(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.