Woman Is A Rational Animal Essay, Research Paper
Woman is a Rational Animal
“But now what am I, when I suppose that there is some
supremely powerful and, if I may be permitted to say so,
malicious deceiver who deliberately tries to fool me in any
way he can?”(Decartes, 19). These words by Descartes seem
to correlate directly with the theme of deception in the
Princesse De Cleves. In a world where appearance is merely
a fiction created by necessity and nothing is as it first
seems, the ability to reason through a situation for public
gain is highly coveted and revered. In this courtly sphere
of life, the ability to distinguish between that which is
real and that which if deceitful is of utmost importance.
This distinction is rationalism in a different form than
that of Decartes’. The Princesse De Cleves advances the
Cartesian form of Rationalism and applies it to everyday
actions, leaving room for some emotions without allowing
them to control one’s actions.
A central theme in the Princesse De Cleves is how
actions are viewed in the public eye. As Monsieur de
Nemours states, “’At least, Sire, if I embark on such an
extravagant adventure on your Majesty’s advice and in you
service, I beg you to keep it secret until success justifies
my ambition in the public eye.’”(9) Nemours is worried
about what the public will think rather than what the woman
the King wants him to marry is like. Nemours does not
concern himself with what he feels or what the woman feels,
rather, he rationally contemplates the consequences of this
action in relation to how the aristocracy will perceive him.
This rational reaction is the same approach that
Descartes would have. Although Descartes may not agree with
the intent for which this rational thought is directed, he
would agree with the logic of Nemours’ actions because they
are not taken because of emotion or rash reaction to the
senses. Conversely, Nemours becomes one of the least
rational characters in the story. By the end, he allows his
emotions to completely overtake him as he professes his love
for Mme of Cleves.
Descartes writes that the only things that exist are
what we make through our senses, but that our senses
constantly deceive us. Descartes’ rationality is only
related to the thinking self because that is all that he
truly thinks exists. Descartes breaks down everything to
the mind at the very beginning of his Meditations. The
mind, however, cannot be the focus of the Princesse De
Cleves because the characaters are the central theme.
Though the actions of every character in the Princesse De
Cleves are completely self-centered, they are seen by
everyone else in the story. Cleves is viewed as the most
virtuous and honorable character in the novel because she is
the only one that uses rational thought the entire time.
Mme of Cleves thinks through things before she acts, and for
this she receives the greatest reward: honor. When Mme of
Cleves is distressed over the way she reacts towards her
husband, 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 without
thinking. The singular nature of such a confession, for
which she could find no parallel, brought home to her all
the risks it entailed.”(98) The action of asking herself
this question shows her as a rational being and is a credit
to her honor.
Emphasizing thought over emotions does not, however, seem
to give the Princesse any pleasure. The simple fact that
Mme of Cleves ends up in a convent in the end is an
illustration of this point. Mme of Cleves may be left with
her honor, but she is still left alone. The author does not
try to give the reader the impression that this ending is
unhappy though. She states in the last line of the novel,
“Her life, which was quite short, left inimitable examples
of virtue.” (156). The thought that Mme of Cleves controls
her emotions through rationality is upheld as virtue by the
author. This “virtue” is perceived as being much better
than the rest of the court. Though the outcome may not have
made the Princesse “happy”, the impression that she left on
the aristocracy was far better according to Madame de
What separates the rational thought of Descartes with
the rational thought expressed in the Princesse De Cleves is
the role played by action. Descartes writes, “I am now
concentrating only on knowledge, not on action.” (16).
Descartes rationalizes thought, but does not apply it to
action. Mme of Cleves applies Descartes ideas to her
everyday actions. She acts upon her thoughts, by moving to
the convent, in order to uphold the perceptions that
everyone has of her.
In the Princesse De Cleves, emotions are considered a
sign of weakness. They are character flaws that Mme of
Cleves does not have. In the closing pages of the novel,
Nemours tries to convince the Princesse that she can now
love him because her husband is dead. Yet, she resists her
emotions because she thinks that they are not rational, and
even forces herself into a cloistered life to quash any hope
that Nemours may have. Her choice is perceived as the right
In the end, he was obliged to depart, overwhelmed by
grief 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
quenched his passion. (156)
Nemours was only longing for Mme of Cleves because she was
unattainable. His “passion” would have abated after he
received the object of his longing. Mme of Cleves knows
this and does not follow her emotions and what her senses
tell her. Rationalization helps her to uphold her honor and
virtue even when temptation is at its greatest. The notion
of rationalization leads us to believe that Mme of Cleves is
The Princesse De Cleves places the highest value on
honor in a situation where many did not seem to possess it.
Everyone eventually gives into their emotions except for the
Princesse herself. She doesn’t allow her emotions to
control her actions even when the chance to be with her true
love presents itself. Her honor stems from her ability to
rationalize a situation and act without emotional conflict.
This idea of rationalization before action takes Descartes
philosophy and applies it to the real world.
Yet, there is something to be said about emotion in the
Princesse De Cleves. Lafayette views emotion as a human
weakness that can and should be overcome. As is seen in Mme
of Cleves, her emotions exist, they just do not affect her.
She refuses to allow them to do so. Her love for her
husband, even though she truly loves Nemours, is proof of
this. Madame de Lafayette takes Descartes rational
philosophy one step further and applies it to the social
sphere. Madame de Lafayette makes rationality more human
than Descartes could in his Meditations.
Descartes would have liked the direction that Madame de
Lafayette took his idea of “R”ationality and converted it
into more feasable “r”ational action. His idea of thinking
things through before action is evidenced by Madame de
Cleves honor. Even though this rationality is only used for
social standing, it cannot be denied. It led to a lonely,
tortured, life for Mme de Cleves, but it served its purpose
for 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-filled
decisions. This is the direction in which Descartes would
have wanted his ideas to flow: Action only after thought…
Rational thought controlling irrational emotions.
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.