Les liaisons dangereuses


Putting aside for a moment what deliciously wicked fun it is to read Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—putting aside as well its surprisingly thoughtful politics, its oddly affecting final tragedy, and the glorious character it offers in the Marquise de Merteuil—to me the most fascinating aspect of this 1782 novel of scheming French aristocrats is its pitch-perfect use of the epistolary form. I have read quite a few epistolary novels, and the letter-centric format has usually struck me as a daring, but slightly awkward, choice. It's a cute trick, I find myself thinking, but one that usually adds little if anything to the novel as a whole; I can often imagine that the story would flow more naturally with a traditional third- or first-person narrator. In the case of Les liaisons dangereuses, however, the epistolary frame is absolutely perfect. I wouldn't wish this story to be told any other way.

This is true for a couple of reasons. Primary among them is the deceitfulness of the main characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, whose sexually-charged duplicity is the driving force behind the novel's events. Their myriad plots and schemes create a vast amount of dramatic irony. Merteuil, for example, could be narrating the same series of events in three letters to three separate people: she will undoubtedly give said events a completely different interpretation in each case, so as to manipulate her correspondents' actions and opinions of her. The epistolary format enables the reader to experience this at first-hand, reading Merteuil's three letters back-to-back and understanding vastly more about the situation (and Merteuil's character, and her opinions of each correspondent) than any one of the three recipients.

One of the chief devilish joys of this book lies the word play and double-meanings Valmont and Merteuil work into their letters. In one famous case, Valmont writes a letter to a virtuous woman he's attempting to seduce, using another lover's body as his desk. The entire missive can be interpreted either as a love-sick paean, or as a narration of the Vicomte's debauchery:

C'est après une nuit orageuse, et pendant laquelle je n'ai pas fermé l'oeil; c'est après avoir été sans cesse ou dans l'agitation d'une ardeur dévorante, ou dans l'entier anéantisement de toutes les facultés de mon âme, que je viens chercher auprès de vous, Madame, une calme dont j'ai besoin, et dont pourant je n'espère pas jouir encore. En effet, la situation où je suis en vous écrivant me fait connaître, plus que jamais, la puissance irrésistible de l'amour; j'ai peine à conserver assez d'empire sur moi pour mettre quelque ordre dans mes idées; et déjà je prévois que je ne finirai pas cette Lettre, sans être obligé de l'interrompre.
After a tumultuous night, during which I never shut an eye; after having been ceaselessly either in the agitation of a devouring passion, or in the entire obliteration of all the faculties of my soul; I come searching from you, Madame, the calm of which I have need, and which I nevertheless don't yet hope to enjoy. ["Jouir" means both "enjoy" and "orgasm."] Indeed, the position in which I am writing to you reminds me, more than ever, of the irresistible power of love; I am at pains to retain enough control over myself to put my thoughts in order; and I can already predict that I shall not finish this Letter, without being obliged to interrupt myself.

And what audience is there for such clever lingual tricks? The question brings up another reason the epistolary format works so well for Laclos, which is that the actual letters themselves, as objects, are of the utmost importance in furthering the plot. Far from a transparent device through which the reader merely watches the plot unfold, the physical letter-artifacts are constantly obtruding themselves on the narrative. Characters stow them in secret hiding places, agonize about whether they should be producing them at all, transfer them to different envelopes to throw their recipients off the scent, request those they sent to be returned to them, and strategically reveal those they received to third parties as incriminating evidence. Valmont and Merteuil often enclose copies of their letters to other people along with their letters to each other, so that they can glory in, and compete with, each others' cleverness. With this in mind, Valmont's letter quoted above actually has three separate audiences: the lover on whose body he is composing it, who is amused at the double-entendres; Mme. de Tourvel, the ostensible recipient, who reads it as a declaration of tortured love for herself; and the Marquise de Merteuil, who reads in it not only Valmont's manipulation of Mme. de Tourvel, but his desire to demonstrate to her (the Marquise) his skill at artifice, his lack of real affection for Mme. de Tourvel, and, since he's sharing the letter with her, the strength of his attachment to Merteuil herself. Because she is an excellent reader, Merteuil is also able to distinguish between the things Valmont intended to show her in the letter, and the things she showed her against his will.

Indeed, the recipients of these letters are not passive readers: they all critique one anothers' content, and the truly sophisticated critique each others' style. And it's here that the Marquise de Merteuil demonstrates her subtlety and sophistication; she has a level of textual savvy that would distinguish her as either a politician or a literary critic. She is a close reader: focusing upon the individual words and phrases used by her correspondents, she analyzes the places where their narratives come apart, where they are betrayed despite their own intentions. In one instance, when Valmont is attempting to disguise his growing attachment to Mme. de Tourvel, the Marquise laughs at him for simply removing one set of descriptors and substituting another, as if she would not notice that the substance of his commentary remained the same. Another time, she dissects the language used by the young Cecile Volanges in referring to Cecile's two lovers, and uses internal evidence to prove which of the men Cecile actually loves. In many other instances Merteuil uses a correspondent's own words and phrases in her responses to them, either in order to manipulate them without their explicit knowledge, or to demonstrate to them the fallacies of their logic. On a number of occasions, she also corrects a correspondent's style: to a young man who is not yet her lover, she objects to the use of the cloying language of courtship; whereas to a young woman she is attempting to train in her own image, she complains:

Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'où cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez, et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas. Cela peut passer ansi de vous à moi, qui devons n'avoir rien de caché l'une pour l'autre: mais avec tout le monde! avec votre Amant surtout! vous auriez toujours l'air d'une petite sotte. Vous voyez bien que, quand vous écrivez à quelqu'un, c'est pour lui et non pas pour vous: vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plaît davantage.
You always write like a child. I see perfectly the source of this problem: it's that you say everything you think, and nothing you don't think. That would be fine between you and me, who have nothing to hide from one another, but with the world at large! with your Lover especially! You would seem forever a little idiot. You must see that, when you write to someone, it's for them and not for you; you should therefore seek less to say what you think, than what will please your correspondent.

What's more, the Marquise writes often, not just about the content of individual letters or even their style, but on the mechanics of letter-writing in general—its strengths and weaknesses, the dangers it holds for composer and recipient, and how to protect oneself from those dangers, especially as a woman.

Because although Merteuil is undeniably a nasty, cruel manipulator, her machinations are not without reason. She is playing the same game Valmont plays, but because of her gender she must play it doubly. In order to trick and manipulate people into and out of her bed, she must also organize the circumstances so that none of her lovers can speak about it afterward and be believed; she must safeguard her own reputation as a respectable woman.

Quant a Prévan, je veux l'avoir et je l'aurai; il veut le dire, et il ne le dira pas: en deux mots, voilà notre Roman.
As to Prévan, I want him and I will have him; he wants to speak of it, and he will not speak of it: in two words, there is our Novel.

At the same time, she must also protect against compromising her independence: she does not wish to remarry after the death of her husband, she says, because she hates the idea of anyone having the right to tell her what to do. Coming from a sheltered convent education, she has painstakingly crafted herself into the person she has become: "Je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage (I can say that I am my own work)" is a claim not many women of the Marquise's acquaintance can honestly make. She writes "ouvrage," but she could just as easily have written "chef-d'oeuvre": I am my own masterpiece.

Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath or Thackeray's Becky Sharp, the Marquise de Merteuil is an oft-unlikeable character in a satirical work; not a heroine, but a character who nonetheless steals the show in a way hard to deny. It's problematic to call her a "sympathetic" character, and I don't want to downplay just how cruel she is, yet I can't help but love her—for the hard, uncompromising liveliness of her mind, for her jealous independence, and for her sensitivity to textual nuance. As a modern reader, it's tempting to make the argument that Merteuil's twisted manipulations are a necessary result of her limited options and the oppressive culture in which she must operate. Had she the option of exercising her talents as an international diplomat, for example, she may have ended up less twisted and more fulfilled. Or at least more fulfilled. Possibly. Depending on your opinion of international diplomacy.

But why argue that, in any case? Marteuil is a snake, and I love her as a snake. Les liaisons dangereuses is wicked fun, and I love it that way too. Like a good mafia movie, it somehow manages to remain seductive even as it simultaneously exposes the ugly underpinnings of the very process of seduction: a contradiction of which Merteuil and Valmont would heartily approve.


All translations are mine, and inadequate things they are, too. This book is available in English as Dangerous Liaisons, and I'm sure a professional translator would do a better job than I did, but if you can read it in French there's a lot of fantastic word-play that I can't imagine being 100% preserved in translation. There's undoubtedly even more than I realized, given my imperfect French.


  • I wish my French were anywhere near good enough to read this in the original. I can just about pick out the meaning of most of the words, but I can't always make them go together in reasonable sentences. I hate missing out on awesome wordplay.

    • I know the feeling, Jenny, but I'm sure the Laclos would still be totally delightful in English with a decent translator. The dramatic irony would still be there, which is a big part of what keeps the pages turning. :-)

  • This is twice in a week that this text has come into my life. I meet someone last week who was at school with Lindsay Duncan, the actress who played the Marquise de Merteuil when the stage version was first put on at the RSC. Apparently, she went specially to play the part, obviously having recognised that, as you say, it was going to be the scene stealer of the year. I'm almost certain that she won all sorts of awards for the performance. She should have done; I still have a vivid picture of the production in my mind, goodness knows how many years later. She should have got the part when it was filmed, but I suppose was not thought to be a big enough name. Anyway, there must be a reason why this text is thrusting itself on me at the moment, so I suppose I had better go out and look for a decent translation. My French will just about buy me a cup of tea with milk in an emergency!

    • I love it when that happens! Synchronicity. It's obviously time for you to pick this up, and what a treat is in store for you when you do. :-) I would love to see the dramatic version of the story on stage; I love the Glenn Close/John Malkovich movie, although I loved the book even more, and was really impressed at how much more there was to find in the book.

  • Ah, Valmont, the cunning linguist, ha ha! :D Seriously, Emily, loved your description of all the wordplay here and your parallel to mafia movies at the end. What an interesting way to think about that aspect of the work. Must get around to reading this this year--I think it's one of the longest-owned copies in my TBR, much like The Monk was until you enticed me into reading it last year. Great review!

  • I usually hate it when a novel is told through letters or from one character to another (i.e. Heart of Darkness - who lets someone talk that long?). One thing that gets me is how they're able to remember complete conversations word-for-word. And then they take all the time to describe the setting the way a traditional narrator would, which just doesn't ring true with me in letter/conversation form. But it looks like Laclos may have pulled it off.

    It's problematic to call her a "sympathetic" character, and I don't want to downplay just how cruel she is, yet I can't help but love her—for the hard, uncompromising liveliness of her mind, for her jealous independence, and for her sensitivity to textual nuance. As a modern reader, it's tempting to make the argument that Merteuil's twisted manipulations are a necessary result of her limited options and the oppressive culture in which she must operate. Had she the option of exercising her talents as an international diplomat, for example, she may have ended up less twisted and more fulfilled. Or at least more fulfilled.

    This actually makes me think back to John Stuart Mills's The Subjection of Women when he talks about how women's limited education and social exposure deforms their personalities. While I don't think he gives women's agency enough credit, and actually risks justifying the misogyny he's fighting against, I think Merteuil might be a good illustration of what he was talking about.

    I really wish I could read in another language.

  • Also, I may not be on time for this month's The Wolves read, which I think you're hosting? I had assumed the library in which I work, which has 3,000,000+ books, would have it, but they don't. So I just ordered it off Amazon today. We'll see how fast it gets here.

    • You put your finger on some of the more ridiculous aspects of epistolary novels, all right - and then sometimes they'll be writing in totally silly circumstances, at a time of high suspense for example, when any rational person would stop writing to attend to the situation at hand, but the character has to keep writing because otherwise how will the reader know what's happening? It can get pretty silly.

      I think I remember the Mill passage you're referring to. I think Merteuil could actually be read as a good example of either side of the argument, either reading her "straight" as support for Mill, or satirically as a way of ridiculing him.

      And no worries on the Belben; read & post as you have time! :-)

  • Oh, how I love this book! You have done a wonderful job talking about the way the Marquise dissects the letters she reads, and that, of course, invites us to do the same with hers.

    The ending fascinates me. When I first read it, years ago, I thought it was supposed to be didactic -- this is what you get for wickedness and cruelty -- but I no longer believe that. I now think it's just supposed to be Life. This is what comes to everyone, regardless.

    I like the Close/Malkovich film, too. It's excellent, given its limitations.

    • Oh, interesting that you bring up the end, Jenny. I'd always considered it as more or less an insincere sop to morality, rather than true moralism - as in, we spend 400 pages having good evil fun with these characters, and then in the last 30 or 40 pages they're all punished so that the do-gooders won't censor the book. But I like your formulation of everyone's downfall coming to them eventually regardless of actions.

  • Weird!! I have been thinking about reading this since watching Valmont last month. Thanks for the enticing review - I definitely want to try this out.

    And like EL Fay I too had to order Our Horses in Egypt, as not a library in my whole state has a copy. But it should arrive any day now. :)

  • I had no doubt that you would enjoy this book! Since I had to read it in English I missed much of the word play, but it still manages to be nuanced and wicked good fun. I especially love the scene of your first quote.

    And what did you think of the ending? I thought it pretty darn near perfect.

    • Yes, it was thanks to your post on it a few months ago that it moved up my queue! And the end is so interesting. Everyone certainly gets their due, although as I was saying to Jenny, it seems a bit rushed/insincere to me somehow - 400 pages of the characters' triumph followed by 40 pages of their downfall. In a way that seems fitting, though, because once Valmont and Merteuil go to war, you know things are going to hell in a expedited-delivery handbasket.

      • Don't you think, though, that their downfall starts before the last 40 pages? I mean, the mess with Cecile, and the falling-in-love with Mme de Tourvel, and the rising emotions of the manipulators -- it's all unexpected (to them) and unprecedented. The last 40 pages is just the final outcome of what started about 150 pages in.

        • Yes, intellectually I can definitely see that argument. The events are put in place and the masks begin to slip long before the final catastrophe. Emotionally, though, the about-face still seems very sudden to me. It's like, I'm laughing...I'm laughing...I'm laughing...I'm lau—oh no wait, I'm sad and empty. Not that that needs to be a flaw; it's pretty much how the characters experience the trajectory, too, I suppose.

  • I love, LOVE, epistolary novels, partly simply because I love letters, and stories told to particular audiences, and I love the idea of telling stories in multiple ways, each differently suited to its audience. You make me want to reread this (I fairly recently watched two movie versions, and that was fun, so the book has been on my mind). As far as epistolary novels that draw attention to the letters themselves go, Pamela by Samuel Richardson is a great example. It's a deeply flawed novel, but fascinating in the way Pamela uses letters to remake herself.

    • Thanks for the tip on Pamela, Dorothy - that's one I'd been meaning to pick up sooner or later just for its influence on the novels that came after it, and now there's an extra level of intrigue there. I don't know that my level of enthusiasm for epistolary novels will ever be as high as yours, but reading Laclos has definitely opened my eyes about how delightful they can be when done convincingly & thoughtfully.

  • I tend to love characters like Merteuil - characters you don't exactly like, but can't help but be drawn to. And like Dorothy W, I am a big fan of the epistolary format. I'll definitely have to read this at some point. I only wish I could read it in the original like you did!

    • I would be super-curious on your thoughts about this one, Ana! There are some pretty fascinating political/gender implications that are tricky but fun to pick apart due to the multiple perspectives, the duplicity, and the authorial satire going on. And Merteuil is such a great, memorable character.

  • When I did my run of epistolary novels, I broke it off before getting to this—it was published late compared with the "high epistolary" (my nonterm) of, e.g., Richardson, and I had had enough of the project after a certain point. But I knew this would be exactly the kind of epistolary novel I thought were best: ones in which "the actual letters themselves, as objects, are of the utmost importance in furthering the plot."

    After having read a bunch of these, I've come to believe that broadly speaking, the more "polyphonous" the correspondence, the better the novel. Examples where the letters are many-to-many just seem to take better advantage of the form, at least in my experience, and for the subject matter of Les liaisons dangereuses it seems particularly appropriate and effective.

    Anyway, all that is to say, I still really want to read this. And great post!

    • Oh, interesting insights, Nicole. I can definitely see your point about the polyphony being a big plus in terms of bringing out the best in this genre, pointing up the dramatic irony that was certainly one of the strengths of this book. I'd be interested to hear your comparative thoughts when/if you get around to it, given having read so many other epistolary novels.

  • I think I need to give this one another go. The first time I read it, I didn't pay attention to the translation, but now I'm kind of hoping my library has it in the French. How difficult would you say the French is? I have a rusty intermediate reading ability, so I'm not sure if that would be enough!

    • Eva, I'd say the French is probably doable but takes some getting used to. It's formal and ornate in the same way English 18th century novels tend to be - the characters have elaborate forms of address etc., like in a Jane Austen novel (one of the only similarities, haha). I might also recommend boning back up on all the little words that enable indirect constructions in French: y, dont, en, etc. They occur at a higher density than in most modern French prose I've read. But once you're in the swing of the formality & indirectness, there's nothing particularly hard about it. I bet you'd like it!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography