Woman Is A Rational Animal Essay Research

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

one, however:

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

very honorable.

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.



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