REVIEW: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Obsessed and fascinated with a high society woman by the name of Wanda, our main protagonist enters into a contract with her to become her willing slave. The conditions of the agreement state therein that Wanda will chastise and punish Severin if he commits any mistake in the carrying out of his duties. Though reticent at first, Wanda soon rises to the task of putting her infatuated suitor under the whip, and soon she revels in humiliating him even so far as to take another lover. With every lash, Severin becomes ever more compliant, and even more in love with his Mistress. But how far will his loyalty go when Wanda’s methods become decidedly crueller and more ruthless?

Warnings: sexual violence, depictions of abuse, non-SSC BDSM, usage of racial slurs, misogyny and sexism, jealousy and infidelity

Category: F/M

Venus in Furs is a novel from the 1800s depicting obsession, codependency, and masochistic fantasy. Much like we derive the word sadism from the earlier Marquis de Sade, the term masochism comes from Sacher-Masoch. Venus in Furs is famous for its portrayal of not only masochistic desire for pain and suffering, but specifically for femdom structured D/s. It is an immediately sensual, lavish piece of writing that while not as explicit as other fetish pieces, is at the least incredibly provocative.

Told in the style of a journal, the story depicts the reminiscence of a sordid relationship between a masochistic man and the domineering woman in his life. Severin meets the rich, and decidedly promiscuous Wanda, and almost at once falls madly in love with her. She reminds him of the statue of Venus that he had been enamoured with, and he imagines her as a goddess come to life. It is Severin who initiates the D/s relationship with her, explaining his strange desires to be whipped and abused, and thus they begin their on and off again affair. The prose is not very descriptive visually, but it lingers on and focuses primarily on states of mind and emotion. To that end it is incredibly evocative and sensual, even while no sex is happening on-screen. There is a large amount of power play and mind games going on, and the story draws out the story of these two would-be lovers in ways that are both gripping and psychologically compelling.

While we do get to know Severin quite well over the course of this book, and we are privy to his thoughts and emotional states and reactions, Wanda is a character that remains shrouded in mystery for the entire narrative. She flip-flops so constantly from sweet and loving to cold and cruel, and it never becomes apparent which of these personas is the act and which is the lie. Perhaps they are both accurate; perhaps her personality shifts with her whims. It’s never entirely clear what she means, or if she is being authentic. This keeps her incredibly compelling, allowing the reader to stay as much in the dark about her character as Severin is, and therefore to feel fear and apprehension alongside him. It is a very well written story in that regard, as much a horror narrative as it is an erotic or romantic one. To that end, a reader to whom masochism is unfamiliar may find themselves confused as to why exactly Severin loves her as he does; they don’t exactly have much chemistry outside of the power exchange, which is interesting as much as it is frustrating.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of sexism fairly present in the text and in the way the narrator works kink into his worldviews. Despite the fact that the book features a woman in power for most of the novel, it both begins and ends on a sexist note. Severin is adamant that men and women can never truly have loving relationships, because one will always end up ruling over the other. It is a philosophy that is repeatedly returned to; that if one does not want to be abused he must become an abuser to avoid it. There’s also a lot of exploration of the idea that being submissive makes Severin less of a man, that a woman wants a real man who will dominate her, but that submissive men are only good for toying with and throwing away. Obviously this is part and parcel of the humiliation fetish here. The fact that Severin feels humiliated by his predilections is part of the point of them. But taken at face value as a real way to view the world, it’s less than ideal. There’s a kind of sense that both Severin and Wanda are acting in ways counter to how they naturally should, and I found that aspect a little frustrating.

What should be clear is that while this book does feature two consenting individuals forming a BDSM style contract, it is not in any way a depiction of a healthy relationship. I really don’t believe it was intended to be, either, and that it isn’t is part of what makes the fetish itself come alive. This book absolutely nails masochism in a way that many fetish pieces miss. The depiction of masochism not as the enjoyment of pain, but of the enjoyment of the lack of enjoyment of pain, is perfect here. Severin does not enjoy the abuse, and in fact when he gets it he bemoans it and complains about it despite having literally asked for it, sometimes demanded it. He describes himself as being unable to resist the allure of it, despite hating it, and it is clear that the pain and suffering means very little if it is not authentic, if he is not hating it. That kind of duality of mind will be difficult for someone to whom these concepts are foreign to understand, but I thought it was a truly beautiful and psychologically fascinating depiction. Severin describes being aroused by stories or images of martyrs being tortured and executed, and that kind of morbidity, not simply an obsession with sexual submission but with actual torment and suffering, hit really hard.

Altogether this is a truly fascinating text that does a lot to spark the imagination. It’s got a lot of the gendered ideas of it’s time, but the text explores masochistic fantasy with such abandon that it is worth reading for its deeply compelling psychological study. What drives masochism, obsession, and infatuation? How do people see themselves in terms of power and interpersonal relationships with others? It is no wonder that this book’s author is the namesake for our entire concept of deriving pleasure from pain, and this book truly shines in a way that makes this a real must read for an understanding of the psychology of kink.

Have you read Venus in Furs? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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