Les Liaisons dangereuses

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Dangerous Liaisons
Illustration from 1796 edition
AuthorPierre Choderlos de Laclos
Original titleLes Liaisons dangereuses
TranslatorP. W. K. Stone
IllustratorJean-Honoré Fragonard
GenreEpistolary novel, libertine novel
PublisherDurand Neveu
Publication date
March 23, 1782
Media typePrint (Paperback)

Les Liaisons dangereuses (French: [le ljɛzɔ̃ dɑ̃ʒ(ə)ʁøz]; English: Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782.

It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two amoral lovers-turned-rivals who amuse themselves by ruining others and who ultimately destroy each other.

It has been seen as depicting the corruption and depravity of the French nobility shortly before the French Revolution, and thereby attacking the Ancien Régime despite having been written nearly a decade prior to those events. The author aspired to "write a work which departed from the ordinary, which made a noise, and which would remain on earth after his death".

As an epistolary novel, the book is composed of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise make up the majority of the plot, along with those of Cécile de Volanges and Madame de Tourvel.

It has been adapted multiple times, including the successful 1985 play and subsequent award-winning 1988 film adaptation.

Plot summary[edit]

The Marquise de Merteuil is determined to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges, whose mother has only recently brought her out of a convent to be married—to Merteuil's previous lover, who has discarded her rudely. At the same time the notorious Vicomte de Valmont is determined to seduce the virtuous, married, and therefore inaccessible Madame de Tourvel, who is staying with his aunt while her husband is away on a court case. Cécile falls in love with the Chevalier Danceny (her young music tutor), and Merteuil and Valmont pretend to help the secret lovers in order to gain their trust and manipulate them later to benefit their own schemes.

Illustration by Fragonard for Letter XLIV, 1796

Merteuil first suggests that the Vicomte should seduce Cécile in order to enact her revenge on Cécile's future husband but Valmont refuses, finding the challenge too easy and preferring to devote himself to seducing Madame de Tourvel. He is however interested in resuming their affair. Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof of seduction, she will spend the night with him. At first Valmont is able to convince Tourvel that he has turned over a new leaf, but he does not find it as easy as his many other conquests. During the course of his pursuit, Valmont discovers that Cécile's mother has written to Madame de Tourvel warning her about him. He avenges himself by seducing Cécile as Merteuil had suggested. Meanwhile, Merteuil takes Danceny as her lover.

By the time Valmont has succeeded in seducing Madame de Tourvel, he seems to have fallen in love with her. Jealous, Merteuil tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel—and reneges on her promise of spending the night with him. In retaliation, Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, leaving Merteuil abandoned yet again. Merteuil declares war on Valmont and reveals to Danceny that Valmont has seduced Cécile.

Danceny and Valmont duel, and Valmont is fatally wounded. Before he dies, he gives Danceny the letters proving Merteuil's own involvement. These letters are sufficient to ruin her reputation so she flees to the countryside, after she contracts smallpox. Her face is left permanently scarred and she is rendered blind in one eye, so she loses her greatest asset: her beauty. Desperate with guilt and grief, Madame de Tourvel succumbs to a fever and dies, while Cécile returns to the convent, dishonoured.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Les Liaisons dangereuses is celebrated for its exploration of seduction, revenge and malice, presented in the form of fictional letters collected and published by a fictional author. The book was viewed as scandalous at the time of its publication, though the real intentions of the author remain unknown. It has been suggested that Laclos's intention was the same as that of his fictional author in the novel; to write a morality tale about the French nobility of the Ancien Régime. The theory has been questioned on several grounds; Laclos enjoyed the patronage of France's most senior aristocratLouis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. All the characters in the story are aristocrats, including the virtuous ones like Madame de Tourvel and Madame de Rosemonde and many royalist and conservative figures enjoyed the book, including Queen Marie Antoinette, which suggests that—despite its scandalous reputation—it was not viewed as a political work until the French Revolution made it appear as such, with the benefit of hindsight.

Wayland Young notes that most critics have viewed the work as

... a sort of celebration, or at least a neutral statement, of libertinism... pernicious and damnable... Almost everyone who has written about it has noted how perfunctory are the wages of sin..."[1]

He argues that

... the mere analysis of libertinism… carried out by a novelist with such a prodigious command of his medium... was enough to condemn it and play a large part in its destruction.[1]

In a well-known essay on Les Liaisons dangereuses, which has often been used as a preface to French editions of the novel, André Malraux argues that, despite its debt to the libertine tradition, Les Liaisons dangereuses is more significant as the introduction of a new kind of character in French fiction. Malraux writes that the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are creations "without precedent"; they are "the first [in European literature] whose acts are determined by an ideology".[2]

Les Liaisons dangereuses is a literary counter-thesis to the epistolary novel as exemplified by Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Whereas Richardson uses the technique of letters to provide the reader with a feeling of knowing the protagonist's true and intimate thoughts, Laclos' use of this literary device is the opposite: by presenting the reader with grossly conflicting views from the same writer when addressing different recipients, it is left to the reader to reconcile story, intentions and characters behind the letters. The use of duplicitous characters with one virtuous face can be viewed as a complex criticism of the immensely popular naïve moral epistolary novel.


The novel has been adapted into various media, under many different names.

Live performance[edit]




  • David Nixon, currently artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds, choreographed a ballet version of Dangerous Liaisons, with music by Vivaldi. It was first performed as part of a mixed program entitled "David Nixon's Liaisons" at the Hebbel Theatre, Berlin in 1990. He subsequently reworked it for BalletMet, with the premier taking place in the Ohio Theatre on May 2, 1996.
  • In 2003, English National Ballet commissioned choreographer Michael Corder and composer Julian Philips to create a new full-length ballet based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The project was cancelled before it came to the stage, and the full score has yet to be premiered. Julian Philips later adapted a section of the ballet as his chamber orchestral work Divertissement (2004).
  • In 2008, the Alberta Ballet performed a ballet version of Dangerous Liaisons.[4]
  • In 2014, the Czech National Theatre Ballet produced Valmont, choreographer Libor Vaculík's adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, featuring music by Schubert and Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.[5]
  • In 2019, Queensland Ballet premiered their new production of Dangerous Liaisons,[6] choreographed by Liam Scarlett and featuring music by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Recorded and printed media[edit]



  • A Factory of Cunning (2005), a fictionalized sequel by Philippa Stockley. It tells how the Marquise de Merteuil faked her death of smallpox and escaped to England with a new identity.
  • Dangerous Tweets (2013), the entire novel adapted into tweets (one tweet per letter) in English as an iBook.
  • Unforgivable Love (2017), a novel by Sophfronia Scott and a retelling of the story set in 1940s Harlem with an African-American cast of characters.
  • Where The Vile Things Are (November 2021), a novel by Marcus James, is a humorous modernization of the 1782 novel, each letter faithfully adapted in emails, DMs, and hand-written letters. The novel deals with homophobia, misogyny, privilege and fake "wokeness", and the rise of the alt-right during the 2016 presidential elections.[7]



  • An eight-part adaptation of the novel was broadcast as BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour Drama" (20–30 July 1992). It starred Juliet Stevenson, Samuel West, Melinda Walker, Diana Rigg, and Roger Allam.
  • A two-part presentation of Christopher Hampton's play by BBC World Service in 1998. It starred Ciarán Hinds (Vicomte de Valmont), Lindsay Duncan (Marquise de Merteuil), and Emma Fielding (Mme. de Tourvel). It won the Grand Award for Best Entertainment Program at the New York Radio Festival.
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses: an Audible Original is a 2016 radio play starring the cast of that year's London Stage production.


  1. ^ a b Young, 1966, p. 246
  2. ^ See the discussion in Derek Allan, 'Les Liaisons dangereuses through the eyes of André Malraux', Journal of European Studies. Vol. 42 (2), June 2012 Archived 2015-09-15 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Brantley, Ben (30 October 2016). "Review: 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' Uses Sex as a Weapon". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  4. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons". albertaballet.com. Alberta Ballet. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16.
  5. ^ National Theatre Ballet (Prague), Valmont Archived 2016-07-01 at the Wayback Machine, 2014.
  6. ^ "Season 2019". Queensland Ballet. Retrieved Oct 7, 2020.
  7. ^ "MarcusJamesBooks". MarcusJamesBooks. Retrieved 2022-04-11.


  • Young, Wayland (1964). Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society. New York: Grove. ISBN 1-125-40416-7.
  • Diaconoff, Suellen (1979). Eros and power in Les Liaisons dangereuses: a study in evil. Geneva: Droz.

External links[edit]