This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.
Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.
Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.
The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.
From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.