Every Monday, the CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring the novel, Story of O by Pauline Réage (a penname for Anne Desclos).
Story of O is a fictional novel following the female protagonist, O, in her submission to her lover. Throughout the novel, O’s consent is asked for, though there are situations of potentially dubious consent featuring other characters. The reader sees O blindfolded, whipped, chained, pierced, branded, masked, and trained to always be available for any type of intercourse with anyone approved by her lover. Additionally, the reader sees O proudly showing off her welts, branding, and piercings to her female lover.
Trained at the chateau of Roissy by a group of upper-class men, O did not know what her lover had or had not done when she was whipped and taken as was frequently blindfolded or partnered with men wearing masks. At the end of this training, her lover gives her to a more dominant master: Sir Stephen. Her lover claims that it is very important for O to learn how to serve someone she does not love, and who does not love her. However, as the training progresses, O falls in love with Sir Stephen, and she is under the impression that he loves her as well. O chooses to remain with Sir Stephen instead of her lover, and is branded and pierced with his initials and crest.
There has been some feminist backlash against this novel. Andrea Dworkin, for example, argues that having the protagonist’s name shortened to O represents her being zero, empty, and nothing more than an orifice. It has also been argued that the novel is just about the ultimate objectification of the female, and that it glorifies the abuse of women.
In this light, the character of O does delineate being submissive as a person from being submissive in a sexual context. We do, however briefly, see her life in the outside world as a successful photographer. Furthermore, I think it is useful to keep in mind that Réage wrote this as a series of fantasy letters to her lover, a de Sade fan.
I would not recommend this to anyone uncomfortable with mixing pain and pleasure; otherwise, it’s an interesting fantasy.
The CSPH has also reviewed the film version of this story. To check out the film review, click here!