Jane Smiley on de Sade’s Justine and the morality of the novel

A few months ago I submitted to your attention, dear readers, a few notable excerpts from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. I am now enjoying a rather more diverse piece of literary criticism, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Smiley, an acclaimed biographer of Charles Dickens and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, writes thoughtfully about such broad topics as “What Is a Novel?” and “Who is a Novelist?”; in her sixth chapter, “Morality and the Novel”, she needs to deal with de Sade and his Justine.

But before getting to Justine, a quote about how one – in Smiley’s opinion, and in mine – becomes a novelist, which is out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons — escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. […] We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

Ever met children like these? Ever been one?

And, now, to Justine.

Justine was published in 1791, during the French Revolution, and the novel’s theme, you might say, is the right of every man of rank to do whatever he wants with any woman he can gain access to, preferably by force. […] In Justine, the goal is not to reinforce the social order but to maximize the exploitation of female flesh. […] It seems obvious that de Sade wrote Justine for pornographic reasons — that is, the plot and the protagonist are there to serve the author’s and the reader’s shared desire to fetishize sex and cruelty and to use images for lascivious excitement. Even so […], de Sade makes rape part of the apparatus of state control as expressed by individual members of the ruling class (most of whom possess formal authority; they are not renegades or rogues). […] Justine is a true heroine; she never betrays herself, always tries to understand and survive, never loses her moral compass. Surely she speaks for the author as much as the men do. […]

Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view — that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity.

2 thoughts on “Jane Smiley on de Sade’s Justine and the morality of the novel

  1. Pingback: “Senza dubbio, leggevamo per tutte le ragioni sbagliate - fuga, piacere, elusione delle responsabilit√† e del contatto umano” « Universi paralleli

  2. Pingback: “The costs of prevailing, or even what it means”: more from Jane Smiley « Live from Planet Paola

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