Sade, Marquis de
Marquis de Sade 1740-1814
(Born Donatien Alphonse François, Comte de Sade) French novelist, short story writer, essayist, and dramatist.
For additional information on Sade's career, see Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volume 3.
The Marquis de Sade produced graphic celebrations of sexual violence, incest, torture, and murder during a period that encompassed the end of the ancien regime, the French Revolution, and the reign of Napoleon. His most notorious works are a series of novels in which wealthy, powerful "libertines" systematically rape, torture, and kill an assortment of victims—primarily women and adolescents of both sexes—while articulating elaborate philosophical justifications for this behavior. Rejecting the existence of a Supreme Being, Sade posits a lawless and destructive Nature as the only rational guide to behavior; sexual cruelty and the will to power, being natural human impulses, should be fostered rather than discouraged. His reputation inspired the nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to attach the author's name to the concept of sadism, sexual gratification through the infliction of pain on others.
Born into a wealthy, titled family, Sade was educated in a Jesuit college, then served in the cavalry during the Seven Years' War. In 1763 his father arranged his marriage to Renee-Pelagie Cordier de Launay de Montreuil, daughter of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Shortly after the marriage, however, Sade was jailed on charges of criminal sexual conduct. Over the next fifteen years his increasingly notorious penchant for sexually abusing servants and prostitutes fueled a series of scandals, incarcerations, and escapes. In 1778 he was imprisoned at Vincennes under a lettre de cachet, an arbitrary decree of imprisonment obtained from the king by the Marquis's mother-in-law. Most of the rest of his life was spent in various prisons. Released in 1790 during the French Revolution, he served briefly as a judge but was imprisoned again in 1793 as a suspected enemy of the Revolution and narrowly escaped the guillotine before being freed the following year. In 1801 he was again arrested on charges of obscenity. Judged insane, he was confined in a succession of institutions until his death in the asylum at Charenton in 1814.
Although he wrote and acted in amateur theatrical productions as early as 1765, Sade began writing prose fiction following his incarceration at Vincennes in 1778. While Sade employs many of the conventions of picaresque, gothic, and sentimental fiction, his novels are unique in the literature of their time in their rejection of any moral law and their explicit, encyclopedic detailing of violent sexual behavior. Les 120journées de Sodome, ou l'ecole du libertinage (The 120 Days of Sodom; or, The Romance of the School for Libertinage), begun in the Bastille in the early 1780s and never completed, proposes to set forth in novelistic form a catalog of all possible forms of libertine sexual behavior. Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu (Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue), the story of a virtuous young woman who undergoes horrific sexual tortures and is finally killed by a stroke of lightning, was also completed in the Bastille; an expanded version was published in 1797 as La nouvelle Justine (The New Justine), along with Juliette, ou les prosperites du vice (The Story of Juliette; or, Vice Amply Rewarded), the story of Justine's sister Juliette, who embraces vice and prospers at every turn. Laphilosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom) presents the initiation of a young woman into the philosophy and practice of libertinism. Sade's surviving work also includes a number of more conventional dramas and short stories, two historical novels, and an epistolary novel, Aline et Valcour. Much of his voluminous correspondence has also been preserved.
While Sade's writings were not distributed publicly during the nineteenth century, they were privately circulated. In 1843 the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve named Sade and Lord Byron as "the two greatest sources of inspiration" for contemporary writers, many of whom saw the Marquis as a pioneer of the dark side of human nature and as a martyr for freedom. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, and Guillaume Apollinaire were among the writers influenced by Sade's life and work. In the twentieth century, the Surrealist movement found inspiration in Sade's iconoclastic use of eroticism and his defiant rejection of all restrictions on personal liberty. The latter half of the twentieth century has seen a proliferation of Sade criticism. Studies by such critics as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski, and Georges Bataille focus on Sade's insights into the psychology of power and desire, and on relationships between his rhetorical practices and the desire for absolute personal sovereignty. Michel Foucault's perception of Sade's work as marking the "frontier" between Classical and modern thought has precipitated numerous analyses of the interrelationship between Sade's writings, his cultural and philosophical milieu, and the political, economic, and social upheavals of late eighteenth-century France. A number of critics have also examined the treatment of female characters in Sade's texts. Alice Laborde finds in his work an expose of his society's unfair treatment of women and a plea for sexual equality. Andrea Dworkin, on the other hand, uses her reading of Sade to support her contention that pornography functions as a means to degrade and subjugate women. Angela Carter argues that Sade's work is ultimately valuable because it explicitly depicts violent and oppressive attitudes that underlie conventional relations between men and women.
Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu [Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue, 1931; also published as Justine; or, Good Conduct Well Chastised, 1953] (novel) 1791
Aline et Valcour (novel) 1795
La philosophie dans le boudoir [The Bedroom Philosophers, 1953; also published as Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1965] (novel) 1795
Juliette, ou les prosperites du vice [The Story of Juliette; or, Vice Amply Rewarded, 1965] (novel) 1797
La nouvelle Justine [The New Justine, 1956] (novel) 1797
Les crimes de l'amour [The Crimes of Love, 1964; also published as The Crimes of Passion, 1965] (short stories) 1800
*Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou l'ecole du libertinage [The 120 Days of Sodom; or, The Romance of the School for Libertinage, 1954] (unfinished novel) 1904
**Dialogue entre un pretre et un moribund [Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man, 1927] (novel) 1926
*This work was written in 1785.
**This work was written in 1782.
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SOURCE: "De Sade's Sovereign Man," in Eroticism, Death and Sensuality, City Lights Books, 1986, pp. 164-76.
[A French novelist, philosopher, and critic who died in 1962, Bataille received considerable critical attention in France for his theories of eroticism and mysticism. He was among the first critics to undertake a serious study of Sade's writing and philosophy. In this excerpt from a book first published in French in 1957, Bataille considers the sexual excesses depicted in Sade's works in terms of a quest for absolute personal sovereignty.]
The Marquis de Sade's system perfects as much as it criticises a certain way of bringing the individual in to the full exercise of all his potentialities above the heads of the goggling crowd.…
The events of de Sade's real life lead one to suspect an element of braggadocio in his insistence on sovereignty seen as a denial of the rights and feelings of others. But the boasting was essential if he was to work out a system completely free from human weakness. In his life de Sade took other people into account, but his conception of fulfilment worked over and over in his lonely cell led him to deny outright the claims of other people. The Bastille was a desert; his writing was the only outlet for his passions and in it he pushed back the limits of what was possible beyond the craziest dreams ever framed by man. These books distilled in prison have...
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SOURCE: "The Case for a Political System in Sade," in Studies on Voltaire in the Eighteenth Century, Vol. LXXXVIII, 1972, pp. 493-512.
[Fink published numerous articles on Sade during the 1970s. In the following excerpt, she examines the political content of Sade's work and argues that he should be taken seriously as a political thinker."]
Suppose it is accepted that Sade's socio-political models abound in logical inconsistencies having serious consequences for their theoretical credibility. Does it follow that Sade is therefore disqualified for membership in the fraternity of respectable political philosophers?
There are several reasons for suggesting that the answer to this question is not obviously in the affirmative. Since models and utopias can be deployed by a political writer for various purposes wherein the issue of their internal logical consistency is neither important nor relevant, a broader, more sophisticated criterion must be used both for determining Sade's objectives in their respect and for reassessing his overall credentials as a political philosopher. This is especially important when dealing with a writer whose unconventional style and exotic interests tend to puzzle, titillate or even offend.
The hallmark of serious political philosophy, whether analytical or normative, is a preoccupation with the phenomenon of power in society: its origins,...
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SOURCE: "The Sade Machine," in Studies on Voltaire in the Eighteenth Century, Vol. XCVIII, 1972, pp. 207-18.
[In the following excerpt, Lee evaluates Sade's technique in his "iconoclastic" novels in terms of its function and apparent purpose.]
In the last pages of his novel Juliette, Sade describes nature in convulsive upheaval. Lightning and turbulent wind attack the universe so violently that, in the author's words, 'On euit dit que la nature, ennuyee de ses ouvrages, fut prete a confondre tous les elements pour les contraindre a des formes nouvelles.'
Patterning himself on this cataclysmic nature, Sade the novelist rejected the bland literature of his predecessors and set about to constrain thought and its expression into new forms. He constructed an elaborate machine, a literary battering ram designed to smash the foundations of moral rectitude for centuries to come. Our century has considered the Sadian machine with increasing interest and, recently, with an abundance of criticism, most of which is philosophical, moral or psychological. But if we confront Sade's literary product as a working apparatus, a series of techniques calculated to achieve a certain effect, then it becomes necessary to analyse and evaluate his work on a more immediate and practical level. To begin with, we may consider this apparatus from several points of view, for example, from the...
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SOURCE: "Another Look at the Sadean Heroine: The Prospects of Femininity," in Essays in French Literature, No. 13, November, 1976, pp. 28-43.
[In the following excerpt, Williams analyzes the heroines in Sade's short stories and in his novel Aline et Valcour.]
The figure of Justine and the multiple variations of the Justine legend lie at the core of Sade's output as a novelist, and offer a familiar pattern of themes central to Sade's perception of the qualities and realities of femininity. In this context, Sade's corrosive attack on sentimentalist modes, as reflected in the predilection of the period's fiction for the portrayal of a young lady's entrance into the world, has been exhaustively analysed in recent years. Yet, despite the stature of the legend in Sade's work and in subsequent criticism, the story of Justine is really no more than a point of departure. Events and ideas are deployed with a view to identifying problems, and with succeeding versions of this core narrative, culminating in a multitiered New Justine in 1797, Sade weaves a rich canvas of propositions, though not solutions, around the issue of femininity, or what might be called, following Tourne's recent article [in Europe, 1972] the Penelope syndrome.
From a gallery of assembly-line heroines—three Justines, Sophie, Aline, Ernestine, Eugénie de Franval, Miss Stralson, Euphrasie de Chateaublanc, and...
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SOURCE: "Polemical Preface: Pornography in the Service of Women," in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Pantheon, 1978, pp. 3-37.
[An English fiction writer and critic whose novels and short stories combined lush prose, eroticism, and elements of the macabre, Carter explored gender issues in both her fiction and her non-fiction. In the following excerpt, she argues that Sadean pornography is indirectly useful to women because it lays bare the oppressive politics of conventional male-female relationships.]
It is fair to say that, when pornography serves—as with very rare exceptions it always does—to reinforce the prevailing system of values and ideas in a given society, it is tolerated; and when it does not, it is banned. (This already suggests there are more reasons than those of public decency for the banning of the work of Sade for almost two hundred years; only at the time of the French Revolution and at the present day have his books been available to the general public.) Therefore an increase of pornography on the market, within the purchasing capacity of the common man, and especially the beginning of a type of pornography modelled on that provided for the male consumer but directed at women, does not mean an increase in sexual licence, with the reappraisal of social mores such licence, if it is real, necessitates. It might only indicate a more liberal attitude to masturbation,...
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SOURCE: "The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)," in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, The Women's Press, 1981, pp. 70-100.
[A radical feminist essayist and fiction writer, Dworkin has published several books on the politics of gender. In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, she argues that pornography functions in society as an instrument of power with which men degrade and subjugate women. In the following excerpt from that book, Dworkin posits that the violence against women that permeates Sade's work expresses basic assumptions about the relative rights of men and women in both his society and the present day.]
Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade—known as the Marquis de Sade, known to his ardent admirers who are legion as The Divine Marquis—is the world's foremost pornographer. As such he both embodies and defines male sexual values. In him, one finds rapist and writer twisted into one scurvy knot. His life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real. In his life he tortured and raped women. He was batterer, rapist, kidnapper, and child abuser. In his work he relentlessly celebrated brutality as the essence of eroticism; fucking, torture, and killing were fused; violence and sex, synonymous. His work and legend have survived nearly two centuries because literary, artistic, and intellectual men adore him and political thinkers on the Left claim...
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SOURCE: "Inside the Sadean Fortress: Les 120 journées de Sodome," in Literary Fortifications: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 263-326.
[DeJean has published several books on French literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on literature by and about women. In the following excerpt, she considers the relationship of The 120 Days of Sodom to the Classical literary tradition.]
The invitation to a literary feast that Sade has his narrator extend to the reader [in the introduction to The 120 Days of Sodom] is representative of just that strain in Sade's work to which recent critics have been most sensitive, Sade's rejection of convention and his invitation to literary liberation. Furthermore, the portrait of Sade as author implicit in these lines also conforms to the image that lies behind recent criticism of his works: Sade as author is the literary equivalent of Sade the liberator of the Bastille. Part of the recent fascination with Sade results from critical admiration for an author so confident of his philosophical and textual superiority that he can invite his reader—just as he invited the crowds that gathered outside the Bastille within earshot of his prison cell—to join him in tearing down the fortress, even when the fortress is his own construction rather than a prison symbolic of the system of authority that had deprived him of...
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SOURCE: "Sade and His Critics," in The Marquis de Sade, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 122-32.
[Lynch has published several books and articles on eighteenth-century French literature. In this excerpt, he reviews the influence of Sade's writings and his critical reception in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]
Sade in the Nineteenth Century
Sade's last three contributions to literature, the trilogy of historical novels, did not attract much attention, a fact that is quite understandable when one recalls that two of them remained unpublished until 1953-54. But Sade's reputation had already been fixed at the turbulent conclusion of the eighteenth century, and we have seen ample proof of its "infamous" nature. Furthermore, when we compare the literary trends which dominated the first part of the nineteenth century to the content of Sadian fiction, we can readily understand the relative silence on him before 1860. Although the restored Bourbon regime and the July monarchy were not as overtly stifling as their counterparts in England, they were no more receptive to Sade's intensity than revolutionary Paris had been. Claude Duchet's article, "L'Image de Sade a l'epoque romantique," explains Sade's anonymity for almost fifty years. Other than the 1834 study by Jules Janin on Sade, which was condemnatory and which drew enough public attention to justify a separate reprint, the Marquis...
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SOURCE: "Language and the Transcendent Subject in Three Works of the Marquis de Sade: Les 120journées de Sodome, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, and Justine," in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 249, 1987, pp. 399-406.
[In the following excerpt, O'Reilly examines contradictions in Sade's concept of the self as reflected in his rhetorical practices.]
In his pioneering work on Sade [Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971], Roland Barthes focused attention on Sade's use of language, a context within which such problems as the readability and paradoxes of Sade's texts were resolved into a code that Barthes offered as appropriate to a reading of Sade. However, the shift away from structuralism in recent years has entailed a move away from the study of language as a closed and self-referential system to the study of discourse or language seized as utterance involving speaking and writing subjects as well as readers and listeners [according to Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 1983]. While Barthes's discussion of Sade was revelatory at the time, the post-structural period invites new readings of Sade's works with a view to their textuality or dialogic nature. Post-structural criticism takes into account the various social, philosophical, and linguistic factors that inform discourse, and therefore offers a critical strategy that is particularly appropriate to the study of...
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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Excess and the Excesses of Sadian Rhetoric: From the Cosmic to the Comic," in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 265, 1989, pp. 1277-82.
[The author of numerous books on French literature, ethics, philosophy, and women's rights, Michael has published several books and articles on the Marquis de Sade. In this excerpt, she suggests that Sade uses irony and comic effects to distance the reader from his text.]
Sade never killed anyone, nor was he ever convicted of murder, but it is said that he committed, after his death, the perfect crime, one that perpetuates itself each time one of his readers is shocked or outraged by his writings. Sade published his first book at the age of 51; it is unlikely that he would have become a writer had he not been imprisoned for some thirty years of his life. But in his own way, Sade freed himself through his writings and vicariously lived the free lives of his heroes. That type of freedom knew no boundaries and led him to say more than had ever been said before, to excess.
These excesses have meanings especially as a description of a complete structure relating to sexology. In a first-rate article published in 1977 in Obliques, Marcel Henaff suggested that Sade tried to say it all in the 120 Days of Sodom, but that this simple formula is paradoxical; on the one hand, states Henaff, to say it all...
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SOURCE: "The Marquis de Sade and the Discourses of Pain: Literature and Medicine at the Revolution," in The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, Clark Library Lectures 1985-1986, edited by G. S. Rousseau, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 291-330.
[Morris is an American literary critic who has also published studies on eighteenth-century English poetry. In the following excerpt, he explores Sade's use and transformation of contemporary ideas about pain and the social and political implications of this aspect of Sade's work]
My purpose in this essay is to explore Sade's literary treatment of pain, especially as his works consume and transform the conventional vocabularies in which pain was discussed. Foremost among these vocabularies—which included theology and libertinism as well as law—was medicine. Thus my specific focus will concern Sade's transvaluations of medical knowledge. Sade did not simply appropriate a scientific vocabulary borrowed from eighteenth-century medicine and (to varying degrees) evident in the work of contemporary British and Continental writers, for whom the "life" or "nature" imitated in the novel now proved inextricable from the language of Enlightenment science. Sade's transvaluations alter what they appropriate. His borrowings from scientific sources are not the most characteristic feature of his style, but they have not passed unnoticed. (In...
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SOURCE: "Sade and the Problem of Closure: Keeping Philosophy in the Bedroom," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 519-28.
[In this excerpt, Carpenter examines Sade's violations of the Classical principle of closure, particularly in Philosophy in the Bedroom, as a threat to "the notion of ideology as such. "]
As Michel Foucault has demonstrated, the Classical age had mastered the art of excluding from society its undesirables, be they the criminal, the deranged, or the physically or politically abnormal. But Sade, half grand seigneur, half Revolutionary, straddled the boundary between the social and the antisocial. His contacts and influence made total seclusion impossible. As much as the authorities, egged on by Sade's venomous mother-in-law, tried to hermetically seal the marquis behind the walls of his cells, he always managed to make himself heard. Sometimes this was in the form of a more or less secret correspondence, by which (among other things) he arranged a series of escapes. Twice he eluded the death sentence. These escapades resulted in his internment in increasingly secure quarters, measures which smacked of surprising severity for someone of Sade's modest infractions. What becomes clear is that Sade was not merely a victim of the ancien regime's official moral code. First of all, his earliest offenses-—including sodomy, blasphemy, lacing candies with Spanish...
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SOURCE: "Sade and the Pornographic Legacy," in Representations, No. 36, Fall, 1991, pp. 1-21.
[In this excerpt, Ferguson discusses Philosophy in the Bedroom as an "antimetaphysical" and "anticultural" political dialogue and relates elements of the text to French policy regarding the national debt.]
In the discussion that follows, I shall be, essentially, taking up various aspects of the view that Sade attempts in Philosophy in the Bedroom to write a political dialogue that would be as material—as physical and as unmetaphysical—as possible. In that sense, understanding pornography as a genre with specific claims embedded in its medium seems important. For pornography's medium—or its heuristic medium—would avoid representational metaphysics; it would write in bodies (as in the passage at the beginning of the Philosophy in which Madame de Saint-Ange offers herself up as an instructional aid, the living embodiment of an anatomy chart).
In addition to arguing that Sade's interest in the pornographic is generally antimetaphysical, however, I shall also be claiming that Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom is specifically anticultural. Culture, coming in the Philosophy to represent the transmissibility of civil society from one generation to another, that is, comes to amount to a notion of intergenerational inheritance that emerges specifically in the...
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SOURCE:"Sade," in Identity and Ideology: Diderot, Sade, and the Serious Genre, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1991, pp. 105-30.
[In the following excerpt, Hayes examines the role of conflicting ideologies in Sade's plays and novels, concentrating in particular on his disruption of structure and meaning.]
The plays have known a strange history, even among the many odd histories of Sade's texts. Refused by theater directors, hidden in libraries, walled up in a room of the Sade family chateau, censored even by the editor of Sade's complete works, the plays might be thought to contain a message as bitterly powerful as anything in the novels or in the drama they indirectly inspired, Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade. Great was the general disappointment when the eighteen sentimental pieces were published in 1970, and even the most positive accounts of them tended to skim over them in order to arrive at the "theatricality" of the more interesting novels.
Sade's editor, Gilbert Lely, had scant regard for the plays "ecrites dans le genre larmoyant du plus mauvais Diderot…" Posterity has persisted in regarding both Diderot and Sade as literary giants even as it turned away from their theater as something unsuited to the "modernity" of the other works and hence unworthy of attention. But there is nothing to be gained by such excision: to the contrary. If one cannot "recognize Sade" in his...
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SOURCE: "Justine and the Discourse of the (Other) Master," in Dangerous Truths & Criminal Passions: The Evolution of the French Novel, 1569-1791. Stanford University Press, 1992, pp. 333-74.
[In his book Dangerous Truths & Criminal Passions, DiPiero argues that the novel arose as a medium of resistance to accepted literary genres and to the ideological assumptions they served to legitimize. In the following excerpt, he suggests that Sade's narrative strategies in Justine expose the constructed nature of discourse and ideology.]
In the marquis de Sade's Justine ou les malbeurs de Is vertu we will see [a] protagonist employ the discursive mode she learns from others. She not only represents herself with the express intent to seduce, but she threatens the security of bourgeois patriarchy's system of values.…
Despite critics' claims that Justine is a novel "in which nothing has been spared," the narrator who opens the work before handing narrative responsibility over to Justine implicitly addresses the possibility of achieving narrative mastery, the complete discursive control over the articulation and interpretation of texts. In the first sentence of the novel, he disavows the feasibility of representing the world completely.
The very masterpiece of philosophy would be to develop the means Providence employs to...
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Michael, Colette Verger. The Marquis de Sade: The Man, His Works, and His Critics. New York: Garland, 1986, 428 p.
Annotated bibliography of books by and about Sade, covering works published through 1983.
Airaksinen, Timo. Of Glamor, Sex and De Sade. Wakefield, N.H.: Longwood Academic, 1991, 220 p.
A philosophical examination of issues involved in reading the works of Sade.
Fink, Beatrice C. "Ambivalence in the Gynogram: Sade's Utopian Woman." Woman and Literature 7, No. 1 (Winter 1979): 24-37.
Examines contradictions in Sade's treatment of female characters, particularly in Aline et Valcour.
Gallop, Jane. Intersections: A Reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981, 135 p.
Intertextual reading of Sade and three of his most influential critics that identifies common philosophical and strategic ground between Sade and "antihumanist" (structuralist and poststructuralist) criticism.
Hackel, Roberta J. De Sade's Quantitative Moral Universe: Of Irony, Rhetoric, and Boredom. The Hague: Mouton, 1976, 101 p.
Analyzes ways in which Sade manipulates vocabulary and style in order to invert conventional moral values.
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