“Pour vous hommes, les défaites ne sont que de succés de moins. Dans cette partie si inégale, notre fortune est de ne pas perdre et votre malheur de ne pas gagner.”
The Marquise of Meurteuil to the Vicomte of Valmont
Boy, this book sure shows how human nature is able sink very, very low. This would be a scandalous story in any period of time but in that specific context it is even worse.
Set in the pre-revolutionary France, the Marquise of Meurteuil and the Vicomte of Valmont are two former lovers who use sex as a weapon to control, humiliate and take advantage of others. They consider it a game and are proud of being the best at it. Because this book consists of letters, the reader is able to see how the two of them change their tone, opinions and manner of addressing, depending on the person to whom they are writing. They are incredibly manipulative and wicked, taking pride on the amount of lives they have ruined.
The Marquise is the evil mastermind of the story. She is even more skillful than Valmont and a greater hypocrite and liar. She doesn’t really consider his conquests as victories because he has nothing to lose, unlike her, who has a reputation to protect.
Valmont is a handsome, seductive man who is very proud of the amount of women he has “conquered”. I have seen this type of character (or men) before but what makes him different is how much he actually enjoys ruining his victims. It is not enough to “possess” them, he must ruin them too, otherwise it is not a challenge.
[Spoiler Alert!] The story begins with the Marquise wanting to take revenge against his former lover, Monsieur de Gercourt, for dumping her. She decides to do this by “ruining” his future wife, the young and innocent Cécile de Volanges. She asks Valmont to seduce Cécile but he refuses because he is too busy pursuing his own goals: he wants to seduce the very uptight and virtuous Madame de Tourvel. She is THE unattainable woman and therefore the best and greatest challenge to him; he wants to become a legend for having seduced the most virtuous woman known to their society.
The Marquise does not believe he will succeed and makes a bet with him: if he succeeds and is able to prove it, she will spend the night with him. He accepts and they both start working on their corresponding tasks. The Marquise discovers Cécile is actually in love with the Chévalier Danceny, a handsome but penniless nobleman, and decides to “help” Cécile with this forbidden love, with the purpose of getting her to give herself to him.
As the plot develops we see how both the Marquise and Valmont achieve their goals. Madame de Tourvel finally gives in after months of resisting Valmont’s advances and declarations of love and Valmont rapes Cécile as a punishment to her mother for gossiping to Madame de Tourvel of his previous adventures (and yes, he rapes her even though Cécile later says, in other words, that she kind of enjoyed it. This is still rape). The problem is that they end up driving each other to destruction. Valmont really falls in love with Madame de Tourvel but the Marquise tricks him into leaving her by making him feel he is no longer the great seducer he once was.
When Valmont fights Danceny in a duel and is mortally wounded, he gives Danceny all the letters telling the truth about the Marquise (and him). Thus, the Marquise is exposed and scorned and ends up fleeing France, ruined and deformed (smallpox!).
Madame de Tourvel first goes crazy and becomes delusional when Valmont leaves her and then dies when she hears the news of his death. Cécile returns to the convent and takes the robes because she is forever ruined. Yay for all the happy endings! :S
There are several aspects of the story that stood out for me:
Even though women, as always, had a very difficult position, the Marquise played skillfully with it. She was the ultimate hypocrite, preaching and appearing one thing and acting the complete opposite. I enjoyed her letters the most, so scheming but so smart at the same time. I enjoyed the tone with which she addressed Valmont, always teasing him or lecturing him in some way.
I liked Valmont's character at first but does someone else also finds his letters to Madame de Tourvel creepy? He was supposedly acting as a man desperately in love but he rather came off as a stalker. And I don’t say this because I knew he was reading her mail or having her followed, I say it because his letters to her were those of an obsessed stalker; a very well educated and eloquent one, but a stalker nonetheless. Why did she fall in love with him? I would have been scared to death of this man.
The idea of “shame” is very present at all times; the shame of ruined women and their shutting out of society. Cécile was raped by Valmont but it would have been considered a sin that ruined her and made her no longer suitable for marriage She was the victim and the one punished for it. I guess victim-blaming and slut-shaming is nothing new to the world. It's been going on for centuries.
The one thing that I found really annoying was the way Madame de Tourvel died. She is supposed to have died due to a broken heart. I know this was written at a time when people thought women were so frail and delicate they could actually die of shame, sadness or heartbreak, but I found it way too melodramatic and it kind of pissed me off.
Also, the ending was too short and fast considering how much time it took for the story to develop. The consequences for Valmont and Meurteuil are as great as their crimes, but it was just too easy. I don’t understand Valmont’s final action: was it justice or revenge? Was it to stop the Marquise from doing more harm or was it to get even with her? I have to admit that at the beginning of the book I was rooting for Valmont, but then I started disliking him. My opinion is that he gave the letters to Danceny out of spite, not because he wanted to make amends. People don’t change like that and he was horrible.
This is a great book, a very scary portrayal of the pre-revolutionary France and the depravity of its aristocracy. It also shows the difficult and particular position of women in a depraved society. It is definitely a story of extremes: extreme wickedness, depravity, hypocrisy and extreme naivety and virtuousness. I consider this to be the complete opposite of a love story.
I would definitely recommend this book to others, especially those who enjoy epistolary novels, rich literary French and learning more about the aristocratic France before the revolution.
PS. I have seen the film adaptation with Glenn Close and John Malkovich. She is perfect as the Marquise of Meurteuil, so cold and scheming. I don’t really see Malkovich as the handsome seducer that Valmont is, though he does manage to grasp perfectly the stalker thing. The part when he says to Madame de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) that he “adooooooooores her” was creepy as hell.