AUTHOR: PAULINE RÉAGE
Flashback to me as a teenager. I’m not sure why but one day I suddenly find myself interested in the books that have been on the shelf over my parent’s bed for as long as I can remember and take a closer look at one of them because the title is somewhat intriguing; Story of O. It has been too many years since I was that young for me to have any clear memories of the story or exactly what I thought and felt while reading it. In fact, it is safe to say that there was a long time during which that title completely slipped my mind. But there were a few pictures that stayed with me as the decades went by; a few scenes that turned into personal fantasies even though my fascination with these books was rather short lived.
Flash forward to the phenomena that was/is Fifty Shades of Grey. Once again curiosity gets the better of me. I read the trilogy and find that I’m thoroughly enjoying my re-introduction in to the world of erotica. And, since I realise that there have to be better written books out there, find myself looking for, finding and devouring books by a host of authors in several sub-genres. Some of these books were so bad they made me want to cry, some appeared to be almost carbon copies of the E.L. James books (if I see another billionaire I’ll have a fit) and yet other books enthralled me.
Reading erotica also got me reading about the genre and it wasn’t long before one thing became very clear; modern erotic fiction and especially the BDSM themed variety seems to owe a debt of gratitude or inspiration to two authors in particular: Anne Rice and Pauline Réage. So I read the Sleeping Beauty books by Anne Rice (writing as A.N. Roquelaure) and her Exit to Eden (writing as Anne Rampling) and discovered that an erotic theme doesn’t exclude wonderful writing.
And so I found myself left with Pauline Réage’s “Story of O”. I found it, I bought it and now I’ve read it (again). Here are my thoughts:
Actually, before I get into the story of O I have to say that I’m quite surprised (shocked even?) that my younger self accepted this book without question. In a way it makes me re-evaluate my memories of that teenager.
This book is extreme. I don’t mean extreme as in “could never happen in real life” since I have little to no idea as to what does and doesn’t happen in real life. No, what I mean is that this book is extreme compared to everything else I have read. And, unlike the Sleeping Beauty books by Anne Rice, this story doesn’t have the “excuse” that it is actually a fairytale to make its extremes easier to deal with. In fact, this book is written in such a way that it would be quite easy to believe that it is a fictionalised version of real life experiences, a collection of letters or even an adaptation of somebody’s private diary.
This is the story of O, a young Parisian photographer who is brought to the château of Roissy by her lover René for whom she would do anything; to prove her love for him, to increase and sustain his love for her. In the Château O is stripped of her normal clothes and exposed to men and their desires, whatever they may be, from the very first moment. Talk is forbidden. The only sounds allowed are those produced as a result of the ministrations from the men in the chateau; moans, groans, screams… Not a single word though; not to the men who command her and neither to or from the women who share her faith. On the morning after she’s been brought to Roissy O thinks:
“She did not wish to die, but if torture was the price she had to pay to keep her lover’s love, then she only hoped that he was pleased that she had endured it.”
It isn’t long though before O discovers that rather than endure and hate her experience at the Chateau for the sake of love, she finds something else, something more as a result of being used, chained, whipped and opened up:
“The chains and the silence, which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.”
Once her training is finished and she is back home she finds that she has changed beyond recognition.
“She was no longer wearing either a collar or leather bracelets, and she was alone, her own sole spectator. And yet never had she felt herself more totally committed to a will which was not her own, more totally a slave, and more content to be so.”
When her lover informs O that he intends to share her with Sir Stephen and commit one part of her anatomy exclusively to this older man, provided she consents to the idea, the young woman discovers that it was much easier to submit when she felt as if she didn’t have a choice in the matter than it is to verbally agree to it.
“… she loathed her freedom. Her freedom was worse than any chains.”
But submitting to Sir Stephen propels O along on her path to total submission. Branded and chained as his property O eventually comes to the realisation that the satisfaction she achieves has nothing to do with wanting to please René or even Sir Stephen. It has become and maybe always has been a need she has in and of itself.
“O had never really understood, but she had finally come to accept as an undeniable and important verity, this constant and contradictory jumble of her emotions: she liked the idea of torture, but when she was being tortured herself she would have betrayed the whole word to escape it, and yet when it was over she was happy to have gone through it, happier still if it had be especially cruel and prolonged.”
The book ends on a scene in which O is little more than a faceless object to be viewed, touched and made use of.
This book is nothing like the more modern BDSM stories I have read. Whereas most recently published stories will ease new submissives into their role, warming them up, preparing them for whatever they are about to experience there is no such restraint in this story. From the very first moment O is introduced to her new environment she is exposed to the full force of whatever her Masters wish to inflict upon her. Safe-words are not available to O; they are never mentioned nor used. There is no mention of the words “safe, sane and consensual”. And while it has to be said that Sir Stephen and Rene do expect O to consent to any new form of submission they invent for her, it is a form of consent that is almost involuntary.
“…she could refuse, nothing was keeping her enslaved except her love and her self-enslavement.”
This isn’t a romance with a kinky edge. I can’t make up my mind about the ending of this book and am unable to describe it as either happy or sad. In fact, it seems that this book was published without either of its two original endings. And maybe that is how it should be. O has achieved that which she learned to aspire to; she belongs to Sir Stephen, to do with as he pleases. She has given herself to him so completely that she watches herself and those around her from a distance. She has been completely objectified and views herself as such without judgment.
This is a shocking story; a book that stretches the reader well beyond their comfort zone. In fact my feelings seemed to mirror O’s a lot of the time. Just when I thought things had surely gone far enough, that I couldn’t bear to see any further humiliation inflicted upon this character, I found that indeed I could, and what is more, wanted to. The writing is distant, analytical as if the narrator is completely removed from what is happening on the page. And yet, that same narrator seems to know an awful lot about what O is going through and her feelings about, and reactions to everything she’s subjected to. And I can’t help feeling that the emotions described on these pages, all the conflicting thoughts and feelings O is confronted with describe the dual emotional reactions that must be part of the path to true submission better than anything I’ve read before.