Top critical review
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on 3 July 2012
Pauline Réage (a pseudonym) wrote this to demonstrate to her older male lover that a woman could write just as well as de Sade, in the same vein. So, in a sense, it's an intellectual exercise. It goes on too long and it is very repetitive, and the central philosophical/ethical ideas are tendentious, but it certainly succeeds in being disquieting. The main downside is that the characters are cardboard - we never really see what's inside the minds of the protagonists (except for their perversion, though this may be symbolical). Other readers may also agree with me that the increasing degradation and humiliation of the heroine - though she purports to accept them as a kind of liberation - are just too repetitive and go on too long, so that what starts as intriguing goes nowhere and becomes dismal and depressing. De Sade shows greater respect to women, demonstrates deeper thinking, and manages to be a lot more sexually stimulating as well (and if that's what you're looking for, I think you'll have to be un peu particulier to find it in 'O'!) But there's another side to this book: you could call it a metaphor for the human condition, and read with that in mind, it's probably one of the bleakest works ever written. Does it work on this level? The jury's out. Might it all be meant ironically? I doubt it - there's not a trace of humour in this, overt or implied.
By the way, you should get an edition which includes Une fille amoureuse & Retour à Roissy if you want more context.