Book: Les Liaisons dangereuses
Author: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Reviewed by: Ellyce
Rating: 5/5 stars
Although it seems there are a great number of classics filling our shelves today, few works of literature have managed to truly endure throughout the years and remain such fascinating subjects to each new generation. In that regard, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ defining work is an unparalleled tale that depicts a cunning game of love, betrayal, sex, revenge, and cruelty. Les Liaisons dangereuses has remained a subject of fascination for legions of readers since its release in 1782 and remains so today. Indeed, upon its initial publication, it caused a stir in France, shocking and exciting its readership. Laclos was condemned for his work even as it flew off of the shelves and into the hands of thrilled readers. When it was eventually banned, this did not stop illegal circulation (some complete with lewd illustrations) from being read in droves among intrigued audiences. Today, there have been numerous adaptations among a variety of mediums, including film, opera, theatre, radio, and ballet. It arouses fervid discussion and debate regarding how it should be interpreted and its possible themes (such as the feminist deconstruction of the Marquise de Mereteuil). Some believe that Laclos meant his novel to be a moral lesson to warn his readers; the consequences of such licentious behavior depicted by his characters should be interpreted as having dire consequences. Others dismiss this explanation, as both the heroes and the villains in this novel are of aristocratic standing. Regardless of its original intent or numerous interpretations, Les Liaisons dangereuses remains a necessary component of classic literature.
The story is told through a series of correspondence among two bored aristocrats and the pawns in their game in eighteenth century France. The Marquise de Mereteuil is still smarting from the fact that one of her lovers, the Comte de Gercourt, left her for another woman. Gercourt has now set his eyes on the convent-educated Cécile Volanges, whose virginity he prizes, as his bride. Mereteuil asks her ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, to do her the favor of seducing Cécile, which would turn Gercourt into a laughingstock once he discovered that his bride had already been deflowered. Valmont initially refuses, as he sees the task of seducing a young chit fresh from the schoolroom to be simple and requiring no effort at all. Instead, he has set his sights on seducing a visitor of his aunt’s: the married Présidente de Tourvel. Tourvel is a paragon of virtue famed for her devotion to God and her marriage. Valmont believes that his success in this endeavor will be the crème de la crème of his career as a rogue and thus solidify his skills in seduction as unparalleled. An amused Mereteuil tells Valmont that if he is able to succeed in seducing Tourvel and provides written proof, she will reward him by once more taking him as her lover. So begins a game between the two that doesn’t exactly turn out the way that they expect.
The setting of the novel in the drawing rooms and châteaus of eighteenth century aristocratic France serves as not only a glamorous backdrop, but a driving force that makes up several aspects of what motivates the characters. Like the le bon ton of Regency England, the upper set of France during this era was guided by its own set of rules and customs that defined the people who were a part of its rank and all those who lived around it. This was a society that bred a lush range of different personalities that are reflected in Laclos’ characters. Here we can find an array of personalities, from innocents who fail to see sinister intentions before their very eyes to the jaded blackguards who seek to ruin those around them. As they gather at the same parties and estates, sprawling from Paris to the countryside, we see a group of people who are dripping in extravagance, decadence, leisure, and indulgence with a devil-may-care attitude.
Having the book written as an epistolary novel allows us, as readers, to see the private thoughts and inner workings of an array of personalities; it’s intimate in a way that regular narrative point of view (and even those with alternating points of view) cannot normally achieve. We are privy to these characters’ deepest secrets, and are able to watch as they change (or, in a few cases, remain the same) in front of our very eyes – before they even come to terms with it. Epistolary novels are not always easy to pull off; they can go terribly wrong if they are not done correctly, turning them into crashing bores. However, Laclos is clearly in his element, as he rackets up the levels of sophisticated intrigue in a smart and dramatic style. It’s cleverly done in such a subtle way, adding a distinct uniqueness to Les Liaisons dangereuses that sets it on a level entirely its own.
All of the main characters, no matter what type of personality they may have or what morals drive them, are people that we come to truly care about and whose impending fates we fret over. Les Liaisons dangereuses is a character-driven story that absorbs us through its multiple narratives. At first glance, this cast of colorful personalities may all seem to fall into the typical cliché of historical character tropes. However, each of these people who initially seem so easy to understand are, in reality, deeply complex personalities.
Cécile and Chevalier Danceny’s naïveté reeks of the innocence of untried youth, but they are both so charmingly unaware of the net that they are being pulled into that all we can do is shake our heads and give them a sad smile. Their willingness to accept, without much thought, the help of others who are marked out against them is indeed ridiculously gullible, but we can see that the taste of first love blinds them. And for those of us who have experienced the pangs of such affections, how can we not feel a bit of pity for them? We may want to take them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, but we can see reflected in them every twinge of foolish, beautiful, and green echoes of such heady young love.
Madame de Tourvel, the epitome of charity and virtue, is perhaps the one we sympathize with and worry over the most. Her path towards tragedy is one we feel every painstaking and fleetingly happy step of the way. She is someone strong in her own right, and should not be simply brushed aside as just another run-of-the-mill goody two shoes. Having such a steadfastly faithful countenance is not so easy to maintain as most of us would believe. As such, Tourvel may initially choose to believe the best in Valmont not because she is a fool, but because she chooses to see the good in people (which in itself requires a resounding sort of personality). Thus, she does not view him as anything more than a platonic source of friendship. She grows alarmed and suspicious once she learns Valmont’s true intentions, and remains quite steadfast in upholding what she sees as most revered.
Her growing love for Valmont does not change her into some sort of blasphemous non-believer. Indeed, Valmont would not have it be so. He recognizes that the most tormenting of ways for Tourvel to give in to such feelings he may arouse is not by changing her morals, but by having her fall for him in spite of still holding up her beliefs: ‘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. Then, I agree, let her say to me, “I adore thee”; she, alone among women, is worthy to pronounce these words. I shall be truly the God whom she has preferred.’
Valmont is truly a chameleon-like degenerate of the first order who does not realize that his eventual love and happiness with this woman, which he refuses to accept as it is, will be his downfall. His pride and reputation cannot allow it, so he sacrifices what joy he may have to avoid the humiliation he feels he will face. Mereteuril can see it far before he is wiling to come to terms with it, and his vehement denial is met with alarmed astonishment by the marquise even as she is jealously angry over how this affair has altered him towards her. In her view, he has become nothing more than a pathetic parody of what he once was.
Valmont and Mereteuil are villains a set apart from the usual archetype we find in fiction – sleek and aristocratic, they view the majority of the world (and especially their pawns) with an air of contempt and paternalistic disdain. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing who are interesting foils to one another. Mereteuil wears a perfect mask of decorum and smiles, while inside she plots her next move and extracts others’ most inner secrets to wield against them. (We can compare her here to Tourvel, who also presents a virtuous and religious front that is true of her nature, while Mereteuil hides the opposite that is inside.) Valmont oozes a slyly bored disposition and a cunning veneer of rakish charm that is fitting for a lothario of his standing.
Mereteuil is more subtle with how she accomplishes her goals, while Valmont makes no move to hide what he is. This very well has to do with the fact that one is female and the other male (not to mention in the eighteenth century), thus allowing one of them certain, more explicit public options, while the other must be more covert. Mereteuil knows that even though she and Valmont engage in extremely similar activities, she would be ostracized by society if she were ever found out, while Valmont (though viewed as a dissolute reprobate) is able to carry on as he always does. Her methods are her own sort of revenge at the society that traps her, and although she may be villainous, she is someone we can laugh with and sympathize over. She views herself as alone, a master of her field of games. How can we not feel for her when she wishes to take Cécile under her wing and make the young girl her protégé?
Regardless of whether the duo choose subtlety or more overt methods, Valmont and Mereteuril are people who often get what they want at the expense of others. Nothing and no one is off limits for them; the world is their playground and its inhabitants their playthings. There is very little (often none) remorse felt here for their actions. The destruction of an innocent girl who has the misfortune to be associated with those who have crossed them isn’t given a second thought or any pangs of guilt; it is all planned as matter-of-factly as though they are discussing a selection of crumpets and tea. Valmont and Mereteuil are fascinating characters because they may do atrocious things and feel no remorse, and yet still they (like the rest of the characters) manage to worm their way into our hearts and make us hope for a sliver of triumphant redemption or great change in them.
Alas, there is no such resolution. Valmont, although seemingly felled by his love for Torvel, does not act that differently. He is ashamed by the happiness that his feelings bring him (and afraid to admit the depth of them aloud) and what ridicule will face his reputation as a result. We see him thus lash out by carrying on his rakish behavior with other women even as he embarks on an all-consuming love affair with the object of his affections and deepest obsession. The only redemption Valmont receives comes at the cost of his life, and his declaration of love for Torvel does not stop her death from happening, the result of a tormented and broken heart. It is a cruel sort of reality that reminds us that in life, unlike the happy contentment of stories, lovers betray one another without much thought and deception abounds on all fronts of life.
This game proves to both Mereteuril and Valmont’s last, as he dies and she is shunned. While Valmont is given a small flicker of repentance by his confession to Danceny and the uttering of last rites, Mereteuril receives no such quarter. Valmont may have passed before her, but he is the one who seems to have the final revenge in their game: the discovery of her deceit causes society to close its doors to her. Indeed, it is not enough for her to face shameful banishment; Mereteuril contracts the pox and loses a lawsuit, thus thoroughly ruining her and causing her to flee from France. She is disposed of not only her wealth, but her most powerful arsenal: the beauty that brought her so much power.
Les Liaisons dangereuses is a powerful novel that cannot be ignored. It a timeless story of sex and revenge, seduction and betrayal, love and cruelty, of pawns and their players. All of the characters are so deeply human and invariably flawed that despite the setting of another century, it is a tale that can transpose to any time period or language (and has been done, in several media adaptations) and still have the same powerful effect. The characters’ flaws and traits are what ultimately lead to their downfalls, and it is a sobering reminder of the human story. No matter what its original intention, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a significant work of literature that is in turns delightful, heartbreaking, amusing, fresh, and thought-provoking.