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.”