Pauline Réage


Story of O



John Phillips, Emeritus Professor of French at London Metropolitan University (1996-2010), on Pauline Réage’s ‘Histoire d’O’

Abridged (slightly) from John Phillips, Forbidden Fictions: Pornography and Censorship in Twentieth-Century French Literature (Pluto Press, 1999) pp. 86-103

In a piece in The New Yorker in August 1994, the writer and literary journalist, John de St. Jorre gave a detailed account of an interview with Dominique Aury, writer, translator and critic, in which Aury revealed that she and Pauline Réage are one and the same. In other words, Dominique Aury is the pseudonymous author of Histoire d’O, the first published novel of modern times to be both explicitly erotic and written by a woman. One of the greatest literary enigmas of the postwar years had finally been resolved.

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

The novel takes the form of a third-person narrative, recounting how a young woman identified as O, a Parisian fashion photographer, is taken by her lover, René, to a château in Roissy, where she consents to the gradual erosion of her personal identity and autonomy. This process of enslavement involves being chained up in Gothic-style dungeons, frequent whippings and sexual penetration by a number of men, and the insertion into her anus of ever larger ebonite shafts in order to facilitate anal intercourse. It seems at first that O’s submissiveness is motivated by her love for René, though during the course of her stay at the château, he ‘gives’ her to an English aristocrat named Sir Stephen, whose fatherly attentions are not without their attractions for her. O is also physically attracted to two females, Jacqueline, a young model and Natalie, Jacqueline’s younger sister, both of whom she persuades to visit the château. Sir Stephen has O branded on her buttocks, and rings bearing his and her names are attached to her labia. By the final scene of the novel, O has apparently lost all humanity: wearing an owl-mask and led around by a chain attached to one of the rings in her labia, she is offered freely to guests at a party, though few show any real interest in her. In grotesque parody of the party wallflower, the now completely objectified O has no more significance than a piece of furniture.

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

Despite the explicit nature of the activities depicted in the novel, the style is contained, devoid of either emotion or vulgarity; the author explains the need for such stylistic restraint: ‘It is thrilling to be in control in what is the opposite of self-control, otherwise it doesn’t have the same value’.

Dominique Aury at 47 (1954)
The year she wrote Histoire d’O

Aury tells in the New Yorker interview how, the long-term mistress of Jean Paulhan, she conceived the book as a love letter to the celebrated author, critic and academician. Though in his sixties by this time, Paulhan was known to have a high sex drive and a fondness for younger women. Fearful that he might be tiring of a woman approaching middle age and knowing his fondness for the writings of the divin marquis, Aury determined to compose a spicy narrative which might appeal to Paulhan’s sexual predilections. Sheherazade-like, she was writing in order to keep their love alive. It did the trick. Paulhan was entranced by the first 60 pages which Aury dashed off almost automatically, basing the writing on fantasies of submission which she had had since childhood. He urged her to write more. Within weeks, the novel was finished. Paulhan begged Aury to let him find a publisher. She agreed, on condition that the novel be published anonymously. The pen-name Pauline Réage, it seems, had no conscious significance–Pauline was inspired by two famous women, Pauline Borghese of Renaissance Italy and Pauline Roland, a nineteenth-century defender of women’s rights, whilst Réage was chosen at random from a property register.

Jean Paulhan c.1953

Publication of the novel was not without its problems. Gallimard, after two years’ deliberation, refused the book. René Defez, whose publishing house, Les Deux Rives, had already drawn attention to itself by publishing a critical account of France’s involvement in Indochina, first accepted it, paying Aury an advance; but after being prosecuted for the book on Indochina, Defez finally sent the manuscript back in order to avoid another costly court case. Paulhan then showed it to Jean-Jacques Pauvert, who had already taken the risk of publishing the complete works of Sade. Pauvert accepted it enthusiastically and published it at once, with a preface written by Paulhan. The same year, 1954, saw the publication of the novel in English by the Paris-based Olympia Press.


Histoire d’O, J-J Pauvert, 1954

Story of O, Olympia Press, 1970

The impact of the book was at first limited to a small circle of Parisian lettrés, the initial print run of two thousand remaining unsold ten months after publication. Nevertheless, Georges Bataille in La Nouvelle Revue Française and André Pieyre de Mandiargues in Critique praised it fulsomely and, in February 1955, less than a year later, it won the Prix Deux Magots, a small literary prize, usually awarded to new and unconventional writing.


Georges Bataille, 1961

André Pieyre de Mandiargues, 1991

Despite the book’s favourable reception among the Parisian intelligentsia, moves to ban the novel began almost immediately. Both Pauvert and Girodias, the head of Olympia Press, suffered threats and harassment by the French government. The Book Commission were keen to prosecute, ‘considering that this violently and consciously immoral book, in which scenes of debauchery involving two or more persons alternate with scenes of sexual cruelty, contains a detestable and condemnable ferment, and that this in itself is an affront to public decency. The Commission is of the opinion that there are grounds for prosecution’. The ‘Brigade Mondaine’, the French government’s equivalent of the vice squad, made repeated attempts to discover the identity of the author, but although the police visited Aury and questioned her, nothing could be proved. Many magistrates wanted to prosecute Pauvert and Paulhan in the author’s absence. This never actually happened, but the book was banned, the ban not being lifted until the early 1970s. Nevertheless, booksellers sold copies in secret. Indeed, in spite of (or perhaps because of) attempts to suppress it, the book has never been out of print, it has been translated into dozens of languages, has sold millions of copies and has been adapted (rather poorly) for the screen. Indeed, during the four decades that followed publication, it was to become for a time the bestselling and most widely read French novel outside France. Histoire d’O has always proved a huge commercial success, to which the questions surrounding its authorship have doubtless contributed in no small measure.

Dominique Aury at 90 (1997) | Pola Rapaport, Writer of O

For Roland Barthes and his fellow Structuralists, authorial identity was of only anecdotal interest. The text was enshrined as sole source of meaning, the author existing only as a textual construct or implication. More recently, however, feminists in particular have frequently dragged the author from the grave dug by Barthes, in the firm conviction that the identity and gender of a writer matter—especially in the case of ‘pornography’, which, because it depicts the exploitation of female characters, is not confined to the realm of books but is a political issue in the ‘real’ world. For many feminists, Histoire d’O, in which the eponymous heroine is subjected to all conceivable brands of male violence, was a voyeuristically pornographic account of female objectification that could not possibly have been the work of a woman.

Dominique Aury at 21 (1929)

Some believed that the novel was the result of a group effort, like the erotica produced on demand by Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and others in the 1930s and 1940s. Others were persuaded that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s wife, Catherine, had written the book, a theory bolstered by the appearance in 1956 of the novel L’image by the pseudonymous Jean de Berg, which had similar sado-masochistic themes, was dedicated to Pauline Réage and contained a foreword signed with the initials, ‘P. R.’. Most, however, felt that Histoire d’O was the work of a man—probably Jean Paulhan himself—and that the use of a female pseudonym by a male writer was nothing more than a convention of the erotic genre, designed to titillate the male reader even more, by suggesting that the novel was the confession by a real woman of events that had actually taken place—another convention of the genre. Andrea Dworkin, for example, speaking of the genre as a whole, argued that ‘The female name on the cover of the book is part of the package, an element of the fiction. It confirms men in their fantasy that the eroticism of the female exists within the bounds of male sexual imperatives.’

Dominique Aury at 21, 1929

Forty years later, with both Paulhan and his wife long dead, the personal issues framing the writing of this novel seem trivial. However, Dominique Aury’s disclosures should serve to remind us all of the dangers of drawing either artistic or moral conclusions from a writer’s presumed identity: are we not, each one of us, a complicated mix of personae, social, psychological and sexual?

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

The question of authorial identity has haunted the novel from the outset, keeping the debate surrounding it at a relatively banal level. Perhaps now that the ‘culprit’ has come clean, critics of all persuasions can stop treating it like a ‘True Crimes’ confession, a real life ‘whodunnit’ with every woman as victim, and consider whether, though born of an individual woman’s sexual fantasy, Histoire d’O has a literary form that enables it to transcend the boundaries, either of gender or of individual experience.

Dominique Aury at 90 (1997) | Pola Rapaport, Writer of O

The novel, we now know, was a’lettre d’amour’, but was the work based on real events or was it a product of pure imagination? What fascinated and excited Paulhan, Aury told St. Jorre, was the relationship of the story to her own life, an issue going beyond mere authorial identity to the complex set of relationships between the text and the subject’s desire. The author has already given an unambiguous answer to this question: she would never have tolerated violence, all the events of the novel are imaginary and not real. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the main lessons to be drawn from Histoire d’O: sexual fantasies are not to be confused with reality, a woman being capable of deriving enjoyment from an imagined sexual violence unacceptable in real life. Both the story of O and Pauline Réage are constructs with no identity in the real beyond the text: ‘Story of O is a fairy tale for another world which now only exists between pages of print. It was a book by an unknown woman, and I am amazed beyond belief that I was she.’

Dominique Aury at 28 (1935)

Inside the text, too, the absence, or rather, the obliteration of identity becomes the main focus of interest—an ironic counterpoint to the enthusiasm shown outside the text for the construction of an authorial identity. This obliteration of identity begins in the novel’s title.

Pauline Réage, Histoire d’O

For Michel Butor, a title is not only, to use Gérard Genette’s term, the threshold of a novel, but also a text in its own right: ‘Any literary work may be thought of as consisting of two associated texts: the body (essay, novel, drama, sonnet) and its title, poles between which circulates an electricity of meaning, one short, the other long, in the same way the pictorial work always presents itself to us as the association of an image, on canvas, plate, wall or paper, and a name, even if this name is empty, waiting to appear, a pure enigma, reduced to a simple question mark.’ The title of Histoire d’O illustrates this symbiosis so well that Butor could have cited it as an example. This title functions as a microtext which has the same enigmatic character as the macrotext that follows. It seems to reduce itself to a question mark, hanging over the zero that names (or unnames) the novel’s main protagonist. This is a title that poses questions, stimulating the curiosity of the reader, a peephole into a text itself full of peepholes.

Pauline Réage, Story of O

The first two words, taken together, carry an ambiguity which is lost in the English translation. Unlike ‘Story of’, ‘Histoire de’ in the spoken register can mean ‘a question of’, expressing aim or intention. ‘A question of O’, though less transparent than ‘Story of O’, sounds even more enigmatic, immediately foregrounding the thematic of identity. There is also a more obvious ambiguity in the use of the preposition ‘de’: is the story in question about the eponymous heroine or is it simply narrated by her? This ambiguity in the title focuses our attention from the outset on the identity, not only of the character but of the narrator too, on the act of narration itself and therefore on the identity of the narratee implied in the title-text.

Dominique Aury | Bernard Milleret, 1942

With the hindsight of our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the novel, the issue of a ‘reader in the text’ might seem clear-cut: if the work was a letter to Jean Paulhan and not a work intended for publication, then the woman depicted in the text is intended to be accessible not to anyone but to someone, a narratee who is both singular and known–a characteristic of confessional literature, in particular. Does this make Histoire d’O the most perfect example of reader-centred fiction or rather is the text closed off to the general and especially the female reader by the existence of a specific male narratee? Statements by the author would appear to support the latter hypothesis: ‘You need an accomplice for this kind of writing. A woman could not play this game without a male accomplice, and a male accomplice who loves her, because nothing of this nature can be confided in a man, unless one loves him.’

Dominique Aury | Bernard Milleret, 1943

Once again, however, it is necessary to distinguish between the world outside the text, in which the intentions of the author are situated, and the text itself. In that this particular narratee’s identity or presence is nowhere explicitly evident in the text, it seems to me that any reader, even a woman, who shares this narratee’s tastes or who is able to identify with O’s desires, is capable of taking his place. Histoire d’O is thus an open text in the sense of being accessible to all.

Dominique Aury at 42 (1949)

Upon her arrival at Roissy, O is given lengthy instructions as to how she should behave, but the ‘vous’ seems after a time addressed as much to the reader as to the female protagonist: ‘You are here to serve your masters. In our presence you will at all times avoid altogether closing your labia, nor will you ever cross your legs, nor press your knees together (as, you recall, was forbidden to you directly you set out for this place), which will signify, in your view and in ours, that your mouth, your belly and your behind are constantly at our entire disposal’.

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

The ending of the story is certainly left open for the individual reader to determine, the final page of text presenting the following alternatives: ‘There existed another ending to the story of O. Seeing herself about to be left by Sir Stephen, she preferred to die. To which he gave his consent.’ Aury told St. Jorre: ‘I didn’t know how to end it, so I left it open. Why not?’ The author’s unpretentiousness is not simply refreshing, it gives a green light to the reader’s imagination.

Dominique Aury at 37 (1944)

Such open-endedness is also appropriate in the context of the novel’s role as aphrodisiac in a continuing love affair; but more importantly from the point of view of reception, it helps to make the story of O a gift from the narrator to any reader.

Dominique Aury and Jean Paulhan, 1963

As for the identity of the narrative voice, the story is not in fact narrated by O but in the third person by a narrator who is both extradiegetic (remaining outside the diegesis) and heterodiegetic (absent from the plot). And yet, everything is seen from the heroine’s point of view: Story of O, her story. It is her voice that is heard in the free indirect style of the narrative and never that of the men; it is therefore the story of the woman, not René’s or Sir Stephen’s, the story not of their sexuality but of hers: ‘They are not always joyful tortures—I mean to say joyfully inflicted. René refuses to inflict them; and if Sir Stephen consents, it is as though he were performing a duty. From all evidence, the torturers do not find their work amusing. They have nothing of the sadistic in them. Everything happens as if from the outset it were O alone who demanded to be hurt, flushed from her retreat by punishment.’

Palo Rapaport, Writer of O

Having been invited into the text, as we saw earlier, to identify with O from the very beginning of the narrative, the reader is encouraged to continue this identification throughout the novel. Even passages which appear to privilege the viewpoint of one of her male lovers in fact present the woman’s own stream of consciousness, as here during her first meeting with Sir Stephen: ‘Bewildered as she still was, and dizzy from joy, she was nevertheless very able to see that he was looking at her admiringly, and that he desired her. Who could have resisted her moist, half-opened mouth, her swollen lips, her white neck flung back against the black collar of her page-boy jacket, her wide open and bright eyes, her steady, unfugitive eyes? But Sir Stephen’s single gesture was to caress her eyebrows and then her lips, softly, with the tip of his finger.’ The last sentence makes it clear that this praise of O’s beauty comes, not from Sir Stephen, but either from the narrator or—and this is the more likely and more psychologically interesting alternative—from O herself, as an expression of her own desire.

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

O is the central figure of the narrative in more than one sense. We are immediately struck by the use of a single letter to denote her identity. This usage has a long tradition in European literature and functions almost always playfully to arouse curiosity or else to conceal the identity of real people, but also on a symbolic level, to suggest the character and function of the actant in question. This is the case in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie, in which ‘A…’, the most open vowel of the French language, points obliquely to the eroticism and sexual ambiguity of the role of the woman it denotes. In Réage’s text, O, vowel neither fully open nor fully closed, suggests the pout of a Bardot, of an O constantly accessible to the other’s desire, but given neither wholly nor immediately to anyone.

Writer of O, by Pola Rapaport

This vowel above all reflects the holes of the female body, that open so many times in a narrative in which the permanent availability of this body is constantly demanded. Like the holes of her body—of her mouth, her vagina, penetrated by all, her anus, torn by Sir Stephen, reserved for him alone—the cupola and its columns against which O is whipped, the very ropes and chains that bind her, the iron rings attached to her loins, the iron bracelets that keep her fast as she is beaten, all of these circles seem to reproduce recursively the single letter of her identity, the void waiting to be filled.

Histoire d’O illustrated by Leonor Fini

A material shape that reproduces itself incessantly in this perforated text, O is at the same time and above all the abstract metaphor, the non-material symbol of the structures of the narrative. This shape is to be found in the closed circle of initiates who visit Roissy to serve or to be serviced; in the circle of pleasure or voyeurism formed by the relations between the characters. A scopic network links all the characters to O, eye that looks and is looked at. This voyeuristic network reflects itself ironically in certain details of the narrative: Anne-Marie, voyeur par excellence, lives near the Observatory; and there is the statue that O ‘had seen as a child in the Luxembourg Gardens, bending forward, gazing at her reflection in a spring’.

O is the question mark that persists in the mind of any reader whom the work of Sacher-Masoch fails to move: why suffer, why consent to pain? A question mark that repeats itself recursively in the suspension marks of an ending that may not be the real ending. This question mark hangs above almost every aspect of the narrative, especially the identity of the female protagonist on a psychological and sexual level.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Susan Sontag [in ‘The Pornographic Imagination’] is sensitive to the complexity of O: ‘O’ suggests a cartoon of her sex, not her individual sex but simply woman; it also stands for the void, a vacuity, a nothing. But what Story of O unfolds is a spiritual paradox, that of the full void and of the vacuity that is also a plenum. The power of the book lies exactly in the anguish stirred up by the continuing presence of this paradox. ‘Pauline Réage’ raises, in a far more organic and sophisticated manner than Sade does with his clumsy expositions and discourses, the question of the status of human personality itself. But whereas Sade is interested in the obliteration of personality from the viewpoint of power and liberty, the author of Story of O is interested in the obliteration of personality from the viewpoint of happiness.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Sontag identifies here O’s essential motivation: hers is the story, not of the suppression of a woman’s personality by others, but of the search by the woman herself for non-identity, or the non-entity known in familiar French as ‘nul’ (zero). The reasons for this quest are complex, stemming from a concept of happiness that to Sontag seems less phallocentric than Buddhist: ‘The “perfect submissiveness” that her original lover, and then Sir Stephen, demand of her seems to echo the extinction of the self explicitly required of a Jesuit novice or Zen pupil.’ Luce Irigaray seems to echo this idea, when she talks about the mystical discourse that for her is a privileged discourse of women. This discourse, says Irigaray in Spéculum de l’autre femme, stresses the loss of identity of the subject. As for O, the complete surrender of the mystical woman becomes the moment of her liberation. Elsewhere, and in another context, Irigaray envisions the woman’s ‘sexed body’ in the paradoxical terms of a zero that functions positively.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Admittedly, the letter O also suggests the sex object that the character consents to become: the possession of Sir Stephen, whose mark is branded on her body. Yet, her aspiration to self-effacement seems to have a quasi-religious motivation which comes from within rather than from outside herself. The desire to erase her conventional identity, to achieve the neutrality of a being without a specific polarity, a being existing in every sense ‘between life and death’, dictates her behaviour towards herself as well as towards others. ‘In manus tuas, Domine,’ O silently says to her lover, expressing a kind of spiritual death wish. For the writer, this is a widespread fantasy, resembling religious devotion: ‘Women want to be possessed, possessed completely, until death. What one seeks is to be killed. What else does the believer seek but to lose herself in God. It seems to me to be the height of ecstasy to have oneself killed by someone one loves. I cannot think otherwise.’ [Dominique Aury in O m’a dit, Régine Deforges]

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Religious imagery, indeed, abounds in the text. René is the ‘god’ to whom O must submit: ‘It seemed to her sacrilegious that her lover be on his knees when she ought to be on hers.’ | ‘Thus would he possess her as a god possessed his creatures’. | ‘O was happy René had had her whipped and prostituted because the pain and the shame of the lash, and the outrage inflicted upon her by those who forced her to pleasure when they took her and at the same time delighted in their own pleasure without concerning themselves for hers, seemed to her to be the very absolution of her sin. The baser, the viler she was, the more merciful was René to consent to make O the instrument of his pleasure.’

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

As Peter Michelson points out [in Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity], O’s will to self-effacement expresses and illustrates a deeply rooted human desire ‘to be free from oneself, to have the gratifications one associates with the self without the obligation of making the choices by which moral character and personality are defined’. Yet, O’s self-denial goes further than a simple yearning for an existential and moral vacuum; it also recalls the act of pure devotion of the Christian martyr. The very notion that love and pain are an inseparable pair, notion reinforced time and time again in the novel, is indeed a profoundly Christian one. The author has spoken of the influence of her Catholic upbringing and how this helped form her self-sacrificial tendencies. Significantly, the only word that Paulhan didn’t like in Aury’s text and which he insisted she change was the word ‘sacrificiel’.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

With regard to her own sexuality, O appears to waver between at least two identities. On the one hand, she is a sexual object, a feminine stereotype, madly in love with René to the point of abasement, a passive woman who desperately wants to be loved by a man, to be his sex toy. On the other hand, not only is she reluctant to accept all of the rules imposed upon her—she is never able to accept the rule that forbids her to look at the men directly—but her sexual desire certainly does not correspond to the male stereotype of female passivity; indeed, the lesbian in her is as dominant and as objectifying as the men who surround her. Jacqueline, for example, attracts her so strongly that she fantasizes about pinning her against the wall ‘like a butterfly pinned to the table’—the simile is aggressively phallic. Nor does she, in her relations with women, exhibit a stereotypically female fidelity rooted in emotion: ‘O was not so very much in love with Jacqueline, nor for that matter with Nathalie, nor with any girl in particular, but simply with girls because they were girls, the way one can be in love with one’s own image—always finding the others more arousing and lovelier than one finds one’s own self.’

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Michelson argues that O’s ‘need for love forces her into a masculine cosmos, where morality is defined by masculine power and desire’; in other words, that she comes to embody a phallic power which is characteristic of porn, since, as Stephen Marcus puts it, ‘The penis becomes the man: it does the thrusting and not the man; it is its own agent.’ While, on the surface, O is seen in her dealings with other young women to adopt a masculine role, this seems to me less because she is conforming to a male definition of the sexual than because she is quite simply drawn to act upon her desires in ways which we, in our culture, regard as male. In other words, it is not O herself but readers like Michelson who are guilty of stereotyping.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

The portrayal of O goes beyond mere phallicism to explore the complex psychological responses of a woman, caught between her love of René and her love of Sir Stephen, between her attraction to men and her attraction to women, between her sexual desires and her emotional needs. In every sense, O exists in between, as reflected in her bodily postures. Her complete disponibilité, symbolized by the parted knees, the absence of underclothes, the permanently open entrances of her body, is a vessel neither full nor empty, a form of anticipation. O, like the mouth that names her, is both rounded and extended, an O of anticipation, denoting a woman without fixed identity, whose freedom frightens her, whose sexuality is neutral or ‘white’ like the writing envisaged by Barthes—a degree zero of sexuality. Thus, in the end, O belongs neither to herself nor to anyone else: her body, shared by two men and two women, is in effect a no man’s land, a neutral zone occupied by two allies, but without any specific ownership or identity; the zero point of impersonal pleasure, of Anne-Marie’s, for example, ‘whereof O was the mere instrument’.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

From a Lacanian perspective, O is the expression in language of the condition of lack which all language represents, the expression of a desire that is never fulfilled. On an emotional level, O seems to find in Sir Stephen what she had not known with René: ‘O told herself that she had only loved René as a means for learning of love and for finding out how to give herself better, as a slave, as an ecstatic slave, to Sir Stephen’. Yet, one cannot help thinking that her quest for love will be as unending as ‘this iron ring which pierces her flesh and weighs eternally, this mark that will remain forever’, since her pleasure depends, not on knowing other, but on forgetting self, and total self-oblivion is only possible in death. O tries to destroy herself ‘to get to the very bottom of herself, to reach the absolute which life refuses to give her. One can only find the absolute in death.’. In the final tableau of the novel, O, it is true, does get close to death: dressed like an owl, dragged on a lead by the young Natalie, she is mute and no one speaks to her–she has finally achieved the degree zero of communication.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

O does not necessarily die, as we have seen, but her desire to reduce herself to zero is the most direct expression of the death drive which, for Bataille, accompanies all eroticism and which has strong links with the religious instinct. At the end of the novel, O exists by proxy, in the pleasure of others alone. What has died in her is her individual autonomy. In numerology, zero paradoxically represents both non-being and unity, its opposite. At the same time, however, zero has other positive symbolic meanings. It is also the ‘Orphic Egg’ (that is, ‘entrancing’ or ‘mysterious’); and finally, because of its circular form, the zero signifies eternity. In abolishing the Ego, in privileging Other over Self, O mirrors the point of infinity which the perfect circle of her name symbolically represents, signifier of a lack that accepts itself, and in so doing, becomes eternal. The pleasure that Sir Stephen finds in her knows no limit: ‘Would she ever dare tell him that no pleasure, no joy, nothing she even imagined ever approached the happiness she felt before the freedom wherewith he made use of her, before the idea that he knew there were no precaution, no limits he had to observe in the manner whereby he sought his pleasure in her body.’

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

O therefore also suggests the infinity of the imagination, not only of the character and writer of fiction, but of the occasionally perverse, rarely compliant reader. If this reader is a woman, for instance, she may resist identification with the masochistic side of O to focus instead upon her tacit acknowledgement that loveless sex, too, can be pleasurable. At a time when ‘respectable’ ladies didn’t talk about such things, such an implication must in retrospect be seen as a positive contribution to the sexual liberation of women.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

In pushing against the boundaries of female sexuality, in voicing the fantasies and anxieties of one woman for other women to recognise as their own, and, above all, in presenting these fantasies and anxieties in a form of some artistic complexity, Histoire d’O is one of the best modern examples of erotic writing. An ironic reflection of the scopic circle formed by text-character-reader-critic-author, a loop which takes us back to identity as dominant theme in this work, informing and animating its structural images, the letter O is not only the focal point of the novel, but also the egg from which its symbolic structures emerge. It is this artistic exploration of a feminine psychology that makes Histoire d’O literature as well as pornography.

‘Story of O is a fairy tale for another world which now only exists between pages of print.
It was a book by an unknown woman, and I am amazed beyond belief that I was she.’


Forbidden Fictions

Sade, Justine, Translation


Angie David, biographer

Edith Thomas, friend

Régine Deforges, interviewer


Translator of Mishima

Translator of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Editor of Religious Poetry


Part Five Chapter 18

Have you seen Leonor Fini’s illustrations for Historie d’O? ‘Illustrations’ is hardly the word—they’re more like a visual echo of the text, dark-coloured washes over lithographed pen-and-ink drawings. Very evocative, but far removed from my own fantasy when reading Réage’s love letter. I do like Fini’s eroticism, though.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Anyway, once you know that Molly is as American as apple pie, you won’t be surprised to learn that when I told her how much I love O, she showered me with pearls of PC, such as ‘Dominique Aury is an agent of patriarchy, reinforcing the myth of woman-as-victim, wallowing in woman’s degradation’!

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

When she’d finished ranting against this ‘unspeakable image of women’, I simply said, ‘Imagine how bland sex would be if we had no fantasies of power and surrender’.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Can you guess what she did next? She said, ‘You’re perverse, Marietta’. And then she came over and sat on the arm of my chair and tried to kiss me! I pushed her away—graciously—for how could she have known that it was only you I wanted?

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968

Part Five Chapter 12

Again, as soon as Jürgen pushes open the street door, you enter a world of half light, cool and calm; again, you walk up the six flights of stairs beside him, hand-in-hand. In the dim front room, as you pass the bookcase, you notice a leather-bound volume: Die Geschichte der O. What could that be about? you wonder.

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O, 1968


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

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L’Amant | L’homme assis

Pornographic Imagination

Eroticism, Pornography, Obscene


Story of O

Mara Marietta