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This is an extract from the typescript draft of The Sadeian Woman, a long essay by Angela Carter that interprets the works of the Marquis de Sade, providing a critique of pornography, power and the cultural determinism of gender and sexuality. The Marquis de Sade was an 18th-century French aristocrat notorious for his pornographic, graphically violent writings, which were produced from jail while he was serving 27 years of imprisonment.
Published in 1979, The Sadeian Woman was controversial for suggesting that de Sade ‘put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women’. Unlike other pornographers, Carter argues, de Sade disrupted dominant ideology, being one of few to claim the ‘rights of free sexuality for women, and in installing women as beings of power in his imaginary worlds’. De Sade does not tie sex to reproduction; characters such as Juliette act on her own sexual desires. Carter proposes de Sade as a possible ‘moral pornographer’ – ‘an artist’ who ‘might use pornography as a critique of the current relation between the sexes’.
Like other scholars, Carter also frames de Sade as a political writer of the Enlightenment. In this context, De Sade’s pornographic writing is an expression of the corruption of force and power within a repressive society.
At the time, some critics failed to appreciate that Carter’s essay does not endorse or sympathise with the horrendous violence, sadism and misogyny found within de Sade’s writings. Carter was interested in using de Sade’s work, which provides an unusual representation of sexual freedom, as a model for thinking about sexuality and oppression within her contemporary culture. The Sadeian Woman is therefore an important work to compare with Carter’s fiction, such as The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, published in the same year.