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Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

An article by Valerie Mamicheva


Choderlos de Laclos, an eighteenth-century French novelist, is best remembered for Les liaisons dangereuses, or Dangerous Liaisons. This epistolary novel tells of the unscrupulous libertinism practiced by the central characters, Valmont and Merteuil. Together they plot for pleasure and power, but their scheme turns against them. 

Laclos was a reasonably successful army general in his time. Although at one stage he was imprisoned for his work on Les liaisons dangereuses, the novel was an enormous success (and a veritable scandal). 

And, obviously, the main characters of "Dangerous liaisons" are vicomte de Valmont and madam de Merteuil. Exactly they braid all intrigues together and spoil the lives of so many people. That is what we see on the example of Cecile de Volanges and madam de Tourvel. The famous director Milos Foreman in his filming of "Dangerous Liaisons" remarked, that the main theme and idea of the novel is opening of the image and the goal of of the deeds of unamendabled lover Valmont, his growing up under influence of madam de Tourvel's love? That's why Milos Foreman renamed his film from "Dangerous Liaisons" to simply "Valmont". Exactly, in Valmont Choderlos de Laclos wanted to show vices of his century, Valmont is its reflection. But madam de Merteuil hasn't gone too far from Valmont. In the novel we are watching their correspondence. Why Choderlos de Laclos chose epistolary genre? Because only in a letter we can clearly consider and perceive some thoughts and feelings of a man. Even a style of writing a letter can can tell us much about him. For example, let us take madam de Merteuil – she writes in a exquisite and dainty style, using many epithets and specific words, in her "speech" we see utterances of the famous philosophers of her time, her own dictums. And more, this dainty schemer owns a flexible and sharp wit, sense of humour, and she is well educated and interested in all latest news about theatre and music. She is an interesting person to deal with. Madam de Merteuil can stand for herself, she can get every man she wants, she can be charming and attractive, virtuous and modest (remember her relationships with madam de Volanges). She early understood that a woman can conquer a man, subordinate him, if she wants so. But this woman is ought not only to be able to talk about a fashion and to have good manners – wise marquise consulted with philosophers, writers, moralists. She knows how to behave herself with men and she knows what she wants. She enjoys this "game of love" and a sharp intrigue she twisted between the lovers -- chevalier Danceny and Cecile de Volanges. It gives her pleasure and joy. Cecile is too young and naive to understand a cunning plan of de Merteuil. But Danceny revealed her bad nature at the end. Her accomplice is skilful in love vicomte de Valmont. 

Valmont is a face of his age. It is worth of thinking, was Valmont the only representative of such "tending to love" in all Paris? Off course, no. But, maybe, Valmont isn't so insidious lecher as it seemed at first. Maybe, the matter is in marquise de Merteuil, who supplies this poisonous source in his soul and culls her vanity in it. That is what Valmont couldn't understand, he was only a toy in the hands of the cunning marquise, who calculated everything. Yet, marquise realized that Valmont's new love (madam de Tourvel) began to ennoble him and change him. And she insisted on his brake with madam de Tourvel because she is afraid to lose him. The intrigue with de Tourvel went too far, she considers. Not realizing – that, Valmont fights for his love  he suggests an alternative to marquise, she chooses a war. And he loses, he dies, he has a talk with Danceny, to whom he opened what he understood quite recently – now he knows all essence of this maleficent woman. He died, but morally towered over her. He died free from burden of his sins. 

And what do Valmont and de Merteil have common and and different? Both of them – mean souls, capable to fraud and treason, connoisseurs of a sharp intrigue and they are interested in its flexible uncoupling. To use surrounding people in your own purposes is the greatest pleasure. An intrigue for them is a whole art, ability to stay alive and to get wishing. Hundreds, or even thousands of people got victims of this art. They are accomplices in their sins, the plans they invent together. That is what united them. But their lives in society ended differently. For madam de berteuil – it was a great disgrace, departure in big hurry from France, she got ravaged and ashamed. Valmont – he dies in a duel with Danceny, but he dies with realization of his terrible way of life, he understands that he spoiled a lot of women's reputations, and he is sorry for that. He apologizes to Madam de Tourvel, his soul is saved from marquise's poison. His did exalted him. 

One more heroine of "Dangerous liaisons" is Cecile de Volanges. She has just arrived from the monastery, she is young and inexperienced, trustful and lightheaded. She fell in love with Danceny. Having fallen into the trap made by Valmont and marquise de Mereuil she let them use herself how do they like. She is defenseless before their cunning and dainty cruelty. And the love to Danceny made her absolutely simple victim. De Merteuil wants to revenge her last lover and Cecile de Volanges is only one section in a chain of cunningly braided intrigues. They shamed her before the all society, before her own mother. Poor Cecile, at the end, went to a monastery. Her pure and noble soul couldn't solve this riddle. Her mother didn't find out the all truth about what had happened. 

One more noble heart and virtuous soul is madam de Tourvel. For Valmont to spoil a woman with a high moral principles and pure soul is a real victory. But for madam de Tourvel it was a real pure and beautiful love which happens only once in a life. Valmont's letters she read for hundreds times and knew them by heart. But for him it is only a fine game, light amusement. Madam de Tourvel couldn't betray her moral principles, her husband and a religion. Valmont made her do it. Gradually, Valmont didn't mention himself to fall in love with madam de Tourvel. He didn't notice that his feelings began to change from shameful and dirty into gentle and romantic. He wanted to donate his love in the name of his reputation of the "first reprobate in Paris". The result of his mistake was madam de Tourvel's death. Though he was in time to analyze his mistake and not only this one, but others either. At the end, we can say, that "Dangerous Liaisons's goal was not only the reflection of the atmosphere of dainty libertinism and lie hidden with virtue but to suppress these vices and others on the example of Valmont and madam de Merteuil. 

"Dangerous liaisons" is very moral, special philosophical-moral-ethical creation.

 — Valerie Mamicheva
December 2002