She Gets In
From The Story of O (Graphic Novel Edition), by Pauline Réage, illustrated by Guido Crepax
Whips and chains and masks! Oh, my. When Histoire d’O appeared in France in the summer of 1954, it was so scandalous that obscenity charges (later dropped) were brought against its mysterious author. Even in the mid-twentieth century, in a European country decidedly less prudish than the United States, the book struck like a meteor. That the writer had evidently used a pen name provoked endless gossip in Parisian society. Speculation about the author’s identity became a favorite sport among the literati: was the author prominent, obscure, male, female, perverted, crazy? The authorial voice was too direct, too cool, to be that of a woman, some argued; others insisted that no man could have offered such a nuanced exploration of a woman’s psyche. One thing was certain: the person who wrote this novel had no shame.
Story of O, the title of the English edition, is an account of a French fashion photographer, known only as O, who descends into debasement, torment, humiliation, violence, and bondage, all in the name of devotion to her lover, René. Over the course of the novel she is blindfolded, chained, flogged, pierced, branded, and more. As the story opens, O is a passive figure who does precisely what she’s told:
Her lover one day takes O for a walk in a section of the city where they never go—the Montsouris Park, the Monceau Park. After they have taken a stroll in the park and have sat together side by side on the edge of a lawn, they notice, at one corner of the park, at an intersection where there are never any taxis, a car which, because of its meter, resembles a taxi.
“Get in,” he says.
She gets in.
The book is like an erotic version of those childhood tales in which a character steps accidentally into an alternate reality and is induced into a hallucinatory state. (Paulhan once insisted that “fairy tales are erotic novels for children.”) Think of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or the magic wardrobe leading to Narnia. That was Story of O, albeit with a much darker vision. By the novel’s eleventh page, O has been abandoned by her lover at a château outside Paris. Alone, she is subdued, quietly following instructions without resistance. She undresses and is fitted with a locked collar and bracelets and a long red cape. Blindfolded, she cries out as a stranger’s hand “penetrated her in both places at once.” Thus begins her odyssey as a sexual slave to the mostly anonymous men and women who have their way with her. “O thought she recognized one of the men from his voice,” Réage writes, “one of those who had forced her the previous evening, the one who had asked that her rear be made more easily accessible.” Willing to do anything with anyone, she reveals an existential longing for release. Aury once observed that “O is looking for deliverance, to thrust off this mortal coil, as Shakespeare says.”