Story of O
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Histoire d'O (English title: Story of O) is an erotic novel about female submission and ultimate sexual objectification published anonymously in 1954 by French author Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Réage. Desclos did not reveal herself to be the author until shortly before her death, forty years after its initial publication. Desclos said that she had written the novel as a series of love letters to her lover Jean Paulhan who admired the work of the Marquis de Sade.
Published in French, by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, it is the archetypical sadomasochistic story of about a beautiful Parisian fashion photographer, O, who is blindfolded, chained, whipped, branded, pierced, made to wear a mask, and taught to be constantly available for oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse.
O's lover, René, brings her to the chateau of Roissy, where she is trained to serve the men of an elite group. After that, O moves through a series of increasingly harsh masters, from René to Sir Stephen to the Commander. At the climax, O appears as a slave, nude but for an owl-like mask, before a large party of guests.
A critical view of the novel is that it is about the ultimate objectification of a woman. The heroine of the novel has the shortest possible name, consisting solely of the letter O. Although this is in fact a shortening of the name Odile, it could also stand for "object" or "orifice", an O being a symbolic representation of any "hole". See manque.
Borgesian elements in Story of O
The Story of O betrays its ‘literary fiction’ (as opposed to genre fiction) antecedents by a metafictional streak; the novel has an alternative beginning and ending and secretively mentions a “a final chapter, which has been suppressed”. Borgesian postmodernism avant la lettre!
After the novel is two pages underway the narrator steps in and announces:
- “Another version of the same beginning was simpler and more direct: the young woman, dressed in the same way [as in the first opening of the story], was driven by her lover and an unknown friend.”
Likewise, the author provides an alternative ending which is rather macabre:
- “In a final chapter, which has been suppressed, O returned to Roissy, where she was abandoned by Sir Stephen."
- "There exists a second ending to the story of O, according to which O, seeing that Sir Stephen was about to leave her, said she would prefer to die. Sir Stephen gave her his consent.”
Also, in the opening paragraphs of the novel:
- "HER LOVER one day takes O for a walk in a section of the city where they never go - the Montsouris Park, the Monceau Park."
Sequel: Retour à Roissy
A sequel was published in 1969 in French, again with Jean-Jacques Pauvert, éditeur, Retour à Roissy (Return to Roissy, but often translated as Return to the Chateau, Continuing the Story of O). It was published again by Grove Press, Inc., in 1971. It is not known whether this work is by the same author as the original.
After a few reluctant rejections from publishers, Story of O was finally published quietly in June 1954 by Jean-Jacques Pauvert. The first edition had a print-run of only 600 copies, but it has since sold millions and hasn't been out of print for nearly 50 years.
In February 1955, it won the French literature prize Prix des Deux Magots, although this did not prevent the French authorities bringing obscenity charges against the publisher. The charges were rejected by the courts, but a publicity ban was imposed for a number of years. The prose style is terse, simple, and blunt. Rhetorical devices are avoided, although several levels of symbolism can be inferred.
It was published, at the same time, in English for Olympia Press by Maurice Girodias, a colleague of Pauvert's and a publisher of erotic books for sailors. Although the translation was very puritan, words were mis-translated and the author was not happy. It had been rushed through in less than three weeks as the publishers wanted to release both issues together.
The American edition is published in 1965 by Grove Press, as An Evergreen Black Cat Book, printed in the United States, and distributed by Random House, Inc., New York. Eliot Fremont-Smith (of the New York Times) called its publishing "a significant event."
The rest of Europe and the world?
The author used a pen name, then later revealed herself under another pen name, before finally, prior to her death, revealing her true identity. Her lover Jean Paulhan wrote the preface as if he didn't know who wrote the book. The translator of the Ballantine edition (US) attributed her skillful translation to being a woman, but it turns out that Sabine D'Estree is actually Richard Seaver.
Jean Paulhan, who was the author's lover and the person to whom she wrote Story of O in the form of love letters, wrote the preface, "Happiness in Slavery". Paulhan admired the Marquis de Sade's writing and told Desclos that a woman could not write in a similar fashion. Desclos interpreted this as a challenge and wrote the book. Paulhan was so impressed that he sent it to a publisher. Interestingly, in the preface, Paulhan goes out of his way to appear as if he does not know who wrote the book. In one part he says, "But from the beginning to end, the story of O is managed rather like some brilliant feat. It reminds you more of a speech than of a mere effusion; of a letter rather than a secret diary. But to whom is the letter addressed? Whom is the speech trying to convince? Whom can we ask? I don't even know who you are. That you are a woman I have little doubt." (xxiv). Paulhan also explains his own belief that the themes in the book depict the true nature of women. At times, the preface (when read with the knowledge of the relationship between Paulhan and the author), seems to be a continuation of the conversation between them.
Discussing the ending, Paulhan states, "I too was surprised by the end. And nothing you can say will convince me that it is the real end. That in reality (so to speak) your heroine convinces Sir Stephen to consent to her death".
One critic has seen Paulhan's essay as consistent with other themes in his work, including Paulhan's interest in erotica, his "mystification" of love and sexual relationships , and a view of women that is arguably sexist.
In popular culture
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot wanted to adapt the novel to film for many years. It was eventually adapted by director Just Jaeckin in 1975 as The Story of O, starring Corinne Clery and Udo Kier. The film met with far less acclaim than the book. It was banned in the United Kingdom by the British Board of Film Censors until February 2000.
In 1975, American director Gerard Damiano, well-known for Deep Throat (1972) (1973) created the movie The Story of Joanna, highly influenced by the Story of O, by combining the motifs from one of the book's chapters and from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
Graphic novels and photo books
- In 1975 it was adapted for comics by the Italian artist Guido Crepax.
- Doris Kloster, photographer, made an illustated version of story of O, published with Éditions de La Musardine.