This is the story of a virtuous, and pretty, young woman who repeatedly falls prey to lecherous libertines. Over the course of the story, she is victimized by aristocrats, monks, and outlaws. The lead goes by the name Therese, though her given name was Justine. She is one of two sisters orphaned after their father ran afoul of a man by having an affair with said man’s wife. The story is set in France immediately before the Revolution, as it was written while de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1787.
As Therese is telling her tale of woe on the eve of her trial for murder and arson, one might question whether she is an unreliable narrator. In other words, was she as morally upright and steadfastly pious as she portrays, and were her sufferings truly through no fault of her own [beyond naïveté.] That level of complexity is beyond de Sade’s simple formulation. The lesson of his amorality tale is that Therese ends up in such a mess precisely because (by being so virtuous and pious) she fails to comply with what de Sade saw as the law of nature. His version of the law of nature is defined by the strong lording over the weak, and the ideal of “do unto others, before they can do unto you.”
What is the evidence for de Sade’s twisted amoral moral to the story? First, he includes a sister, Juliette, who follows the path of least resistance (accepting a life of vice) and ends up much better off. Second, all of the “villains” (though de Sade didn’t see them that way, I’m certain) are prone to Bond Villainesque exposition on this philosophy as justification for the vile acts they are perpetrating. This ham-handed approach can make for an annoying read. [However, if one is interested in the minutiae of the philosophy of libertinage, one may find some of the arguments interesting. While de Sade’s philosophy is rank and vile, it may have just been a wild pendulum swing from what was going on in the mainstream world at the time.]
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend the book as a treatise on ethics, morality, or philosophy, it’s an interesting story. I’ve only read one other book by this author (i.e. “120 Days of Sodom”) and can say that “Justine” is vastly better than that one.
I’d recommend it for those intrigued by the occasional amorality tale. It can’t be said to lack tension. Needless to say, it’s graphic in places, and not for readers of delicate sensibilities.