‘Les Liaisons dangereuses, œuvre ambiguë (Dangerous Liaisons, an Ambiguous Text)”: The Validity of this Judgment of the Novel
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
Ambiguity in Dangerous Liaisons
Although the moral ambiguity (and subsequent confusion related to Laclos’ social instruction) is the overarching obscurity within the text, it is the subtleties of the language and stylistic features of Les liaisons dangereuses that ensure this epistolary novel must be read with the awareness of ambiguity that is normally reserved for difficult poetry. Laclos’ artistic ability to « joindre à l’esprit d’un auteur, le talent d’un comédien » ensures that uncertainty constantly clouds the reader’s understanding of the motives and intended audience of the Vicomte and Merteuil’s letters. Furthermore, it is Laclos’ linguistic treatment of the emotion of love that seeks to confound, as the novel transforms a seemingly pure concept into a sadistic game, masked behind rhetoric of war and religion.
It is this ‘secret charm’ of hidden sentiments and witty repartee between “immoral” characters that entices the reader into the intimate world of the scheming aristocracy, where the letter is the ultimate weapon in revealing one’s intentions through what remains hidden. The letter Valmont writes to Madame de Tourvel, while using the courtesan Emilie’s naked body as a writing desk, is the most obvious example of a masterpiece of sustained ambiguity. Such ambiguity is observed in the letter’s capacity to hold a very different meaning according to the person reading it and the context in which it is read. It is clear that Valmont is writing for the flattery and approval of Merteuil, with his amusing wit and double entendre, describing “une nuit orageuse…dans l’agitation d’une ardeur dévorante.” And yet, la Présidente would read it as a romantic declaration of love. This subtle and complex example of Laclos’ œuvre ambiguë seeks to assert the idea of certain characters, such as Merteuil, having a privileged point of view above others, with the reader remaining the most well informed.
A further instance of the Marquise being in an undisputed position of power compared to that of the other characters’ is her response to Madame de Volange’s plea for counsel, in Letter Ninety Eight, in which she secretly knows the true reason behind Cécile’s distress. In the absence of an omniscient narrator, Laclos calls upon the reader to draw the spidery threads of the novel together, demonstrating his effective use of the epistolary technique in a highly ambiguous style, as “quand vous écrivez à quelqu’un, c’est pour lui et non pas pour vous: vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plait davantage.” This ambiguity behind each writer’s motivation and each letter’s intended audience can thus be explained through the concept of « le grand théâtre », suggesting that Valmont and the Marquise live only for the applause which their exploits can arouse. Furthermore, the ambiguous nature of the novel is demonstrated in Laclos’ strategic, militant symbolism of love as war, raising questions of whether there is any love expressed between Valmont and Merteuil, or is it based purely on jealousy and a desire to out-manoeuvre one’s opponent on the battlefield of wit and seduction.
War-like imagery pervades almost every description of Valmont’s efforts to “conquérir” Madame de Tourvel and Merteuil’s description of seduction as being « une attaque vive et bien faite » with « la gloire de la défense et le plaisir de la défaite. » Ultimately, Merteuil and Valmont prove to be each other’s true enemies, when the former declares war on the latter with her chilling response, « hé bien! la guerre. » It is through such war-like imagery, that the ambiguity surrounding le Vicomte and la Marquise’s relationship is demonstrated. Whether or not there is any hint of love between these two cunning libertines, or whether their outward flattery is nothing but a tool to undermine one another, whilst furthering their own ambitions, is uncertain. Although perhaps they were once in love with one another, in their minds, love is seen as a weakness and a failing, with Cécile and Danceny mocked, not only by Valmont and Mertueil, but even by the reader, for their naïve malleability and dreary choruses of undying affection.
Indeed, this idea of the ambiguity of love ties in with the overarching idea of moral ambiguity, as it is so difficult for one to condemn the “immoral” character’s whose artistic turn of phrase charm one most. The only conceivable example of true love in the novel is that between Madame de Tourvel and Valmont, and ironically, it is Valmont’s fear of such love, insofar as being ridiculed by Merteuil as a disguise for her intense jealousy, that ultimately leads to his and Tourvel’s deaths, Merteuil’s exile and public humiliation. It is the way in which Valmont convinces la Présidente of his love that further demonstrates the ambiguity of the novel and each character’s ability to write for the interpretation of another, as Valmont’s letters to Merteuil differ greatly from the religious imagery he adopts towards Tourvel. In order to elicit a response from her, Valmont writes to la Présidente in religious terms, asking « ne serait-il donc pas plus digne de vous, de votre âme honnête et douce, de plaindre un malheureux. » Rather than mocking Tourvel, Valmont is anticipating her reading style, and determining how much of what he says will resonate with her religious morals. It is ultimately these embellished descriptions of Tourvel as the reason for his sorrow that cause Tourvel to abandon her strict conduct for the sake of Valmont’s happiness. It can then be argued that Valmont embraced his death, and was willing to fight Danceny knowing that he had already lost the woman that he had truly loved, and that her death was his doing. It is on this combat zone, that the extent of Valmont’s feelings towards Madame de Tourvel are revealed, and the reader is able to make sense of some ambiguities of the novel. To Valmont and the Marquise, love is an opportunity for competition and one must remain insincere so as not to concede defeat.
In Letter Eighty One, Merteuil describes how she managed « d’acquérir le renom d’invincible », by never revealing her true emotions, neither in her words nor her actions. Desire remains trapped in writing, ensuring the constant web of ambiguities spun throughout the elegant and complex plot of Les liaisons dangereuses. It is much earlier on, in Letter Thirty Three, when the Marquise almost foresees the Vicomte’s downfall, as he strays from this principle of letter writing on the battlefield of love. She forewarns that his writing will eventually reveal his true emotions, and thus lead to his defeat, as « il n’y a rien de si difficile en amour que d’écrire ce qu’on ne sent pas. » Indeed, Valmont’s death and the austere fates of the other characters act as representations of the ultimate ambiguity of the novel, that of morality. The punishments of Valmont and Merteuil are natural, almost inevitable consequences of their actions, entirely of their own making. However, Madame de Tourvel’s descent into insanity and consequent death, as well as Cécile’s self-exile into the convent, pose questions surrounding the ambiguity of punishment for one’s actions, and why the “moral” characters of the novel fail to triumph.
Furthermore, Merteuil’s mere exile, in stark contrast to Tourvel’s death, further solidifies this notion of there being no true reward for morality. Regardless of whether or not these characters’ fates are within a roman à clef, as the ambiguous discrepancy between the publisher’s note and the editor’s preface would have one speculate, this end to the novel directly corresponds with Laclos’ view of society in this époque. It is the neat, elegant, improbable way in which the ending is tied up that reminds the reader of Laclos’ heavy use of irony, echoing the foreshadowing of such events in the publisher’s note. If Laclos’ aim had been to highlight the corruption of the nobility and fatal flaws in fields of women’s education, religion and morality, then this conclusion would have been necessary in order to protect Laclos from the repercussions of such a scandalous 18th century work. In conclusion, oeuvre ambiguë is an understated description of the intricate plot, language and stylistic features found within Les liaisons dangereuses. Although the central ambiguity of the novel is its moral instruction, it is the subtleties and obscurities of each epistle that make Laclos’ masterpiece deserving of its enduring celebrity. Through such artistic ambiguity, the reader becomes enticed into the lavish world of the devious nobility, enchanted by the wit and eloquence of characters that would otherwise be viewed as repugnant. Perhaps it is this ‘secret charm’ of the novel that appeals to the part of the readers’ and Laclos’ personalities that they feel obliged to suppress, hinting as to why the novel could only work as an oeuvre ambiguë.
Jackson, Susan K., ‘In Search of a Female Voice’ in Writing the Female Voice : Essays on Epistolary Literature, ed. Elizabeth M. Goldsmith (Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 154–171.
Laclos, Pierre Choderlos de, Les Liaisons dangereuses, GF Flammarion, Paris, 1981.
Stewart, Philip, and Madeleine Therrien, ‘Aspects de texture verbale dans Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France, 82 (1982), 547–58.
Thody, Philip, Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, University of Glasgow French and German Publications, printed by Castle Cary Press, Yeovil, Somerset, 1994.