Justine is a story of two sisters, Justine and Juliette who have been thrown out of an orphanage. Mainly the book is about the sufferings of Justine, the protagonist and her sister Juliette who benefits herself through dissipation. The truth of virtues is the other-way-round to her; it depicts the persistent battle between good and evil.
Warnings: violence, rape/noncon, torture, incest, underage sex, child abuse, pregnancy, misogyny, homophobia, scat
Category: M/F, M/M
Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue also known as Good Conduct Well Chastised, is a novel by the infamous Donatien Alphonse François, known more famously as the Marquis de Sade, from whom we get the words sadism and sadist. His more well known work, 120 Days of Sodom, was written while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, and is an even more gruesome and debauched tome than is his earlier work Justine. Justine is part one of a two part series, and its sister volume Juliette follows the inverse premise as the first. Both novels are ethical philosophy dissertations on the nature of mankind and morality, interspersed with the kinds of sexual atrocities for which de Sade was most well known. A grueling book to get through, especially from today’s standards, it is a surreal peak into the mind of a man who truly did believe that to indulge evil was the better path and that virtue is nothing more than foolish naivety.
Whatever else the book may be, it is very well written and absolutely captivating. I found myself shortly unable to put it down when I began to read. De Sade’s style was quite punchy and quick paced, and full of the kind of drama and angst that makes one immediately invested. It is told in first person by Justine, as she recounts to her listeners all of her life’s woes and troubles, and each misfortune that befalls her one after the other since she was a child up to her early 30s. She has clearly the worst kind of luck imaginable, and the story has absolutely no spark of or hope of happiness, but she tells her tale in such a way as to make it impossible not to wonder what kind of horrors she will encounter next. Like watching a train wreck, the story was quite gripping in a morbid kind of way. Despite the obviously old timey language used in the prose by today’s standards, de Sade was clearly a very good writer and it is really fascinating to see such an example of erotic, angst and horror content from the 1700s.
Justine is an incredibly naive character, and she is clearly meant to be irritating in her stubborn devotion to purity at all costs. She spends her time woefully lamenting the depravities visited upon her (of which there are many) and preaching to everyone she encounters about religion and piousness. She is intended to be viewed as vapid and wilful and annoying, because of course the point of this work is that she is in the wrong and those who visit extreme horrors upon her are in the right. I will get into de Sade’s philosophy a little later, but it is important to understand first of all that because this is mostly a propaganda book, it is quite good at making the reader see things the way de Sade wants you to see them. As such, despite every terrible injustice heaped upon Justine, it is easy to fall into thinking of Justine as whiny, obnoxious, and selfish, because she is de facto written to be so in order to make her abusers appear more sympathetic. This is a very interesting aspect of the novel, and it clearly took some skill to write it as successfully as he did, although I disagree very strongly with his entire premise.
De Sade’s entire worldbuilding here is essentially his philosophy. All of the plot and features of the environment are designed to serve it, and not really with any kind of subtly either. In between Justine’s tortures, she routinely gets into lengthy debates with her abusers about ethics and religion, in which de Sade is ever so clearly using these abuser characters as mouthpieces for his own sentiments. Their long speeches are windy and verbose and ultimately, his point comes down to this: That good and evil are concepts of human invention, and that they mean nothing and it is better for one to simply indulge any desires they have in pursuit of their own happiness and gratification no matter how many others they hurt along the way. That nature’s law and order is simply self gratification, and it is natural for the strong to abuse the weak to procure their own happiness. Furthermore, that the pursuit of virtue, or “goodness”, is a flawed ideology that will lead one only to ruin. Justine is portrayed as being squarely in the wrong to endeavor to keep from being party to evil acts and remain virtuous.
While I disagree strongly with de Sade’s entire premise and philosophy, he does make some very hard hitting and good points. There is indeed an underlying vein of critique of the church and other positions of power of the day, wherin those in authority preach that people should live good and virtuous lives but deny them the circumstances or ease of life in which those virtues make sense. There is a passage where a poor woman tells Justine, “It is easy to say ‘don’t steal’ when you have everything you will ever need, and it is easy to say ‘don’t murder’ when everyone around you is kind to you.” and if the book were truly a metaphor critiquing the hypocrisy of those in power, it would be a much more palatable read. However, de Sade goes much, much farther than simply making the statement that life isn’t black and white and people in power use the subjects of virtue to abuse those with less power than themselves. Since the book is riddled with rape, child rape, exploitation, murder, and extreme torture, all presented as things that are perfectly natural and good to do, it’s hard to take the “it’s just calling out hypocrisy” interpretation seriously.
Also, it is worth noting that the book comes across extremely homophobic and sex negative, not because de Sade himself was homophobic or sex negative, far from it, but because he was so atrocious and terrible that we don’t want him for an ally. When the same voice that is loudly insisting that fathers shouldn’t rape their prepubescent daughters is also the voice insisting that anal sex is abhorrent and unnatural, it certainly sends rather mixed messages to a modern audience, simply by virtue of de Sade, himself very pro-evil, counting sexual promiscuity as evil.
While this novel is filled with explicit sexual content, it is hard to call it an “erotica”. It is written less to be arousing and more to be shocking, as the scope of de Sade’s sadistic imagination runs rampant. Ironically, Justine is apparently far less gruesome and disturbing than his later 120 Days of Sodom. As I have stated, all manor of depravities are visited upon Justine, and she bares witness to countless more. The book is full of rape, incest, torture, murder, scat… pretty much anything you can think of. Not only is it not written in a particularly sexy way (which is also hampered by the age of the text) but also given the context of knowing that de Sade himself did indeed commit these sorts of atrocities and was not writing purely about fantasy, I cannot say that I would call it “hot”. That said, as I have previously addressed, there is a morbid fascination to the text as well, despite or perhaps because of the extreme nature of the content. It’s certainly not a book for the faint of heart, and was a difficult read for a myriad of reasons, the distressing and disturbing edgey subject matter the most principle.
I will likely never read another work by de Sade, although as an intellectual exercise in understanding the history of sexual and fetish fiction it was, I believe, a worthwhile read. As Simone de Beauvoir details in her essay Must We Burn de Sade?, there is merit in understanding the depths to which human depravity can sink, and in contemplating the minds of people like de Sade, in grasping an understanding of their writings. While I find his premise and his person deplorable, I found also a firmer grasp on the nuances of why I disagree with him as strongly as I do.
Have you read Justine? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!