Imitation and Desire: René Girard’s Mimetic Desire in Madame De Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves

In “Triangular Desire,” René Girard uses his theory of mimetic desire to describe the nature of the self through the desires of individuals and the motives through which these desires manifest themselves. Girard asserts that desires are rooted not in genuine interest, but instead result from the imitation of others. His theory, however, does not operate solely within a theoretical framework, but applies to relationships throughout history. Written almost 250 years prior, the characters in Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves illustrate Girard’s theory of mimetic desire—specifically, the relationship between the Princess and M. de Nemours, wherein he begins to desire the married Princess, and the mother whose desire for social status stems directly from her mediation by the French Court. Additionally, within these dynamics, the Princess not only becomes the object of another’s desire, but also a pawn that others manipulate for their own ends. Thus, the theory of mimetic desire clarifies the motives that drive M. de Nemours and the mother.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, when applied to the relationships in The Princess de Cleves, represents the ideas of triangular desire and of internal and external mediation. Girard’s assertion that one’s own desires are created through imitation rather than an innate self-interest is demonstrated as he writes, “the mediator himself desires the object, or could desire it: it is even this very desire, real or presumed, which makes this object infinitely desirable in the eyes of the subject” (Girard 151). This would appear to suggest an indirect or triangular relationship between the subject and object desired: subject-mediator-object. Girard proclaims that individuals are engaged in self-deceit whereby they believe that their desires are products of autonomy, rather than of imitation: “In our days its [desire’s] nature is hard to perceive because the most fervent imitation is the most vigorously denied” (153). The Princess of Cleves is no exception. The Mother pursues status and security through her daughter’s marriage to M. de Cleves, willing to discount her daughter’s feelings and happiness to realize her identity, and M. de Nemours falls in love with the married Princess, with his desire resting not in genuine emotion for her, but rather imitation. The Princess, however, comes to embody the imperfections that define society and human relationships, choosing to exile herself from the world by retiring to a nunnery. In doing so, she turns to religion, thereby allowing herself to escape the influence of the world and seek a better understanding of her own self.

Girard describes what he labels as internal and external mediation, whose characteristics are best illustrated through an example. Consider the following: if Person A desires to become like Person B, and is in fact mediated by Person B, there will be no conflict between the subject and mediator, given that Person B is estranged from Person A; this is external mediation. However, if Person B is a member of the peer group of Person A, a rivalry emerges between subject and mediator: this is internal mediation. Specifically, the rivalry originates in the subject’s interactions with his mediator, continually reminding him that in fact, the object desired is held not by the subject, but by his mediator. In the context of the theory of mimetic desire, the motives behind the actions of the Princess, the husband (M. de Cleves), and M. de Nemours emerge. The reader bears witness to M. de Nemours’s infatuation with the married Princess: “M. DE NEMOURS’ love for Madame de Clèves was so violent… that he could take no interest in the other women he used to love” (Lafayette 39). However, while there exist copious suggestions of M. de Nemours’s candid love for the Princess, Girard would question the validity of such an emotion. Girard indicates that the subject “pursues objects which are determined for him…” (Girard 149). Thus, M. de Nemours’s interest in the Princess, mediated by the husband, is rooted not in sincere desire but rather in imitation, which is validated when Lafayette writes, “Lovers are never trustworthy… They are too distracted to be whole-hearted about anything” (Lafayette 101). Nemours’s objective is not the attainment of the Princess, but rather the attainment of what she represents: the desires of the husband. The Princess is thus merely a tool used by Nemours to mimic his mediator. Through this imitation, a rivalry emerges between M. De Nemours and the husband as a result of internal meditation, which is a consequence of the mediator’s presence in the peer group of the subject.

This rivalry surfaces during a post-dinner engagement between the Princess and the Dauphine, where Lafayette writes, “M. De Nemours had long wished to possess a portrait of Madame de Clèves, and when he saw the one belonging to M. de Cleves [the Husband] he could not resist the temptation of stealing it from her husband whom he thought tenderly loved” (80). In summation, lovers can never be trustworthy and genuine, as their desire for the object is merely imitation rather than genuine love, thereby producing a self that becomes predicated on others. This theory also allows for a more complete understanding of the motives that drive the desires of the mother. She desires higher social standing, resolving “to marry her daughter to somebody whose rank would put her above those who think themselves too good for her” (19). In fact, “those who think themselves too good for her” mediate the mother’s desires, demonstrated when the Duc de Nevers was “surprised and very disapproving” upon learning that his son was set on marrying the mother’s daughter—the Princess (19). Thus, the mother desires to become like those “too good for her” to gain the approval of the French Court. However, in accordance with external mediation, since her mediators are not within the peer group of the mother, no rivalry between subject and object arises and, like Nemours, the Mother exploits her daughter to realize her desires. That is, she does not separate her own wants and desires from her daughter’s. Therefore, as exemplified by both characters, others exploit the Princess for their own ends.

While the mother and M. de Nemours represent Girard’s mimetic desire, the Princess defies such theories. Lafayette writes, “The nearness of death had given her a new perspective on this earthly life,” resulting in her retirement from the French Court. The Princess chooses life in a nunnery, devoting herself to “even holier occupations than in the strictest of orders” (200-202). The Princess’s new perspective represents her realization that people’s desires, are insincere which occurs when M. de Nemours confesses his love for her. Even though widowhood frees her from the confines of marriage, the Princess replies, “you have already been in love several times and will be again. I should not make you happy; I should see you with somebody else as you have been with me, and it would strike me to the heart, defenseless as I am against jealousy” (192). She recognizes that M. de Nemours’s interest in her is merely part of his pattern of using women. Subsequently, the Princess resolves never to return to the “world,” thereby breaking free from Girard’s theory of mimicry. That is, she sets herself outside of society and becomes an independent self, with the capability of constructing desires of spontaneity rather than of imitation; her actions are predicated on her own motives and not those of others.

hroughout history, traditional societal tendencies are to look to external forces to gain a sense of self, and to define oneself through tangible attainment. A cycle of seeing, wanting, attaining, and then disillusionment becomes the basis for jealousy, dissatisfaction, resentment and at the extreme, violence. As a consequence of Girard’s theory, a society emerges in which all desires and selves are predicated upon others, directly calling into question the notion of an autonomous and independent self. Thus, as literature reflects the inner workings of humanity, Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire can form a more complete comprehension of the desires and motivations of people, not only in literature, but also in all other aspects of society.

Nontraditional Women

The early modern period brought with it a reshaping of European culture, and in particular, the derogatory perception of women, rooted in a traditionally male view of the female as inferior in both mind and body[1]. This view pervaded the intellectual, medical, legal, religious and social milieu of the preceding centuries, exemplified in Aristotle’s identification of men as possessors of virile qualities, like rationality and courage, contrasted with women as irrational, cowardly and weak. Men were seen as being in control of their passions, whereas women were ‘incomplete…crav(ing) sexual fulfilment in intercourse with a male’ and consequently, ‘lustful, deceitful, talkative…hysterical.’[2] Such Greek philosophical views thus became the basis for medieval thought, as did Roman law, stressing the subordinate status of women, and religious Christian doctrine, burdening women with the guilt of the original sin.

The emergence of the early modern period was thus firmly structured around these negative attitudes towards women, with a cultural and critical re-examination representing the only way towards dismantling such views. Humanism became the dominant intellectual movement, rejecting ‘out of touch’[3] medieval scholarship and laying the foundation for the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Although led by males and retaining many of the ancient misogynist perceptions of women, humanism made a revaluation of women possible, with literature playing a particularly important role in this emancipation of female subordination. The ‘other voice’[4] developed as a mostly female voice of protest against the established prejudice, calling for equality through education. Although it only remained a voice, this call for parity gradually changed the perception of the lives possible for women being determined by those that men wanted to lead, epitomized in Louise Labé’s Oeuvres complètes, Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves and Racine’s Bérénice.

Labé represents one such female voice, addressing the status of women as an ‘unapologetic love poet in a man’s lyric world’[5]. Her dedicatory epistle announces her hope that ‘les severes loix des hommes n’empeschent plus les femmes de s’apliquer aus sciences et disciplines…que notre sexe ha autre foist ant desiree’[6]. Labé succeeds in simultaneously addressing ‘Mademoiselle’ as well as all her female readers, shown through her repeated use of ‘notre sex…le tort qu’ils nous faisoient…nous procurera…nous pourra’. Labé thus establishes from the start a dual insistence on the public and private, inaugurating two levels of dialogue. This public-private dichotomy is mirrored in her later insistence on private pleasure rather than public acclaim, offering women the durable gift of ‘escrit…plustot que de chaines, anneaus, et somptueus habits’. Men are negatively evoked as ‘severes’, with the word ‘chaines’ at the beginning of this last enumeration implying imprisonment and servitude, as well as the ornaments that women use to adorn themselves. Through her juxtaposition of the longevity of intellectual pleasure with the ephemeral pleasure of sensory recreation, she figuratively erotizes the former with the latter. ‘Les autres voluptez’ are a ‘souvenir’, capable of ‘nous imprimions en la teste’ contrasted with ‘les plaisirs des sentimens’ that ‘se perdent…ne reviennent jamais’. The word ‘voluptez’ immediately conjures up erotic images, carrying several meanings of pleasure, delight and voluptuousness, a desirable physical quality of a woman’s body. The negation used to describe the senses emphasizes their finiteness, as does the reflexive form of ‘losing oneself’, associated with loss as well as waste and death. By denying her involvement in the publication of her work, and placing the blame on her (presumably male) ‘amis’, her voice forestalls attack and reaffirms this male-female reciprocity through her own selfhood and the process of writing itself. This desire to change the control of men over women’s lives is continued throughout Labé’s sonnets, with her departure from the Petrarchan tradition[7] addressing this pleasure of mutuality[8].

In Sonnet 10, she establishes similarities between her and her lover, united through poetry as he is ‘d’un laurier verd…orné…de vertus dix mile environné’. The use of ‘orné’ prescribes the typically female characteristic of adorning oneself to the male, as ‘environné’ conjures up the image of both man and woman encompassed under the ultimate crown of verse. She even goes as far as to offer the man her very own ‘estimee’ and ‘gloire’ through giving him her ‘renom’, her name is his name, just as the fame that her work acclaims will be shared for both male and female readers alike. Her reworking of Oyidian subtexts in Sonnet 13 elaborates on this idea of mutuality in a blissful fantasy of intertwined union. ‘Oh si j’estois’ sets the poem up in a wishful conditional tense, mirroring Labé’s longing for societal equality, however she simultaneously evokes the immediacy that a lover so desires, the need to ‘le tenant acollé…comme…l’arbre encercelé’. She concretes the impossible union through mythological symbolism whilst breaking Petrarchan convention via making women the subject of desire[9]. Furthermore, she inverts Neoplatonism, by dissolving the mind-body opposition with the union of ‘mon esprit’ with ‘ses levres’[10]. Thus Labé pioneers the aspiration for a mutually fulfilling relationship between a woman and the texts that she reads and writes, mirroring her desire for mutual equality between the sexes and connecting a woman’s intellectual inquiry with her own selfhood, as a female poet in an overwhelmingly masculine literary culture.

In a similar fashion to the way in which Labé denies involvement in the publication of her work, Lafayette’s withholding of her name from La Princesse de Clèves tantalizes the enigma of the writer’s identity and draws attention to what it pretends to silence – the act of authorship. By allowing the architect of the novel to, ‘demeure…dans l’obscurité’[11], the tension between silence and speech amongst secrecy is established, a theme paralleled in the events of the novel and directly linked to Lafayette’s selfhood as an author. In a courtly world in which maintaining appearances is of the utmost importance, men are able to outwardly and openly exercise their power, whilst women are left to wield authority through contrivance, not unlike an anonymous female writer. Privacy is the only regime possible for a woman like la duchesse de Valentinois, ‘(qui) avait une si profonde dissimulation’[12], contrasted with men like le duc de Guise, possessing ‘une…capacité pour la guerre et pour les affaires’. Words like ‘dissimulation, sentiments, voyait, cachée, secrète, avantageux’ pervade the descriptions of the female characters in the beginning of the story, as do passive verbs such as ‘elle le reçut’, in contrast to the active role of men, described amongst a lexicon of ‘la libéralité, glorieuse, grands emplois, digne, brave, magnifique, distingué’. The tournament scene is particularly useful when analysing Lafayette’s attitude towards this traditional construct of masculine power and chivalry. Mirroring the relationship between men and women of the seventeenth century, the scene illustrates the degenerative quality of this archaic event, described as if borrowed from a historical source[13]. The overwhelming use of temporal vocabulary, ‘après que…le bal commença…on le reprit ensuite; et enfin, après minuit’ emphasises Lafayette’s desire to witness the end of such male dominance as does the recitation aspect of this extract, as opposed to carefully constructed first-person authorship. The negative description of the King being ‘quasi en colère’ when ‘l’on était près de se retirer’ emphasises this deterioration of masculine demands when faced with ‘le malheur de l’État’. In the face of such authority, the Queen is reduced to ‘manda’, yet to no avail. This lexical choice foreshadows the symbolic death of the King, corresponding with Lafayette’s desire to ‘tué’ the prevailing male influence over women’s lives. Similarly, the confession scene shows the changing passive role of women in society, as the Princesse, along with her author, gradually develops a voice. Her confession, ‘n’a pas été par faiblesse, et il faut plus de courage pour avouer’, replicates the traditionally masculine virtue of courage and misplaces the ‘feminine’ quality of weakness.

Rather than conspiring behind the scenes and silently listening to the long-winded speeches of the male characters, the Princesse is ‘à ses genoux’ with ‘des raisons’, with M. de Clèves forced to ‘(la) laissiez la liberté’ for her to ‘se conduire’. The Princesse adopts the authoritative language traditionally granted to men, and her speech is filled with imperitive, commanding vocabulary, such as ‘songez que…il faut avoir plus d’estime…conduisez-moi, ayez pitié de moi, et aimez-moi encore, si vous pouvez’. Although the enumeration of commands are for him to help and guide her, the act of commanding in itself is significant, and represents the change in social attitudes that Lafayette envisages. M. de Clèves stands in stark contrast to the Princesse in this scene, literally ‘(il) était demeuré’ described passively and descriptively, in contrast to the intense first person pleas allocated to the Princesse. When he eventually does speak, he reciprocates Mme de Clèves language with, ‘ayez pitié de moi vous-même’, unable to ‘réponds…comme (il) doit’. The repetition of this imperative construction highlights the mutual relationship between the protagonists, and consequently men and women in general, with Lafayette standing alongside Labé in this search for reciprocity. In contrast to earlier parts of the novel, man is now silent, acknowledging his role as the assumed speaker, but unable to deliver words in light of the Princesse’s forceful voice. Although considered implausible by the seventeenth century literary scene, this passage provided a test case for plausibility[14], giving both male and female readers a glimpse into Lafayette’s vision of equality between the sexes. A final comparison can be drawn between La Princèsse de Clèves and the plays of Jean Racine. In the former, Lafayette uses a plethora of intercalated stories that position the Princesse as a ‘reader in the text’[15], acting as a source of instructive material and extending her mother’s lessons. These stories all occur within the first half of the novel, suggesting that they move the action toward the confession scene, after which the narrative continues, unaccompanied. These stories highlight themes associated with the dangerous intermingling between love and power, a theme paralleled in the plays of Jean Racine.

In contrast to these interwoven histories, Racine stresses the virtues of extreme simplicity, heightening the psychological rather than external action and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Racine’s Bérénice, where he sought to ‘faire une tragédie avec cette simplicité d’action’, where ‘la principale règle est de plaire et de toucher’[16]. At the beginning of Act II, Scene IV, Racine demonstrates this simplistic, psychological action through the distinction between Bérénice’s veiled frenzy as she pleas for ‘plus de repos…et moins d’éclat’[17], and Titus’ diplomatic response. Bérénice speaks on behalf of love, with a correspondingly rich lexical choice, as she pines for, ‘‘voix…ressentiment…votre amour…nos cœurs….un soupir, un regard, un mot de votre bouche’, with ‘cœur’ and ‘amour’ thrice repeated in Bérénice’s speech. Titus, however, acts as the male voice representing power and political duty, with his response overflowing with legal jargon. ‘Doutez’ brings with it connotations of suspicion, as well as doubt and wavering, foreshadowing Titus’ inevitable rejection of love in favour of power. He brings in the ultimate source of judgement as ‘(il) atteste les dieux’, choosing the masculine plural rather than including ‘les déesse’. Women are thus completely separated from any position of rational power and authority, with Bérénice’s frenzied words mirroring Labé’s portrayal of ‘la folle’[18] in her Débat. His use of the imperative in ‘n’en doutez point’, coupled with the excessive ‘je vous le jure encore’ piles assertions upon assertions, undermining his claims through an overly convincing diplomatic tone. Finally, the appearance of three negations additionally seeks to linguistically undermine Titus’ words, with a ‘non’ consistently interrupting each of his assertive promises. Racine thus parallels Lafayette’s theme of the love-power struggle that traditionally places women’s ‘follie’ at the discretion of masculine ‘puissance’, but in a highly simplistic way, void of the external action present in La Princesse de Clèves.

In conclusion, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lives possible for women did continue to be determined by those that men wanted to leave. However, the emergence of humanism and the corresponding literature associated with the movement brought with it the ‘other voice’, pioneering the way for at least a mutual relationship between the sexes and destabilizing the unquestioned male authority of the medieval past. Authors like Labé and Lafayette encouraged this new response to ‘the woman question’[19], speaking to both male and female readers, allowing their voices and selfhoods to saturate their works, sometimes aided by a utilization of ‘privileged anonymity’[20]. Racine’s plays provide an interesting, masculine authored point of comparison, mirroring Labé and Lafayette’s themes but through a simplistic theatrical format. The intermingling of themes and concepts throughout Labé and Lafayette’s work mirrors the inherent ‘creative tensions’[21] that pervaded both the literature and culture of sixteenth and seventeenth French society, with a close reading of their work depicting these women as writers ‘working out conflicting attitudes to (their) status’, both as women and as author(s)’[22].

Works Cited

Baker, D. L. The Subject of Desire, Purdue University Press, Indiana, 1996.

Cave, T. Introduction to his translation of La Princesse de Clèves, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992.

Forster, L. The icy fire: five studies in European Petrarchism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

Green, A. Privileged Anonymity: The Writings of Madame de Lafayette, Legenda, Oxford, 1996.

Hammond, Nicholas, Creative Tensions: Introduction to Seventeenth-century French Literature, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London, 1997.

Jones, A. R. The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe 1540-1620, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.

Labé, L. Oeuvres complètes, GF Flammarion, Paris, 2004. Labé, L: translated by Baker, D. L and Finch, A. Complete poetry and prose a bilingual edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.

Lafayette, Romans et Nouvelles, Éditions Garnier Frères, Paris, 1961.

Racine, J. Oeuvres compètes, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1962.

[1] Labé, L: translated by Baker, D. L and Finch, A. Complete poetry and prose a bilingual edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006, pg. xi-xii.

[2] Labé, L: Baker, D. L and Finch, A. pg. xiii.

[3] Labé, L: Baker, D. L and Finch, A. pg. xx.

[4] Labé, L: Baker, D. L and Finch, A. pg. xxix.

[5] Labé, L: Baker, D. L and Finch, A. pg. 19.

[6] Labé, L. Oeuvres complètes, GF Flammarion, Paris, 2004, pg. 42.

[7] Forster, L. The icy fire: five studies in European Petrarchism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

[8] Jones, A. R. The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe 1540-1620, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.

[9] Baker, D. L. The Subject of Desire, Purdue University Press, Indiana, 1996, pg. 137.

[10] Baker, D.L. pg. 138.

[11] Green, A. Privileged Anonymity: The Writings of Madame de Lafayette, Legenda, Oxford, 1996, pg. 64.

[12] Lafayette, Romans et Nouvelles, Éditions Garnier Frères, Paris, 1961, pg. 242.

[13] Cave, T. Introduction to his translation of La Princesse de Clèves, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pg. xxii.

[14] Cave, T. pg. xiv.

[15] Cave, T. pg. xvi.

[16] Racine, J. Oeuvres compètes, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1962, pg. 165.

[17] Racine, J. pg. 172.

[18] Labé, L. pg. 27.

[19] Labé, L: Baker, D. L and Finch, A. pg. 19.

[20] Green, A. pg. 64.

[21] Hammond, Nicholas, Creative Tensions: Introduction to Seventeenth-century French Literature, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London, 1997.

[22] Green, A. pg. 8.