It’s easy to see why the Story of O was controversial and scandalous. It is a sexually graphic, sadomasochistic novel that was published under a pseudonym in the 1950s. For decades readers and critics speculated on the author’s identity and debated the meaning of the novel. And then, in 1994 a British journalist revealed the author’s identity, a French woman named Dominique Aury. That Aury, a refined, professional woman, could write such a novel only fueled the controversy.
Discrediting most theories about the book, Aury claimed the novel was simply a response to a challenge. She wrote the book when Jean Paulhan, her married lover who was a fan of the Marquis de Sade, claimed women couldn’t write erotica. Aury set out to prove him wrong and the result was the Story of O. Aury didn’t intend to publish the book but wanted to write her version of a love letter in which she played on the fantasies of Paulhan and the unfounded beliefs that women didn’t share those fantasies.
In short, the book is about O, a French woman who is brought to Roissy, a chateau-like brothel, by her lover René. There she is trained to sexually serve the members of an elite group of men.
After training that involves gang rape, sodomy, bondage and flagellation, she is reunited with René, who promptly gives her to Sir Stephen. Eventually O falls in love with Sir Stephen and agrees to become his, meaning she consents to being branded (literally) and pierced with his insignia. As his property, she is expected to succumb to him and his friends at any time. When Sir Stephen decides she needs more training he takes her to Samois, where she is sexually and physically abused and mutilated to become a better servant. Despite her complete subservience, she is abandoned by both René and Sir Stephen. In the end O realizes she is about to be abandoned and asks Sir Stephen if she can commit suicide and he consents.
Obviously the Story of O is criticized as misogynistic. It’s true O doesn’t seem empowered. She is never in control of her situations. She is told how to dress, bathe, sit, sleep, eat and talk. She is expected to succumb to anyone her owner chooses. “At the first word or sign from anyone you will drop whatever you are doing and ready yourself for what is really your one and only duty: to lend yourself.” In the end she is abandoned and suicidal because her owners no longer find her valuable.
But ultimately it is O who controls the pleasure of the men she serves. It’s control by servitude. To her, it isn’t abuse, it’s pleasure. She admits the restraint, “which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.” She finds value and dignity in what most people consider degrading and oppressive. “That she should have been ennobled and gained in dignity through being prostituted was a source of surprise, and yet dignity was indeed the right term.”
At possibly the lowest point of the book, O has an epiphany in which “she has finally come to accept as an undeniable and important verity …. She liked the idea of torture, but when she was being tortured herself she would have betrayed the whole world to escape it, and yet when it was over she was happy to have gone through it, happier still if it had been especially cruel and prolonged.” To her it is no different from Christians serving a vengeful God. She “considered herself fortunate to count enough in his eyes for him to derive pleasure from offending her, as believers give thanks to God for humbling them.”
I found the book alternately repulsive and compelling. It’s graphic but the writing is succinct and graceful, almost elegant. Yes, there are passages that will make you blush. And passages that will make you grimace. If you finish it, you will probably feel a little dirty. It may not be an enjoyable read but it’s certainly an interesting one. Truth be told, it was hard to put down.
If you read the book, I highly recommend the documentary the Writer of O. It uses interviews, film footage and movie clips to give context to the book and its controversy, and I think it fosters a greater appreciation of the book and its author. Its depiction of Aury is sympathetic and favorable, and if the documentary is to be trusted I believe she truly set out to write a passionate story for her lover and was surprised by the fervor that resulted. Even though the interview was many years ago, what she says is provocative and relevant today: “When a woman writes an erotic book, it’s an outright scandal. I feel that, underlying that, this kind of judgment is an absurd esteem for female morality. Women are as immoral as men, period. No one seems to have noticed that.”