Saturday 23 April 2011

Justine by the Marquis de Sade

In the classics section of my new library, they have a set of Perennial Forbidden Classics.  I selected Justine from them because I've heard so much about how shocking and controversial the Marquis de Sade is, and wanted to judge for myself.

For me personally, the book felt more like a philosophy argument than a story or novel.  The main character, Justine, is made to suffer purely because she is a good and moral person.  Throughout the book she is repeatedly tortured, both physically and mentally, and sexually abused.  Every time she helps another person it leads to yet more abuse.

The actual content of the book does sound shocking when written down - there are repeated and prolonged rape scenes - and it's definitely not for the faint hearted, but there was something about it that stopped it from being powerful or affecting.  I read it expecting to be upset at all the abuse, but I just wasn't.  And I don't think that's because I am a horrible psychopath, I think it's because De Sade has written it like a philosophy treatise with no emotional connection whatsoever.  You never find out what Justine is thinking, or why she keeps on trusting strangers.  She never has a moment of doubt, or anger, or self-pity.  She's supremely detached in a way you just wouldn't be - at one point she comments that someone cut off her toe as if she is discussing the weather.  I suppose it lacked the realism and emotional connection to make it truly shocking or disturbing.

On to the philosophy sections, which were obviously dear to De Sade's heart.  His main argument is that in a corrupted world, there is no point in being good or virtuous, because you can profit better from following vice.  He loves this argument so much that he has every character that abuses Justine repeat it.  By the end of the book this gets pretty tiring. 

At the beginning and end of the book, there are moments when it feels as though De Sade is doing a bit of damage limitation, as he knew how shocking his novel would be.  He is at pains to state that he is only writing the story to inspire others to be virtuous, because if Justine can remain virtuous after everything that has happened to her, surely everyone else can.  This doesn't really ring true with the way the book is written and has an air of 'get out of jail free' about it.

I'm glad I read this, if only to find out for myself what all of the controversy is about.

Score: 2.5 out of 5


  1. can't say i've ever heard of this sounds like we're supposed to learn that being truly virtuous is not only impossible, but also wrong or something like that...interesting review, not sure i'll read the book, although i am now intrigued about what i'll think of it.

  2. I've not heard of this before, but probably another to add to my list of classics to read. Although it does sound a bit gruelling to get through!

  3. The Marquis was a pretty interesting character, he wrote a lot of controversial books (sadism is named after him), was captured on the orders of Napolean and then declared insane and a blasphemer. A lot of his books were destroyed/burned.

    He has a high profile in the UK, even people who don't read would have heard of him, but maybe it's not like that in the US?

  4. I have this book sitting unfinished on the shelf, and for the very reasons you have mentioned in your review. It's more philosophy rather than a story. And I like the Marquis de Sade's short stories so it's not really a matter of finding him not to my liking. I will probably force myself to finish it at some point to say that I have read it.