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Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761)

Donatien Alphonse François, le Marquis de Sade [1] (June 2, 1740 – December 2, 181) was a French aristocrat and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent, sexually taboo works, as well as some strictly philosophical works. Some dismiss him as a pornographer, although others contend that his works are meant to create anxiety whereas true pornography aims to relieve it. He points out the grotesqueness and flaws of his characters where pornography is idealized characters performing the same acts repeatedly. His is a philosophy of extreme freedom (or at least licentiousness), unrestrained by ethics, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle. Much of his writing was done during the 29 years he was incarcerated. His reputation, although much based on rumor, for sexual cruelty led to the term "sadism" being named after him.


Early life and education

Sade was born in the Condé palace in Paris. His father was comte Jean-Bastiste François Joseph de Sade and his mother was Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, a distant cousin and lady-in-waiting of the princess of Condé. Early on he was educated by his uncle, an Abbé (who would later be arrested in a brothel). Sade then attended a Jesuit lycée and went on to follow a military career. He participated in the Seven Years' War. He returned from the war in 1763 and pursued a woman who rejected him; he then married Renée-Pelagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate, in the same year. The marriage had been arranged by his father. They would eventually have three children together.

His lifelong attraction to the theatre showed in 1766 when he had a private theatre constructed at his castle in Lacoste, Vaucluse.

The generations of this family alternated use of the titles marquis and comte. Gilbert Lêly's "Vie du Marquis de Sade" notes, "It was Gaspard François de Sade, the eldest son of Côme, who was the first of this family to bear the title of Marquis. He was occasionally referred to as the Marquis de Sade, but more often documents refer to him as the Marquis de Mazan. This is the title we find in his marriage contract, in his will and in the Bull of Pope Innocent XII of April 3rd, 1693..." But no reference has been found of Donatien de Sade's lands being erected into a marquisate for him or his ancestors, nor any act of registration of the title of marquis (or count) by the parlement of Provence where he was domiciled. Both of these certifications would have been necessary for any legitimate title of nobility to descend legally. But the Sades were noblesse chevaleresque, that is, members of France's oldest nobility. Given the loftiness of their lineage, the assumption of a noble title, in the absence of a grant from the King, was de rigueur, well-sanctioned by custom]. The family's indifferent use of marquis and count reflected the fact that the French hierarchy of titles (below the rank of duke-peer) was notional. Precedence at court depended upon seniority of nobility, not title. Correspondence exists in which Sade is referred to as marquis prior to his marriage by his own father.

Scandals and imprisonment

Shortly after his wedding, he began living a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly abused young prostitutes and employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste, later also with the help of his wife. His wayward behavior also included an affair with his wife's sister, who had come to live at the castle.

After an episode in Marseille in 1772 that involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac spanish fly, he was sentenced to death for sodomy and said poisoning in the same year but was able to flee to Italy. His mother-in-law obtained a lettre de cachet for his arrest. He was caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans but managed to flee. He later hid at Lacoste, then fled again to Italy. During this time, he wrote his first book, Voyage d'Italie, which was never translated into English.

He kept a group of young employees at Lacoste, most of whom complained about sexual mistreatments and fled quickly. In 1777 the father of one of these employees came to Lacoste to claim her, shot at the Marquis and missed only barely.

In the same year, Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly sick mother (who had recently died) in Paris. There he was finally arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778, but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet. He escaped but was recaptured soon after. In prison, he resumed writing. At Vincennes he met the fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works, but the two disliked each other immensely.

In 1784, Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris. On July 2 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to thinsane asylum at Charenton near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, occurred on July 14.) He had been working on his magnum opus, The 120 Days of Sodom, despairing when the manuscript was lost during his transferral; but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790, after the new Constituent Assembly had abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Return to freedom, and imprisoned for "moderatism"

During his time of freedom (beginning 1790), he published several of his books anonymously. He met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress and mother of a six year old son who had been abandoned by her husband; Constance and Sade would stay together for the rest of his life. Sade was by now extremely obese.

He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution, called himself "Citizen Sade", and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. He wrote several political pamphlets. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. He was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he nevertheless wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism" and imprisoned for over a year. He barely escaped the guillotin] (probably due to an administrative error) and was released at the end of the Reign of Terror. This experience presumably confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty.

Now all but destitute, in 1796 he had to sell his castle in Lacoste that had been sacked in 1792. (The ruins were acquired in the 1990s by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now holds regular theatre festivals there.)

Imprisoned for his writings, return to Charenton, and death

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and imprisoned without trial, first in the Sainte-Pélagie prison and then, following allegations that he had tried to seduce young fellow prisoners there, in the harsh fortress of Bicetre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred once more to the asylum at Charenton; his ex-wife and children had agreed to pay for his pension there.

Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The liberal director of the institution, Abbe de Coulmier, allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition.

Sade began an affair with thirteen-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade's death in 1814. He had left instructions in his will to be cremated and his ashes scattered, but instead he was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned; this included the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.


"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell.... Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."

"Sex without pain is like food without taste".

Literary works

Many of Sade's works contain explicit and often repetitive descriptions of rape and countless sexual perversions, often involving violence and transcending the boundaries of the possible. Sade's libertines founded their philosophy on a purposeful flouting of moral norms and a hatred of religious ethics. In nature, they say, the strong win and the weak lose; therefore all laws and ethics, designed as they are to protect the weak, are seen as unnatural.

Illustration in a Dutch printing of Juliette, c. 1800

In 1782, while in prison, he completed the short Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, expressing his atheism by having the dying libertine convince the priest of the mistakes of a pious life.

The novel The 120 Days of Sodom, written in 1785 but not completed, catalogs a wide variety of sexual perversions performed on a group of enslaved teenagers and is Sade's most graphic work. The manuscript was believed to have been lost during the storming of the Bastille and the book was not published until 1904.

In 1787 he wrote Les infortunes de la vertu, an early version of Justine which was published in 1791. It describes the misfortunes of a girl who continues to believe in the goodness of God despite persistent evidence to the contrary. The companion novel Juliette (1798) narrates the adventures of Justine's sister, Juliette, who chooses to reject the teachings of the church and adopt an amoral hedonist philosophy, resulting in a successful fulfilled life.

The novel Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) accounts the lascivious education of a privileged young lady at the dawn of womanhood, culminating in the rape and mutilation of the girl's mother. The work is structured as a play and is concise, witty and engaging; the archetypal Sadean characters are, here, used most effectively. The book contains a lengthy political pamphlet Frenchmen! One More Effort If You Wish To Be Republicans! in which Sade advocates for a utopian form of socialism. He states that laws against theft are absurd: they protect the original thieves, the wealthy, against the poor who have no option left but theft. He also argues that the state has no right to outlaw murder if it continues to sanction institutionalized murder in the form of executions and war. Laws against blasphemy are seen as pointless: they are not needed if God doesn't exist, and if He does, he surely won't be petty enough to care about minor attacks. The pamphlet was reprinted separately for distribution during the revolution of 1848.

In Aline and Valcour (1795) he contrasts a brutal African kingdom with a utopian island paradise. This was the first book published under his true name.

In 1800 he published a four-volume collection of short stories titled Crimes of Love. In the introduction, Reflections on the novel, he gives general advice to writers and also provides a critique of gothic novels, especially of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis which he considers superior to the work of Ann Radcliffe [2]. One notable story in the collection, Florville and Courval, has itself been called "gothic" and revolves around a young woman who is unwittingly entangled in a web of incest.

While incarcerated again at Charenton, he completed three historical novels: Adelaide of Brunswick, Isabelle of Bavaria and The Marquise de Gange.

He also wrote several plays, most of them unpublished. Le Misanthrope par amour ou Sophie et Desfrancs was accepted by the Comédie-Française in 1790, and Le Comte Oxtiern ou les effets du libertinage was performed at the Theatre Moliere in 1791.

Several letters written from prison to his wife have been preserved and were published in 1998 as Letters from Prison. Some of them show a bizarre and paranoid obsession with the hidden meaning of numbers.

Appraisal and criticism

Numerous writers and artists, especially those concerned with sexuality, have been both repelled and fascinated by de Sade.

Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have seen Sade as a precursors of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. They also attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade Mon Prochain ("Sade My Neighbor"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of Nietzsche's nihilism, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette.

Works about Sade or his books

Nonfiction books

  • Marquis de Sade: his life and works. (1899) by Iwan Bloch (download)
  • The Marquis de Sade, a biography. (1961) by Gilbert Lély
  • The life and ideas of the Marquis de Sade. (1963) by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola. (1971) by Roland Barthes (life of Sade download)
  • The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. (1979) by Angela Carter
  • The Marquis de Sade: the man, his works, and his critics: an annotated bibliography. (1986) by Colette Verger Michael
  • The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (1988) by Colin Wilson
  • Sade, his ethics and rhetoric. (1989) by Colette Verger Michael
  • Marquis de Sade: A Biography (1991) by Maurice Lever
  • Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism (1995) by Thomas Moore
  • The philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. (1995) by Timo Airaksinen
  • An Erotic Beyond: Sade. (1998) by Octavio Paz review
  • Sade: A Biographical Essay. (1998) by Laurence L. Bongie (review)
  • The Marquis de Sade: a life. (1999) by Neil Schaeffer
  • At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Life. (1999) by Francine du Plessix Gray
  • Marquis de Sade: the genius of passion. (2003) by Ronald Hayman


  • The play by Peter Weiss titled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, or Marat/Sade for short, is a fictional account of Sade directing a play in Charenton.
  • The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima wrote a play titled Madame de Sade.
  • The Canadian writer/actor Barry Yzereef wrote a play titled Sade, a one-man show set in Vincennes prison.
  • Doug Wright wrote a play, Quills, a surreal account of the attempts of the Charenton governors to censor the Marquis' writing, which was adapted into the slightly less surreal film of the same name.
  • La Fura Del Baus have toured worldwide their production, XXX, which is said to be based upon Sade's work and thoughts. the production has faced criticism and controversy wherever it has been.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sade's life and writings have proved irresistible to filmmakers. While there are numerous pornographic films based on his themes, here are some of the more mainstream movies based on his history or his works of fiction:

  • Marat/Sade, a film of the Peter Weiss play (1966) (The full title being The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade)
  • Marquis de Sade: Justine, directed bJesus Franco (1968)
  • Eugenie...The Story of Her Journey into Perversion aka Philosophy in the Boudoir (1969)
  • De Sade (1969)
  • Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom aka Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975)
  • Cruel Passion (1977)
  • Marquis (1989)
  • Dark Prince (1996)
  • Sade (1999)
  • Quills (2000)

Other fiction

  • In Harlan Ellison's science fiction anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967), Robert Bloch wrote a story entitled "A Toy For Juliette" whose title character was both named for and used techniques based on Sade's works.
  • In the comic book series The Invisibles, Sade is recruited by the anarchistic group the Invisibles, as part of the revolution. The portrayal of him is supported by his liberal views, anti-authority stance and unhegemonic lifestyle.

About his life and work

His works online