Laclos, Pierre Ambroise Choderlos De (1741–1803)
LACLOS, PIERRE AMBROISE CHODERLOS DE (1741–1803)
LACLOS, PIERRE AMBROISE CHODERLOS DE (1741–1803), French novelist. Little in the life of the military officer offers a clue that Choderlos de Laclos was destined to write one of the most controversial and influential French novels of the eighteenth century. Born in Amiens into the lower nobility, he chose an army career in the 1760s. France was at peace and barracks life was routinely dull. He wrote poetry, erotic tales, and a comic opera, Ernestine, which failed when it was produced (1777). In 1779, upon being upgraded to captain and sent to fortify the île d'Aix, he began to form the plan for his novel, Les liaisons dangereuses, composed while he was on leave in Paris, and published in 1782. It met with immediate success, and scandal. He quickly took a military assignment in La Rochelle to avoid the controversy, and there met Marie Soulange-Duperré, with whom he had a child before they were married in 1784.
His criticism of French fortifications (1786) made him equally controversial in the military, and he soon left for service as a secretary to Louis-Philippe, duke of Orléans (1725–1785). At this time he wrote several tracts on military and political topics. During the French Revolution he was protected by Georges-Jacques Danton (1759–1794)—a member of the Paris Commune and minister of justice in the new republic—imprisoned, nevertheless, during the Reign of Terror, liberated, and eventually made a brigadier general (1800) by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Named to a post in Naples, he died in Italy of dysentery in 1803.
Laclos's reputation rests on his single novel, Les liaisons dangereuses. The plot involves interconnecting attempts at seduction and betrayal within a closed, elite segment of society. The vicomte de Valmont is encouraged by his former mistress, the marquise de Merteuil, to seduce the naive and innocent Cécile Volanges, engaged to a young man, Danceny, upon whom Mme de Merteuil seeks revenge. At first Valmont refuses, preferring, instead, to court the virtuous wife of the President de Tourvel. She appears to be slowly yielding, as the two libertines (Valmont, Merteuil) bitterly ridicule each other. Mme de Merteuil sends Valmont a lengthy lesson in seduction (letter 81) and pretends to be seduced by Prevan. Meanwhile, Valmont, learning that Cécile's mother warned the president's wife of his designs on her, decides to accept Mme de Merteuil's challenge and becomes Cécile's lover. The president's wife, still in love with Valmont, finally yields to him. Mme de Merteuil demands that Valmont sacrifice hislove for thepresident'swife ifhe hopes to win her back, and the vicomte complies. Rather than finding love, however, the two libertines are at war with each other, and divulge each other's letters. A young maninlove withCécileisfuriousand kills Valmont in a duel, Cécile enters a convent, and Mme de Merteuil, disgraced and disfigured by smallpox, flees society, which she had called "that great theater."
The epistolary novel is structured as a series of personal letters exchanged between the main characters. The lack of a narrator, and the conflicting, competing perspectives presented by the different letter writers creates an open, ambiguous moral tone that shocked many contemporary readers. The work can be seen as promoting seduction through Valmont's and Merteuil's presentation of detailed tactics and a rhetoric of temptation, or as condemning this debauchery by the libertines' eventual failure and defeat. The amorality of the seducers, and their victims, is portrayed directly, with a neutrality that made the novel itself appear amoral, if not, indeed, immoral.
The exclusive use of the characters' letters also indicates effectively the hypocrisy of polite society, because they often reveal great differences between public and private conduct. On the one hand is illusion, on the other the reality of Valmont and Merteuil, whom Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) labeled "a Satanic Eve." All the characters maintain a virtuous façade, although the tempters reveal their real intentions and devious machinations to each other. The more innocent women reveal by their letters their slow descent as they yield to Valmont. We learn that he seeks not only to corrupt them but to ruin their reputation, as he plans to use their love letters as proof. When Valmont and Merteuil reveal each other's letters near the novel's end, however, these missives serve as proof of their duplicity and corruption, ruining them and leading to their demise.
Laclos considered himself a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and we see this not only in the epistolary form of the novel, as in the philosopher's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Julie, or the new Eloise), but also in its content. Rousseau saw society and writing as corrupting influences, opposed to a natural state of purity and oral language. In Laclos's novel, moral degradation and letter writing are inextricably linked. Modern film versions of the novel have considerably extended the work's popularity and influence.
See also French Literature and Language ; Romanticism ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .
Brooks, Peter. The Novel of Worldliness: Crébillon, Marivaux, Laclos, Stendhal. Princeton, 1969.
Conroy, Peter V. Intimate, Intrusive, and Triumphant: Readers in the Liaisons dangereuses. Amsterdam, 1987.
Diaconoff, Suellen. Eros and Power in Les liaisons dangereuses: A Study in Evil. Geneva, 1979.
Rosbottom, Ronald C. Choderlos de Laclos. Boston, 1978.
Roulston, Christine. Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos. Gainesville, Fla., 1998.
Thelander, Dorothy. Laclos and the Epistolary Novel. Geneva, 1963.
Winnett, Susan. Terrible Sociability: The Text of Manners in Laclos, Goethe, and James. Stanford, 1993.
Allen G. Wood