Imagine a bored, wealthy guy with all the time in the world who spends it trying to seduce and ruin the reputations of two women. He's texting his ex, telling her all about his unsavory exploits and shamelessly going on and on about how awesome he is. She's texting back, ridiculing him for one of his pursuits and encouraging him in the other. One of them was, after all, her idea.
Sound like a bad reality TV show or the latest in Twilight fan fic? Well, it was actually the basic setup of a French novel published in 1782, in which two conniving friends see the world as a game in which you can only win by crushing your enemies. They didn't text back then, unless Doctor Who visited, but they did write letters. Spicy letters. Incriminating letters. Dangerous letters.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Chodelos de Laclos, is all about letters. Letters between ex-lovers. Letters between young things who'd love to be lovers. Letters between friends. Letters between frenemies. The liaisons detailed in this book are secret, sometimes forbidden sexual encounters. And the letters tell the scandalous tales. Since we get to read all the letters, we see how the novel is loaded with dramatic irony—we know what terrible stuff's going on while most of the characters have no idea. And we cringe.
In fact, this novel is so depraved, scandalous and immoral that people couldn't stop adapting it into plays and films. Maybe you've heard of the 1988 movie Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Glenn Close. Or Valmont, a 1989 version with Colin Firth (sigh) as the seducer. Does Cruel Intentions with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Legally Blonde ring a bell? Well, that was another movie adaptation of the novel. It's been a miniseries and ballet as well.
"I resolved to write a book that would be quite outside the ordinary trend, which would make a sensation and echo over the world after I left it." So wrote the author in 1782 (Source). He sure met that goal. The novel caused quite a scandal in its day and in the decades following its release. A criminal court condemned the work and it was publicly incinerated. That's right, Shmoopers, you're reading a book that was banned and burned. By the French, even. The book was the Fifty Shades of Gray of its day; women bought it and hid in their bedrooms to read it. Even Marie Antoinette owned a copy, bound in a no-tell plain cover, of course.
The novel's critics accuse it of being a celebration of depravity and debauchery. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Its defenders see it as a book that shed some light on the moral rot of the 18th-century French aristocracy, soon to be sent packing (or worse) during the French Revolution. By showing all this corrupt behavior, it was designed to scare the readers into respectability.
Who's right? After reading the novel, do you want to be debauched and depraved? Virtuous and virginal? Let's steal a look at all those letters and see what happens.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is comprised of letters written by the characters to each other. The correspondence is fictional, but the author, Chodelos de Laclos, sets up the book as if these were actual letters released to the public after the events of the novel. He even indicates that some of the letters were lost. Bet those ones had the really good stuff.
None of the letter writers expected the contents of their correspondence would be made known. Like us, they were meticulous about privacy (well, like some of us). In the letters, characters admit their faults and fears, their deepest desires, and their worst sins and schemes. Humiliations and confessions galore.
Shmoop doesn't know when the last time any of you actually wrote a letter with pen and paper, but we do put a lot of our lives and ourselves in the public view online. Like right now. And you probably have Twitter or Facebook up in other browser tabs. No. No. Go ahead and check that notification you just got. We'll wait for you.
We'll check ours while we're waiting…
Back? Good. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Social media. Privacy. Is there even such a thing as internet privacy? Just about anything connected to the internet can be hacked. Celebrities especially are hounded for salacious details of their private lives, but everyone seems to be broadcasting way more about their personal life than they probably realize. How many warnings have you heard about employers checking your Facebook page for photos of you with a beer or bong in your hand? Or about sexts that went viral? Well, here's another one.
And yet we don't completely have a choice about existing in public. Modern society requires us to correspond via the internet just as the society in Les Liaisons Dangereuses required the writing of letters. Then and now, people have to weigh the risks and benefits of putting things in writing. Those texts? They're never going away. Ditto Snapchat messages.
But even though we might be out there online for all to see, we can still hide. On the internet, nobody knows people aren't always who they say they are. The characters in Les Liaisons Dangereuses may not disguise their identities as easily as we can do today online, but they sure took pains to create an alternate version of reality to suit their own twisted purposes. As Laclos himself might have said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
Be careful out there.
The Play's the Thing
Jason Cowley discusses the novel and its many adaptations.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the novel.
Malkovich, Pfeiffer, and Close
The best-known English movie adaptation, written by Christopher Hampton based on his play.
Milos Forman's film starring Colin Firth and Annette Bening.
The Marquise de Buffy
Roger Kumble set the story in modern America for his film version, Cruel Intentions. Stars Buffy, aka Sarah Michelle Geller. Come to think of it, Valmont is a lot like a vampire.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Valmont
A film adaptation set in Shanghai.
The French Reclaim their Story
The novel was made into a miniseries for French television.
Dangerous Chinese Liaisons
Here's a YouTube version of the modern Chinese adaptation, for all you Shmoopers who learned Mandarin from Mark Zuckerberg.
What Goes Around, Etc.
The Marquise de Merteuil gets what she deserves in this scene. We want to cheer.
Mean Girls (and Boys)
Someone thought this story would be relatable today. Here's the trailer for Cruel Intentions.
Before the Kindle Version
A first edition of the novel owned by the King of France.
A Portrait of the Author with a Powdered Wig
Never leave home without it.
Valmont sneaking into Cécile's room. 1796 illustration by Marguerite Gérard.
Cover illustration by Aubrey Beardsley from an 1896 printing of the novel. Ewww.