NOTE: This piece contains some spoilers…
I read Pauline Reage’s ‘The Story of O’ shortly after reading Anais Nin’s ‘Delta of Venus’ and was struck by how similar the books feel (see my thoughts on DoV). Both writers evoke the grim, melancholic atmosphere of gothic, epic tragedy and shock their readers with macabre, horror-story-style erotica. And both write so wutheringly well – reading their books feels like living in haunted house. Take this scene-setting from inside the mysterious mansion where O’s story begins:
‘Outside, gusts of cold wind were blowing, cold rain spattered down, the poplar near the window swayed under the gale’s attack. From time to time a pale wet leaf pasted itself against a windowpane. The overcast sky was dark, it was as dark as the heart of the night…’
TSoO follows a young woman’s brutal adventure of erotic exploration through post-war Paris. O is taken to strange mansion where women are trained to become communally-owned sex-slaves/objects for men. The discipline is severe, the whippings are agonising and the humiliations are abject. O enters the process on account of her lover, Rene, but after she graduates, he ‘gives’ her to his English half-brother, Sir Stephen… and O’s tortuous ordeal becomes even more extreme.
Some elements of the book are really sexy: it’s hot how O has to pull up her dress whenever she sits down, so she can feel the ‘slick and chilly’ leather of taxi seats sticking and clinging to her naked thighs. But overall, the brutality of the sadism is much too rich for my tastes… and the matter-of-fact callousness with which events are described can be stultifying (don’t worry about needing an anaesthetic for this barbaric surgical procedure… we can just tie you up extra-tight!) Personally, I find the extreme stuff a considerable turn-off. And the fact that most of the men in the story are physically repulsive also makes it less sexy for me. There is the slight hint that Sir Stephen might be good-looking (she says he’s athletic), but generally, the men tend to be ugly or morbidly obese. O’s friend, Jaqueline, is the only individual who’s described in an alluring way, but she doesn’t get involved in any of the fun and games.
O initially ‘consents’ to her ordeal simply by reassuring Rene she loves him. Later in the story, Sir Stephen suddenly starts talking about O’s consent as if it was something that mattered to him (when asking her to formally agree to be his property in perpetuity). But given that O is emotionally coerced into agreement, isn’t allowed to know exactly what she’s consenting to and isn’t allowed to withdraw her consent in the future… it’s hard to see what this consent actually means. What does it mean: to consent to forever give up one’s own right not to consent? Despite all this, O seems generally happy with the decisions made on her behalf.
Is TSoO a love story? Perhaps… but if it is, it’s certainly unconventional. At the beginning, O tells herself she’s doing everything out of love for Rene. However, she soon forgets about him and comes to regard these previous declarations of love as childish and ridiculous. Does she love Sir Stephen? Does the extreme D/s relationship between O and Sir Stephen build an even more intimate kind of love? Or is it something qualitatively different from love? Are the profound emotions O feels primarily directed towards Sir Stephen… or is she really in love with submission itself? After all, the rules of the club make O’s submission universal. Perhaps she’s in love with the feeling of submitting to power, in general… submitting to the whole world… or submitting to a higher power. There’s certainly something religious in the ritualistic observations of O’s sadomasochistic cult.
O’s story is about possession. Her training, at the mansion, makes her the possession of all men who know the symbols of the club. The men discuss her as if she were an object. Rene gives her to Sir Stephen as a gift. The aptly-named O is trained, stretched and dressed so as to be fully open at all times… ready to be sexually possessed by men. O loves being owned – deriving delight from her precious status as a valued possession. She feels great pride in what she’s achieved – deep satisfaction and some sort of perverse liberation. She’s found herself – she belongs as a belonging. And she gets fiercely defensive when Jaqueline disapproves of and disparages her lifestyle.
It’s hard to know what all this means. How far does TSoO satirise a social system where women are considered possessions of men? Is it a critique? A defence? A justification? An explanation? Whatever it might mean politically, it certainly taps into something deep on a psychological level. Possession and the desire to be possessed has been a recurring theme of erotica (and romance) throughout the ages – an endless chorus of love-struck heroes declaring ‘I have to have you!’ (For you are the best possession a man could own.) The desire to be objectified, to remain passive whilst being used like a tool or an ornament, seems to run very deep in submissive sexuality. So TSoO really explores something deeply fundamental to the nature of things – the yin-yang of that which acts and that which is acted upon.
I think TSoO is an intriguing and insightful novel, but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it and I didn’t find it very sexy. The brutality was just too extreme for my tastes (even though my tastes are more extreme than average). O is essentially the archetypal ‘super-sub’, who could take anything, twenty-four/seven, forever! Whereas I definitely couldn’t… and wouldn’t want to try. My story (Mirror Secret Mirror) is less extreme, but it does have some similarities to O’s. I’ve taken a lot of punishment, both physically and psychologically. I’ve been chained up, stripped… beaten and whipped. I’ve been used horribly… and I love the way he uses me. I don’t know why… there’s just something about being possessed…