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Transcending the rhetorical impasse: Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Cleves and the seventeenth-century querelle des femmes.

IMMEDIATELY after its publication Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Cleves ignited an impassioned debate. Certain critics claimed that the behavior of the heroine was "invraisemblable," or implausible. They expressed fervent disagreement with various ideas in the narrative, especially those relating to the moral choices of the Princess. Bussy-Rabutin claimed that a woman's passions would inevitably surpass her virtue and Valincour condemned the Princess's actions calling her a "coquettish prude." (1) The divergent perceptions of the Princess's behavior resulted in an outpouring of writings known as the "quarrel of La Princesse de Cleves." (2) Scholars have overlooked the fact that many notions expressed in this debate were very similar in nature to the most salient points of contention in the ongoing querelle des femmes. This essay will argue that Madame de Lafayette's text can be viewed in relation to the seventeenth-century querelle des femmes. (3) This connection has not been recognized in the scholarship for numerous factors such as the work's date of publication, the atypical genre, and especially the unique rhetorical approach of Madame de Lafayette. I will explore these diverse notions as well as analyze certain key issues of the debate in order to highlight Madame de Lafayette's novel response to the traditional polarized discourses of the querelle.

La Princesse de Cleves, which was first published in 1678, has thus far been disregarded in relation to the querelle des femmes perhaps in part because of its date of publication. Some scholars argue that the intense controversy over women had dwindled by the middle of the seventeenth century. (4) In contrast to this emphasis on the debate in the early portion of the century, however, others claim that the querelle was intermittently reinvigorated throughout the Grand Siecle. Isabelle Ducharme notes, "[...] la Querelle s'est poursuivie au XVIIe siecle et s'est sporadiquement reactivee [...]" (131). Certain literary productions in the latter half of the century suggest that the controversy over women did indeed continue. Madeleine de Scudery's Les Femmes illustres, which appeared in 1665, and Moliere's 1672 publication of Les Femmes savantes can be viewed in connection with the seventeenth-century querelle. Other texts that prolonged the debate were Poulain de la Barre's well-known treatises, De l'egalite des deux sexes and De l'education des dames, which were published in 1673 and 1674 respectively just before Madame de Lafayette started composing La Princesse de Cleves. (5) Furthermore, several of Boileau's writings, especially his tenth satire in 1694, also suggest a continuation of the hostilities toward women well into the latter portion of the century. These publications can serve as evidence that the central issues of the querelle des femmes remained contentious when Madame de Lafayette was writing her text.

The majority of works traditionally recognized in association with the querelle des femmes are in the form of didactic treatises, compilations, and rhetorical discourses. These texts are rather restricted in their representation of the myriad opinions of seventeenth-century French society. By their very nature they typically privilege only one voice-that of the text's composer--and this is often to the absolute exclusion of all other viewpoints. The limitation of voice results in a similar limitation of perspectives given that a sole voice speaks from a single position. Along with their univocal approaches, most of these querelle writers were indisputably intent on asserting "[...] the superiority of one sex or the other" (Maclean 35). In large part, their arguments represented highly polarized positions that propounded women's inferiority or, more rarely, her superiority to man. The one-sided arguments and the two extreme poles that characterized these works resulted in a sort of philosophical deadlock, a rhetorical impasse. In contrast, Madame de Lafayette breaks away from the monotony by addressing the main querelle topics through the polyphony of a compelling narrative.

In certain respects it is the more flexible nature of the novel that enables Madame de Lafayette to transcend the traditional rhetorical tendencies of the querelle. In La Princesse de Cleves she confronts the core issues of the debate not from the perspective of a sole, polarized viewpoint that excludes all differences of opinion, but rather through the creation of a network of contrasting voices. Mikhail Bakhtin states that, "[a]ll forms involving a narrator or a posited author signify to one degree or another by their presence the author's freedom from a unitary and singular language [...]" (314). Madame de Lafayette's inclusion of multiple voices in her text frees her from the highly polarized, univocal language of other querelle writings. Not surprisingly, it is primarily through these diverse voices that the salient themes of the querelle des femmes such as female virtue and women's place in society are addressed.

The notion of woman's capacity, or alternatively her incapacity, for virtue was consistently evoked in the querelle des femmes. Ian Maclean remarks, "[b]eliefs about woman's greater inconstancy, [...] more violent passions, smaller capacity for active virtue, in many ways derived from passages of Aristotle's De historia animalium, persist well into the seventeenth century" (11). Such opinions were evoked in Jacques Olivier's Alphabet de l'imperfection et malice des femmes, a misogynistic querelle text that was widely disseminated in the course of the seventeenth century. (6) Olivier refers to woman's character with regard to "[...] son instabilite, son inconstance, son infidelite, son ambition, sa haine, son avarice, & sa medisance" (58). He writes, "il n'y a point de vices dont elle ne soit capable de faire" (58). Evidently, Olivier's representation of woman's integrity was highly negative as well as strongly polarized woman was capable of every vice and lacking in every virtue. Given the extensive controversy over women's moral character in the querelle, Madame de Lafayette's depiction of female virtue can be viewed in relation to this debate.

Madame and Mademoiselle de Chartres are initially introduced with a paragraph that repeatedly emphasizes their virtue. Madame de Lafayette writes:

Il parut alors une beaute a la cour [...] Son pere etait mort jeune, et l'avait laissee sous la conduite de Mme de Chartres, sa femme, dont le bien, la vertu, et le merite etaient extraordinaires. Apres avoir perdu son mari, elle avait passe plusieurs annees sans revenir a la cour. Pendant cette absence, elle avait donne ses soins a l'education de sa fille; mais elle ne travailla pas seulement a cultiver son esprit et sa beaute, elle songea aussi a lui donner de la vertu [...] elle lui faisait voir [...] quelle tranquillite suivait la vie d'une honnete femme, et combien la vertu donnait d'eclat et d'elevation a une personne qui avait de la beaute et de la naissance; mais elle lui faisait voir aussi combien il etait difficile de conserver cette vertu. (40-1, my emphasis)

The fact that the word "vertu" is repeated four times in this single paragraph compels the reader to form a strong association between this moral trait and Mme et Mlle de Chartres. Aside from this specific instance, there are also repeated references to their virtue throughout the narrative that serve the same means.

When Mme de Chartres is facing death, it is noted that "elle recut ce que les medecins lui dirent du peril oU elle etait avec un courage digne de sa vertu et de sa piete" (67). Later in the text, Mme de Cleves explicitly refers to "la vertu [...] de sa mere" (86). The Princess herself is also described with respect to her moral probity on multiple occasions. M. de Cleves declares to his wife, "vous avez plus de force et plus de vertu que vous ne pensez" (127). In addition, in the final pages of the text there are recurrent references to the Princess's moral fortitude with allusions to "la vertu la plus austere" (162), "sa vertu" (168), and "une vertu austere" (174). The aforementioned references all serve to reinforce the emphasis on Mme de Chartres and Mme de Cleves's virtue that was initially presented in the text. More importantly, the text concludes with a final statement referring to "des exemples de vertu inimitables" left by the Princess (180). Thus, the narrative closes with emphasis on the exemplary nature of Mme de Cleves's moral character.

The fact that Madame de Lafayette depicts two virtuous female characters who are largely independent of male influence represents her intention to challenge the habitual misogynistic portrayals of women's lack of integrity in querelle literature. Given the recurring removal, or effacement, of male authority figures with the absent father of Mlle de Chartres, the subsequent death of M. de Cleves, as well as the heroine's ultimate rejection of the Duc de Nemours, there is no patriarchal figure present to consistently instill morality in the Princess. By constructing a narrative where women demonstrate virtue in the absence of men--who were supposedly necessary to safeguard female morality--Madame de Lafayette subverts the common claims of the detractors of women.

While the examples of Mme de Chartres and the Princesse de Cleves cast doubt on the generalizations about women's lack of virtue that were so common in the misogynistic writings of the querelle, an examination of the other female characters reveals vast differences in their moral principles. The first paragraph of the work highlights the Duchesse de Valentinois's blatantly adulterous relationship with the King. The reader is therefore confronted with Mme de Chartres's moral austerity as well as Diane de Poitiers's brazen immorality. The probity of Mme de Cleves is juxtaposed with Mme de Tournon's deceptive appearances of virtue. And while the depictions of women in the text are highly varied with regards to female virtue, this is also the case with the male characters.

The text's representation of varying degrees of male integrity suggests that moral weakness can be and frequently is found in either sex a view that contradicts centuries of misogynistic claims. Rather than portraying men as the indispensable moral guardians of women, Mme de Chartres instills in her daughter the idea that men are often deceitful as well as detrimental to women's moral well being. Madame de Lafayette writes, "[...] elle lui contait le peu de sincerite des hommes, leurs tromperies et leur infidelite [...]" (41). A similar message on male virtue is expressed in the depictions of male behavior in the text's intercalated episodes. The Reine Dauphine's tale of Henri VIII is a strong illustration of men's volatility and immorality in their relationships with women. She sums up his actions saying, "[i]l eut ensuite plusieurs femmes, qu'il repudia ou qu'il fit mourir" (91). In addition, the famous letter episode and the explanation that it evokes from the Vidame de Chartres reveals that he intentionally misled the Queen by lying about his amorous entanglements while he carried on affairs with three different women simultaneously. He admits, "[j]'etais amoureux de Mme de Themines [...] j'avais un commerce de galanterie avec une autre femme moins belle et moins severe que Mme de Themines [...] je pris le parti de ne rien avouer a la reine et de l'assurer [...] que j'avais abandonne le desir de me faire aimer des femmes [...]" (104). It is clear that the voices of the narrator, Mme de Chartres, the Reine Dauphine, and the Vidame de Chartres all confirm the notion that men were not the paragons of virtue that patriarchal tradition had made them out to be. However, these statements should not be interpreted as a means by which Madame de Lafayette argues for female moral superiority as the point has already been made that in her text neither gender is represented as perfectly moral or entirely immoral. As certain critics have noted, La Princesse de Cleves avoids a polarized representation of the two genders. Constant Venesoen remarks that, "[...] aucun personnage n'est absolument vertueux ni absolument meprisable" (120-1). In contrast to the querelle tradition, Madame de Lafayette demonstrates moderation as neither gender is represented as morally superior. Just as her depictions of morality diverge from the characteristic extremes of the querelle, Madame de Lafayette also expresses unique views on men and women's political influence.

In connection with the widespread scholarly controversy over female morality, the evolving nature of women's societal position was disputed at length in the exchanges of the querelle des femmes. Carolyn Lougee remarks, "[...] the seventeenth-century controversy centered on conflicting assessments of the negative or positive influence women exerted on the French social structure [...]" (5). The misogynistic writers sought to limit women's opportunities to the domestic realm by emphasizing the traditional disparaging arguments about women's destabilizing influence in other areas. For example, Paul Caillet discouraged the idea of women's involvement in politics in his 1635 Le Tableau du mariage writing:

Nous n'avons pas besoin de feuilleter l'antiquite pour vous produire des exemples insignes de femmes, qui par leurs mauvais deportements ont perdu non seulement leurs maris et leurs familles; mais aussi des Estats florissans et des Provinces entieres; la France nous servira de preuve a nostre grand regret, laquelle autrefois durant la regence des femmes, a eu le malheur de se voir a deux doigts pres de sa ruine, et presque ensevelie dans ses calamites. (qtd. in Maclean 59)

While the misogynistic querelle writers argued that women had no place in the political realm, Madame de Lafayette depicts a court atmosphere that challenges these traditional perceptions.

From the very first page of the narrative, the influence of women on the political domain is acknowledged in various ways. The first paragraph describes the King's relationship with his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The significant impact of the King's passion on his political decisions is stressed on several instances in the early pages of the text. Furthermore, the great authority and influence of Diane de Poitiers over the King, and therefore over the affairs of the State, continues to be emphasized not only in the initial portion of the narrative, but throughout the text as a whole. Madame de Lafayette writes, "quoiqu'elle n'eut plus de jeunesse ni de beaute, elle le gouvernait avec un empire si absolu que l'on peut dire qu'elle etait maitresse de sa personne et de l'Etat" (38, my emphasis). The lexicon that Madame de Lafayette utilizes to describe the King's mistress is revelatory on numerous levels. First, she highlights the fact that the characteristics that were customarily viewed as women's sole powers of influence--namely youth and beauty--were irrelevant in the case of Diane de Poitiers. Furthermore, she accentuates the political nature of the Duchess's powers over the King with the use of the politically-charged words "gouvernait," "empire," and "absolu." This statement also reveals the dynamics of the relationship between Diane de Poitiers and the King by stressing her personal and political domination of him. It unequivocally states that she not only controls him, but that she also dictates the affairs of the State. The message is clear--although the King is the official ruler, in reality it is his mistress who is in control. The political importance of the Duchess and her position at Court is stressed in the repeated references to her and, more importantly, to her domination of the monarch.

This same idea is evoked again when Madame de Chartres recounts to her daughter the history of the King's relationship to Diane de Poitiers. She states, "[s]on pouvoir parut plus absolu sur l'esprit du roi qu'il ne paraissait encore pendant qu'il etait dauphin. Depuis douze ans que ce prince regne, elle est maitresse absolue de toutes choses" (59). Much later in the narrative the Queen makes a similar assertion in a conversation with the Vidame de Chartres. She remarks, "[e]lle gouverne le roi [...]" (106). The fact that the narrator, Mme de Chartres, and the Queen all use similar vocabulary to evoke the Duchess's power over the King is significant. Bakhtin's theory sheds some light on the importance of this phenomenon in the text.

Bakhtin writes, "[t]he language used by characters in the novel, how they speak, is verbally and semantically autonomous; each character's speech possesses its own belief system, since each is the speech of another in another's language; thus it may also refract authorial intentions [...]" (315). It is noteworthy that Madame de Lafayette has the narrator, Mme de Chartres, and the Queen use highly parallel vocabulary with the repetition of their ideas on Diane de Poitiers's absolute power, governing the King, and being "maitresse" over all things. In light of Bakhtin's assertion that each character possesses an autonomous language that is representative of their belief system, the obvious linguistic similarities in these declarations merit attention. This repetition serves to reinforce the notion of Diane de Poitier's political power over the monarch and the use of different voices to express this suggests the idea of a general consensus visavis her extensive impact at court. Madame de Lafayette's representation of this phenomenon can be interpreted as an attempt to challenge the traditional views on women's political influence.

The portrait of society that emerges from her depiction of the reign of Henri II challenges the idea of an omnipotent patriarchy where women were politically powerless. More importantly, it suggests that women clearly wielded more social and political influence than what was typically acknowledged by their male contemporaries. Faith Beasley remarks:

[i]n La Princesse de Cleves, the particular intrigues of the court become the privileged realm of political activity. This reformulation of history creates a sphere of power not normally seen in official sixteenth- and seventeenth-century historical narrative--a sphere that, more importantly, is dominated by women. (208)

Through Madame de Lafayette's representation of court she sought to respond to the querelle by highlighting the rather extensive, albeit neglected, impact of women on the political realm. Although the text emphasizes women's typically unacknowledged influence on the highest echelons of the French political domain, it does not ignore the impact of male figures at court nor does it argue for female political superiority.

Even though the emphasis on the Duchess's power over the King symbolizes an effort on the part of the author to highlight the importance of female influence on politics, one cannot form the conclusion that in this text women dominate while men are in fact politically powerless. In fact, Madame de Lafayette's portrayal of court presents a more balanced view of the political influence of men and women. This becomes clear in the description of the transition from the reign of Henri II to Catherine de Medicis's regency. When the Queen becomes regent in the latter portion of the text, Madame de Lafayette writes, "[l]e cardinal de Lorraine s'etait rendu maitre absolu de l'esprit de la reine mere [...]" (147). The words "maitre absolu" recall the exact vocabulary used in relation to the Duchesse de Valentinois's rapport with the King. Thus, while the King was in power, a woman held the greatest influence over his reign. Similarly, when the Queen rises to her position as regent, it is a man that exercises the greatest impact over her decision-making. Madame de Lafayette has constructed her text in such a way to demonstrate that men and women work interdependently in the political domain.

The idea that men and women are mutually reliant on each other is also manifest at other levels of court society. Madame de Lafayette stresses the idea that both genders are equally involved in the inner workings of the court when she emphasizes that, "[l]'ambition et la galanterie etaient l'ame de cette cour, et occupaient egalement les hommes et les femmes. Il y avait tant d'interets et tant de cabales differentes et les dames y avaient tant de part que l'amour etait toujours mele aux affaires et les affaires a l'amour" (44-5, my emphasis). Through her text Madame de Lafayette therefore challenges the values of the patriarchal society and the opinions of the querelle misogynists who propagated and supported the disparities in men and women's socio-political roles. This more balanced view of the influence of both genders on the political world of the court in La Princesse de Cleves is a rather novel response to the traditional arguments on either side of the querelle.

In conclusion, it is clear that despite the untraditional genre and atypical rhetorical nature of La Princesse de Cleves as compared to other querelle works, Madame de Lafayette's text does indeed address themes central to the debate. And while she does respond to the competing discourses of the querelle, the distinctive nature of her reply enables her to transcend the stale rhetoric of the debate. To view this work through the lens of the querelle has numerous implications for the understanding of the narrative. When La Princesse de Cleves is explored in relation to the controversy over women certain social, political, and rhetorical aspects of the text that have been neglected thus far emerge. Furthermore, the implications of Madame de Lafayette's connection to the querelle extend beyond the exegesis of her novel. By recognizing her contribution to the debate, it becomes necessary to re-think the traditional understanding of the seventeenth-century querelle des femmes. The fact that scholars have overwhelmingly viewed the querelle as composed of certain fixed literary genres, characterized by polarized language, and largely dominated by male voices has resulted in women's contributions being largely neglected. Given that Madame de Lafayette's response to the debate has hitherto been unacknowledged, it is likely that more women and more texts were involved in the controversy than what is presently recognized in scholarship. If, as Margarete Zimmermann claims, the querelle des femmes is "[...] a historical phenomenon of global importance which, in its numerous offshoots, reaches deep into the heart of the history of our disciplines," then it is necessary to discover the other voices and works that have been neglected thus far (26). Scholars must seek these out in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of these texts as well as a more accurate perception of the dynamics of this important debate.



Albistur, Maite and Daniel Armogathe. Histoire du feminisme francais du moyen age a nos jours. Paris: Editions des femmes, 1977.

Angenot, Marc. Les Champions des Femmes: Examen du discours sur la superiorite des femmes, 1400-1800. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Universite de Quebec, 1977.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. and trans. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1981.

Beasley, Faith. Revising Memory: Women's Fictions and Memoirs in Seventeenth-Century France. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Ducharme, Isabelle. "Une formule discursive au feminin: Marguerite Buffet et la Querelle des femmes." Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 30:58 (2003): 131-55.

Jensen, Katharine Ann. "Making Sense of the Ending: Passion, Virtue, and Female Subjectivity." Approaches to Teaching Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves. Ed. Faith E. Beasley and Katharine Ann Jensen. New York: MLA, 1998. 68-75.

Lafayette, Madame de. La Princesse de Cleves. Paris: Flammarion, 1966.

Lougee, Carolyn C. Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons, and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976.

MacLean, Gerald M. Introduction. The Woman as Good as the Man or The Equality of Both Sexes. By Francois Poulain de la Barre. Trans. A.L. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1988. 11-52.

Maclean, Ian. Woman Triumphant. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Merlin, Helene. Public et Litterature en France au XVIIe Siecle. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1994.

Olivier, Jacques. Alphabet de l'imperfection et malice des femmes. Rouen: J. Oursel, 1683.

Venesoen, Constant. Etudes sur la litterature feminine au XVIIe siecle. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1990.

Zimmermann, Margarete. "The Querelle des Femmes as a Cultural Studies Paradigm." Time, Space, and Women's Lives in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Anne Jacobson Schutte, Thomas Kuehn, and Silvana Seidel Menchi. Kirksville, MO: Truman State UP, 2001. 17-28.

(1) Katharine Ann Jensen states, "Bussy-Rabutin found it hard to believe that a woman would remain faithful to her husband during his lifetime when she was passionately in love with another man, for in his view her passion would naturally overpower her virtue" (69).

(2) Faith Beasley speaks of the critics' responses to the work as "a virulent literary battle" (190). Helene Merlin refers to this controversy as "la querelle de La princesse de Cleves" (307-8).

(3) "Querelle des femmes" is the widely accepted terminology to refer to the sixteenthand seventeenth-century literary debate disputing the character of woman and the nature of love and marriage. The earliest known reference to the debate was Martin Le Franc's allusion to the "querelle des dames" in his 1440 text Le Champion des dames (Zimmermann, 21).

(4) Ian Maclean asserts that, "[...] there were literary debates about women in the first half of the seventeenth century in France" (27). Maite Albistur and Daniel Armogathe refer to "[...] la permanence de la querelle des femmes dans la premiere moitie du XVIIe siecle" (122).

(5) In Gerald M. MacLean's introduction to Poulain's treatise, he remarks that this work "[...] pursues topics characteristic of the querelle" (25). Marc Angenot also asserts that Poulain's text was instrumental in renewing the seventeenth-century querelle (55).

(6) Ian Maclean confirms that this text was published eighteen times in the course of the seventeenth century (31).
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Author:Rezvani, Leanna Bridge
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Date:Jan 1, 2006
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