Marquis de Sade Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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.


Georges Bataille (essay date 1957)

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 given us a true picture of a man for whom other people did not count at all.

De Sade's morality, says Maurice Blanchot [in Lautréamont et Sade, 1949]

is founded on absolute solitude as a first given fact. De Sade said over and over again in different ways that we are born alone, there are no links between one man and another. The only rule of conduct then is that I prefer those things which affect me pleasurably and set at nought the undesirable effects of my preferences on other people. The greatest suffering of others always counts for less than my own pleasure. What matter if I must purchase my most trivial satisfaction through a fantastic accumulation of wrongdoing? For my satisfaction gives me pleasure, it exists in myself, but the consequences of crime do not touch me, they are outside me.

Maurice Blanchot's analysis faithfully matches de Sade's basic thinking. This thinking is doubtless artificial. It fails to take into account the actual make-up of every real man, inconceivable if shorn of the links made by others with him and by him with others. The independence of one man has never ceased to be any more than a boundary to the interdependence of mankind, without which there would be no human life. This is of cardinal importance. But de Sade's doctrine is not so wide of the mark as all that. It may deny the reality on which life is based, yet we do experience moments of excess that stir us to the roots of our being and give us strength enough to allow free rein to our elemental nature. But if we were to deny those moments we should fail to understand our own nature.

De Sade's doctrine is nothing more nor less than the logical consequence of these moments that deny reason.

By definition, excess stands outside reason. Reason is bound up with work and the purposeful activity that incarnates its laws. But pleasure mocks at toil, and toil we have seen to be unfavourable to the pursuit of intense pleasure. If one calculates the ratio between energy consumed and the usefulness of the results, the pursuit of pleasure even if reckoned as useful is essentially extravagant; the more so in that usually pleasure has no end product, is thought of as an end in itself and is desired for its very extravagance. This is where de Sade comes in. He does not formulate the above principles, but he implies them by asserting that pleasure is more acute if it is criminal and the more abhorrent the crime the greater the pleasure. One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based.

In this de Sade was convinced that he had made a decisive discovery in the field of knowledge. If crime leads a man to the greatest sensual satisfactions, the fulfilment of the most powerful desires, what could be more important than to deny that solidarity which opposes crime and prevents the enjoyment of its fruits? I can picture this violent truth striking him in the loneliness of his prison. From that instant he ceased to have any truck with anything, even in himself, that might have invalidated his system. Had he not been in love himself, just like anyone else? When he had run off with his sister-in-law, had not that helped to get him locked up by arousing his mother-in-law's wrath so that she procured the fatal lettre de cachet? Latterly was he not to adopt political views based on concern for the welfare of the masses? Was he not horror-struck to see from his window, in the prison to which his opposition to the methods of the Terror had brought him, the guillotine at work? And finally did he not shed "tears of blood" over the loss of a manuscript [The 120 Days of Sodom] in which he had striven to reveal—to other men, observe—the truth of the insignificance of other people? He may have told himself that none the less the truth of sexual attraction is not fully apparent if consideration for other people paralyses its action. He refused to contemplate anything he could not experience in the interminable silence of his cell where only visions of an imaginary world bound him to life.…

De Sade's system is the ruinous form of eroticism. Moral isolation means that all the brakes are off; it shows what spending can really mean. The man who admits the value of other people necessarily imposes limits upon himself. Respect for others hinders him and prevents him from measuring the fullest extent of the only aspiration he has that does not bow to his desire to increase his moral and material resources. Blindness due to respect for others happens every day; in the ordinary way we make do with rapid incursions into the world of sexual truths and then openly give them the lie the rest of the time. Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.

From the opposite point of view, "the centre of de Sade's world" is, according to Maurice Blanchot, "the demands of sovereignty asserted through an enormous denial". Unfettered freedom opens out into a void where the possibilities match the intensest aspirations at the expense of secondary ones; a sort of heroic cynicism cuts the ties of consideration and tenderness for others without which we cannot bear ourselves in the normal way. Perspectives of this order place us as far from what we usually are as the majesty of the storm is from the sunshine or from the drearily overcast sky. In fact we do not possess the excessive store of strength necessary to attain the fulfilment of our sovereignty. Actual sovereignty, however boundless it might seem in the silent fantasy of the masses, still even in its worst moments falls far below the unleashed frenzy that de...

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Beatrice C. Fink (essay date 1972)

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...

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Vera Lee (essay date 1972)

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...

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David Williams (essay date 1976)

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,...

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Angela Carter (essay date 1978)

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...

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Andrea Dworkin (essay date 1981)

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...

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Joan DeJean (essay date 1984)

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...

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Lawrence W. Lynch (essay date 1984)

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...

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Robert F. O'Reilly (essay date 1987)

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...

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Colette V. Michael (essay date 1989)

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...

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David B. Morris (essay date 1990)

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...

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Scott Carpenter (essay date 1991)

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...

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Frances Ferguson (essay date 1991)

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....

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Julie Candler Hayes (essay date 1991)

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...

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Thomas DiPiero (essay date 1992)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

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