Dangerous Acquaintances, the only novel by the French artillery officer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is a slow-paced but fascinating story, in which Laclos proved himself a master of the epistolary form popularized by Samuel Richardson and other novelists of the eighteenth century. The letters are so skillfully arranged, and the characterizations so scrupulously presented, that the reader willingly accepts the letters as real and the characters as people rather than as devices for telling a story. The illusion is furthered by Laclos’s use of frequent footnotes to explain details in the letters.
Frequently in the history of Western literature, certain works that were initially castigated as indecent, immoral, or blasphemous later came to be acknowledged not only as artistic triumphs but as powerful moral statements. Such is the case with Laclos’s Dangerous Acquaintances. Enormously popular, yet roundly condemned, the novel was seen as outright scandalous. The real hostility toward the book, however, may have stemmed not from its immoral themes but from Laclos’s ruthless honesty in portraying the social, intellectual, and erotic climate of mid-eighteenth century French society, unmitigated by stylistic indirection or sentimental distortion. Moreover, it seems curious to call a book corrupt in which the transgressors are so thoroughly punished for their machinations. Indeed, to later readers, the ending seems too easy and perhaps melodramatic. Valmont’s deathbed conversion is almost sentimental, and Madame de Merteuil’s smallpox seems gratuitous.
There is in the work a chilling quality in the manner in which Valmont and Madame de Merteuil manipulate and destroy the lives of others as players would move pieces around a chessboard. Although called an erotic novel, there is, in fact, little sexual passion and no emotional involvement in these intrigues. Love is an almost entirely intellectual activity, and...
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