chapter  3
32 Pages

Les Liaisons dangereuses

René Pomeau and a number of other critics have interpreted Les Liaisons dangereuses primarily in terms of a confrontation between two systems or codes. These codes are conventional Christian morality and libertinage, the first being championed by the novel’s prude, Mme de Tourvel, and the second by Mme de Merteuil and Valmont.1 Critics also tend to emphasize, however, that these opposing systems converge in an important respect, for the champions of each strive to transcend all subjection to passion (Tourvel for religious motives, the others in the name of self-control). Both, then, involve a form of ascesis. Pomeau speaks of the libertines’ ‘morale de l’immoralité’, which is ‘exigeante, fort différente de l’épicurisme vulgairement adonné aux plaisirs des sens’.2 Building on this insight, he adds that the champions of each code are ultimately defeated by the love they seek to transcend; for the passion that Tourvel feels for Valmont causes her to betray the ideals of traditional morality, whilst Valmont betrays those of libertinage when he returns her feelings.3 The Marquise too can be said to act from love, if of a Racinian kind expressed as aggression when unreciprocated. For her attachment to Valmont and her consequent jealousy of the Présidente cause her to destroy them both, at great cost to herself.4 This in turn has consequences for any reading of the denouement, in which the Marquise reneges on her promise to yield to Valmont. Following his argument through, Pomeau interprets this as signifying that Merteuil abandons the principles of libertinage for the sake of a lover’s revenge.5