The novel is the literary form adopted by the emerging bourgeois self-consciousness of the early modern era. The novel gives the différance of human language its formal correlative; its sheer narrative length embodies the internal space of reflection between the individual and the world, the abstract form of which is Sartre’s néant.

In the earliest recognizable novels, those of the Spanish picaresque tradition, this space is occupied by the ruses that permit the picaro’s advance through nascent market society. In France, home to a courtly tradition of pastoral pre-novels dominated by female writers, the first true novel, and one of the greatest, is Mme de Lafayette’s La princesse de Clèves. That it was written by a woman cannot be an accident. As a later novelistic heroine would point out, we seldom acquire abilities that we do not need. Repeating Sappho’s inaugural role in Western lyric, Mme de Lafayette opens up an internal novelistic space within which her heroine is able to resist the attraction of mimetic desire in the person of the seductive Duc de Nemours, even after her husband’s death has freed her to marry him. The princess has learned that love in the world of the court cannot transcend desire to achieve stability; even her husband remained in love with her only because she had never fully given herself to him.

In the near-century that separates La princesse from Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, the French novel becomes largely a first-person genre. The interior space Lafayette’s narrator had invented for the princess has become the generative space of narration, whether told in retrospect as memoirs or in the present in the form of letters. Laclos’ unique work of fiction is the only one of the century’s multitude of epistolary novels in which the letter is not merely the reflection of its writer’s interiority but a written document that can be premeditated, falsified, preserved, copied, and deliberately or involuntarily revealed to others than its nominal recipient. The space of freedom that defended the princess against her own desire becomes for Laclos’ protagonists a means for manipulating the desire of others.


The central subject of Les liaisons is the battle for supremacy between the veiled libertine Mme de Merteuil and her accomplice and rival, the roué Vicomte de Valmont. Since the novel owes its very existence to the woman’s perspective, it is not surprising that the Marquise outmatches the Vicomte as a manipulator of desire. As she explains in her “feminist” autobiographical letter 81, men can openly boast of their exploits whereas women, whose sexuality involves a far greater biological and social commitment, cannot. The male acts most efficiently by allowing his desire, inextricably sexual and socially mediated, to select his goals for him; it is to be expected that Valmont is obsessed by, even in love with Mme de Tourvel, the object of his current “campaign.” In contrast, with the possible exception of the Vicomte himself, Merteuil takes no pleasure from the process of her sexual conquests, only from their results.

That the interiority of the pre-revolutionary novel is a defense against desire does not make the battle of the sexes a zero-sum game. The novel’s evolving interiority is the space of evolution of romantic love; the couple fills this new narrative space with the negotiation of their desire. This negotiation, tragic failure though it be, is already an essential element of La princesse de Clèves. Seventeenth-century readers considered the princess’ confession to her husband of her attraction to Nemours as the high point of the novel. Her effort fails: the prince admires his wife but cannot dominate his jealousy, which ultimately kills him. Even the narrative ploy of having Nemours coincidentally overhear the conversation while hiding on the Clèves estate is justified by the rigor with which the novel denies any possibility of an intimacy beyond desire. The confession is nonetheless an unprecedentedly radical attempt to transform a traditional marriage-pair into a modern couple. The last pages of Manon Lescaut (see Chronicle 17) point to the emergence of such a couple; Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse, despite its unhappy ending, illustrates the principals’ communion ad nauseam. Laclos’ cynicism is no simple extension of Lafayette’s pessimism; it is both the antithesis of the modern couple and its transcendence.

Mme de Tourvel, whose seduction is facilitated by the new model of the couple’s intimacy unavailable in Mme de Clèves’ day, dies like Richardson’s Clarissa of the after-effects of seduction and abandonment. This leads some readers, including one of my professors Way Back When, to see Tourvel as exemplifying pre-romantic bourgeois sensibility in a world of decadent nobles. (In contrast to the old military aristocracy of Valmont, Prévan, Gercourt, and presumably all the other characters, Tourvel’s husband is a noble de robe, the président of a regional court or parlement, and therefore not much more than a bourgeois.) Yet were it the point of Les liaisons to test the strength of an intimate bourgeois conception of love against the aristocratic model of military conquest, Tourvel would not be shown as constantly inferior to her adversaries. There is nothing in Les liaisons that resembles the genuinely modern negotiations of desire that we find in Jane Austen. Tourvel, who is already married, makes no attempt to confide in her husband–who never enters the scene even when his wife is dying of a broken heart. She is easily duped by Valmont not because she is “sincere” but because she is naïvely self-indulgent, failing to suspect either Valmont’s conscious or her own unconscious motives. A comparison with the princess, not to speak of Merteuil, demonstrates that “bourgeois” moral self-awareness is precisely what Tourvel lacks.

Those who defend Tourvel’s uniqueness must assume that, absent Merteuil’s manipulation of Valmont’s vanity (she gets him to send a mortifying break-up letter to Tourvel by intimating that his schoolboy-like behavior is ruining his reputation), he would have been permanently transformed by their love. For example, in Roger Kumble’s 1999 filmCruel Intentions, an otherwise fairly uncompromising retelling of Les liaisons among American teenagers, “Valmont” sacrifices his life to save “Tourvel’s” by throwing himself in front of a speeding car. But what is special about Tourvel is not the self-consciousness of the future but that of the past; she resembles less Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett than the heroine of the 1669 novel Les lettres portugaises (written, incidentally, by a man), a nun who writes unanswered letters to her seducer. In Valmont’s cynical world of sexual intrigue, where the innocent Céciles are incapable of resistance and the experienced Countesses *** resist only for decorum’s sake, where glory is available only from tactical triumphs such as stealing a woman from under the nose of both lover and husband (Letter 71), Tourvel, who alone resembles the pious, sin-conscious victims of the originalDon Juan, is the only conquest worthy of the name.

Tourvel is an exemplary object for Valmont’s model of conquest, a model whose difference from Merteuil’s ultimately destroys their partnership. Not only does Don Juan typically fall in love with the object of his seduction campaign, but once the battle has been won, he has no compunctions about indulging freely in the pleasures of victory. Indeed, we may see Don Juan, if not Valmont himself, as an exemplification of masculine desire whose plurality of loves need not be attributed to prior intention; each one begins as immortal, though it soon dies of boredom. True, Valmont is no plain-wrapper Don Juan. He is obsessed with the glory of conquest, inseparable from humiliation of the conquered. His unscrupulous resourcefulness is demonstrated in his seduction and sexual “corruption” of the fifteen-year-old Cécile–a project, undertaken at Merteuil’s orders, that for Valmont is a mere distraction. But nothing in Valmont’s constitution would lead him to end a relationship before it becomes boring.

In contrast with Valmont’s, Merteuil’s model of sexual conquest is without sentiment or self-abandonment. Outside her relationship with Valmont, Merteuil is motivated by only two desires: to confirm her superiority by adding to her string of lovers neither willing nor able to boast of her favors, and to humiliate an adversary, whether for revenge, as with Gercourt (Cécile’s fiancé whose wedding night she wishes to spoil), or for mere sport, as with Prévan, Valmont’s competitor whom she tricks so devastatingly that he is dismissed in disgrace from his regiment.

Because Merteuil succeeds in manipulating Valmont into cruelly abandoning Tourvel in a vain effort to win her favors, one tends to see their entire relationship as one-sided. But Valmont is no mere pawn in Merteuil’s game. His Tourvel campaign–and his detailed account of it–is as much an assertion of independence as a bid for glory. Merteuil cannot dissuade him from it; she eventually succeeds in destroying the couple and both its members, but only at the sacrifice of her own carefully maintained reputation.


Laclos writes in the pre-romantic age of the couple; but who is the couple in Les liaisons? There is no true intimacy between Valmont and Tourvel; even their most tender moments are shared with Merteuil, whatever Valmont’s bad faith or deliberate provocation in the sharing. Forgetting the callow Danceny and his instinct-driven Cécile, the only real couple in the novel is that formed by Valmont and Merteuil themselves.

Whatever Valmont may feel for Tourvel, he can share his feelings with Merteuil alone. This puts her in the paradoxical role of receiving, as proof of his love for her, his confession of his passion for another. Valmont makes Merteuil play a role of super-woman that negates, both deliberately and involuntarily, her womanhood. Even the sexual favors Valmont desires from her are primarily a sign of approval, a second degree communion to reward his first-degree victory over Tourvel.

Merteuil’s feeling for Valmont is less definable. He is the only person she can confide in, and she needs a man of confidence for practical reasons, irrespective of hypothetical psychological ones. Even Merteuil’s confession-letter 81 may be read as intended to intimidate Valmont as much as to reveal herself to him. Yet Merteuil’s refusal of Valmont’s promised sexual reward, which leads to their climactic falling-out, contradicts her own declared principles as well as her rational self-interest. Even while insuring Valmont’s death (assuming she could predict Danceny’s victory in their duel), she cannot be unaware of his power posthumously to divulge their incriminating correspondence. That her desire for revenge leads her thus to cut off her nose to spite her face (she loses an eye from smallpox, is exposed to opprobrium, and forced to flee the country) suggests that she is driven by a passion of her own.

Merteuil is for Valmont a transcendental figure, mother and/or goddess, with both the dependency and the resentment such unequal relationships imply. Valmont’s schema requires a lower-degree mistress for Merteuil to be higher than. Merteuil, for her part, demands that Valmont do what she claims men cannot: devote himself wholly to their secret relationship, which can afford no satisfaction to his masculine vanity. The impossibility of becoming a true couple is implicit in the inevitable reserve of the epistolary form itself, which never allows its principals to meet in the flesh. Valmont resolves this dilemma by situating Merteuil on a transcendent plane above his “real” love, Tourvel; Merteuil can offer her correspondent shared superiority to others, not equality with herself.

Despite, or rather because of Merteuil’s greater power over desire, Valmont’s solution reflects a deeper understanding of the narrative situation than hers. His fatal error is in failing–despite Merteuil’s own warnings–to accept the consequence of this implicit understanding: that their relationship must remain spiritual, that is, epistolary. In the end, Valmont pays with his life for confusing soul with body, whereas Merteuil is punished in the flesh for forgetting that the body is the mere instrument of the soul. But a novel’s interest lies in process, not outcome. In the uncompromising lucidity and richness of their interactions in novelistic space, Valmont and Merteuil incarnate the eighteenth century’s highest ideal of love.