120 Days of Sodom (1785)
Four wealthy men retreat to the Chateau de Silling, a brothel located in an isolated eighteenth-century German castle. When they arrive, four madams share their many experiences with men that range from nonpenetrating sexual fetishes to violent encounters. The four men re-enact what they have just heard on the prostitutes of the castle, torturing and killing them. This isn’t a horror movie; it’s the plot of 120 Days of Sodom by the French nobleman the Marquis de Sade.
While the author describes horrific sex acts in graphic detail, he insists that the reader should not condemn the story because everyone disagrees on what should be considered “erotic.” The Marquis de Sade’s works are well-known for their sexual violence, using his own life experiences as inspiration. In 1785, French officials arrested the Marquis de Sade for assaulting prostitutes; while he was sitting in the Bastille, he wrote 120 Days of Sodom on a scroll of papers smuggled into his cell.
In early July 1789, after he created a disturbance, his jailers transferred him to Charenton Insane Asylum, but he didn’t have time to grab his manuscript. A few weeks later, on July 14, 1789, a French mob stormed the Bastille, initiating the French Revolution; the Marquis was devastated, reflecting afterward that he wept “tears of blood” at the loss of his manuscript. The scroll was later discovered, hidden in the walls of his cell.
The novel had its supporters despite its disturbing content of sexual violence. A Berlin psychiatrist anonymously published it in 1904, believing it was a critical study on sexual fetishes. In the 1950s, feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir reacted negatively to the French government’s plans to burn the original manuscript, analyzing the importance of the Marquis de Sade for highlighting man’s capability for evil. Some modern scholars identify 120 Days of Sodom as a satire of the Enlightenment works of the period that emphasize man’s virtues.
The French eventually accepted the Marquis de Sade’s contributions to French literature, declaring the original scroll a national treasure after years of legal struggle for ownership of the manuscript in 2017. Through 120 Days of Sodom, and his other works that explore the connection between sexual pleasure and violence, the Marquis de Sade’s name has served as the inspiration for sadism, the term used to designate sexual pleasure achieved through violence.