Story of O

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Story of O

Histoire d'O (The Story of O) was written by the French intellectual Dominique Aury (1907–1998) to keep the interest of her lover, the renowned editor and author Jean Paulhan (1884–1968), a married man. Paulhan had taunted Aury by claiming that a woman could not write a good erotic novel. Aury published the novel in 1954 under the pseudonym Pauline Réage. The book came to the attention of the French public when Aury, as Réage, won the prestigious Prix Deux Magots. The book, considered scandalous, proved to be wildly popular. It was translated into English in 1965 and has never been out of print. During the 1960s it was the most widely read contemporary French novel outside of France. For years most people speculated that the writer was a man. In a 1994 article in the New Yorker, the British journalist John de St. Jorre revealed the secret already known in some French intellectual circles: that Pauline Réage was really Dominique Aury, a respected and respectable editor, translator, writer, and, most scandalous of all, feminist.


In The Story of O, a woman, known only by the first initial of her name, accompanies her adored lover René to the Chateau Roissy where he turns her over to a sadist named Sir Stephen to be trained in the art of perfect submission. O is sexually penetrated in every possible way by a variety of men; she is whipped, beaten, humiliated, and bound. She is not allowed to speak to women or look any man in the eye. She is corseted and left with her genitals constantly exposed. She is forced to wear a collar and cuffs. As time goes on, she learns to accept each cruelty as an act of grace, developing an extraordinary interiority that borders on saintliness. After Roissy, O is sent to Anne Marie, a dominatrix, to be further subdued, branded, and pierced. She is used to recruit other women into training for the lords of Roissy. Eventually her submission is so perfect that she is displayed at one of Sir Stephen's parties wearing a mask and led on a leash attached to rings in her labia. She creates a sensation and is rewarded by being sexually assaulted by the guests. Abandoned by René, appreciated but unloved by Sir Stephen, O eventually learns to ask for nothing, expect nothing, and desire nothing. Her training complete, she has no other recourse but to seek the perfect realization of her annihilation in death.

Critics have focused on the book as pornography, with some writers applauding the extremes of consciousness charted by the novel, others condemning its violence and misogyny, and some viewing it as a useful parable of female oppression and cautionary tale. In an essay on pornography as literature, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1969), the American writer Susan Sontag (1933–2004) argued that the novel helps prove that the obscene is "a primal notion of human consciousness" (Sontag 1983, p. 221), valuable because it explores the capacity of human beings to lose themselves in sexuality. In Woman Hating (1974), the American feminist Andrea Dworkin agrees that The Story of O is politically significant precisely because it is pornography. Unlike Sontag, however, Dworkin argues that pornography is important only as a means to reveal the mechanisms of patriarchal oppression, and as a way to study the fantasies and adult fairy tales of master and slave, both male and female, and dominant and submissive that form the basis of sexist culture. Dworkin interprets the name O as representing the vagina, thus reducing the protagonist to a hole to be penetrated. She insists that O's prostitution is not sacred or sanctifying, but is simply a demonstration of male ownership and male power. She sums up The Story of O as one of psychic cannibalism and demonic possession in which the question of who is the most powerful is answered by the specter of men standing triumphant over the dead bodies of women.

The psychoanalytic critic Kaja Silverman also discusses The Story of O in relation to pornography, but emphasizes the novel as a psychic account of the creation of normal female subjectivity. Unlike Dworkin, who argues that O is reduced to being merely a body, Silverman notes that O is merely a body at the beginning of the novel, but that her training at Roissy eventually gives her an inner life and the consciousness of a mystic or saint. Analyzing O's subjection to the intense discipline of Roissy, Silverman argues that O's body is brought into the discourse of pornography and invested with phallic meaning. Women like O involuntarily internalize this discourse, which in turn makes them participants in their own exploitation. It is necessary to understand the relationship of discourse to women's oppression, Silverman concludes, so as to subvert it.


In the 1980s and 1990s, some feminists and lesbian sex radicals broke with mainstream feminism's condemnation of pornography. In so doing, they rejected feminist notions of false consciousness and evidenced overt interest in erotica, power play, rough sex, sadomasochism (S/M), dominance and submission, bondage, and fantasy. Lesbian feminist S/M groups, such as Samois, argued that these practices expanded women's erotic autonomy. Feminist film critics used The Story of O as a yardstick for measuring portrayals of sadomasochistic sex and discipline in the movies. In the early twenty-first century, many readers see The Story of O as a manifesto of a woman's right to erotic expression and self-determination, with O's sexual awakening, however tragic its outcome, seen as a kind of transcendence.

The Story of O is a primer for sadists and masochists alike. The fact that the book has never been out of print is a testament to its enduring popularity. It is respected as a literary work in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) and Georges Bataille (1897–1962), and is considered one of the best sadomasochistic erotic novels ever written.

The Story of O was adapted for film by director Just Jaeckin, who also directed the popular soft-core erotic movie Emmanuelle (1975). Filmed in French and starring Corinne Clery as O, the film is a stylized vision of restrained erotica, playing out many of the dominance-submission scenarios detailed in the novel. The film was banned in some countries and was released in the United States with an NC-17 rating (no one 17 and under admitted).


De St. Jorre, John. 1994. "The Unmasking of "O." The New Yorker 70(23): 42-50.

Dworkin, Andrea. 1974. Woman Hating. New York: Dutton.

Réage, Pauline. 1965. The Story of O, trans. Sabine d'Estrée. New York: Grove Press.

Silverman, Kaja. 1984. "Histoire d'O: The Construction of a Female Subject." In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole Vance. Boston: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan. 1983. "The Pornographic Imagination." In A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Vintage.

                                               Jaime Hovey