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.
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