Authors: Marquis de Sade

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French novelist, playwright, short-story writer, and essayist

June 2, 1740

Paris, France

December 2, 1814

Charenton-Saint-Maurice (now Saint-Maurice), France


Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade (sahd) was born in Paris in 1740, heir to the title of Count de Sade; in his family, the heir carried the title of Marquis. At his father’s death in 1767, he succeeded to the title of Count, as well as to the governorship of the provinces of Bresse, Bugey, and Valromey, but the earlier title remains associated with him. He was educated by his uncle, the Abbé de Sade, at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Léger d’Ebreuil and later by the Jesuits at Louis le Grand Collège in Paris. In 1754, at the age of fourteen, he embarked on a military career and fought through the Seven Years’ War; in 1766, by which time he had achieved the rank of captain, he resigned from the army and married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, who bore him two sons and a daughter.

Portrait of Marquis de Sade.

By Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after his marriage de Sade became involved in the extraordinary sexual adventures that have made “sadism” the standard term for cruelty inflicted on a supposed object of love. For these exploits, he was imprisoned at various times for a total of twenty-nine years; at one point, in 1772, he was even sentenced to die for acts of sodomy, but was granted a reprieve. He was also accused of poisoning young women, although it was ascertained that he had only given some prostitutes candies laced with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly, causing upset stomachs.

For the next thirty years, he continued his licentious and scandalous sexual experimentations involving young actresses and prostitutes, girls and boys from his neighborhood, and finally his wife and sister-in-law. After episodes of abuse such as the Rose Keller affair, he was imprisoned and subsequently released.

During his terms of imprisonment, first at Vincennes, then at the Bastille, and finally at Charenton Asylum, Sade wrote an enormous number of sexually graphic novels, plays, and journals; most of his fiction is a thinly disguised vehicle for his philosophy of perversion. His best-known novels, Justine and Juliette, are chronicles of sexual experimentation and violence; the first details the sufferings of virtue under persecution, and the second portrays the triumph of depravity. Aline et Valcour is clearly autobiographical; it is here that Sade, self-portrayed as Valcour, professes an indebtedness to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas of personal liberty the later author pursued to extremes.

Sade’s plays are generally less disturbing than his novels, because they were written to be performed by the Théâtre-Français, whose eight-member board of directors voted on each play submitted to them. Nevertheless, Oxtiern revolves around the theme of physical violence. Sade also wrote political tracts and pamphlets, as well as numerous letters to his wife and others.

Sade spent the last eleven years of his life in a lunatic asylum at Charenton, where he died in 1814. His erotic works were long dismissed as trite pornography but began to attract serious critical attention in the second half of the twentieth century. Some critics praise Sade for his brilliance of style and profound psychological insights, which anticipated modern psychoanalysis. Sade is considered to be one of the modern “damned writers” who have found an important place in the history of ideas. His writings have also come to be respected for the sociocultural insight into revolutionary France that they offer.

Author Works Long Fiction: Les 120 journées de Sodome; Ou, l'École du libertinage, wr. 1785, pb. 1904 (The 120 Days of Sodom, 1954) Justine: Ou, Les Malheurs de la vertu, 1791 (English translation, 1889) Aline et Valcour: Ou. Le Roman philosophique, 1795 La Philosophie dans le boudoir, 1795 (Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1965) Juliette, 1798 (English translation, 1958-1960) La Marquise de Gange, 1813 L'histoire secrète d'Isabelle de Bavière, reine de France, 1953 Ernestine, 1968 Adelaide of Brunswick, 1973 Short Fiction: Les Crimes de l’amour, wr. 1788, pb. 1800 (The Crimes of Love, 1996) Dorci; Ou, La Bizarrerie du sort, 1881 Historiettes, contes et fabliaux de Donatien-Alphonse-François, marquis de Sade, 1926 De Sade Quartet, 1963 Eugenie de Franval, and Other Stories, 1965 (also known as The Gothic Tales of the Marquis de Sade, 1990) The Mystified Magistrate, and Other Tales, 2000 Drama: Le Misanthrope par amour, wr. 1790 Oxtiern: Ou, Les Malheurs du libertinage, pr. 1791 (Oxtiern: Or, The Misfortunes of Libertinage, 1966) La France foutue, tragédie lubrique et royaliste, 1800 Plays of the Marquis de Sade, pb. 1993 (2 volumes) Nonfiction: Idée sur les romans, 1878 Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond, 1926 Correspondance inédite du Marquis de Sade, de ses proches et de ses familiers, 1929 L'Aigle, Mademoiselle . . ., 1949 (letters) Le Carillon de Vincennes, 1953 Cahiers personnels (1803–04), 1953 Monsieur le 6, 1954 Cent onze Notes pour La Nouvelle Justine, 1956 Français, encore une effort, 1965 Selected Letters, 1965 Lettres écrites de Vincennes et de La Bastille, 1966 Journal inédit: Deux cahiers retrouvés du Journal inédit du marquis de Sade (1807, 1808, 1814), 1970 Letters from Prison, 1999 Miscellaneous: Selected Writings, 1953 The Complete Marquis de Sade, 1966 (2 volumes) Œuvres complètes, 1966-1967 (16 volumes) Portefeuille du Marquis de Sade: Textes rares et précieux, 1977 The Passionate Philosopher: A Marquis de Sade Reader, 1993 Bibliography Allison, David B., Mark S. Roberts, and Allen S. Weiss, eds. Sade and the Narrative of Transgression. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Approaches to Sade through literary and philosophical criticism, feminist and gender theory, aesthetics, rhetoric, and eighteenth century French cultural history. Bongie, Laurence L. Sade: A Biographical Essay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. In contrast to the twentieth-century critical stance that Sade was an early exemplar of modernist attitudes toward sex, violence, and power, Bongie argues that Sade was remarkable only as an unprincipled opportunist, a phony rebel, and a self-absorbed devotee of predatory sexuality. Carter, Angela. The Sadian Woman: An Exercise of Cultural History. 1979. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2001. Gives a thorough psychological and cultural analysis of Sade’s pornography and “sexual terrorism.” Gray, Francine du Plessix. At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life. New York: Penguin, 1999. A biography focusing on Sade’s relationships with his wife and mother-in-law. Martyn, David. Sublime Failures: The Ethics of Kant and Sade. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. Compares the philosophies of Sade and Immanuel Kant, offering philosophical and rhetorical analyses of the two authors’ major works, and focusing on the related thematic fields of the economy of the gift and the materiality of writing. Sawhney, Deepak Narang, ed. Must We Burn Sade? Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1999. A collection of essays addressing the literary, theatrical, political, social, and philosophical aspects of Sade’s writing. Schaeffer, Neil. The Marquis de Sade: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. A thorough scholarly biography that attempts to explain Sade’s sexual philosophy in the context of his times.

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