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Dangerous Liaisons

Term Definition
Dangerous Liaisons

Written in the form of a collection of letters (also known as an epistolary novel), Choderlos de Laclos uses the work Dangerous Liaisons in order to portray a rivalry between two French aristocrats, which largely consists in them using the seduction of women as a means for attempting to humiliate each other. It has often been assumed that the purpose of the author was to reveal the decadence and depravity of the old French aristocracy. 

Introduction to Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons is the title of the English-language translation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a 1782 epistolary novel by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803). Depicting the decadence of French high society in the decade leading up to the 1789 revolution, the story revolves around the duplicitous schemes of ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont. The two engage in seduction rivalry with the twofold intent of one-upping each other and undermining the romantic relations of third parties in their midst. 

Valmont has his eyes set on his aunt's houseguest, the married Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil, meanwhile, is eager to lead her previous lover's latest prospect, convent girl Cécile de Volanges, astray from a life of innocence. Merteuil urges Valmont to seduce Volanges, in exchange for a romantic reunion, but he keeps his sights on Tourvel. When the latter pursuit proves more difficult than expected, he goes for Volanges instead, while Merteuil takes up with the girl's new love interest, Chevalier Danceny. Soon enough, Valmont seduces Tourvel, with whom he's become entirely smitten. A jealous Merteuil prompts him to leave the married woman, but then reneges on the promised reunion. In retaliation, Valmont convinces Danceny to reunite with Volanges. Merteuil strikes back by informing Danceny of Valmont's affair with Volanges. This leads to a showdown between the two men in which Valmont dies but Danceny learns of Merteuil's duplicity. In the end, she's banished to the countryside where she's left scarred and half-blinded by a bout of smallpox.

Major Themes

Dangerous Liaisons plays on themes of class in 18th century French society. For example, the authority that aristocrats hold over servants is exemplified by a stunt that Merteuil orchestrates to have her maid, Victorie, imprisoned and then rescued. The point of that stunt is to teach the maid to stay in line and please her master or else face rearrest. The novel is certainly a tragedy in many respects.

Pre-revolutionary religious inclinations are also explored in the story, particularly in the effect that Valmont's written words have on the faith-based rationale of Présidente de Tourvel. Despite being the initiator of their affair, he wraps his complaints in religious terminology to convince her that she, in fact, is responsible for his unhappiness.

Background Information on Dangerous Liaisons

When Dangerous Liaisons was first published, its celebration of malice, seduction, revenge, and romantic duplicity was viewed as scandalous in French society. Some scholars conclude that Laclos' story—presented through a series of letters collected by a fictional author—serves as an exposé and critique of the moral corruption that was common among the nobles and aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France. Others, however, have argued that the story is actually a celebration of libertinism among the privileged: a theory supported by the novel's popularity with royalists during the early 1780s.

Dangerous Liaisons has been the subject of numerous stage and screen adaptations. Stagings have included a 1994 operatic version by composer Conrad Susa, a ballet version presented on both sides of the Atlantic by choreographer David Nixon, and a 2012 play directed by actor John Malkovich at the Théâtre de l'Atelier in Paris. Film adaptations include a 1988 big-screen feature starring Malkovich as Valmont and Glenn Close as Merteuil, as well as a 2003 French-television version under the story's original name, in which Rupert Everett and Catherine Deneuve star as the scheming ex-lovers. a 1999 film named Cruel Intentions (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe) was also based on this novel.

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