Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François de

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SADE, DONATIEN-ALPHONSE-FRANÇOIS DE (1740–1814), French libertine and writer.

For a long time the work of Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade (better known as Marquis de Sade) has been discredited through its association with the turbulent and diabolical life of its author. The writings of Sade reflect the extravagant adventures of the libertine marquis whose name gave birth to a common noun: sadism.

The House of Sade is one of the oldest in Provence, and in the Comtat Venaissin of southeastern France, dating back to the thirteenth century and distinguishing itself through the centuries in the service of both the state and the church. The father of the marquis, the count Jean-Baptiste de Sade (1702–1779), left the land of his ancestors during the regency of Philippe d'Orléans and sought his fortune at the court. He led the life of a gentleman libertine, squandering the family fortune and going so far as to marry the lady-in-waiting to the Princess de Condé, just so he could more readily seduce the latter. This loveless marriage produced a son, Donatien-Alphonse-François, on 2 June 1740, a year after the passing of their first-born, a two-year-old girl. Until the age of four the young marquis was raised in the Condé entourage by his mother, then was sent to his uncle's home in Provence. His father maintained high ambitions for his son and, when he was ten years old, sent to him to Paris to study at the Jesuit-run College Louis-le-Grand, a school attended by the sons of the high nobility. At age fourteen, his father pulled him from the college in order to place him in the army. Through nepotism, the young marquis rapidly rose in rank and, at age eighteen, became captain of the cavalry. Then came a marriage, negotiated by the count, to a young heiress, Renée-Pélagie Cordier de Montreuil, on 17 May 1763. After the death of a firstborn child in 1764, the young wife produced a son, Louis-Marie, in 1767, the same year that the Comte de Sade died. Two other children would follow, a son in 1769 and a daughter in 1771.

However, neither marriage nor parenthood restrained the libertine character and scandalous ways of the marquis. He was seen with actresses who became his mistresses while he consorted with young girls and frequented public houses. He brought young prostitutes, both male and female, to rented houses where he obliged them to satisfy his fantasies. In 1768 a woman, either a prostitute or a beggar, lodged a complaint, accusing him of having confined, then whipped, her before applying drops of hot wax in her wounds. The marquis was arrested and put in prison, while public opinion used the affair to condemn the degenerate morals of the aristocracy. His in-laws had him freed and forced him to stay in the château of La Coste, the birthplace of the de Sade family. He had a calm stay at the side of his wife and satisfied his passion for the theater. He also commenced an incestuous relationship with his sister-in-law, an affair that caused his strong willed mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, to develop an implacable hatred of him. This was exacerbated after the marquis was implicated in a new affair in Marseille in which a prostitute made a complaint that he sodomized and tried to poison her. Arrested again, Donatien was sent to the citadel near Chambéry, from which he soon escaped, fleeing first to Italy, then returning to La Coste. He remained there for some time, in retreat from the world, but having taken the precaution (with his wife's agreement) to surround himself with young domestics, both male and female, whose job was to satisfy his most perverse desires. These desires rapidly manifested themselves on the bodies of the children, scarred by blows from a rod and by incisions. The rumor mill worked overtime, and the scandals grew. The parents lodged a complaint, and Madame de Montreuil tried by all the means at her disposal to have her son-in-law institutionalized. No longer feeling himself protected, Donatien left La Coste on 17 July 1775 for Italy. There he traveled under a false identity for a year, accumulating notes and observations for the purpose of writing an account of his voyage.

In February 1777 he returned to Paris where he was greeted with a lettre de cachet (a document condemning him to prison) and was locked up in the dungeon at Vincennes. He began his literary career there and, according to the expression of Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), "entered prison a man and left a writer." The prison space nourished a diverse, long-winded, and wordy ode to liberty in which imprisonment figured throughout. In 1784 the prison at Vincennes was closed and the marquis was transferred to the Bastille, where he continued writing novels, all the while maintaining important correspondences, principally with his notary and his wife. Renée-Pélagie had not abandoned her husband and always fought for his freedom. But, tired of his character and his caprices, she chose never to see him after his liberation on 2 April 1790.

Though Sade was freed during the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille had destroyed a portion of his manuscripts. Out of both conviction and necessity he supported the events of 1789, presenting himself as a victim of ancien régime justice and declaring himself to be a man of letters. In 1791 he anonymously published Justine; or, the Misfortunes of Virtue, a licentious novel in which Sade overstepped the boundaries of erotic discourse. Above all, though, he wrote theatrical works, increasing the number of plays he wrote and actively seeking to have them performed. In addition, he put his literary skills in the service of the nation and actively got involved in the sectional meetings of his district. However, on 8 December 1793, he was again arrested, this time for his atheistic convictions, his pornographic writings (though published anonymously, Justine was readily attributable to him), and his aristocratic lineage. He remained incarcerated for ten and one-half months before leaving prison after the fall of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) on 29 July 1794.

His theatrical career having failed, Sade turned to writing novels: Aline et Valcour (1795) and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). He also continued to write unbridled pornography, producing The New Justine; or, the Misfortunes of Virtue (1797). But, as his biographer has indicated, his books only postponed the misery to which he seemed doomed. In March 1801 he was again arrested; the First Consul (Napoleon Bonaparte) was not a fan of his libertine writings. In order to cover up the illegality of the arrest, Sade was rapidly dispatched to Charenton, an old prison that had housed him during the first months of the Revolution but that had, since 1797, again become an insane asylum. He lived there until his death on 2 December 1814, in a condition of privileged incarceration, where he indulged his passion for theatrical staging with inmates serving as actors; except for the lack of freedom, he was deprived of nothing.

In terms of history and literature, Sade is for some a revolutionary, a genius of the imaginary, and a beacon of liberty; for others, he is an immoral and debauched individual and an advocate of criminality. Regardless of which character one sees him as, he cultivated a legend for himself that endures into the early twenty-first century.

See alsoBody; Gender; Homosexuality and Lesbianism; Napoleon; Pornography; Sexuality.


Beauvoir, Simone de. Faut-il brûler Sade? Paris, 1972. First published in 1955 under the title Privilèges.

Lever, Maurice. Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade. Paris, 1991.

Michael, Colette Verger. The Marquis de Sade: The Man, His Works, and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1986.

Pauvert, Jean-Jacques. Sade Vivant. 3 vols. Paris, 1986–1990.

Pascal Dupuy