Protagonist Analysis Based On La Princesse De Cleves, Le Tartuffe And La Religieuse

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As a child one is always guided and influenced by parental instruction; producing paranoia determining our actions throughout life. Whether to follow the guidelines set up by our parents or to choose our own direction is a pattern which has transcended the centuries. The Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers defines that it is a father’s duty to give their children the opportunity to make these decisions and ‘il y faut céder.’ This act of decision making runs parallel to the themes of familial duty, love and subservience within La Princesse de Cleves, Le Tartuffe and La Religieuse. Their plots hinge on the choices of the main female protagonists and the resolution of the consequences; essential to re-enforcing the importance of familial relationships and gender roles. This essay will examine the female protagonist’s actions following their parent’s instruction, link the three works through their similarities and differences then question why they are depicted this way.

Madame de La Fayette’s, La Princesse de Clèves revolves around the protagonist Mlle de Chartres whose mother’s instructions regarding love creates the young princess’s desire for self-restriction throughout the book. Mme de Chartres primary lessons are those of ‘faisait souvent à sa fille des peintures de l’amour’ and ‘d’aimer son mari et d’en être aimée.’(p.137) Educating her daughter on the danger and the infidelity of men in marriage and the importance of a wife’s duty to her husband. Nevertheless Mme de Chartres love is cast aside for a politically ambitious marriage for her daughter to le Prince de Clèves, a man of royal blood. Although successful in this deed, the daughter is unable to reciprocate le prince’s passion for his wife, and subsequently falls in love with the Duke de Nemours. Mme de Chartres’ dying words, to avoid Nemours and stay away from the court, reminds her daughter of her duty to her husband throughout the text. Significant after her portrait is stolen by Nemours, when considering her options the princess reminds herself of ‘tout ce que Mme de Chartes lui avait dit en mourant,’ (p.204) highlighting the desire to follow her mother’s instructions on marriage even after her death. Paulson writes that many protagonists ‘impose on themselves restraints often more strict than those established by any law or code,’ suggesting that self-imposed judgement is often more powerful than that of society. Her self-restraint thus prevents any form of betrayal within her marriage, no matter how tempting; nevertheless she is doomed as the misinterpretation of Nemours’ visit to Coulomniers destroys le Prince and leads to his death. Moreover the ironic undertone of le Prince’s declaration that ‘vous pourrez rendre M. de Nemours heureux, sans qu’il vous en coûte des crimes’ (p.291) indicates that he means otherwise. Therefore the princess rejects Nemours’ proposal because ‘elle était la cause de sa mort’ and ‘l’horreur qu’elle eut pour elle-même et pour M. de Nemours ne se peut présenter’ (p.294), thus showing that the shame which emerged from the dying words of her mother and husband, has influenced her conscience and self-restraint. Paulson argues that it was ‘ironic that the same husband for whom she expressed little more than indifference while he was alive now arouses in her a devoir for his memory.’ Although Paulson’s irony is undeniable, the authenticity behind the truly human sentiment of guilt has an undeniably powerful grip on the young child, whose innocence inhibits her from future happiness with men. Consequently, the image of the princess’s peace of mind and isolation from society comes as an understandable relief to a contemporary audience and a shock to the modern day reader. The young princess’s desire to follow the wishes of the dead clearly illustrates her role as perpetuating the status quo rather than seizing the opportunity to marry her lover.

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In Moliere’s Tartuffe Mariane hardly fulfils the role of protagonist; however she is pivotal to the understanding of gender roles and parental duty. Firstly Mariane responds to her father’s topic of marriage with‘j’en dirai, moi, tout ce que vous voudrez’ illustrates immediately her readiness to submit to her father’s will. However she is unaware of Tartuffe’s manipulation which leads to Orgon’s declaration of ‘ma fille,/ unir par votre hymen Tartuffe à ma famille,’ to which she cries ‘Il n’en est rien.’ (p.35) Although she has already illustrated her duty to her father, her cry underlines that her choice is in opposition to her father’s will. Nevertheless Orgon asserts that ‘J’ai resolu cela,’ (p.36) Gossman argues that Orgon wants to possess freedom and wishes to control his daughter ‘not as an object but as a subject, he wants her to will her submission to him.’ Orgon’s obstinacy goes against natural law, under which he is obliged to establish a marriage contract, however he is not allowed to ‘sacrifier des enfants à son ambition par des destinations forces,’ in doing so he has created a division between himself and his family who fight for her freedom from the marriage leading to the banishment of Damis. Mariane pronounces to Dorine that she will ‘me donner la mort, si l’on me violente,’ (p.44) underlining her incapacity of imagining any other possibility of escaping the marriage than death. Instead she must wait until the king’s officer reveals Tartuffe for who he really is; only then will Orgon say ‘et par un doux hymen couronner en Valère/ la flame d’un amant généreux et sincere.’ (p.102) This indicates that Mariane’s place in the family has prevented her from imagining alternate possibilities, and as a result she is restricted to following the status quo and the wishes of her father.

In Diderot’s La Religieuse the failure to nurture the protagonist Suzanne and subsequently forcing her into seclusion in the convent underlines her dependency on substitute familial relationships. Very different to both Mariane and Mlle de Chartres, Suzanne rebels from the beginning of the book, re-instates the status quo and then escapes to her alternate vision in the end. Her mother’s instruction that she must go unless ‘si votre projet n’est pas de me punir toute ma vie d’une faute que je n’ai déjà que trop expiée;’ illustrates that an illegitimate child has no place in normal society, and she must accept this. Undoubtedly, seeing no longer place for herself Suzanne agrees to ‘souscriai à tout ce qu’il vous plaira,’ (p.43) re-enforcing through her obedience the significance of her “crime” and importance of her departure from society. Fowler suggests her subsequent life is pivotal not on ‘being inside or outside’ of the institution but ‘being inside or outside the favour of the parent,’ indicating that her happiness is dependent upon her relationship with her metaphorical family in the religious community. Evident throughout her time in the convent; at Longchamp she is happy until the death of Mme de Moni, despairing under her maltreatment by Mme de Simonin, happy again under the favouritism of Mme *** at Arpajon and yet unhappy when Mme *** is discovered. Her desire for freedom runs parallel to these relationships; therefore her envisioning of escape comes naturally when she is unhappy. Suzanne juxtaposes the idea of men in a cloister to that of a forest from which he can escape, through which she details that isolation in a cloister produces ‘des pensees extravagantes germeront dans son esprit, comme les ronces dans terre sauvage.’ (p.210) Suzanne therefore directly connects imprisonment with the convent and with madness, suggesting her inability to escape the abbey will send her mad. Therefore when her confessor Dom Morel suggests that they can run away Suzanne jumps at the opportunity, seeing they have similar backgrounds she trusts the young boy, a mistake as a result of a lack of education. The following seduction by the young Benedictine monk and her time in the ‘disorderly house’ forces her to think that ‘si j’eusse ete voisine de mon couvent, j’y retournais.’ (p.298) Suzanne expresses here a certain degree of regret that even after her mistreatment and unhappiness at the convent, it was better than poverty. Therefore she has fulfilled her earlier comparison of the cloister and the forest in which she declared that the idea of seclusion is worse than that of poverty and fear, but ‘il faut eviter l’une et l’autre’ (p.210). This textual link within the book and her ability to envision and fulfil her alternate possibilities oppose to the other two protagonists. Nevertheless her plot maintains the same ideology of the others; that through submission she would have found tranquillity in the convent.

To conclude these three protagonists on the whole perpetuate the status quo, as their threats to rebel result for the most part in catastrophe and discontent. Indeed Suzanne’s story contrasts the others due to her unhappy ending, caused by her imagination of the outside world. The texts ultimately advise women to remain obedient to their parent’s wishes and parents to be wary of their children’s decisions and ambitions.


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