Story of O


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Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Story of O by Pauline Réage.

Story of O is certainly a seminal novel of its type, supposedly the first book to be written by a woman in emulation of de Sade’s novels. Despite the subjugated female protagonist (typical of de Sade), the focus has more in common with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, where there is no sadistic sermonizing from the dominating characters, just unembroidered imperatives. The sense of contract and continually rising stakes are vivid. De Sade never lets the reader lose sight of his ideological preoccupations, but I found any such message here to be ambivalent at best. Réage does little to manage the reactions of the reader, who may be titillated, engrossed, or horrified by the sequence of events.

Other readers seem to have made more of the character René than I was able to find here. He is important in that O’s affection for him serves as a principal motivation in the first parts of the book. But she does indeed transcend that affection through her experience of her “condition.” And it’s hard for me to imagine any reader being seriously sympathetic to O’s initial devotion to Rene. He is drawn sparsely and unflatteringly.

There is little in the way of graphic detail regarding the many sexual acts in the story, so that the reader’s imagination is enlisted in the erotic effects. What particulars of sex acts there are mostly fall in the early parts of the book. Reviewers often accordingly judge the middle and end to have become “slow.” And yet I found that they tended to accelerate in terms of the shifting of personal relationships and the psychological transformation of O. Few readers seem to remark the somewhat predatory lesbianism of O, which is so pivotal to the central sections of the book, although hardly any fail to react to the body modifications of corseting, piercing, and branding.

The end of the book is abrupt and unconventional. A metafictional epilogue glosses two versions of a “suppressed” (unwritten, I surmise) concluding chapter which would have completed the plot. But “The Owl” which serves as the actual last section is unconcerned to resolve any of the tensions developed in the book. Instead, it sets them on a pedestal for a final appreciation.