Tag Archives: masochism

Submission and the Queering of Gender in Pauline Réage’s Story of O

10 Oct

In her preface to A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory Nikki Sullivan addresses the difficulty of defining the term ‘queer’ as it ‘has historically been used in a number of different ways’.[1] One interpretation is that it denotes a deviation from a cultural norm. Within a patriarchal society gender is a binary vision of dominant masculinity and a submissive femininity that serves to provide a passive medium upon which the male subject can exercise his desires. Female emancipation can therefore be perceived as queer since perversion within male dominated society has ‘long been associated with women taking power’[2]. Owing to the emergence of feminism the contemporary gender balance has become increasingly equitable and, following their history of subjugation, women have now become enfranchised. To a modern readership female sexual submission is therefore queer owing to its embodiment and re-enactment of anachronistic patterns of gender relation. Consequently, Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic classic Story of O can be termed queer owing to its depiction of regressive sexual practices of male domination and female submission: as Jeffreys notes, ‘S/M as a form of self-abuse [can be read]…as both the internalisation and the perpetuation of patriarchal violence.’[3]  However, it will be argued that whilst portraying sexual relationships which superficially depict male domination of a female object and ‘Other’, the novel proposes that a woman’s ostensible submission can in fact be a powerful form of resistance.

Through the establishment of a sadomasochistic subculture Pauline Réage’s male characters attempt to maintain the traditional gender binary, ensuring that the ‘dominant’ patriarchal agency remains unchallenged by the submissive ‘Other’. Through the enforcement of a strict disciplinary programme the men of Roissy attempt to eliminate the threat to their autonomy posed by female emancipation. Within the confines of the estate women exist only to serve the needs of a masculine agent and, due to their complete submission, the consummation of male desire is seemingly non-contingent:

he wanted her, right away, to unlock her knees and unfold her arms…she wasn’t opening her legs wide enough. The word open and the expression open your legs, when uttered by a lover would acquire in her mind such overtones of restiveness and of force that she never heard them without a kind of inward prostration, of sacred submission, as if they had emanated from a god, not from him.[4]

However, the project of Roissy extends beyond its walls, attempting to create an alternative masculinist culture within conventional society, as is evident in the manner of O’s dress following her departure:

[w]hat her lover wanted of her was simple: that she be constantly and immediately accessible…every obstacle had to be eliminated, and by her carriage and manner, in the first place, and in the second place by the clothing she wore, she would, as it were, signify her accessibility to those who knew what these signs implied.[5]

While the exact specification of dress is left to O’s discretion, the principle behind every aspect of her attire remains the unconditional fulfilment of masculine desire:

[a]s for her clothing, it was up to her to choose it and, if need be, to devise a costume which would render unnecessary that half-undressing he had submitted her to in the car while taking her to Roissy[6].

Gone were ‘all the slips she had whose upper part covered her breasts, all her blouses and dresses which didn’t open in front, any of her skirts which were too narrow to be raised instantly, with a single motion.’[7]

By reducing O to the status of a passive object with which to satisfy desire, sexual intercourse is transformed into an act of autoeroticism rather than a union between two volitional subjects. The men at Roissy enforce degradation upon O by branding, piercing and utilising her as a collection of orifices for the impersonal fulfilment of their desires. Consequently, O is no longer viewed as a single, integrated being who possesses free will but as a broken physical topography of discrete sections and surfaces. However, by deriving pleasure from sexual situations within which she is placed, rather than from a particular torturer, O mirrors the male usage of her physical form. While O’s torturers attempt to render her desires irrelevant, it is the enjoyment derived from her suffering that enables her to affirm each subsequent form of slavery to which she is subjected. Rather than forcing O to endure for their sexual gratification, the male characters instead become providers of the pleasure in pain that is the focus of O’s desire. O’s torture is therefore emancipating owing to her autoerotic enjoyment of her punishment, during which he who holds the whip is a mere facilitator of her pain.

Such irrelevance is exemplified by the anonymity and inter-changeability of the torturers. They are rendered arbitrary as ‘“[a]ll four had taken her and she had not been able to distinguish [René] from amongst the rest”’[8]. For the male subjects who attempt to form a stable identity through their domination of O, and accordingly through the coercion of her recognition, O’s indifference to the specificity of her torturer consequently poses a challenge to their autonomy:

[t]he effect we have on something or someone is a way of confirming our reality. If our acts have no effect on the other, or if the other refuses to recognize our act, we feel ourselves to be powerless.[9]

In this way, the master requires recognition from, and is therefore dependent upon, his slave as ‘[n]o subject can really extricate herself or himself from dependency on other subjects, from her or his need for recognition…she or he seeks autonomy by dominating the other person’[10]. The men who attempt to compel O’s recognition are destroyed, which concurs with Sartre’s formulation of Hegel’s master/slave dynamic as being a ‘deficiently actualized’[11] form of inter-subjectivity that is unable to engender true recognition…[and] the paradigm therefore becomes ultimately ‘self-subverting’[12].

Accordingly, O’s masochistic delight emphasises the failure of the masculine project of Roissy, which, while ostensibly striving for the physical satisfaction of male sexual desire, is in fact attempting to achieve a deeper form of intersubjective recognition. Because the sadist ‘requires evidence of others’ misery in order to feel pleasure in his own fortune, and is dependent on others for his status as master’[13], he is consequently lacking in autonomy. This causes a paradox in which the master becomes the slave owing to his dependence upon the person over whom he has domination. The slave consequently becomes the master:

[t]hough the sadist may consider himself or herself the cause of the masochist’s abject surrender, it is the masochist alone who determines the precise moment of complete submission.[14]

The sadist’s endeavour to appropriate another’s freedom fails when his victim chooses to be an object, as is demonstrated in O’s decision to be taken to Roissy and therein enslaved. Since she perceives herself from a subjective point of view and consequently is unable to be wholly objectified, O is ‘in Sartrean terms, a body and a consciousness in an independent situation’[15] which poses a threat to the male characters. Accordingly, when he takes her to Sir Stephen, René states ‘“[r]epeat it after me: “I belong to both of you, I will be what both of you want me to be”’.[16] While O is able to affirm that she will occupy the desired role of object, it is precisely owing to this consent, to this act of volition, that she will never provide the form of recognition which is required.

Accordingly, while O appears to have internalised patriarchal gender inequalities in justifying her submission through heterosexual love, by queering masochism the novel demonstrates that O’s submission subverts such a conception. When ‘devotion becomes masochistic, love becomes perverse’[17] and therefore ‘O’s idealistic attachment to René becomes displaced onto an erotic attachment to the performance of submission…rendering the persons who administer punishment increasingly peripheral.’[18] This is symptomatic of perceiving sadomasochism as a ‘deviation from the “normal” sexual aim that is heterosexual coitus and / or reproduction’[19], thereby creating ‘a sort of polymorphous perversity’[20] which enables the rethinking of ‘pleasure and / or sexuality in terms of one’s preference for “certain acts, certain zones and sensations.”’[21] Rather than yielding because she loves René, O instead chooses to submit because she derives pleasure from the pain. Krafft-Ebig’s study Psychopathia Sexualis describes how in masochism ‘“the individual affected, in sexual feelings and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; and of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused.”’[22] As the novel depicts, O is not drawn to one particular master but rather to the idea of mastery, as is captured in the repeated changes of the individual who administers punishment. The fallacy of O’s justification for submission through heterosexual love is accordingly highlighted, while the interchangeability of masculine torturers demonstrates the power that a submissive holds over their master.

This seeming inconsistency between the locus of ostensible and actual power is most evident in the fact that Sir Stephen requires O’s consent. Like René, Sir Stephen requests of O that she obeys his every command, rendering the fulfilment of his desire contingent upon O’s choice. Sir Stephen therefore becomes dependent upon O as the ‘Other’ whose acquiescence enables him to performatively define the boundaries of his subjectivity. However, it is the absence of contingency towards which Sir Stephen and the project of Roissy aspire, and by depending upon the consent of O and the other submissives they are unable to achieve complete autonomy from the ‘Other’. This accords with Butler’s paraphrasing of Beauvoir that ‘[t]he radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory’[23]. The apotheosis is reached when Sir Stephen realises his love for O, exposing to himself the illusory nature of his autonomy. The moment that Sir Stephen is unable to deny O’s subjectivity, or his dependence upon her, he discards her rather than admit his contingency.

Unlike Sir Stephen, whose subjectivity is undermined by the contingency of his desires, O is affirmed by her intersubjective need for another. This is captured through the image of the vaginal ‘O’ which envelopes the ‘Other’, as opposed to the closed circles of patriarchy which resist intrusion, symbolising the taboo of the heterosexual male sphincter. Accordingly, Roissy is described as a ‘closed circle’[24] and O’s identity as a slave is symbolised by the ‘ring of iron and gold she wore on her left hand’[25] and the similar ring which pierces her labia, denoting coercive masculine ownership and the trapping or penetration of the female form. However, unlike women within conventional society whose genitalia denies them Sartrean subjecthood[26], O, through her submission, is able to convert the supposed void at the heart of her sex into a masochistic affirmation of her unique subjectivity. In being penetrated, and in using that penetration to formulate a submissive, performative identity, which includes and integrates the ‘Other’, O is able to achieve a stable and affirmative intersubjectivity. Therefore, while her very name, O, denotes emptiness, it also signifies pleasure and orgasm and through this, the possibility of achieving a performative identity for both herself and for the ‘Other’ who enters the void space. Unlike Sir Stephen, by admitting that there is an absence within her that only an ‘Other’ can fill, O is able to transcend desire into intersubjectivity[27], achieving the stable, fulfilling identity which the men of Roissy never acquire.

Therefore, rather than simply excluding the feminine, the male characters attempt to reconcile the contradiction of appropriating O’s submissive subjectivity while maintaining the closed circle of phallocentric discourse that refuses to recognise the possibility of female agency. This stands in contrast to the two main strands of feminist thought regarding the place of woman within patriarchal society, in which subjectivity is granted to the male and denied to the female, as Judith Butler summarises in Gender Trouble:

[for Beauvoir] women are the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself; for Irigaray, that particular dialectic constitutes a system that excludes an entirely different economy of signification.[28]

Yet O’s achievement of a stable, integrated subjectivity through her performative submission – which is unavailable to the novel’s male characters – stands in contrast to both traditions. Unlike Beauvoir’s theorising of woman as negative and lack, and Irigaray’s positing of the closed, phallocentric signifying economy, it is precisely O’s presence, her intersubjective agency, which men attempt, and fail, to appropriate through the master/slave paradigm. Rather than absence or exclusion, for the men of Roissy, feminine flesh and submission is the constitutive material of their world, the point and purpose of their discussion, and the defining quality of a Domme’s performative identity. O’s very existence denies the closed phallocentric signifying economy, disproving the idea that personal identity is a product of masculine discourse.

Therefore, by asserting a queer sense of pleasure in submission, O achieves a performative identity which queers both feminist and patriarchal conventions of the possibility of female subjectivity. O’s acceptance of the void within her transforms desire into intersubjectivity and therefore she is able to reconcile the need for, and mediation of, the ‘Other’. This places her beyond the reach and understanding of conventional society, and accordingly she is unashamed when she is put on a leash and publicly displayed, leading guests to question whether she is human or instead ‘a thing of stone or wax’[29]. Owing to her queerness, O is ‘a creature of some other world’[30] in the sense that she transcends conventional gender boundaries, defeating both patriarchal and feminist strictures, and refusing to satisfy male desire, or to facilitate the achievement of the masculine conception of autonomy. By denying the absence within themselves, the male tormenters become the ‘O’, the nothingness, the void, vaginal space that is utilised in the sexual performance by which O constructs her identity. Unlike the failed existential project of Roissy, with its attempted enforcement of the Sartrean paradigm of subject/signifier object/signified[31], O achieves an authentic, and therefore queer, existence through the achievement of joy and transcendence in pain. The self-awareness and actualisation that she realises in masochism at Roissy allows O to define herself through her name, which, in enclosing a void space, and therefore allowing penetration, is thereby rendered complete and autonomous. Consequently, O is the ‘Other’, the illegible nothing who fails to accord with normative heterosexual or feminist definitions and as such forms a site of re-inscription of gender binaries. The terror that such emancipation would pose, both to masculinist and feminist orders, is symbolised in the novel’s alternative ending:

There existed another ending to the story of O. Seeing herself about to be left by Sir Stephen, she preferred to die. To which he gave his consent.[32]

It is human nature to destroy that which is feared, and to fear what is not understood, the queer and the transgressive.


[1] N. Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003) Preface v

[2] G. J. Rubinson, ‘On the Beach and Elsewhere’: Angela Carter’s Moral Pornography and the Critique of Gender Archetypes’ from C.L. Carlson, R.L. Mazzola and S.M. Bernado (eds.), Gender Reconstructions: Pornography and Perversions in Literature and Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2002) p.131

[3] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.158

[4] P. Réage, Story of O (London: Transworld Publishers, 1972) pp.76-7

[5] ibid, p.77

[6] ibid, p.78

[7] Réage, Story of O, p.78

[8] ibid, p.19

[9] J. Benjamin, ‘The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination’, p.151

[10] ibid, p.150

[11] R. Williams, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) p.10

[12] ibid, p.10

[13] C.J. Dean, The Self and its Pleasures: Bataille, Lacan, and the History of the Decentred Subject (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992) p.176

[14] D.R. Koukal, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature Vol. 34 (2001) pp.111-26 Retrieved from LION at 16:14 15/03/07 http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=R01607276&divLevel=0&queryId=../session/1173888875-62&trailId=110B6BBF249&area=abell&forward=critref-ft

[15] Koukal, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature

[16] Réage, Story of O, p.101

[17] J.K. Noyes, The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism (Cornell University Press, 1997) American Council of Learned Societies History E-Book Project Retrieved at 13:45 14/03/2007 http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;;idno=heb02148, p.43

[18] ibid, p.44

[19] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.151

[20] ibid, p.151

[21] Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p.156

[22] Noyes, The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism, p.6, quotation from R von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study (New York: Pioneer, 1994) p.131

[23] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999) Preface pp.xxvii-i

[24] Réage, Story of O, p.103

[25] ibid, p.163

[26] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

[27] Williams, Ethics of Recognition, pp.49-50

[28] Butler, Gender Trouble, p.14

[29] Réage, Story of O, p.261

[30] ibid, p.261

[31] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

[32] Réage, Story of O, p.262

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