Speech, Silences and Bodily Manifestations in Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

In her essay, “Origins of the Novel”, Marthe Robert characterises the novel as knowing “neither rule nor restraint. Open to every possibility, its boundaries fluctuate in all directions”. Indeed, both Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko are often claimed to be the first novels to engage in the psychological analysis and realist depiction of marginalised groups in society, thereby triumphing over earlier, more prescriptive forms of writing. A crucial way in which these novels dissect human emotions and conduct is through the complex and multilayered forms of communication between characters. While spoken language is often superficial and dictated by social protocol, the various physical manifestations and involuntary bodily “confessions” described in the novels expose the elaborate ambiguities and passions behind human behaviour.

Set in the hierarchical and refined sixteenth-century royal court of Henri II, the characters in The Princess de Cleves engage in polite discourse and customary platitudes, thus exuding a sense of courtly propriety. As such, they often address each other in an elevated and courteous manner: “I swear to Your Majesty, with all the respect that I owe you, that I have no...

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