Les Liaisons dangereuses reveals the complex and disturbing world of aristocratic society in pre-revolutionary France. The reader is left with unanswered questions at the end of the novel, whilst also pondering the meaning of its rapid and tragic climax. These questions arise partly from the ambiguities in the novel, namely regarding its moral stance, its position on libertine intelligence and also on society, as well as the ambiguities in language and the epistolary form.
The ambiguity of language which is constant throughout Liaisons Dangereuses serves to highlight some of the tensions between love and libertinage, vice and virtue. Laclos provides us with no means of knowing his libertines’ emotions, of deciding whether or not they are jealous or in love. Thus we cannot hope to maintain the ‘reality’ of sentiments of characters such as Valmont and Merteuil who only use language in order to ‘trick’ others and who consistently resort to linguistic clichés when speaking of their feelings. Although there is no doubt that Valmont is the cold-blooded seducer and corrupter of Tourvel, as shown in letter 47 when he writes the letter to his ‘belle dévote’ on the back of the woman he has just made love to, other letters suggest there is some truth to his feelings. In letter 100 Valmont exclaims in despair, ‘mais quelle fatalité m’attache à cette femme?’. The climax of the novel is essentially a direct result of the struggle experienced by Valmont between his vanity, played on by Merteuil, and his feelings for Tourvel, which Merteuil is aware of and resents. However, Laclos shows Valmont’s inclinations towards love and virtue so shrouded in irony and so drowned in examples of Valmont’s sadism that they are barely recognisable, and we have no hope of knowing how serious they are. In using this ambiguous nature of language, Laclos illuminates the difficulties of separating natural emotion from libertine rationality; at the crucial moment, when Tourvel is within Valmont’s grasp, he shows his human weakness and begins to fall in love with his victim. After this, he falls apart and becomes a vain little man who is unable to deceive anyone other than himself.
Another ambiguity in Laclos’ use of language is his ironic portrayal of courtly love. Laclos uses the language of artillery and war to describe the amorous games between the protagonists. This was a device used frequently by 17th and 18th century writers to portray courtly love, the formalities of which date back to the middle ages. To quote Huizinga, ‘to formalize love is, moreover, a social necessity’. Indeed, this stylization of love had grown out of the necessity to control the primitive feelings of lust and passion. Laclos, however, does not use the vocabulary of war in the conventional sense. Rather he uses it literally, making the reader think that what we see in Liaisons may not be a light-hearted game but a ferocious war where people get killed; ‘leur amour est une véritable explosion; la résistance y donne plus de force’. Thus when the reader understands the sinister intentions of Merteuil and Valmont it becomes clear that they have reinstalled into the game of love the very cruelty and barbarity that these formalities were trying to avoid in the first place. By underlining this through ironic contrast, Laclos would seem to be emphasizing the grave consequences which can come of libertinage which is not restrained by society; the acts of manipulation and destruction which Merteuil and Valmont selfishly enter into must be controlled, and the lack of this control, caused partly by the ignorance of the helpless victims, will undoubtedly lead to violence and death.
Similarly, the language of intellect and pedagogy and the ambiguities that come with it also portray the inevitably of tragedy and destruction. For the libertines, seduction becomes an intellectual activity, and when intelligence and reason are diverted from their original purpose, a state of disorder exists. For example, when Merteuil writes to Valmont about Cécile, ‘si une fois vous formez cette petite’, she is actually turning language upside-down and means the opposite; ‘déformez’. They seek not to educate Cécile and enlighten her to the ways of adult life, but to make her dependent and ignorant. This adds to the feeling that pure intellect, when separated from human sympathies, is often used as a force for evil. Furthermore, in letter 33 Merteuil writes of her epistolary technique of narrative organization. She claims that, when a libertine wants to seduce a victim into believing his or her love, any semblance of order betrays their true intentions. For the letter to succeed in convincing the victim, the author must appear to be out of control, engaged in a passionate struggle which comes across as the apparent lack of control in language. Therefore the reader is again struck by an ambiguity in the language used by the libertines. We are never sure if the words Valmont uses when he writes to Tourvel have meaning, or whether they are simply empty words. In this way, there is a great deal of doubt surrounding the language of Liaisons which contributes to the overall mixed moral message of the novel.
Liaisons Dangereuses has often been described as a novel of morals, however the moral instruction given by Laclos is certainly ambiguous to the extent that the reader questions whether there is really any moral message at all. As the most innocent of the protagonists, Mme de Tourvel is the character closest to being seen as a heroine. As the only married character and physically removed from Parisian society by living in the country, Tourvel’s moral separateness from the corrupt nature of Parisian life is made clear. She is also portrayed as the most natural of the group, directly by the tone of her letters, and indirectly by descriptions from Valmont and Merteuil who recognize her innate goodness; ‘Madame de Tourvel a-t-elle besoin d’illusion? Non; pour être adorable il lui suffit d’être elle-même’. Her virtue is essential to her character, and it is for this reason that she remains outside Valmont’s reach, in contrast to Cécile who is only innocent because of her age. Cécile is quickly able to divorce her feelings for Danceny with the pleasure she feels with Valmont, and thus when she reaches her fate the reader is not moved by it because she was, in fact, neither seduced or corrupted but merely yielded to her real nature; ‘le débauche commence où commence à se dissocier de l’amour le plaisir’. Conversely, the reader feels a great deal of sympathy for Mme de Tourvel and her fate is shown as something that should not happen to anyone. This is, in fact, where the novel’s moral stance comes into question.
Given that Merteuil avoids this fate it would seem that she is in the right whereas Tourvel is in the wrong and, indeed, throughout the novel the reader cannot help but feel an amount of admiration towards Mme Merteuil and an annoyance towards Tourvel for her childish naivety and complete ignorance of the world. The epistolary form also lends itself in favour of Merteuil, because the exchange of letters has its roots in the exchange of ideas; in other words, it is an intelligent form of writing, rather than a sentimental one. Therefore the letters between Valmont and Tourvel quickly become monotonous and dull whereas the fast-moving, engaging exchanges between the two libertines are much more interesting for the reader. In turn, it is difficult for the reader to discern whether Laclos’ aim was for Tourvel to be seen as an embodiment of virtue and victim of evil, or a woman for whom her lack of worldliness and intellect led to her own unfortunate demise.
A glorification of libertine intelligence or a critique of the society in which the libertine strategists could flourish? This is another question frequently asked of Liaisons Dangereuses and another one of its possible ambiguities. On one hand, the reader admires the superior intelligence of Valmont and, in particular, Merteuil. In letter 81, Merteuil reveals herself as a young widow who, through willpower, forces her intellect to control her natural being. She consciously abandoned love and sentimentality because she believed it not only too risky, but also often an illusion. ‘Je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage’, this shows that she is an artificial creation and has replaced what is natural; emotion, with pure intellect and rationality. In light of this autobiographical account, her fate at the end of the novel would suggest that Laclos is trying to show libertine intelligence in a positive light because, even though she has the superficial loss of appearance and reputation, she retains her mind. This is the mind which she uses to manipulate others and to gain power for herself; the fact her intelligence is retained certainly suggests glorification of libertinage. Furthermore, she never utters a word to explain or justify herself, retaining both her pride and her complete self-control. Similarly, Valmont does not lose any of his prestige, being killed in a duel. In this way, the ending is one final ironic attack on society’s values.
Liaisons immediately becomes a critique of the aristocratic society of the time when the libertines’ superior awareness is not used to enlighten their own minds but to control others. Consistently, Merteuil and Valmont expose the hypocrisy of society and the inadequacy of the conventional values, or in some cases the apparent lack of values. For example, Mme de Volanges prefers to give advice to others rather than deal with the problems of her own daughter, Cécile. She hides from the complexities of reality but embraces her outward appearance as a do-gooder; her inability to deal with Cécile’s problems leads her to seek advice from Merteuil. Similarly, the excessively cloistered upbringing of Cécile in the convent has left her with simplistic notions of morality inadequate for coping with concrete situations, again leading her to the counsel of Mme Merteuil. The Marquise is certainly aware that she owes much of her power to the faults in society, and arguably her choice to exploit these faults comes from the societal obsession with intrigue, eroticism and amour proper as well as the relentless boredom and lack of motive which came with being a member of the aristocracy. Similarly, Merteuil and Valmont continuously mock the church and they exploit its black and white view of the world for their own purposes. One of Valmont’s final attempts at winning over Mme de Tourvel is by writing to her confessor, who ironically advises Tourvel to trust Valmont and is flattered to believe he has helped Valmont see the error of his ways. Mme de Rosamonde, one of the oldest and most worldly characters, similarly claims, ‘je crois bien que vous l’auriez converti’. Mme de Tourvel is also too ignorant to see that Valmont’s libertine character is a conscious choice of principle, and prefers to see him as a weakling for whom she is able to cure of sin. Thus, Laclos consistently exposes the errors of such complacency and simplicity of thought in society, and certainly denounces it a great deal more than the duplicity of the libertines.
Liaisons Dangereuses can certainly be described as an œuvre ambiguë. The ambiguities in language are perhaps the most significant and produce a lot of uncertainty surrounding the true feelings and intentions of the libertines. However, the ambiguities are so numerous that it would seem Laclos is inviting the reader to become involved in these questions, and that the author is leaving so much shrouded in doubt in order to make the reader think about their own position in the fight between vice and virtue. In terms of morality, although there is a clear difference between the amoral libertines and the virtuous Mme de Tourvel, we are left questioning Cécile’s moral stance. The fate of the protagonists at the end also raises questions about the moral instruction given by the novel. A conclusion which might well be made is that Liaisons is a novel of descriptive, rather than normative, morals and that Laclos is simply inviting us to consider with which characters our moral sympathies and empathies lie, rather than giving the reader a specific moral message. What is clear, however, is that Laclos wrote a novel critiquing the aristocratic society of the time. All the tragedies which are produced by the novel do not have their roots in the amorality of Merteuil and Valmont, but in the artificiality of the society in which they are able to flourish and exploit others.
Books BROOKS, P. (1969) The Novel of Worldliness: Crébillon, Marivaux, Laclos, Stendhal. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) CUSSET, C. Libertinage and Modernity (New Haven; London: Yale University press, 1998) DEJEAN, J.E. Literary Fortifications: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade. (Princeton, N. J. ; Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1984) ROSBOTTOM, R.C. Choderlos De Laclos. (Twayne Publishers, G.K. Hall & Co. 1978) HUIZINGA, J. The Waning of the Middle Ages. (Benediction Books, 2010)
Articles GRESHOFF, C.J. The Moral Structure of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In The French Review, Volume 37, No. 4. (American Association of Teachers for French, 1964) MEAD, W. Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Moral ‘Usefulness’. In PMLA, Volume 75, No.5. (Modern Language Association, 1966) ALSTAD, D. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Hustlers and Hypocrites. In Yale French Studies, No. 40. (Yale University Press, 1968) SCULLEY HUDON, E. Love and Myth in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In Yale French Studies, No.11. (Yale University Press, 1953) McCALLAM, D. The Nature of Libertine Promises in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In The Modern Language Review, Volume 98, No.4. (Modern Humanities Research Association, 2003)
 letter 47, p119  letter 100, p262  J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: London, Edward Arnold, p96  99:260  letter 2, p26  Letter VI, p33  A. Gide, Oeuvres Complètes. Paris Gallimard, volume VII, p453  J.E. Dejean, Literary Fortifications: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade. p193  letter 81, p200  letter 126, p342