Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos
Les Liaisons dangereuses Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos
The following entry presents criticism of Laclos's eighteenth-century French epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). For information on Laclos's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 4.
Scholars consider Les Liaisons dangereuses, or Dangerous Liaisons, as it is known in English, to be the greatest epistolary novel ever written, as well as an important contribution to the canon of world literature. Published in 1782, the novel consists of a series of letters exchanged between a cast of characters which reveal the tangled web of sexual liaisons between members of the French noble class. Laclos's representation of libertine philosophy and the ambiguous moral tone of the novel reflect the mood of France at the time and foreshadow the French Revolution, which occurred in opposition to the corruption of the French upper class. At one time considered scandalous, Dangerous Liaisons is now admired by critics as a masterpiece of subtlety that reveals the full potential of the epistolary form.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was born in 1741, the son of a newly ennobled family of Spanish origin. His low social position prevented Laclos from progressing as an officer in the French military. To relieve boredom, the young soldier wrote Les Liaisons dangereuses,basing the novel on libertine attitudes common at the time. While his motivations for writing the novel remain unclear, in part because of his conflicting explanations and rationalizations, most scholars posit that the novel's focus on the moral decay of the upper classes was tied to Laclos's political reform position. Though a monarchist, Laclos supported the removal of King Louis XVI, in favor of his cousin the Duc d'Orléans, for whom Laclos served as secretary prior to the French Revolution. However, Orléans was never able to seize power and, when the French Revolution occurred, he was beheaded. Although Laclos was jailed numerous times during the Revolution, his life was spared. Under the political leadership of Napoleon, Laclos achieved greater success as a military officer, serving out the rest of his career in Italy. He died in 1803.
Plot and Major Characters
Les Liaisons dangereuses consists of numerous letters sent between characters revealing an intricate pattern of affairs, infidelity, and power struggles within the French noble class. As the novel opens, Cécile de Volanges has departed from the convent where she was educated in preparation for her marriage to the older nobleman, Comte de Gercourt. Cécile's mother, Madame de Volanges, has arranged the marriage without informing her daughter, although her daughter suspects marriage is imminent. The Marquise de Merteuil, the jilted lover of the Comte de Gercourt, is determined to ruin the match, thus taking revenge on her former lover. She attempts to enlist the aid of another former lover, a libertine named the Vicomte de Valmont. However, he is focused on his own conquest, the challenge of seducing Madame de Tourvel, a virtuous woman known for her piety. A competition ensues between the Marquise and Valmont over who can exercise the greater control over others; this fierce battle, which imitates a military campaign, is the focus of the novel. The pair orchestrate a love affair between Cécile and her admirer, the Chevalier Danceny. In addition, Valmont himself seduces Cécile. After much persuasion, Valmont is successful in his conquest of Madame de Tourvel. However, when the Marquise deduces that Valmont has fallen in love with his conquest, she resolves to destroy the love affair and, as a result, Madame de Tourvel. Learning of Valmont's seduction of Cécile, Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel in which the libertine is mortally wounded. On his deathbed, Valmont befriends Danceny, entrusting him to make public the letters between Valmont and the Marquise, letters that will prove her deceptive and destructive nature. The Marquise is publicly ruined, falls ill to smallpox, which ravages her beauty, and is forced to flee Paris in disgrace. Cécile enters a convent, while Danceny pledges himself as a celibate among the Knights of Malta.
In Les Liaisons dangereuses Laclos reveals the world of wealthy French noble families and the attitudes of the libertines. At the center of his novel is an egotistical battle between two immoral, ruthless, and cunning adversaries—Valmont and the Marquise. Although critics have long been divided over Laclos's intentions in writing the novel, in part because he offered various conflicting explanations during his life, most agree that the novel is linked to his views on the political and social conditions of France in the late eighteenth century and, specifically, to his concerns about the education of women. The juxtaposition of the naive, if not innocent, Cécile, whose convent education has sheltered her from society, and the evil and intelligent Marquise who destroys the lives of others out of retaliation for her own lack of freedom, reflects themes that Laclos developed in a series of essays on the education of women. Laclos argued that women were not and could not be equal to men as long as they were kept ignorant. They could only compliment man when they understood their world and were allowed choices. In addition, most critics today believe that Laclos was challenging his readers to reject the decadent lifestyle of the characters in the novel and to understand the limitations of such a life.
Critics have long been troubled by Laclos's ambivalent tone in Les Liaisons dangereuses. As Sandra Camargo notes, the novel has been interpreted in countless contradictory ways since its publication. Some scholars claim that the novel voices Laclos's objection to the immorality of the age; others argue that Laclos exhibited a cynical attitude, or that his sole aim was to entertain his audience rather than to moralize. Refuting the claim that the characters are destroyed by their decadence, critics note that while Valmont dies, the Marquise survives, and they argue that her disfigurement empowers her rather than destroys her. However, Susan Dunn warns that “description should not be confused with prescription.” Valerie Minogue suggests that Laclos's intent was for the reader to identify with Valmont and the Marquise only to question their own morality as they discover the shamefulness of these characters' acts. Some scholars celebrate Laclos's liberal ideas on empowering women, arguing that he was an early feminist. Others state that the author was a misogynist, citing the inherent strength of man's temperament in the novel as compared to woman's. Many scholars are in agreement that Laclos exhibited a fine mastery of the epistolary form, developing Samuel Richardson's early attempt in Clarissa to much greater skill. Scholars note Laclos's use of language in the novel and point out that his employment of editorial footnotes lends credence to the letters. Reviewers argue that Laclos was one of the most subtle and skillful novelists of his era. Renee Winegarten states that “(b)y concentrating only upon what would advance the drama, Laclos produced a book that has been called the first well-made French novel.”
Les liaisons dangereuses; ou, Lettres recueillies dans une société et publiées pour l'instruction de quelques autres (epistolary novel) 1782 [Dangerous Connections; or, Letters Collected in a Society, and Published for the Instruction of Other Societies, 1784; also published as Dangerous Acquaintances, 1924]
Lettre à Messieurs de l'Académie française sur l'éloge de M le Maréchal de Vauban, proposé pour sujet du prix d'éloquence de l'année 1787 (essay) 1786
De l'éducation des femmes (essays) 1903
Lettres inédites de Choderlos de Laclos (letters) 1904
Oeuvres Complètes (epistolary novel, essays, and poetry) 1951
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SOURCE: “The Moral Structure of Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” The French Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, February, 1964, pp. 383-99.
[In the following essay, Greshoff clarifies the fundamental intellectual, psychological, and moral content of Les Liaisons dangereuses.]
Les Liaisons dangereuses is an accident both in the life of literature and in the life of Laclos. It is the only novel and the only valid piece of literature he ever wrote. The rest of his work is curious merely because it was written by the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses. Giraudoux describes him in his other works as “déclamatoire, maladroitement badin, terriblement plat et sensible. …”1 As a novel Les Liaisons dangereuses is unique. Superficially it is part of the XVIIIth century tradition of erotic literature; it has also no doubt been influenced by Clarissa Harlowe and La Nouvelle Héloïse. Nevertheless Les Liaisons dangereuses stands alone and Laclos with greater justice than Rousseau could have taken for himself the famous opening sentence of Les Confessions: “Je forme une entreprise qui n’eût jamais d’exemple et dont l’exécution n’aura point d’imitateur.” Laclos however made his own rather bombastic declaration. In London he said to his friend Tilly: “… je résolus de faire un ouvrage qui sortit de la route ordinaire, qui fît du bruit,...
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SOURCE: “Education and Seduction in Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Symposium,Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 125-37.
[In the essay below, Dunn links Laclos's ideas about morality and equality in Les Liaisons dangereusesto his later writing on the education of women.]
The problem of education is central to Les Liaisons dangereuses and is part of its thematics of power and sexuality. In addition, Laclos's attitude toward education may provide a way to view the question of the morality or immorality of the novel. In the Préface du Rédacteur, Laclos agrees with the mother who told him that she read the manuscript of Les Liaisons dangereuses and found it an ideal pre-nuptial education for a young woman: “Je croirais … rendre un vrai service à ma fille, en lui donnant ce Livre le jour de son mariage.”1 The Préface, then, already anticipates the question of women's education and the relation between education and sexuality. The novel itself begins under the sign of education. Cécile, still something of a Lockean tabula rasa after her convent education, is unprepared for life and society. Will she be seduced by Valmont or married to Gercourt? It might seem as if the pretext or even the motor of the plot is the education of Gercourt. Madame de Merteuil seeks to expose his hypocritical illusions and his faith in a convent education as a...
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SOURCE: “Valmont, Actor and Spectator,” The French Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, October, 1984, pp. 41-7.
[In the essay below, Dunn analyzes Valmont's role as an actor and an observer in the novel, arguing that his inability to understand himself ultimately destroys him.]
Madame de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are essentially theatrical beings, brilliant and entertaining performers who weave webs of illusion and deception in which they trap their victims, exploiting the gullibility of others while assuring their own power and freedom. Their acting ability is a function not of talent, emotion, or sincerity, but rather of intelligence and will: to perform is to be in possession of oneself and of one's role.
Students of Les Liaisons dangereuses have often seen Valmont and Madame de Merteuil as actors (“Ce sont des protagonistes libertins, toujours masqués, toujours acteurs”1), realizing that although both are ultimately victims of their own belief in theater, Madame de Merteuil is a totally successful actress, whereas Valmont can only be characterized as an acteur manqué.2
Les Liaisons dangereuses, however, is concerned with the spectators of the performance almost as much as it is concerned with those who perform. Jean Rousset demonstrates that the reader of Les Liaisons dangereuses, “observateur...
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SOURCE: “Split Personalities: Characterizing Writers and Readers” in Intimate, Intrusive, and Triumphant: Readers in the Liaisons Dangereuses, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 81-96.
[In the excerpt below, Conroy analyzes the characters in the novel as both readers and writers of letters.]
… [Each] of the novel's characters has a double function, first that of writing letters or of being a narrator, and second, that of receiving another's letters or of being a reader. This dual function in the structure of the novel corresponds to a double personality profile at the psychological level of characterization, since each personage displays a different aspect of his or her personality according to his or her role as either narrator or reader. Consequently, we can analyze each character in terms of this narrator/reader distinction. In such successful and well-rounded figures as we find in the Liaisons dangereuses, this distinction might at first seem arbitrary. Nonetheless, the value of the distinction and of the consequent analysis is real. As subtle as the two faces of each character are, and as difficult as it may be to differentiate precisely between them, the contrast between the very same character as writer and as reader reveals accurately the secret workings of their personalties and demonstrates another subtle element of Laclos's artistry.
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SOURCE: “The Anonymous Public in Les Liaisons dangereuses,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 18, 1988, pp. 479-87.
[In the essay below, Rosa claims that Laclos raises questions about his intended moral objective in writing Les Liaisons dangereuses in order to more fully engage the reader.]
Throughout the eighteenth century in France, novelists insisted that their works were morally useful. In countless préfaces, avertissements, and avis au lecteur, they reiterated their aims of pleasing and moving readers in order to instruct and improve them in an agreeable way. Though adherence to this view of the novel may have been for many novelists only nominal—a defensive maneuver designed to placate right-thinking critics and gain a modicum of respectability for a genre considered disreputable—its repeated expression nevertheless reflects the accepted view of literary production in a society which increasingly valued art for its usefulness, and in which literary works were thought of, not as “self-affirming objects,”1 but as instruments for provoking some sort of change—preferably a moral one—in audience or reader.
Among novelists, Rousseau is perhaps the most cogent, conscientious, and effective exponent of this view. In the prefaces to La Nouvelle Héloise, he insists that in a corrupt society the novel is the only means...
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SOURCE: “Resistance and Retreat: A Laclosian Primer for Women,” The University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 391-408.
[In the following essay, Diaconoff compares Laclos's essays with Les Liaisons dangereuses, arguing that his views on feminism lacked vision and did not call for fundamental change.]
In the past ten or fifteen years the assessment of Choderlos de Laclos's treatment of women has undergone significant revision. For if during decades he was celebrated as the first feminist writer and continues to be so called by some critics, male especially,1 in recent years an increasing number of others have asserted new judgments. Various critics now suggest that, far from being feminist, Laclos's work in toto reveals a misogynist mentality (arising out of the imaginaire viril,2 a sort of ambivalence towards women best defined as ‘reductive misogyny,)’3 the kind of writing that poses as femino-centric but whose ideological subscript is really that of female vulnerability and the re-establishment and ratification of the male order.4
The lack of agreement among critics indicates not only changing currents in criticism and differing ideological stands, but also, and most important, the recognition that Laclos delivers to women a mixed message of resistance and retreat. Author of Les Liaisons...
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SOURCE: “Male Bonding and Female Isolation in Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses,” Studies on Voltaire and The Eighteenth Century, No. 267, 1989, pp. 253-71.
[In the essay below, Conroy argues that Laclos champions the power of male friendship over the lesser power of the female acting alone.]
Near the end of Choderlos de Laclos's libertine masterpiece, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), the Chevalier Danceny challenges the Vicomte de Valmont to a duel. Danceny has just discovered that Valmont has been seducing the woman he loves, Cécile Volanges, while pretending to be his friend and confidant. Naively, Danceny had thought that Valmont was helping to further his amorous intentions towards Cécile. Enraged, the Chevalier demands satisfaction for this spot on his manly honour, for this mockery made of friendship. The two men cross swords and Danceny obtains his revenge by wounding Valmont fatally. At this point in the novel, a momentous event takes place, one that has been duly noted by critics but also one that has never been fully analysed for its deepest, secret meaning.1 As he dies of his wounds, Valmont makes a noble, an heroic, a most manly gesture: he forgives his murderer. To demonstrate the sincerity of this pardon and the depth of this newly forged friendship between the erstwhile adversaries, the Vicomte gives Danceny his most precious and secret possession: to the...
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SOURCE: “Trading Genres: Epistolarity and Theatricality in Britannicus and Les Liaisons dangereuses,” Yale French Studies, No. 76, 1989, pp. 243-64.
[In the essay below, MacArthur explores the ways in which Les Liaisons dangereuses and Jean Racine's Britannicus are transformed through shared text.]
It is a critical commonplace to compare Racine and Laclos, for their rigorous textual construction, their creation of stiflingly closed worlds, or their culminating positions in two related genres, classical tragedy and the epistolary novel.1 In such comparisons, of course, Laclos is usually seen as very much the follower, “a little Racine”2 borrowing belatedly his illustrious model's words and adapting them as well as possible to a new context. Rather than describing the intertextual relations between Racine and Laclos in any more precise way, critics have tended to reiterate claims of influence based on resemblances between the two authors' themes or vocabulary, claims which are moreover somewhat unconvincing because many of the passages cited suggest merely that both writers belonged to the same literary tradition.3 Instead of pursuing such generalizations, this essay will approach the relation between Racine and Laclos through one particular passage, the one-and-a-half lines that the Vicomte de Valmont quotes from Néron's description of...
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SOURCE: “In Search of a Female Voice: Les Liaisons dangereuses,” in Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, Northeastern University Press, 1989, pp. 154-71.
[In the essay below, Jackson analyzes the attributes of female voices in the letters that comprise Les Liaisons dangereuses.]
Women of sincerity, it is you whom we are questioning. … You will not answer us; but dare to examine your hearts and judge for yourselves.
Choderlos de Laclos, On the Education of Women1
Countless analyses of Les Liaisons dangereuses originate in the statement or assumption that they are dealing with a “masterpiece.” If the exceptional paucity of Laclos's oeuvres complètes allows his only novel to be read, as if by default, as his chef d’oeuvre, the metaphorical possibilities of this biographical phenomenon have not been lost on literary historians who single out the Liaisons as a masterpiece unrivaled in the lifetime of epistolary fiction. Christopher Hampton puts it wittily in “A Note on Laclos,” which prefaces his recent adaptation of the novel for the commercial stage: “In many respects, Pierre-A.-F. Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) is the perfect author: he wrote, at around the age of...
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SOURCE: “The Political Economy of the Body in the Liaisons dangereuses of Choderlos de Laclos” in Eroticism and the Body Politic, edited by Lynn Hunt, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 41-62.
[In the following essay, Deneys explores the tenets of libertinism as expressed in Les Liaisons dangereuses,arguing that an exchange system operates at the linguistic, economic, and ethical level.]
Why speak of “economy” in the Liaisons dangereuses? Because in this novel interpersonal relationships are organized like a system of exchange: letters, promises, libertine accounts, agreements, and challenges are exchanged; also women.1 As I shall attempt to show, every one of these exchanges assumes above all that women are exchanged, that women circulate among a number of men.
Among libertines, women, goods, and words (in letters) are exchanged, which Lévi-Strauss has shown to have been the general rule of the basic structure of human societies even before they engaged in material production or in political discourse. Does this tell us that, by its system of exchange, the elitist and refined society of the Liaisons subconsciously attempts to constitute a vast family clan, where women tend to be the common property of the masters and where a strict division of functions governs the respective functions of men and of women?
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SOURCE: “Merteuil and Mirrors: Stephen Frears's Freudian Reading of Les Liaisons dangereuses,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, April, 1993, pp. 269-81.
[In the following essay, Singerman applies Sigmund Freud's concepts of psychoanalysis to Stephen Frears's and Christopher Hampton's 1988 film adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses.]
Choderlos de Laclos's notorious epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), portrays the agonistic relationship between two master libertines, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, and the catastrophic consequences of their efforts to dominate each other while pursuing their sadistic games of seduction and humiliation against lesser opponents. The libertine character, as mythically incarnated by Don Juan, has been subjected to extensive psychoanalytical study, including well-known analyses by Jean-Pierre Jouve and Otto Rank, as well as the more recent “Oedipal reading” by Peter Gay.1 Don Juan's comportment has been cited, for instance, as a striking example of the unconscious workings of a repressed, unresolved “Oedipal fixation” (Gay, p. 76); that is, his repeated seductions of women are interpreted as phantasmal “repetitions” of the child's primal wish, buried deep in the psyche, to possess again the Mother from whom he was traumatically separated as a child. In the same Freudian context, Don Juan...
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SOURCE: “Seductive Monsters: Laclos's Liaisons dangereuses,” The New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 7, March, 1994, pp. 24-30.
[In the essay below, Winegarten links Laclos's political ideology with the themes developed in Les Liaisons dangereuses.]
I believe that the sect of Epicurus, introduced into Rome at the end of the republic, contributed greatly to produce a harmful effect on the heart and mind of the Romans.
Sometime during the winter of 1789-90, Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos, notorious author of Les Liaisons dangereuses, was impatiently cooling his heels in a London antechamber, because that paragon of dandies, George Prince of Wales, had not yet finished his toilette. So bored was Laclos at this princely levee that, although reputedly a figure of glacial reserve, he unburdened himself to Comte Alexandre de Tilly, no mean roué in his day. The dubious Tilly reported the novelist's words in memoirs published many years later. “I decided to write a work that should depart from the trodden path, make a stir, and reverberate on this earth after my demise,” confided Laclos, adding for good measure that certain characters and events in his novel were based on actual persons (indicated with tantalizing discretion), and on circumstances with which he himself was directly or indirectly...
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SOURCE: “Face Value and the Value of Face in Les Liaisons dangereuses: The Rhetoric of Form and the Critic's Seduction,” The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 228-48.
[In the following essay, Camargo provides an overview of recent scholarly reaction to Les Liaisons dangereuses,outlining distinctions between different critical interpretations of the novel.]
Written by Choderlos de Laclos to pass the time when he was stationed at a boring outpost on the western coast of France, Les Liaisons dangereuses has been the subject of intense debate since its publication in 1782 and has been variously described as both cynical and moralizing, as feminist and misogynist, as counseling hypocrisy and as attacking it, as a textbook of seduction techniques and as a warning not to use them. In a review of the literature on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the novel's publication, David Coward noted that “Les Liaisons dangereuses has been scrutinized in a bewildering variety of ways. Traditionalists, structuralists, feminists, and others besides have investigated its themes and tensions, analyzed its language and form and set it in contexts both ancient and modern. Les Liaisons dangereuses lends itself admirably to elucidation by virtue of its elusive, ambiguous and ultimately mysterious clarity and it has proved a super malleable...
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SOURCE: “Dialogues of the Deaf: The Failure of Consolation in Les Liaisons dangereuses,” MLN, Vol. 111, No. 4, September, 1996, pp. 671-87.
[In the essay below, Mortimer contends that Laclos's characters are denied consolation through misunderstandings that result from their communication by letter.]
Jacques the fatalist, lying with wounded knee on a poor peasant's bed, overhears his host and hostess in amorous embrace, then in testy disagreement over the charity she has shown him in spite of their poverty. All the more reason, protests the wife, not to produce a new child—and she is sure to become pregnant because “cela n’a jamais manque quand l’oreille me démange après, et j’y sens une démangeaison comme jamais …” (Jacques le fataliste, 26). “Ton oreille ne sait ce qu’elle dit,” says he—but in spite of his objection the metaphor lending speech to the ear eroticizes it, as she fully realizes: “Ne me touche pas! Laisse là mon oreille!” If, as the editors gravely note, the erotic connotations of the ear are a constant of libertine fictions, I think we have here one of the most inventive and beguiling versions of the sexual ear. The language itself conveys, by its rhythms and its strategies, the action it purports to hide in words that go on “behind” the paper, just as Jacques lies on the other side of a wall of...
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Birkett, Jennifer. “Dangereuses liaisons: Literary and Political Form in Choderlos de Laclos.” Literature and History 8, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 82-94.
Examines the political and social conflict found both in Laclos's fiction and his political activities.
Byrne, Patrick. “The Valmont-Merteuil Relationship: Coming to Terms with the Ambiguities of Laclos's Text.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, No. 266 (1989): 373-409.
Proposes an interpretation of the relationship between Valmont and Merteuil.
Coward, D. A. “Laclos and the Dénouement of the Liaisons dangereuses.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 5, No. 3 (Spring 1972): 431-49.
Discusses the novel's literary importance relative to other French novels of the period and remarks on the thematic meaning of the final letters.
———. “Laclos Studies, 1968-82.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, No. 219 (1983): 289-328.
Provides an overview of scholarship on Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Jones, Shirley. “Literary and Philosophical Elements in Les Liaisons dangereuses: The Case of Merteuil.” French Studies XXXVIII, No. 2 (April 1984): 159-69.
Argues that while there is a strong link between...
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