"Il Est De Certaines Choses Qui Demandent Absolument Des Voiles": The Space of the Boudoir in the Marquis De Sade

By Deininger, Melissa A. | Style, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

"Il Est De Certaines Choses Qui Demandent Absolument Des Voiles": The Space of the Boudoir in the Marquis De Sade


Deininger, Melissa A., Style


The Marquis de Sade made a career out of titillating his readers with lavish descriptions of what could and should, in his opinion, take place in a libertine boudoir. In several instances, however, he strategically chooses to hide the specifics of what happens in these eroticized sites, preferring to allow readers to draw their own conclusions as to what might be taking place inside. While sexual exploits are not, of course, limited to the boudoir in Sade, this room does serve as the ultimate site of hidden seduction, a location where everything can be experienced but is not always revealed. Close reading of Sade's most famous works demonstrates how he simultaneously reveals and conceals the boudoir as a privileged site for punishment, pleasure, and education and, ultimately, as a site of seduction for and of the reader.

The boudoir may seem like an obvious setting for tales of sexual exploits, but its centrality in Sade's writings in fact opposes traditional concepts of the chamber as a feminine space. Despite modern notions of the boudoir as a site of female power and seduction, the word itself does not appear in the mid-eighteenth-century Encyclopedic produced by France's top intellectuals; rather, cabinet or chambre are the preferred terms for a space in which solitary activities are conducted, although these words differ significantly in that they refer to private rooms in which one conducts business or sleeps. (1) The closest English equivalents for this term would be a cabinet, using the Johnson's Dictionary definition of "a private room in which consultations are held" (s.v. cabinet), or a withdrawing room, a site for private audiences. (2) By the eighteenth century, according to Ed Lilley, rooms within French homes had become "increasingly function-specific" (193). Principal among these specialized rooms was the boudoir, a space dedicated to, and primarily dominated by, women. The chamber was as much a place for discussion as it was a place for relaxation. Indeed, even today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term boudoir as "a small elegantly-furnished room, where a lady may retire to be alone, or to receive her intimate friends" (s.v. boudoir) and cites its appearance into French in the mid-eighteenth century as the mistress's exclusive realm. The word itself is derived from the verb bonder, meaning "to sulk" or "to pout" and Le Grand Robert sees this as an apt denomination, "parce que les dames se retirent dans leur boudoir quand elles veulent etre seules" ("because women retire to their boudoirs when they want to be alone" (3)) (s.v. boudoir). Hence, the room is clearly defined as a female space, with its associated characteristics of delicacy and privacy.

Although the boudoir is unquestionably considered to be a female-controlled space, it is frequently appropriated by male authors who seek either to penetrate the female domain or to use its air of mystery and seduction as setting for their stories. Libertine authors often privilege the room in their writings, prizing the combination of the secluded space and its inherent discretion. Among the better-known French stories of the eighteenth century that feature boudoirs as sites of feminine guile and desire are Crebillon's Le Sopha (1742) and Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782). Unsurprisingly, the Marquis de Sade uses this room repeatedly in his works, going so far as to make it the centerpiece of one of his most popular stories, La Philosophic dans le boudoir [Philosophy in the Bedroom] (1795). The naming of this room in the title suggests its centrality to the entire work and easily captures the reader's attention as it references a familiar yet mysterious space.

The article at hand focuses on the Sadean use of the boudoir, but it is important to acknowledge that Sade himself does not always remain faithful to this particular location as a site of hidden pleasure. Even within his works, the room's purpose could vary from one setting to the next. …

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