Les Liaisons Dangereuses Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos - Essay

Christopher Hampton


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

C. J. Greshoff (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8399 words.)

Susan Dunn (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6296 words.)

Susan Dunn (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3806 words.)

Peter V. Conroy, Jr. (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7250 words.)

Susan Rosa (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3788 words.)

Suellen Diaconoff (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8671 words.)

Peter V. Conroy, Jr. (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9797 words.)

Elizabeth J. MacArthur (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan K. Jackson (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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


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Anne Deneys (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9356 words.)

Alan J. Singerman (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5790 words.)

Renee Winegarten (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sandra Camargo (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8433 words.)

Armine Kotin Mortimer (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7415 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 344 words.)