Friday, February 6, 2009

"The Misfortunes of Virtue" vs "Justine"

We had a comment regarding Sade's Justine recently, so I thought I would give the book and character a little blurb. "Anonymous", you might want to start a Google account to get a Blogger name. Use a fake name, if you like. That's what I do.

Justine, in my opinion, is Sade's personal favorite character. She appears in numerous works. She is in:
  • The Misfortunes of Virtue (1787)1
  • Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791)1
  • The New Justine (1799)1
  • Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded (1797)2

Justine and Juliette, her sister, are raised in a convent. When their parents die they are thrown out; they were not there for free, after all. Justine was devoted to virtue, and Juliette to vice. They separated when Justine refused to enter a life of crime with her sister. Justine falls prey to numerous libertines and gets in trouble with the law. Each time she commits a virtuous act, she is punished.

If you have not read Sade before, The Misfortunes of Virtue is a great place to start. This is Sade at his clearest, though it is early in his philosophical development. The book is rather brief, and David Coward has done an excellent translation to English with a good introduction/biography that is worth reading. The New Justine, translated by Richard Seaver and/or Austryn Wainhouse in their collection for Grove Press, is far more wordy, contains lengthy diatribes, and is closer to the then lost 120 Days of Sodom. There is one difference that changes the entire book for me.

In Misfortunes, Justine comes in contact with a female criminal, Dubois, who helps Justine escape from prison. Dubois is the leader of a gang of highwaymen. She proposes that Justine travel with them and live a life of crime. Justine declines, and the men decide to rape her. Dubois stops them, allowing Justine to escape. In Justine, Dubois assists the prison escape, but is not the gang's leader. They are led by a man called Coeur de Fer (Heart of Iron). Again, Justine escapes, but is not saved by Dubois. Rather than being their leader, Dubois' role is to service the men in the troupe. A bizarre spectacle takes place where Dubois masturbates each man simultaneously with a system of strings. This removal of a woman from a leadership role is a shift in Sade's thinking. Women are not only less capable as men in the commission of evil (as we'll see in Juliette, but are incapable of leadership.

This opens a door on the idea of Sade as a feminist. He is commonly thought to be victimizing women, but is he rather showing the baseness of men? There are other examples of Sade preaching for the social equality of women (particularly after the Revolution), but he also believes in survival of the fittest and that might makes right — not from a moral standpoint, but as a social fact.

  1. Phillips, John. The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  2. "Bibliography of the Marquis de Sade." Wikipedia. 6 Feb 2009 <>.


  1. Great post. I've not read as much of de Sade as I would like. What I did read was a long time ago. I'm definitely have to check out the Misfortunes of Virtue. I had never read it before.

  2. Glad you liked the post. It was a quick throw together, so a bit lacking. I am still trying to get a direction for this blog, so things are a little scattered :-)

    Another good one, of sorts, is Count Oxtiern, or the Effects of Libertinism, which is less graphic and shorter still. There is a short story and a play by the same (IIRC) name. The short story is better.

  3. BTW: I think Count Oxtiern is part of the Seaver/Wainhouse 120 Days of Sodom book, both the play and short story.

  4. This is a very well-written article.

  5. Many thanks, SS. I am a literary academic trapped in an IT guys body :-)