Szabo Response


Les liaisons dangereuses

I would like to respond to Virginia's question about Richardson's influence on Laclos. As Katharine Rogers notes in "Creative Variation: Clarissa and Les Liaisons dangereuses," "Laclos himself wrote that Clarissa showed more genius than any other novel and that only the creator of Lovelace knew how to make a heroic figure of a seducer." She points out that Laclos draws attention to his predecessor by making Tourvel read Clarissa to strenghten her resistance to Valmont, and having Valmont scorn to take her by force as Lovelace did.

There seem to be a number of parallels, and _Liaisons_ might even be considered a rewriting or interpretation of _Clarissa_. I will touch on a few key intersections: morality; libertinism; female virtue and female dying; sensibility and enlightenment.


Why is it that readers admit to being attracted to Lovelace, yet still feel it is a moral book, whereas contemporary readers were often very critical of Laclos's intentions and question the morality of his book?

Andre Gide, in his preface to a 1940 English translation, lamented that _Liaisons_ had been all but lost because of concerns about the moral. While French writers such as Diderot fawn over Richardson, "for a long time its (_Liaisons') renown, like the course of an underground river, remained clandestine, its influence unavowed. 'Laclos owes his fame today not so much to his literary talent as to his having acted as agent for the Duke of Orleans in the French Revolution' is all the eulogy of him that we find in the _Grande Encyclopedie. Sainte-Beuve mentions him only in passing; Brunetiere, Lanson, and the rest, not at all. This is because one cannot say anything about him that matters without leaving the moral point of view on one side." (Gide, vii)

Gide agreed the book is immoral -- and that's just what he liked about it. "There is no doubt as to his being hand in glove with Satan." (Gide, of course, raised eyebrows himself when he said that morality is not a requirement for literature. The many mock prefaces and warnings that preceed his _Immoralist_ (about 1900) echo Laclos' bogus preface.) Gide notes, however, that the Bishop of Pavia actually recommended _Liaisons_, saying the bishop "tells all who will listen that _Dangerous Acquaintances_ is a highly moral piece of work, and one very good to read, especially for girls" (Gide, xi).


Speaking of immorality... Peter Hughes has an interesting take on the image of literary rakes. He argues that rakes such as Lovelace and Valmont subscribe to a self-dramatizing rake's code. The "erotic wars" of 18th-century novels "create a new kind of literary heroism that displaces in both English and French literature the older epic ideal of the warrior driven on by heroic fury" (Hughes, 168). "Madame de Merteuil urges him to lay trophies at her feet like the preux chevaliers or valient knights of the past, and Valmont declares that he is Alexander the Great and she is his empire." (188) Merteuil and her lover play the parts of sultan and seraglio in her petite maison, after assuming the peasant family's debts Valmont compares himself to the "Heros d'un Drama," Merteuil repeatedy refers to others' emotions as things out of a bad novel.

Merteuil and Valmont are both libertines, but being a rake seems to mean different things for men than for women. The Penguin's English translation seems to make their contest into a sort of male homosocial phallic rivalry out of what, in French, looks like more a sexual liaison. "Je vous desirais avant de vous avoir vu. Seduite par votre reputation, il me semblait que vous manquiez a ma gloire; je brulais de vous combattre corps a corps." Usually, "combattre corps a corps" is translated as hand to hand combat, but corps means body, so it suggests an image of them wrestling very close. But the Penguin translated it as "I longed to measure swords with you" (letter 81). This translation seems to put Merteuil within a masculine tradition and context. Is there any room for a female libertine tradition? Or is that why Merteuil must create herself?

What does it mean to be a rake for a man or a woman? Can a woman ever fit into that category? Valmont says he enjoys the process; Merteuil is concerned with results. Valmont, as a man, follows a different set of rules because he is allowed to act, whereas Merteuil as a woman is forced to maneuver in far more subtle ways. "Entree dans le monde dans le temps ou, fille encore, j'etais vouee par etat au silence et a l'inaction, j'ai su en profiter pour observer et reflechir. Tandis qu'on me croyait etourdie ou distrate, ecoutant peu a la verite les discours qu'on s'empressait de me tenir, je recueillais avec soin ceux qu'on chercher a me cacher" (lettre 81). ("At my entrance into society I was still a girl, condemned by my status to silence and inaction, and I made the most of my opportunities to observe and reflect. I was thought scatter-brained and absent-minded: I paid little attention, in fact, to what everyone was anxious to tell me, but was careful to ponder what they attempted to hide.)

Merteuil, as a woman, seems to require a different rakes' creed than Lovelace or Valmont: "Quand m'avez-vous vue m'ecarter des regles que je me suis prescrites et manquer a mes principes? je dis mes principes, et je le dis a dessein: car ils ne sont pas, come ceux des autres femmes, donnees au hasard, recues san examen et suivis par habitude; ils sont le fruit me mes profondes reflexions; le les ai crees, et je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage." (letter 81) ("When have you known me break the rules I have laid down for myself or betray my principles? I say 'my principles' intentionally. They are not, like those of other women, found by chance, accepted unthinkingly, and followed out of habit. They are the fruit of profound reflection. I have created them: I might say that I have created myself."

Is Merteuil a monster? Or does her sexual liberation makes her a feminist heroine, as some have argued? I don't see her seduction of Danceny as equivalent to Valmont's rape of Cecile. Danceny, after all, emerges as something of a "hero" at the end, as he is the one who authorizes the story to be written. He has clearly not been harmed as much as poor hapless Cecile. She plots against Prevan, but her scheme could be seen as a kind of self-defense; after all, he had planned to conquer her and then publicize the fact. Rogers sees Merteuil as lashing out against the patriarchal social codes of her day in her notice that her goal is to avenge her sex and in her recognition that Valmont has "never been either the lover or the friend of woman, but either her tyrant or her slave."

From the beginning, Valmont presses Merteuil for a renewal of their affair. She realizes, however, that sex alone turns a woman into a pathetic machine a plaisir, like Cecile, and that succumbing to Valmont sexually would cost her all her power. Like Clarissa and Anna Howe, she wants sexual independence from men. Unlike them, of course, she also pursues pleasure.


The main difference between the deaths of Clarissa and Mme de Tourvel seems to be in death. While both say they prefer death to living on dishonor, Clarissa's death is happy. We know she's going to heaven and will have her virtue rewarded religiously. She is also an exemplar to her sex, for all that that's worth. But Mme de Tourvel has betrayed all of her principles, and she knows it. She has sinned of her own will. At least for me, I do not see her ending as happy in either an earthly or a heavenly sense. I could see how a sentimental reader might say that she has been purified by her devotion, however. Rogers notes that "Though Laclos did not share Rousseau's faith in the intrinsic goodness of spontaneous feeling, he did believe that sexual love could be made noble by selfishness: as the fallen Julie becomes the ideal wife and mother, worshiped by all, Tourvel is even more admirable in her willingness to sacrifice herself for Valmont's happiness than in her original devotion to conventional virtue . . . She resembles the natural woman Laclos idealized in his Rousseauian second essay on the education of women, one whose emotionals and sexuality developed and expressed themselves unrestricted by an artificial soceity...Tourvel, unlike Clarissa, proves Lovelace's contention that a woman 'once subdued' is 'always subdued'; but in Laclos's novel the meaning of the term has changed. The subduing which would have degraded Clarissa becomes a mark of noble selflessness in Tourvel." There are obviously many points with which to disagree with this quotation. It's dated and essentialist according to contemporary thinking of the day, but is Tourvel EVER really liberated? I don't see any possible outcome for her as Valmont's lover that is not tragic. Had Valmont not rejected her,she would gone on lying to her husband and society while carrying on an adulterous affair, becoming as hypocrticial and corrupt as other in the novel. That's not a very savory alternative.

Which version do we buy? Is her death pathetic or noble? Tourvel say she has been tricked by a veil of illusion. "Le voile est dechire, Madame, sur lequel etait peinte l'illusion de mon bonheur." Roseanne Runte interprets this to mean "she sees the truth, and it kills her." So Tourvel dies from learning the truth that Merteuil learned as a girl. They both end horribly. What does this say about sensibility?

To paraphrase Ana's question about Clarissa from a few weeks back: why do they have to die?

In "The Exquisite Cadavers: Women in 18th-C. Fiction," Nancy Miller treats several of the major novels of this period and asks why "death is the highest calling of the fictional woman; marriage and a glimpse of the happily ever after the tepid alternative -- a traveled but less captivating route."

One critic answered Miller's question with the argument that "masculine death, like Lovelace's or Valmont's in Les Liaisons dangereuses, is less well described and comes as an anticlimax. Less trivially, death is an all-encompassing mystery. Diderot wrote that mystery was the best word one could use to describe the female sex. In death her mystery becomes inviolate." (Runte, 361).

Miller goes on to argue that through death, "the disruptive potential of female sexuality is neutralized, removed from the general circulation." There are certainly no "normal" sexually active females in _Liaisons_, at least not according to our modern view of healthy sexuality. Mme de Volanges and Mme de Rosemonde are both widows, and supposedly not having any sex, then Cecile and Tourvel renounce sex by entering the convent and/or dying, and Merteuil is certainly not going to attract any lovers in disfigured state. So women are asexual at all costs in the end -- either through death, becoming a nun, disfigurement or widowhood. Cecile might not be so dumb after all, given her choices.

Miller goes on to ask "Ultimately, is Mme de Merteuil any less sacrificed to a masculine idea(l) than Mme de Tourvel?" Patriarchy takes its revenge against Merteuil's violation of feminine roles, in the form of Valmont, Prevan and Danceny -- all former rivals -- united against her, along with all the men in the theater who applaud the women who shun her. "After all, male solidarity exists to protect masculine prerogatives . . .The death of the Other restores men to each other" (Miller, 42-43).

Miller quotes one of Goldsmith's songs on this topic. "When lovely woman stoops to folly;/ And finds too late that men betray;/What charm can soothe her melancholy?/What art can wash her tears away?/ The only art her guilt to cover,/To hide her shame from every eye,/To give repentence to her lover,/ And wring her bosom is -- to die." (no year given)


As we have noted, too much sensibility usually ends in the death of the heroine. Merteuil is disfigured and leads a presumably wretched existence, yet she survives. This seems true to her character. She directly addresses the issue of sentimentality that Virginia raised:

"Ah! gardex vos conseils et vos craints pour ces femmes a delire, et qui se disent a sentiments, dont l'imagination exaltee ferait croire que la nature a place leurs sens dans leur tete; qui n'ayant jamais reflechi, confondent sans cesse l'amour et l'amant; qui, dans leur folle illusion, croient que celui'la seul avec qui elles ont cherche le plaisir en est l'unique depositaire; et, vraies superstitieuses, ont pour le pretre, le respect et la foi qui n'est du qu'a a la divinite.. "Tremblez surtout pour ces femmes actives dans leur oisivite, que vous nommez sensibles, et donc l'amour s'empare si facilement de toute l'existence; qui sentent le besoin de s'en occuper encore, meme alors qu'elles n'en jouissent pas..." (lettre 81)

"Oh, keep your warnings and your fears for those giddy women who call themselves women of feeling, whose heated imaginations persuade them that nature has placed their sense in their heads; who, having never thought about it, invariably confuse love with a lover; who, with their stupid delusions, imagine that the man with whom they have found pleasure is pleasure's only source; and, like all the superstitious, accord that faith and respect to the priest which is due to only the divinity...

"Tremble above all for those women whose minds are active while their bodies are idle, whom you call sensitive; who are always so easily and so powerfully moved to love; who feel they must think about it even though they don't enjoy it... (letter 81)

Is it only religion that is a superstition here? Or is sensibility also a superstition? She could mean that sentimental heroines put blind faith in priests; I was wondering if the word priest is in any sense a stand-in for the concept of sentimentality? Merteuil is clearly dismissing sensibility; but are we to put any faith in someone like Merteuil? As Virginia mentioned, Mme de Tourvel is clearly a woman of high feelings, and she ends dying of grief. The hapless Cecile, who seems a woman of sexual feeling rather than deep feeling, survives but also ends badly. Then, Clarissa and Werther also die from their sorrows. What does this say about sensibilty? To me, this novel seems to criticize the idea of sensibility, just as it criticizes womens' education, marriages of convenience and the hypocrisy of women like Mme de Volanges who hates Valmont but admits she must invite him anyway. I think I agree with Gide that the moralistic ending of this novel seems false.

Merteuil seems to be speaking of Clarissa when she mocks those women who spend all day writing about love but never experiencing pleasure. She reads Rousseau, but only so she will know how to behave, just as she read moralists to find out "what it was necessary to seem to be" (letter 81). As Rogers writes, "She has brilliantly turned society's hypocritical laws and stereotypes of women to her own advantage. She dismisses chastity, modesty and reputations as mere devices to keep women timid and compliant, but she does not hesitate to use them when it suits her purpose. She feigned frigidity with her late husband so he would not suspect her extramarital affairs, and sedulously preserves her reputation for the same reason." Merteuil mocks her alleged embarrassment at the public learning of Prevan's attempted rape. Rogers notes that "Clarissa had expressed a similar feeling with perfect sincerity." Is Merteuil conducting a more lenghty impersonation of Clarissa, just as the prostitute Sally Martin performed for Lovelace?

Comparing Merteuil with Clarissa might seem perverse, but I will go further. "Merteuil has achieved autonomy by suppressing an essential part of her personality: as Clarissa suppresses her sexuality, Merteuil suppresses her capacity for love and altruism...Merteuil's loss of beauty is as catastrophic as Clarissa's loss of virginity. In both cases the condition of the woman's body, subject to forces she cannot control, determines the course of her life. The rape compels Clarissa to recognize that she is a sexual object who can be subjugated against her will by male force."

Hughes argues that _Liaisons_ takes sensibility to its logical extreme: sadism. "Laclos's novel, by consuming both humor and virtue through the appetites of sensibility, reveals both the dark side of the Enlightenment and the brighter vision of the Romantics. The Enlightenment, which was above all else the application to man and society of the angelic and demonic discoveries of the seventeenth century, was responsible for the sinister aspects of ethical liberty and unbridled imagination that we find in _Les Liaisons dangereuses_, in Sade, and in Blake." (190)

There are echoes of the Enlightenment's desire to know in Merteuil. "Ma tete seule fermentait; je n'avais pas l'idee de jouir, je voulais savoir; le desir de m'instruire m'en suggera les moyens...mais le bon Pere me fit le mal si grand, que j'en conclus que le plaisir devait etre extreme;et au desir de le connaitre, succeda celui de le gouter"(letter 81). ("My mind alone was in a ferment: I had no wish to enjoy, I wanted to know, and the desire for knowledge suggested a means of acquiring it...the good priest made so much of the crime that I concluded that the pleasure of committing it must be extreme, and my desire for knowledge gave way to a desire for gratification."

Can one be a woman of great feeling if one does not honestly express that feeling? Merteuil is very keyed into phsyical sensations, but has no sympathy.


(Several of these works compare _Clarissa_ and _Liaisons_, and were cited in my bibliography for _Clarissa_. I'm repeating them here for ease of reference.)


Gide, Andre. "Preface to Dangerous Acquaintances." _Dangerous Acquaintances/ Les Liaisons Dangereuses: By Choderlos de Laclos, Englished by Ernest Dowson, the Preface by Andre Gide, The Illustrations by Chas Laborde._ London: The Nonesuch Press, 1940. * Ridiculous illustrations, didn't read the text, but the preface by Gide is terrific. The editor of the French edition below even refers to the novel as "gidean."

Laclos, Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de. _Les Liaisons Dangereuses._ New York: Penguin Books, 1979. * In English with an introduction by P.W.K. Stone.

--------. _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_. Paris: Editions Garnier Freres, 1961. * In French with an introduction by Y. Le Hir. Illustrated!


Assoun, Paul-Laurent et al. _Analyses & Reflexions sur Laclos: Les Liaisons dangereueses, La Passion Amoureuese._ Paris: Ellipses, 1991. * Excellent collection of more than 20 short essays in French on _Liaisons_.

Hughes, Peter. "Wars Within Doors: Erotic Heroism in Eighteenth-Century Literature." _The English Hero, 1660-1800._ Ed. Robert Folkenflik. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1982. * Compares Lovelace and Valmont.

Lindley, Arthur. "Richardson's Lovelace and the Self-dramatizing Hero of the Restoration." _The English Hero, 1660-1800_. Ed. Robert Folkenflik. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1982. * Useful when considering Valmont in tradition of Restoration rakes.

Miller, Nancy K. "The Exquisite Cadavers: Women in Eighteenth-Century Fiction." _Diacritics_. 5 (Winter 1975), 37-43. * Discusses Clarissa, Mme de Tourvel and Merteuil.

Pomeau, Rene. _Laclos et le Libertinage._ Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982.

Rogers, Katharine. "Creative Variation: _Clarissa_ and _Les Liaisons dangereuses_." _Comparative Literature_. 38 (Winter 1986), 36-52.

Runte, Roseann. "Dying Words: The Vocabulary of Death in Three Eighteenth-Century English and French Novels." _Canadian Review of Comparative Literature._ Fall 1979, 360-368. * Compares Clarissa, Julie and Mme de Tourvel.

Storme, Julia A. "'An Exit So Happy': The Deaths of Julie and Clarissa." _Canadian Review of Comparative Literature_. June 1987, 191-210. * Compares the French and English sentimental heroines.

Turner, James Grantham. "The Libertine Sublime: Love and Death in Restoration England." _Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture._ 19 (1989),99-115. * Useful when thinking about Valmont as a rake; this definition does not include female rakes like Merteuil, although it's interesting to consider how she fits in.


(_Liaisons was a hit Broadway play the year before the movie came out, as well, but I could find no videotapes in Clemons.)

Forman, Milos. _Valmont_. New York: Orion Home Video, 1989.

Frears, Stephen. _Dangerous Liaisons_. Burbank, Calif.: Warner Home Video, 1988.

Vadim, Roger. _Les Liaisons dangereuses._ New York: Interama Video, 1989 (re-release of 1960 film). * To my surprise, not actually a version of the novel. Sounds more like a kinky French sex farce only loosely related to Valmont (for ex. in this one there's a Mrs. Valmont). In French with subtitles. Knowing as little as I do about the filmmaker, this is probably rampantly sexist. On the plus side, it does star Jeanne Moreau and have music by Thelonius Monk. Stills from this movie serve as illustrations in _passion amoureuses_ collection. Humorous trivia if nothing else.