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Libertinism in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons

An investigation into the changing role of the individual in society in Wilde's novel and de Laclos' Les liaisons dangereuses.

Wilde?s The Picture of Dorian Gray and de Laclos? Les liaisons dangereuses reveal an unmistakable anxiety about the place of the individual in a changing society. Just as Lord Henry?s libertinism in The Picture of Dorian Gray is a reaction to banal Victorian life, the libertinism practiced by Merteuil and Valmont in Les liaisons dangereuses is a response to the new freedoms offered in the era of the Enlightenment. This common element of libertinism in these texts, and the techniques used to draw it to our attention, give us the opportunity to explore a range of representations of the social and moral implications of modernity.

The parallels between the characters of Valmont, Merteuil and Lord Henry are remarkable considering that the two texts were published more than 100 years apart. Each of these characters is concerned with what Lord Henry calls the ?exercise of influence? ? the project of manipulating those around you for your own personal (and often sexual) satisfaction. There are, however, a number of important differences between these characters? libertine projects.

For Valmont and Merteuil, the ?exercise of influence? is both an art and a vocation. They have dedicated their lives to the rational pursuit of pleasure: Valmont declares, ?We are fated to be conquerors and we must follow our destiny? and Merteuil later answers ?I must conquer or perish?. They both pay a remarkable attention to detail, ensuring that, in Valmont?s words, every ?amorous adventure? is performed with an ?originality in the details?. Thus, the Marquise?s plan to get rid of Belleroche does not involve admitting to him that ?it?s time for a break?, but rather being excessively affectionate! She takes great pride in boasting to Valmont about the originality of this scheme. Similarly, her decision to go after Danceny is due more to her desire to look enigmatic in Valmont?s eyes than to any love she feels for the youngster.

In this way, the expression of truth in Les liaisons dangereuses is always contingent on truth being part of the writer?s plan. The epistolary style of the novel gives de Laclos the opportunity to privilege language and self-expression above truth and reality. Missing letters, for example, play an important role in the novel; and some characters, including Belleroche and Prevan, do not write letters at all ? they are consequently silenced and take on almost mimetic, representative roles.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, a very similar approach to truth and reality is employed. Dorian sums up this approach when he says, ?It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things?. Indeed, it is though only those events which are discussed in social circles have any ontological significance ? Dorian?s constant cries of ?Let?s not talk about it? suggest that if it isn?t mentioned, it hasn?t happened. This provides a useful justification for the characters? double lives ? their journey to an opium den, for example, is unreal so long as it is not mentioned in conversation.

By constantly championing language and art above truth, both texts reveal the subjective nature of reality. In doing so they undermine the rational basis of the Enlightenment, which suggests that human beings can discover objective truths about the world around them.

Lord Henry?s ?exercise of influence? is far more subtle than Merteuil?s and Valmont?s. The words of Walter Pater aptly describe Wilde?s philosophy regarding the factors which influence an individual?s life:
?Man is not simple and isolated? all the influences of nature and society [are] ceaselessly playing upon him, so that every hour is unique, changed altogether by a stray word, or glance, or touch?

There is certainly the feeling in The Picture of Dorian Gray that people can be influenced profoundly by each other. Dorian Gray manages to ruin the lives of tens of people; driving at least two of them to suicide. And, most importantly, Lord Henry manages to corrupt Dorian himself. Wotton explains his motivation for doing so early on in the novel:

?There is something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence? perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own?

This clearly establishes that Lord Henry?s motivation for corrupting Dorian is a combination of boredom and of disillusionment at the condition of a society where the banal is in ascendancy.

A further remarkable similarity between the texts is found in their endings, which both reveal the destructive excesses associated with libertinism and hedonism. Both texts engage with the notion that internal corruption can manifest itself in the external word. De Laclos? final description of Madame de Merteuil is that ?her soul was showing in her face?, and in the last paragraph of Wilde?s novel, the physical effects of years of sin finally reveal themselves in Dorian Gray ? after all, Basil Hallward tells us that ?Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man?s face. It cannot be concealed?. Thus both texts explore the implications on morality of the increased freedoms offered by modern life.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde makes use of images of theatre and art to draw our attention to different ways of living in the modern world. Sybil Vane, for example, who lives solely through her art, is constructed almost entirely by art imagery ? Dorian first compares Sybil to a sculpture, and comes to believe that her death is merely an artistic event. Mrs Vane personifies the Victorian melodrama, and seems to be a product of these contemporary discourses rather than a character in her own right. In the scene with her son, we are told that she ?mentally elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt sure that the tableau was interesting?. Lord Henry, by contrast, rejects entirely the ?vulgar realism? of the age, and embraces instead the a way of life which champions the unusual and enigmatic. In this way Wilde illustrates a range of different modes of modern life, and comments on their implications.

In Les liaisons dangereuses, similar images of theatre and art are used by de Laclos. Madame de Merteiul is especially fond of theatre metaphors; telling Valmont at one stage ?If you?re occupied, at least drop me a line and give me the cues for my part?, and referring to Cecile as the ?heroine of this new romance?, and Valmont its ?hero?. The effect of these metaphors is to establish the extent to which Valmont and Merteuil have control over the people they are influencing, as well as to indicate how scripted and pre-prepared all their dealings with each other really are. Similar images are also used to challenge the values and beliefs of the French nobility. At one stage, Merteuil compares Valmont to the ?knights of yore [who] laid their shining trophies of victory at their ladies? feet?. de Laclos subsequently makes it quite clear that Valmont?s behaviour is anything but noble and virtuous, and so undermines the reader?s faith in traditional concepts of virtue, chivalry, and romance.

In both novels, there is a rather startling focus on the characters themselves, to the point where they appear to be living in their own world rather than in European cities. Events relating to the characters are consistently privileged above events happening in and descriptions of the outside world. In Les liaisons dangereuses, there are very few instances when we come in contact with characters outside the dominant class. When it does happen ? during Valmont?s venture into a poor town, for example ? it is only for the convenience of the characters themselves. Similarly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the outside world seems to change depending on the moods of the characters, and appears almost sketchy and ill-defined. This intense focus on the characters represents a growing concern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with matters relating to individual psychology and development, and allows an exploration of the lives of the characters free of societal impositions.

Yet the characters in both novels are unmistakably a product of what Pater described as ?the mind of the race, the character of the age?. The authors use the characters to explore the possibilities offered by new freedoms and opportunities, while at the same time investigating their moral implications.

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