Marquis De Sade

Marquis de Sade

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761)
Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amde-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761)

Donatien Alphonse Franois, marquis de Sade (June 2, 1740 – December 2, 1814) (pronounced IPA: [maʁ.ki.də.sad]) was a French aristocrat and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent pornography. His is a philosophy of extreme freedom (or at least licentiousness), unrestrained by ethics, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle. Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and an insane asylum for 29 years of his life, though he was never convicted of any crime; much of his writing was done during this time. The term "sadism" is named after him.



Early life and education

Sade was born in the Cond palace in Paris. His father was comte Jean-Bastiste Franois Joseph de Sade and his mother was Marie-Elonore de Maill de Carman, a distant cousin and lady-in-waiting of the princess of Cond. Early on he was educated by his uncle, an abb (who would later be arrested in a brothel). Sade then attended a Jesuit lyce and went on to follow a military career. He participated in the Seven Years' War. He returned from the war in 1763 and pursued a woman who rejected him; he then married Rene-Plagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate, in the same year. The marriage had been arranged by his father. They would eventually have two sons and a daughter together.

His lifelong attraction to the theatre showed in 1766 when he had a private theatre constructed at his castle in Lacoste, Vaucluse. His father died in January 1767.


The generations of this family alternated use of the titles marquis and comte. His grandfather, Gaspard Franois de Sade, was the first of this family to bear the title of marquis.[1] He was occasionally referred to as the marquis de Sade, but more often documents refer to him as the marquis de Mazan. But no reference has been found of Donatien de Sade's lands being erected into a marquisate for him or his ancestors, nor any act of registration of the title of marquis (or comte) by the parlement of Provence where he was domiciled. Both of these certifications would have been necessary for any legitimate title of nobility to descend legally. But the Sade family were noblesse de race, that is, members of France's oldest nobility (who claimed descent from the ancient Franks). Given the loftiness of their lineage, the assumption of a noble title, in the absence of a grant from the King, was de rigueur, well-sanctioned by custom. The family's indifferent use of marquis and count reflected the fact that the French hierarchy of titles (below the rank of duc et pair) was notional. The title of marquis was, in theory, accorded to noblemen who owned several countships. Its use by men of dubious lineage had caused it to fall into some disrepute. Precedence at court depended upon seniority of nobility, and royal favor, not title. Correspondence exists in which Sade is referred to as marquis prior to his marriage by his own father.

Scandals and imprisonment

Shortly after his wedding, he began living a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly abused young prostitutes and employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste, a practice he would continue later with the help of his wife. His wayward behavior also included an affair with his wife's sister, who had come to live at the castle.

Beginning in 1763, Sade lived mainly in or near Paris. Several prostitutes there complained about mistreatment by Sade, and he was put under surveillance by a police inspector, who provided detailed reports on his escapades. After several short imprisonments, he was exiled to his chateau at Lacoste in 1768.[2]

After an episode in Marseille in 1772 that involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac spanish fly and sodomy with his male servant Latour, the two were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning in the same year. They were able to flee to Italy, and Sade took the sister of his wife with him, with whom he had an affair. His mother-in-law never forgave him for this. She obtained a lettre de cachet for his arrest (a royal order by which an individual could be arrested and imprisoned without stated cause and without access to the courts). Sade and Latour were caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans in late 1772 but managed to flee four months later.

He later hid at Lacoste where he rejoined his wife who became an accomplice in his subsequent endeavors. He kept a group of young employees at Lacoste, most of whom complained about sexual mistreatments and left quickly. Sade had to flee to Italy again. During this time, he wrote a book, Voyage d'Italie, which along with his earlier travel writings was never translated into English. In 1776 he returned to Lacoste, again hired several servant girls, most of whom fled. In 1777 the father of one of these employees came to Lacoste to claim her, shot at the Marquis and missed only barely.

Later that year, Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly sick mother (who had recently died) in Paris. There he was finally arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778, but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet. He escaped but was recaptured soon after. In prison, he resumed writing. At Vincennes he met the fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works, but the two disliked each other immensely.

In 1784, Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris. On July 2, 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, occurred on July 14.) He had been working on his magnum opus, Les 120 Journes de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom), despairing when the manuscript was lost during his transferral; but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790, after the new Constituent Assembly had abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Return to freedom, and imprisoned for "moderatism"

During his time of freedom (beginning 1790), he published several of his books anonymously. He met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress and mother of a six year old son who had been abandoned by her husband; Constance and Sade would stay together for the rest of his life. Sade was by now extremely obese.

He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution, called himself "Citizen Sade", and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. He wrote several political pamphlets. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. He was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he nevertheless wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism" and imprisoned for over a year. He barely escaped the guillotine (probably due to an administrative error) and was released after the overthrow and execution of Robespierre had effectively ended the Reign of Terror. This experience presumably confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty.

Now all but destitute, in 1796 he had to sell his castle in Lacoste that had been sacked in 1792. (The ruins were acquired in the 1990s by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now holds regular theatre festivals there.)

Imprisoned for his writings, return to Charenton, and death

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and imprisoned without trial, first in the Sainte-Plagie prison and then, following allegations that he had tried to seduce young fellow prisoners there, in the harsh fortress of Bictre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred once more to the asylum at Charenton; his ex-wife and children had agreed to pay for his pension there.

Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The liberal director of the institution, Abb de Coulmier, allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition.

Sade began an affair with thirteen-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade's death in 1814. One year earlier, a new director had taken over the asylum, and Sade had lost some of his privileges. He had left instructions in his will to be cremated and his ashes scattered, but instead he was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned; this included the immense multi-volume work Les Journes de Florbelle.


"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell.... Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change." - Last Will and Testament

"Sex without pain is like food without taste".

"To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable, but to have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honourably discharged is incomprehensible" - on the death penalty.

Literary works

Many of Sade's works contain explicit and often repetitive descriptions of rape and countless sexual perversions, often involving violence and transcending the boundaries of the possible. Sade's libertines founded their philosophy on a purposeful flouting of moral norms and a hatred of religious ethics. In nature, they say, the strong win and the weak lose; therefore all laws and ethics, designed as they are to protect the weak, are seen as unnatural.

Illustration in a Dutch printing of Juliette, c. 1800
Illustration in a Dutch printing of Juliette, c. 1800

In 1782, while in prison, he completed the short Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, expressing his atheism by having the dying libertine convince the priest of the mistakes of a pious life.

The novel The 120 Days of Sodom, written in 1785 but not completed, catalogs a wide variety of sexual perversions performed on a group of enslaved teenagers and is Sade's most graphic work. The manuscript was believed to have been lost during the storming of the Bastille and the book was not published until 1904.

In 1787 he wrote Les infortunes de la vertu, an early version of Justine which was published in 1791. It describes the misfortunes of a girl who continues to believe in the goodness of God despite persistent evidence to the contrary. The companion novel Juliette (1798) narrates the adventures of Justine's sister, Juliette, who chooses to reject the teachings of the church and adopt an amoral hedonist philosophy, resulting in a successful, fulfilled life.

The novel Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) accounts the lascivious education of a privileged young lady at the dawn of womanhood, culminating in the rape and mutilation of the girl's mother. The work is structured as a play and is concise, witty and engaging; the archetypal Sadean characters are, here, used most effectively. The book contains a lengthy political pamphlet Frenchmen! One More Effort If You Wish To Be Republicans! in which Sade advocates for a utopian form of socialism. He states that laws against theft are absurd: they protect the original thieves, the wealthy, against the poor who have no option left but theft. He also argues that the state has no right to outlaw murder if it continues to sanction institutionalized murder in the form of executions and war. Laws against blasphemy are seen as pointless: they are not needed if God doesn't exist, and if He does, he surely won't be petty enough to care about minor attacks. The pamphlet was reprinted separately for distribution during the revolution of 1848.

In Aline and Valcour (1795) he contrasts a brutal African kingdom with a utopian island paradise. This was the first book published under his true name, as opposed to previous pen names.

In 1800 he published a four-volume collection of short stories titled Crimes of Love. In the introduction, Reflections on the novel, he gives general advice to writers and also provides a critique of gothic novels, especially of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis which he considers superior to the work of Ann Radcliffe [1]. One notable story in the collection, Florville and Courval, has itself been called "gothic" and revolves around a young woman who is unwittingly entangled in a web of incest.

While incarcerated again at Charenton, he completed three historical novels: Adelaide of Brunswick, Isabelle of Bavaria and The Marquise de Gange.

He also wrote several plays, most of them unpublished. Le Misanthrope par amour ou Sophie et Desfrancs was accepted by the Comdie-Franaise in 1790, and Le Comte Oxtiern ou les effets du libertinage was performed at the Thtre Molire in 1791.

Several letters written from prison to his wife have been preserved and were published in 1998 as Letters from Prison. Some of them show a bizarre and paranoid obsession with the hidden meaning of numbers.

Appraisal and criticism

Numerous writers and artists, especially those concerned with sexuality, have been both repelled and fascinated by de Sade.

Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. He has also been seen as a precursors of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade Mon Prochain ("Sade My Neighbor"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of Nietzsche, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. Similarly, Susan Sontag defended both De Sade and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil (Story of the Eye) within her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967) on the basis their works were transgressive texts, and argued that neither should be censored.

By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette.

Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem has also written an essay analyzing game-theoretical arguments that appear in Sade's novel Justine.[3]

Works about Sade or his books

Nonfiction books

  • Marquis de Sade: his life and works. (1899) by Iwan Bloch (download)
  • The Marquis de Sade, a biography. (1961) by Gilbert Lly
  • The life and ideas of the Marquis de Sade. (1963) by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola. (1971) by Roland Barthes (life of Sade download)
  • The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. (1979) by Angela Carter
  • "Writing and the Experience of Limits" (1982) by Philippe Sollers
  • The Marquis de Sade: the man, his works, and his critics: an annotated bibliography. (1986) by Colette Verger Michael
  • The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (1988) by Colin Wilson
  • Sade, his ethics and rhetoric. (1989) by Colette Verger Michael
  • Marquis de Sade: A Biography (1991) by Maurice Lever
  • Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism (1995) by Thomas Moore
  • The philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. (1995) by Timo Airaksinen
  • Sade contre l'tre suprme (1996) by Philippe Sollers
  • An Erotic Beyond: Sade. (1998) by Octavio Paz (review)
  • Sade: A Biographical Essay. (1998) by Laurence L. Bongie (review)
  • The Marquis de Sade: a life. (1999) by Neil Schaeffer
  • At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Life. (1999) by Francine du Plessix Gray
  • Marquis de Sade: the genius of passion. (2003) by Ronald Hayman
  • Sade: from materialism to pornography. (2002) by Caroline Warman


  • The play by Peter Weiss titled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, or Marat/Sade for short, is a fictional account of Sade directing a play in Charenton.
  • The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima wrote a play titled Madame de Sade.
  • The Canadian writer/actor Barry Yzereef wrote a play titled Sade, a one-man show set in Vincennes prison.
  • Doug Wright wrote a play, Quills, a surreal account of the attempts of the Charenton governors to censor the Marquis' writing, which was adapted into the slightly less surreal film of the same name.
  • La Fura Del Baus have toured worldwide their production, XXX, which is said to be based upon Sade's work and thoughts. The production has been met with criticism and controversy everywhere it has been shown.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sade's life and writings have proved irresistible to filmmakers. While there are numerous pornographic movies based on his themes, here are some of the more mainstream films based on his history or his works of fiction:

  • L'Age d'Or (1930), the collaboration between filmmaker Luis Bunuel and surrealist artist Salvador Dal. The final segment of the film provides a coda to Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, with the four debauched noblemen emerging from their mountain retreat.
  • The Skull (1966), British horror film based on Robert Bloch's short story "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade." Peter Cushing plays a collector who becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the Marquis when he adds Sade's stolen skull to his collection. The Marquis appears in a prologue as a decomposing corpse dug up by a 19th-century graverobber. In another scene, a character gives a brief, fictionalized account of Sade's life, emphasizing his "boogeyman" reputation.
  • Marat/Sade, a film of the Peter Weiss play (1966) (The full title being The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade). Patrick Magee plays the Marquis.
  • Marquis de Sade: Justine, directed by Jesus Franco (1968). Klaus Kinski appears as Sade, writing the tale in his prison cell.
  • Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion also known as Philosophy in the Boudoir (1969). Another Franco film, this one featuring Christopher Lee as Dolmance.
  • De Sade (1969), romanticized biography scripted by Richard Matheson and directed by Cy Endfield. The film more or less presents the major incidents of Sade's life as we know them, though in a very hallucinatory fashion. The film's nudity and sexual content was notorious at the time of release, and Playboy ran a spread based around it. Keir Dullea plays the Marquis (here named Louis-Aldonze-Donatien) in a cast that includes Lili Palmer, Senta Berger, Anna Massey, and John Huston.
  • Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom Italian: Sal o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975). Sade's novel updated to Fascist Italy.
  • Cruel Passion (1977), a toned-down re-release of De Sade's Justine, starring Koo Stark as the long-suffering heroine.
  • Waxwork (1988), another horror film. In this one, people are drawn through the tableaux in a chamber of horrors into the lives of the evil men they represent. Two of the characters are transported to the world of the Marquis, where they are tormented by Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) and a visiting Prince, played by director Anthony Hickox.
  • Marquis (1989), a French/Belgian co-production that combines puppetry and animation to tell a whimsical tale of the Marquis (portrayed, literally, as a jackass, voiced by Francois Marthouret) imprisoned in the pre-Revolution Bastille.
  • Night Terrors (1994), another horror film playing on Sade's boogeyman image. A depiction of the Marquis's final days is intercut with the story of his modern day descendant, a serial killer. Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame directed, while horror icon Robert England of A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its many sequels and spin-offs) played both the Marquis and his descendant.
  • Dark Prince (1996). The Marquis (Nick Mancuso) seduces a young maiden from his jail cell.
  • Sade (1999), directed by Benoit Jacquot. Daniel Auteuil plays Sade, here imprisoned at Picpus, sexually educating a young girl in the shadow of the guillotine.
  • Quills (2000), an adaptation of Doug Wright's play by director Philip Kaufman. A romanticized version of Sade's final days which raises questions of pornography and societal responsibility. Geoffrey Rush plays Sade in a cast that also includes Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine. The film shows the strong influence of Hammer horror films, particularly in a key scene where asylum administrator Caine locks Winslet in a cell with a homicidal inmate, mirroring exactly a scene from The Curse of Frankenstein.
  • Lunacy (2005) a.k.a Šlen. Czech movie directed by Jan Švankmajer. Loosely based on E.A.Poe's short stories and inspired by the works of the Marquis de Sade.

NOTE: The Marquis de Sade also featured in episodes of two TV series. The original Fantasy Island featured Lloyd Bochner as Sade, anachronistically threatening a guest of Mr. Roarke in the 17th century. Friday the 13th: The Series had an episode in which a haunted painting transported people to the time of Sade (Neil Munro), who is seen improbably conducting lavish parties and orgies at the height of the French Revolution.

Other fiction

  • In Harlan Ellison's science fiction anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967), Robert Bloch wrote a story entitled "A Toy For Juliette" whose title character was both named for and used techniques based on Sade's works.
  • Bloch also wrote a short story called "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", in which a collector becomes possessed by the violent spirit of the Marquis after stealing the titular item. The story was the basis for the film The Skull (1966), starring Peter Cushing and Patrick Wymark.
  • In the comic book series The Invisibles, Sade is recruited by the anarchistic group the Invisibles, as part of the revolution. The portrayal of him is supported by his liberal views, anti-authority stance and unhegemonic lifestyle.
  • The DC Comics character Desaad, created by Jack Kirby in New Gods #2 (1971), is a play on "De Sade". Desaad's assistant Lady Justeen, created by Walt Simonson in Orion #1 (2000), is likewise a play on "Justine".


  1. ^ Vie du Marquis de Sade by Gilbert Lly, 1961
  2. ^ Timeline of Sade's life by Neil Schaeffer. Accessed September 12, 2006.
  3. ^ Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.. "Twenty-Two Answers and Two Postscripts: An Interview with Stanislaw Lem", DePauw University, 1986.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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