The 120 Days of Sodom Marquis de Sade

Oct 25, 2014 review (read between Sep 16, 2014 – Oct 25, 2014)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

The way I choose the books I read utilizes a mix of taking personal recommendations from fellow readers, going through and cherry-picking from reading lists of interest, and adding books I know nothing about to my Amazon wishlist after seeing it mentioned enough times on the internet. The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade got on my shelf via the third method.

All I knew about the book was that it was infamous for whatever reason, and that its author’s name is where the terms sadist and sadism stem from. “Enjoyment/pleasure from inflicting pain or humiliation”? And the word for this is coined from this guy’s name? Well, there are plenty of people who are into S&M, right? And that’s just a matter of preference, and those people are free to exercise whatever pleases them as long as there’s mutual consent, right?

Right. Well, there’s very little mutual consent involved 120 Days. It also takes whatever preconceived notion of ‘sadism’ I had in my head and blows it out of the fucking water.

Let me lay out the groundwork of the book here. The story takes place in France in the 18th century, and primarily revolves around four stupidly wealthy and powerful men, their four daughters, four prostitutes, and eight young girls and eight young boys. There are other parties involved as well, but they receive little mention in comparison.

The introductory section of the book is a storm of information that really sets the tone of things to come. It begins by describing the four men: the Duc de Blangis, the Bishop (the Duc’s brother), the President de Curval, and Durcet. They are all libertines in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, who rose to power via very illicit and brutal ways, with matching lifestyles to boot. Descriptions include the size of their members, sexual preferences and appetites, and all the family members they’ve killed. They all share a common disdain for women, and their opinions on this matter are voiced frequently. You can tell that they’re a real swell bunch (they are referred to as both heroes and villains by Sade). Next described are their four unfortunate daughters, all in their teenage or early adult years. They’re described as being beautiful with gentle and virtuous hearts (with the exception of one, described as being ‘whorish’, but she’s an exception to the rule). Apparently the fathers had the great idea of marrying their daughters off to one another so they could sexually abuse them (own daughters included) to their hearts’ content. How ingenious.

After getting bored of raping their daughters for a few years, they decide to sojourn for four months at a remote castle where they can really let loose. The key component of this venture is to have tales of debauchery narrated to them in detail, as ‘the sensations communicated by the organs of hearing are the most flattering and those impressions are the liveliest.’ Basically they wanted to hear stories of debauchery, imagine them, and act on them. So enter the four experiences prostitutes who are to act as the storytellers. They’re all in their 40s and 50s, and were all chosen for the debauchery they’ve committed during their long careers. They all have sordid backgrounds and minds, and have committed heinous acts to rival even the four hero-villains, and are complicit in the crimes to come. For additional victims, they find eight girls and eight boys (all virgins) to take with them to the castle. By ‘find’ I mean that they employ kidnappers to scour the country and kidnap (often utilizing murder) beautiful girls and handsome boys between the ages of 12 and 15 from families of stature. They kidnap 153 girls and 150 boys, and the four hero-villains scrutinize each and every one of them over a period of several days to narrow down their selection to eight of each. Any imperfection deemed by any of the hero-villains means disqualification. Disqualification means that they’re sold to distant slavers and whorehouses, which is, ironically, arguably a better fate than what awaits the 16 who go to the castle. To help the hero-villains carry out their crimes, they also employ eight men who are chosen for their massive penises (at a later point the Duc’s penis is described as being half the width of one of the young girls’ pelvis… and each of these ‘fuckers’ penises was supposed to rival the Duc’s), inexhaustible stamina, and amount of semen produced (apparently they measured). They are given the title ‘fuckers.’ They also employ four elder women chosen for their ugliness to contrast the beautiful and handsome captives. They are initially there to watch over the other victims, but ultimately become victims themselves. Some maids and cooks are also brought along, but do not play a pivotal role in the story.

Also described are the castle they are staying at, as well as their day to day schedules. As with everything else, both have had an incredible amount of attention given to them. Every day involves copious amounts of sex, and the castle has been designed to facilitate various heinous activities. Wonderful. And that’s just the introduction. 60 pages. Short and sweet.

And that’s where the things start to get really unnerving. The rest of the book goes through each of the 120 days, in some form or another. The first 30 days are the only ones fleshed out and written with painstaking detail. The remaining 90 only exist as a numbered list. What do these lists contain? Well, the four hero-villains basically employed the four storyteller-prostitutes to narrate 150 stories each. 150 stories of the debauches they have taken part in or witnessed. The 150 stories are told over a period of one month, so four to five stories a day. The first 150 stories are of the ‘Simple Passions.’ None of them involve sexual penetration, but they are depraved tales of individuals who enjoy ejaculating on others, drinking the urine of others, eating the feces of others, and so on. The stories are told in a small amphitheater with four alcoves. Each of the hero-villains has an alcove to himself, and are accompanied by one of the wives, one of the fuckers, two of the young girls, and two of the young boys. They are free to do anything but take the virginity of the young girls and boys until the stories warrant them. And even then, they have some crazy schedule for when, who, and by whom. It even involves a wedding and ceremony because, hell, they have a bishop, so why the hell not?

Honestly, while the introduction was difficult to read, it was more because it was an information dump, combined with the feeling of dread and disdain of things to come for the poor victims. The ‘Part the First’ was difficult to read because Sades goes into incredible detail about the acts I found disagreeable (coprophagia, especially, is not my cup of tea). I could only read 30-40 pages at a time, before having to put the book down for the day.

But hey, it only gets worse from there.

As I mentioned, the remaining 120 days are more of a list. This is because Sades wrote the manuscript in 37 days while in prison. I guess he never got around to finishing the book, but the manuscript contains at minimum a line on each of the remaining 450 stories, and the fetish (if you can call it that) described. I figured the lists would be easier and faster to read, but I quickly found out that with each month the stories get more severe, brutal, and uncomfortable to read. With each passing month, the safety of the victims in both the recounted stories and in the castle deteriorate rapidly. By the last month, the stories involve the murder of victims in the most elaborate and painful ways possible. I actually think Sades had a soft part for this section, because all of a sudden his notes for each of the stories go from simple one or two line summaries to multi-paragraph descriptions. They’re quite imaginative, to say the least. Also incredibly disturbing. Even more disturbing are the fates of the poor victims in the castle. As I mentioned previously, the hero-villains are free to reproduce the acts from the stories as they desire, and they often do so with their own sinister embellishments.

I can’t recommend this book to anyone, yet I don’t think I would try to dissuade anyone from reading it. It’s a depressing and disturbing book, and it’s made me more upset and uncomfortable than any other book I’ve ever read, yet it’s fascinating in its own right. When he wrote the manuscript, Sades was in prison for the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes (similar acts are recounted in the second month of the 120 days); the man was a clearly a libertine himself, and apparently ‘wept tears of blood’ when he believed that the manuscript was lost. What was he thinking as he wrote? Was it basically his wishlist? His darkest fantasies? Do his other books also depict such brutality? There’s only one thing I can say for certain after reading The 120 Days of Sodom, and it’s that Sades must have had a sick, maligned imagination to be able to come up some of those stories.