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Narrative 13.2 (2005) 89-104

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The Liberated Woman

In 1976, already a confirmed feminist, I wrote my doctoral dissertation (in French literature) on the Marquis de Sade. In preparation for the dissertation, I read and reread Sade's oeuvre. I had started reading Sade, in the 1965 Grove Press English translation, when I was in high school, and that was likely one of the things that had directed me into the study of French literature. After finishing my dissertation, I wrote several additional essays on Sade—the last, published in 1982. Shortly thereafter, I moved out of the discipline of French, into a job teaching Women's Studies. For the next twenty years, I did not read Sade.

Just a few months ago, I had occasion to reread La Philosophie dans le boudoir, one of Sade's best-known works. I had read this book at least a half-dozen times before—although, admittedly, not for two decades. It had been the specific focus of my doctoral exams, as well as the subject of that 1982 essay, the last time I had written on (and read) Sade. I still remembered all the characters vividly, their physical attributes and tastes, and most everything that happened in the book; but within a few dozen pages of reading this time around, I was stunned. Not by what happened or what was said. (Although Sade's characters of course did and said the most outrageous things, this was to be expected. Not only had I long been inured to it; it was what I liked about Sade.) What shocked me were things about the text that were glaringly obvious and yet which I had not seen before, not in the multiple careful readings I had devoted to this text, over the course of a decade of studying Sade.

I was upset by what I saw. What troubled me was not exactly in Sade. I was looking right at what I simply could not see twenty-five years ago; I was looking at the blind spot of the girl I was back then. I really did not like what I saw; looking at [End Page 89] it made me feel a bit queasy. Had I not already committed myself to presenting a paper on this book at a panel a few weeks later, I would in fact have stopped reading.

Back in 1977, while I was visiting a university in the Midwest to interview for a job in 18th century French literature, a woman assistant professor, who seemed supportive, turned to me, when she had me alone in her car, and asked, "How can a feminist read Sade?" At the time, I found her question unsophisticated, thought it bespoke a limited, good-girl notion of feminism. Now, a quarter of a century later, I finally see what she meant, can see the limitation of my own bad-girl notion of feminism.

So, at the risk of showing you what you've known for more than twenty years, I would like in this paper to explore what I have just discovered (very belatedly to be sure) in Sade's Philosophie dans le boudoir. My hope is that, even at this late date, it may be of value to someone beside me, that my blind spot was not just a personal idiosyncrasy but is part of the cultural construction of what I will here call the liberated woman.

Sade's Philosophie in fact depicts the construction of the liberated woman. It stages the education (the Bildung, we might say, thinking in literary terms) of a young girl. In clichéd terms, because the fifteen-year-old Eugénie loses her virginity, we could say that in the course of this scene of initiation she becomes a woman. More specifically, the central theme of her education is that she learns, over and over, to rompre tous les freins, to "burst all bonds." Complete liberation is the philosophical ideal taught the avid young pupil by her teachers.

When La Philosophie was written, in France in 1795, this ideal of liberation had powerful, historic resonances...


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