Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, playwright, short-story writer, and essayist
June 2, 1740
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.
Portrait of Marquis de Sade.
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.