Sade, Marquis de 1740–1814

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Sade, Marquis de

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, commonly known as the Marquis de Sade, was born on June 2 in Paris to an aristocratic family from Provence. He was sent to the Jesuit school Louis-le-Grand in Paris. After his participation in the Seven Years' War (1764–1763), Sade lived in the family-owned castle of La Coste in southern France. In May 1763 he married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a rich noble family. He died on December 2 in the Charentron insane asylum in Paris.


Sade was arrested in October 1763 for outrageous debauchery in a brothel and incarcerated in the Vincennes dungeon for two weeks. From that point on he consorted with actresses, dancers, and prostitutes and was under close surveillance by the police inspector Marais. Marais was in charge of vice affairs for General Lieutenant Sartines, who attentively read his detailed reports to Louis XV (1710–1774). In April 1768 the cotton spinner and beggar Rose Keller was held captive and tortured by the marquis in his Arcueil residence near Paris. Sade was imprisoned for six months and then put under house arrest in La Coste.

In June 1772 the Marseilles affair came to public attention. Four prostitutes recruited by Sade and his valet Latour for a libertine party accused both men of having poisoned them with aphrodisiac sweets. Although the apothecary's report did not mention poison, Sade and his valet were sentenced to death on September 3, 1772, for the crimes of poisoning and sodomy. The marquis escaped to Italy.

In December he was arrested and imprisoned, but he escaped in the spring of 1773. In 1777 during a stay in Paris, Sade was arrested by an order under the king's private seal, which permitted detention without trial, and imprisoned at Vincennes for the Marseilles affair. In 1778 his death sentence was commuted to a fine, but he had to remain in prison because the order submitted him to the king's restrained justice.

It was from his cell that Sade wrote Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man in 1782, followed by The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. Sade was transferred to the Bastille and then in July 1789 to the insane asylum at Charenton. In 1790 he was set free because orders under the king's private seal were abolished. The next year he anonymously published different versions of Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue, followed by Aline and Valcour or the Philosophical Novel and Philosophy in the Boudoir or the Libertine Teachers, Dialogues for the Education of Young Ladies in 1795.

After being sentenced to death under the Reign of Terror for moderantism, Sade was freed in 1794. While living in misery, he published Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded in 1797, followed by Pauline and Belval or the Victims of a Criminal Love in 1798. In 1801 he again was confined to the Charenton asylum because of the publication of a collection of short stories, Crimes of Love, that was considered immoral. Clear-headed until the end of his life, he organized parties and staged plays in Charenton. The divine marquis died in Charenton, having spent twenty-five years of his life in confinement.


Sade's writings reflect a life not so much of sexual hedonism as of nearly surgical experimentation with sexuality to the point of horror. Those writings are characterized by militant atheism: Sade delighted in blaspheming, as in Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue, where it is monks who practice penetration, flagellation, and coprophagia.

Sade considered sexual pleasure to be intrinsically transgressive. A sexual climax entails violation of the forbidden, and sexuality thus leads to the supreme crime of murder. Sade seduces his readers by promising an almost innocent sexual pleasure, but his characters end up weary of increasingly unbridled and elaborate pleasures. The numerous scenes of humiliation, torture, and massacre make it appear as if Sade were unable to carry through with his utopia of horror.

All conceivable sexual anomalies are enacted and reenacted in secluded places, such as castles and convents, where the limits of nature are tested. However, nature has no moral limits. For Sade everything is possible, and thus everything is permitted. Moral crimes are boundaries invented by human laws to subjugate the true nature of people.

Sade's cruel naturalism is informed by the French Enlightenment. He protests against the misery and injustice of women's condition, against a form of marriage and education that sentences women to a permanent feeling of religiously inspired guilt, and against a morality that enjoins women to be modest despite their ignorance of their bodies and the world. Addressing women in Philosophy in the Boudoir, Sade wrote: "I would have them accorded the enjoyment of all sexes and, as in the case of men, the enjoyment of all parts of the body; and under the special clause prescribing their surrender to all who desire them, there must be subjoined another guaranteeing them a similar freedom to enjoy all they deem worthy to satisfy them."

In most of Sade's novels the female characters are victims of male fantasies, passive sexual objects who are manipulated and abused, but male characters are also among the victims. The virtuous Justine, who incarnates the image of the innocent woman, has as her double her older sister, the vicious Juliette, who is as evil as any of Sade's male characters.

Sade's novels are initiations into cruelty but also provide a philosophical education in sexuality. The sexuality of Sade's women is politically subversive by virtue of its polymorphous nature. Liberating women totally from reproduction, Sade establishes a woman's right to sexual pleasure without obligation.


Sade's writings have caused debate among feminists. In 1954 French philosopher and author Simone de Beauvoir showed that Sade's philosophy enables the modern reader to understand how sexuality captures the essence of the human condition. The precariousness of the experience of otherness is put forward and held in check in Sade's writings: Sadian libertines never lose control or become confused; for them sexual pleasure is entirely cerebral. They climax in the solitude of their own identity and remain indifferent to the other. Beauvoir illustrates Sade's isolism with the well-known image of the man satisfied with making his partner come. In such conditions the libertine Sade never experiences his own subjectivity, never becomes conscious of himself and his condition. Beauvoir demonstrates through this figure the true structure of human intersubjectivity in sexuality (Butler 2003). In 1977 French psychoanalytic and cultural theorist Luce Irigaray parodied Sade in a text titled "Frenchwomen, Stop Trying" in which she invited women to follow their nature—not the one prescribed by pornographers but the one they themselves shape: "Don't force yourselves to repeat, don't congeal your dreams or desires in unique and definitive representations. You have so many continents to explore that if you set up borders for yourselves you won't be able to 'enjoy' all your own 'nature'" (Irigaray 1985, p. 204).

see also Bondage and Discipline; Domination; Enlightenment; Literature: I. Overview; Sadism.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1954. The Marquis de Sade. New York: Grove Press.

Bongie, Laurence L. 1998. Sade: A Biographical Essay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Butler, Judith. 2003. "Beauvoir on Sade: Making Sexuality into Ethic." In The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claudia Card. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

O'Connell, Lisa, and Peter Cryle, eds. 2003. Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty and License in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1979. Emile: Or, On Education, trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books. [Orig. pub. 1762.]

Sade, Marquis de. 2006. The Complete Marquis de Sade, ed. and trans. Paul J. Gillette. Los Angeles: Holloway House.

                                                Elsa Dorlin