Marquis de Sade and gothic fiction  

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 This page Marquis de Sade and gothic fiction is part of the Marquis de Sade series  Illustration: Portrait fantaisiste du marquis de Sade (1866) by H. Biberstein
This page Marquis de Sade and gothic fiction is part of the Marquis de Sade series
Illustration: Portrait fantaisiste du marquis de Sade (1866) by H. Biberstein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Reflections on the Novel

The Marquis de Sade used a gothic framework for some of his fiction, notably The Misfortunes of Virtue and Eugenie de Franval, though the marquis himself never thought of his work as such. Sade critiqued the genre in the preface of his Reflections on the novel (1800) which is widely accepted today, stating that the gothic is "the inevitable product of the revolutionary shock with which the whole of Europe resounded". This correlation between the French revolutionary Terror and the "terrorist school" of writing represented by Radcliffe and Lewis was noted by contemporary critics of the genre (Wright 2007: 57-73). Sade considered The Monk to be superior to the work of Ann Radcliffe.



The Marquis de Sade viewed Gothic fiction as a genre that relied heavily on magic and phantasmagoria. In his literary criticism Sade sought to prevent his fiction from being labeled ‘Gothic’ by emphasizing its supernatural aspects as the fundamental difference from themes in his own work. But while he sought this separation he believed the Gothic played a necessary role in society and discussed its roots and its uses. He wrote that the Gothic novel was a perfectly natural, predictable consequence of the revolutionary sentiments in Europe. He theorized that the adversity of the period had rightfully caused Gothic writers to “look to hell for help in composing their alluring novels.” Sade held the work of writers Matthew Lewis (writer) and Ann Radcliffe high above other Gothic authors, praising the brilliant imagination of Radcliffe and pointing to Lewis’ The Monk as without question the genre’s best achievement. Sade nevertheless believed that the genre was at odds with itself, arguing that the supernatural elements within Gothic fiction created an inescapable dilemma for both its author and its readers. He argued that an author in this genre was forced to choose between elaborate explanations of the supernatural or no explanations at all and that in either case the reader was unavoidably rendered incredulous. Despite his celebration of The Monk Sade believed that there was not a single Gothic novel that had been able to overcome these problems. He theorized that if these problems were successfully avoided within the genre that the resulting work would be universally regarded for its excellence in fiction.

Many assume that Sade’s criticism of the Gothic novel is a reflection of his frustration with sweeping interpretations of works like Justine. Within his objections to the lack of verisimilitude in the Gothic may have been an attempt to present his own work as the better representation of the whole nature of man. Since Sade professed that the ultimate goal of an author should be to deliver an accurate portrayal of man, it is believed that Sade’s attempts to separate himself from the Gothic novel highlights this conviction. For Sade, that his work was best suited for the accomplishment of this goal was in part because he was not chained down by the supernatural silliness that dominated late eighteenth century fiction. Moreover, it is believed that Sade praised The Monk (which displays Ambrosio’s sacrifice of his humanity to his unrelenting sexual appetite) as the best Gothic novel chiefly because its themes were the closest to those within his own work.

Libertine Novels

Sade’s fiction has been tagged under many different titles, including pornography, Gothic, and baroque. Sade’s most famous books are often classified not as Gothic but as a libertine novel, and include the novels Justine, Juliette, The 120 Days of Sodom, and Philosophy in the Bedroom. These works challenge perceptions of sexuality, religion, law, age, and gender in ways that Sade would argue are incompatible with the supernatural. The issues of sexual violence, sadomasochism, and pedophilia stunned even those contemporaries of Sade who were quite familiar with the dark themes of the Gothic novel during its popularity in the late 18th century. Suffering is the primary rule, as in these novels one must often decide between sympathizing with the torturer or the victim. While these works focus on the dark side of human nature, the magic and phantasmagoria that dominates the Gothic is noticeably absent and is the primary reason these works are not considered to fit the genre.

It is largely assumed that no writer in history has presented audiences with more disturbing vices than Sade. Libertines who possess manic desires and will go to any length necessary for the gratification of their senses pushed the boundaries of moral imagination. Through the unreleased passions of his libertines Sade wished to shake the world at its core. With 120 Days, for example, Sade wished to present “the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists.”

Gothic Tales

Though much of the fiction written by the Marquis de Sade has been classified as libertine, his tales in The Crimes of Love utilize Gothic conventions. Subtitled “Heroic and Tragic Tales”, Sade combines Romance and horror, employing several Gothic tropes for dramatic purposes. There is blood, banditti, corpses, and, of course, insatiable lust. Compared to works like Justine Sade is relatively tame, as overt eroticism and torture is subtracted for a more psychological approach. It is the impact of sadism instead of acts of sadism itself that emerge in this work, unlike the aggressive and rapacious approach in his libertine works.

An example is “Eugenie de Franval”, a tale of incest and retribution. In its portrayal of conventional moralities it is somewhat of a departure from the erotic cruelties and moral ironies that dominate his libertine works. In its opening Sade begins with a domesticated approach:
“To enlighten mankind and improve its morals is the only lesson which we offer in this story. In reading it, may the world discover how great is the peril which follows the footsteps of those who will stop at nothing to satisfy their desires.”

Descriptions in Justine seem to anticipate Radcliffe’s scenery in Mysteries of Udolpho and the vaults in The Italian but unlike these stories there is no escape for Sade’s virtuous heroine, Sophie. Unlike the milder Gothic fiction of Radcliffe, Sade’s horror ends in sodomy, rape, or torture. To have a character like Sophie, who is stripped without ceremony and bound to a wheel for fondling and thrashing, would be unthinkable in the domestic Gothic fiction written for the bourgeoisie. Sade even contrives a kind of affection between Sophie and her tormentors, suggesting shades of masochism in his heroine.

Sadism in the Gothic novel

Despite the strong adverse reaction to Sade’s work and Sade’s own disassociation from the Gothic novel, the similarities between the fiction of sadism and the Gothic novel were much closer than many of its readers or providers even realized. After the controversy surrounding Matthew Lewis’ The Monk Minerva Press released The New Monk as a supposed indictment of a wholly immoral book. It features the sadistic Mrs. Rod whose boarding school for young women becomes a torture chamber equipped with its own “flogging-room.” Ironically, The New Monk wound up increasing the level of cruelty but as a parody of the genre it illuminates the link between sadism and the Gothic novel.

See also

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