of French Classical literature, it may be less appropriate to judge the characters by their relative moral worth. All three characters are heros in the sense of French Clasical tragedy, as all three are victims of their fate- victims of the human condition, which has the irrational and potentially destructive force of human love as one of the main impulses of life.