Pauline Réage's The Story of O begins with O being brought by her lover René to the castle in Roissy. Her stay lasts two weeks and resembles an all-inclusive BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sado-Masochism) vacation resort. She is shown to her room, with private bathroom and fur-covered bed, dressed in an outfit with retractable skirts for easy exposure and access to her orifices and a bustier-type top that perks up her breasts, exposing her nipples. She is adorned with leather collar and wrist restraints and is taught the etiquette of the secret society in which she just entered. She is not to look at any man in the eyes. She is not to speak to any man, nor is she allowed to speak to any of the other women. Any man at the castle may dispose of her however and whenever he wishes, whether it be to fondle her, have sex with her, using the orifice of his choosing, or torture her. Physical torture, which amounts to whipping, flogging and light canning, is administered by the castle's valets either to discipline, punish, or… for the mere sake of torturing. All of this in the name of love.
Yes, you heard correct: love. As I mentioned, O was brought to Roissy by her lover and consented to stay there. In the eyes of this submissive, every hand that touched her, every voice that commanded her, every sex that came inside of her and every arm that administered a lashing was her lover's. She submitted to the torture and humiliation because it was his wish. Why would he want to put her through this? Because the harsher the treatments she endured the more she proved her love for him as being without boundaries. This proof made him happy, and she aimed to please. O is the woman who would give up her body and her pride to please her lover. Meanwhile, René is the man who would cherish and adore the woman who would sacrifice herself for love of him, and the greater her sacrifices, the greater is affections for her. Theirs is a vicious circle of a love's extreme need of ratification.
The Story of O has four chapters: "The Lovers Of Roissy," "Sir Stephen," "Anne-Marie and the Rings" and "The Owl." With each chapter, O is brought to a higher level of submissiveness. In "Sir Stephen," O is presented to René's half-brother with whom he wishes to share her. No longer confronted with the oblivion of nameless and anonymous masters she encountered at Roissy, she must now submit to one specific man who, unlike René, does not love her. Her submissiveness to him cannot rely on a bound of love and lust. It is pure submission, such as a true master and slave. Sir Stephen, more stern a master than René, eventually wins over O's emotions, having found in him the dominance that equals her submissive desires and potentials. In the next chapter, to teach O to be a more receptive and responsive slave, Sir Stephen brings her to Anne-Marie's. These teachings are educated manly by way of suspension and constant nudity. O's rite of passage is crowned with tokens of her slavery: two body modifications. The first is a labia piercing adorned with a ring-laden jewel that falls to a third of her thigh. The second is a branding of Sir Stephen's initials on the small of her back. Finally, in "The Owl," O is led on a leash to a party, wearing a mask of an owl and nothing else. In this chapter, she is debased to the form of an animal or even to the extent of an object. Perched on a seat of rocks like a statue, the guests speak of her instead of to her. In the final scene she is used as a measly receptacle of male desire.
As I was discussing the book with a friend of mine, I succeeded in pinpointing the main shift that occurs in The Story of O. My friend said that he very much enjoyed the first chapter but found the last ones to be a bit more laborious. Indeed, "The Lovers of Roissy" is written with a much more erotic language than the following chapters. The author herself stated that the first sixty pages wrote themselves. The middle and end of the story were written for the sake of producing a fully composed novel. The beauty and eroticism of that first chapter is found in the subtlety with which she exposes a fantasy entrenched with a mythology most of us, and especially those with BDSM desires, can acknowledge. The grandeur and luxury of the castle, the suspense of the secret society, the formal dress and etiquette along with the sexual debauchery, all these images lure us into her world, into the castle of Roissy. As readers, our minds wander from fantasy novels to Eco's Foucault's Pendulum to Rasputin-like scenes, all from the safety of our sofa. Réage allows our imagination to indulge itself.
The specific value of "The Lover's of Roissy" does not lessen the value of the following chapters even if it does somewhat overshadow them. The difference between the two sections, the first chapter and the three last ones, is their nature. "The Lover's of Roissy" is more erotic while the three last chapters tend to be more explanatory. This shift does not make the novel feel inconsistent. On the contrary, the story is well woven and enjoyable to read. After experiencing this book, it is clear to me why it is considered a classic of twentieth-century erotic literature. More than an erotic book, The Story of O explores the foundations of eroticism, seduction and the route to the state of dispossession of one self. It dares to probe the depths of human needs and desires through the psychological and sexual expansion of its heroine. Its honesty and fine pen can trick more than one reader into appreciating it, if not relating to it. My only reserve: beware of the translation you pick up. John Paul Hand's is less than perfect. Originally written in French, he makes the book sound more as if it were transposed into English than translated into it. Nonetheless, if you enjoy erotica for more than just the sex ride, you will most likely than not enjoy The Story of O.
Note about the author: Pauline Réage was a pseudonym for Dominique Aury, which was a pseudonym for Anne Declos. These names were all used to insure her parents' anonymity. Under the name Dominique Aury, she was an accomplished editor and translator. She wrote The Story of O during her mid-forties as both a love letter to her lover Jean Paulhan, an affair that spanned three decades, and as a reaction to a dare/claim of his that no woman can write a fine erotic novel. Originally published in 1954, The Story of O caused a lot of controversy and was banned in Britain for several years. Fifty years later, it has been translated into over twenty languages and has been the basis of two feature films as well as numerous spin-offs. Dominique Aury was born in France in 1907 and died in April 1998, four years after having publicly admitted to being the authoress of the notorious novel.
The Story of O by Pauline Reage