By Pierre Choderlos de Lackos
Genre: classic, historical fiction, epistolary
The complex moral ambiguities of seduction and revenge make Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. Its prime movers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil–gifted, wealthy, and bored–form an unholy alliance and turn seduction into a game. And they play this game with such wit and style that it is impossible not to admire them, until they discover mysterious rules that they cannot understand. In the ensuing battle there can be no winners, and the innocent suffer with the guilty.
It’s always a pleasure to read a good epistolary novel and this one is superb. It is also very appropriate for the setting in the 18th century France when communication was possible only through letters. We get an intimate look into the relationships these people have with one another, the brazen duplicity and depravity of both Valmont and Merteuil, and the more naive outlooks on life from other characters. The tone is intimate and yet descriptive enough that no action is left out in the telling.
“Humanity is not perfect in any fashion; no more in the case of evil than in that of good. The criminal has his virtues, just as the honest man has his weaknesses.”
Valmont and Merteuil have everything they need in life but their privilege turns them into monsters: her into a world-class actress and sadist, him into a womaniser and wastrel of the first kind. Yet there is something different in Valmont when he begins to fall for his intended target. It’s not enough to erase his past habits or change his mental make-up but enough to give him a twinge of conscience. It is fascinating to read how his whole outlook on life changes when he meets a truly good woman. It was not enough for me to be on his side in any way. He is still carrying on his seduction and corruption of the young Cécile Volanges and numerous other affairs, so you cannot really believe a word he writes.
Cécile is such easy prey when she has lived in a convent most of her life and is curious and unknowledgeable of so many things at her young age. I fear she turns into her own version of Marquise de Merteuil later in life. Well she certainly learned from the woman herself and I found that completely appalling. Cécile’s mother was trying her best but she trusted the wrong people. And yet that is how society worked and still does today – we trust the social standing of people and if they commit crimes but nobody exposes them, their victim pool only gets bigger. That is why covering up after rapists or abusers is the worst idea ever. Just imagine Merteuil is exposed much earlier – the story would be completely different.
“I shall possess this woman; I shall steal her from the husband who profanes her: I will even dare ravish her from the God whom she adores. What delight, to be in turns the object and the victor of her remorse! Far be it from me to destroy the prejudices which sway her mind! They will add to my happiness and my triumph. Let her believe in virtue, and sacrifice it to me; let the idea of falling terrify her, without preventing her fall; and may she, shaken by a thousand terrors, forget them, vanquish them only in my arms. – Valmont”
The true villain of the entire story is definitely Merteuil because she instigates the entire thing, pulling strings from the background. Even Valmont who’s onto her tricks most of the time is caught eventually in her web. They’ve been lovers before and have learned from one another. Their very open discussion about plans and other past conquests is their depraved version of seduction. So really we have numerous parallel love affairs going on but at the centre are Valmont and Merteuil who compete with one another by performing more daring and depraved acts. It’s like watching a trainwreck – you are horrified but you can’t look away.
Merteuil recognizes from Valmont’s letters that he has fallen in love with his victim, Madame de Tourvel, and her jealousy makes her punish both of them in the most cruel fashion imaginable. Valmont must write to Madame Tourvel, saying he does not love her, that everything was a sham, that he’s gleeful about her capitulation and corruption, and that he only chased her because he was challenged to do so by others. He writes everything that can utterly destroy the gentle woman already filled with doubts about her affair.
“When one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.”
That his pride gets the best of him under Merteuil’s manipulation and he’s capable of going through with this tells you everything about him. Oh, he may regret it once he realises he can’t fix this with another letter telling the truth and apologizing for the great shock, but the mere idea you could play with a person like that and expect to be forgiven is ridiculous. And really what chance did he have for a happy life with a married woman? Poor Madame de Tourvel does not deserve her fate and I was so angry the writer punished her so. And yet you can’t say she’s only a victim – she is curious about Valmont and tries to reform him not imagining his actual plans. He’s a damn fine actor and the masterly way he woos both Tourvel and Cécile will boggle your mind.
The novel gives us a glimpse into other characters as well but I don’t wish to reveal every detail. The start may be slow but you’ll be sucked into the plots and nefarious plans. The characters are truly diabolical and you’ll have to look hard for a genuine person. No wonder this book got banned many times and appalled even the usually laid back French. (If a good proportion of the town populace behaved in the manner of these characters, there’s no wonder STDs spread like the plague. Ugh, I so don’t want to go there but it’s the honest truth supported by historical facts.) it’s a classic though and a mature reader can wade through the scandalous content to find hidden moral messages.
Read the book and enjoy the scandalous content.
I need to mention a wonderful adaptation with stunning costumes and excellent actors – Dangerous Liaisons (1988). If you don’t like epistolary novels, watch it instead.