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

August 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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