Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
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 this is Laclos’s primary moral point. Valmont and Madame de Merteuil represent the final product of eighteenth century rationalism; they have reasoned their feelings out of existence.
A closer look at the “game” suggests yet deeper and more complex motivations than the simple pleasures of manipulation and petty spite. Although Valmont and Madame de Merteuil for the most part maintain a tone of light, elegant bantering between themselves, comparing notes as friendly rivals, their competition is in deadly earnest, yet their ultimate opponents are not their various victims but they themselves. Cécile de Volanges, Chevalier Danceny, and Madame de Tourvel are merely surrogates that Valmont and Madame de Merteuil use to get at each other. Dangerous Acquaintances is truly one of the most brilliant, elegant, and brutal “battle-of-the-sexes” works ever written.
Valmont and Madame de Merteuil are at once products and victims of their society. They have absorbed and accepted its rationalistic basis. They have subjugated their emotional impulses to it, and they are both suppressed by its social norms and rituals. Valmont is a soldier without a war. Predisposed by training to military command, Valmont is bored and restless in the stagnant, aimless, ritualized society in which he finds himself. He uses amatory combat as a weak substitute for the real thing.
Madame de Merteuil’s situation and psychology are somewhat more complicated. As an aristocratic woman, her freedom of action is severely circumscribed. She has the potential to be passionate but is forced into an arranged marriage with a dull old man. She is brilliant and resourceful but faces a lifetime of meaningless social activity that will eventually stultify her capacities. She is free-spirited and experimental but bound by behavioral norms and a rigid double standard that threatens to ostracize her for the slightest dereliction. Madame de Merteuil has refused to accept these limitations for herself; she has, in fact, determined to use them to her own advantage. “Ought you not to have concluded,” she writes Valmont, “that, since I was born to avenge my sex and to dominate yours, I must have created methods unknown to anybody but myself?” Thus, although Madame de Merteuil impresses readers as a “moral monster,” Laclos does raise the question as to how she came to be that way. In many ways, she seems to be an earlier version of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, whose frustrated passions and abilities also turned to viciousness and eventually to self-destruction.
Madame de Merteuil destroys herself, because both her suppressed passion for Valmont and her need to dominate him are too strong to remain in equilibrium. For his part, Valmont, too, feels the need to dominate, as is clear when he presents his ultimatum to Madame de Merteuil—“from this day on I shall be either your lover or your enemy.” To that, she responds “Very well—War!” and rationalistic erotic intrigue becomes mutual self-destruction. Because the emotions cannot remain suppressed, rational self-control gives way to vindictive impulse, and love is replaced by self-defeating hate.
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