Posted on September 18, 2015
34. ‘Story of O’ by Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos)
I’ve been wanting to read real, quality erotica ever since I first picked up Fifty Shades and found myself appalled. Surely, I thought, there must be far far better in this genre? Surely there must be something that could even be considered art? Yes, it is Story of O.
O is a French woman. We never learn her full name – she is known only as O – but the entire book is told from her point of view. She has a lover, René, who takes her to a strange house in Roissy where she is passed from masked man to masked man, to be tied up and beaten and fucked. After she leaves the house (to which she knows she will return), she is given a ring so that her status as a submissive will be recognised by anybody who knows the symbol. René shares her with his brother, Sir Stephen, who eventually takes over ‘ownership’ of her entirely. Her love for René fades and is replaced by a fierce obsession with Sir Stephen.
O is at once deeply passionate and also somewhat removed from everything that is happening to her. Even as she is being dressed in clothes designed for easy accessibility, or being chained to a bed, or having her labia pierced so can wear irons bearing Sir Stephen’s initials, she remains somehow distant, as though she is watching everything happening to her from far away. The tone is detached (and wonderfully so, the language is flowing and beautiful). This puts the reader in the strange position of being inside her head, but also outside of it. For example, at one point the men “heard her beg to be let loose”. She’s our narrator, she could have described the unbearable pain, told us that she wanted more than anything to be unbound, but she doesn’t. We hear it from the men’s perspective and that makes it feel a little less concrete, a little more like a performance that she is putting on for them.
The notion of choice is absolutely crucial to this book, especially because O describes some of her experiences as rape – that is an emotionally charged word and the use of it could imply that this entire book is about the exploitation of a vulnerable woman. But the reality is a lot more complex than that. O fundamentally does have a choice – she can walk away from these men and this life at any time and they will not try to stop her. On the other hand, she is a slave to her emotions. There is never any question that she will leave because she loves first René and then Sir Stephen too much. I think the real essence of this dilemma is revealed towards the end of the book, when the men are compared to gods for their power over her and the love she feels for them. Gods hold the ultimate power over our lives, they can raise us to ecstasy or torture us unbearably, and yet we love them. If O chooses to worship her dominants as gods, what’s the difference? It’s as if, knowing that she will be at the whim of a temperamental power with a tendency towards cruelty anyway, she has allowed herself to choose which power it will be. A mortal one. Better the god you know.
All of these experiences change O. She starts out as a fairly quiet, reserved woman who has sexual fantasies in her head, and flourishes into someone ‘wanton’ who acts on her impulses, particularly with women. At the beginning she enjoys women at a distance and wants to have sex with them (one in particular). By the end she has spent so many hours sexually satisfying this woman that she seems almost bored by it. Story of O essentially follows the transformation of a woman into an object, but a woman who has taken every step of the journey with her eyes open (albeit clouded by love). By the end she fully has surrendered herself to being a source of pleasure to others.
This is a complex, sometimes discomforting but ultimately rewarding read. This is erotica that will challenge you and arouse you. And it beats the hell out of Fifty Shades any day of the week.
“…for she had felt it as an insult, the scornful manner in which Jacqueline had eyed this condition of a branded and flogged slave, this condition whereof O was proud.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.