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Letter I of Dangerous Liasons is remarkably not dangerous. It is taken from the correspondence of two teenage girls: Cécile Volanges to Sophie Carnay. Cécile has just left the convent, where Sophie is still cloistered, to enter the world of society and to get married off.
While Cécile waits for her watchful mother, Madame Volanges, to choose her a husband, back in Paris the Marquise de Merteuil is plotting revenge. Madame Volanges has already selected her daughter's future mate, a certain Comte de Gercourt. As we learn from Letter II, written by Merteuil to the Vicomte de Valmont, Gercourt was once Merteuil's lover. Unfortunately for Merteuil, in a fit of good judgment, Gercourt dumped her for the Intendante, who, incidentally, used to be Valmont's bed-partner. Since their respective break-ups, Merteuil and Valmont have been shacking up. The success of this liaison has led Merteuil to believe they should take revenge on their former partners together. Her plan for revenge is as follows: Valmont should seduce Cécile.
Meanwhile, Cécile is being shown to le monde (society) at her mother's parties, blushing frequently, and falling asleep at card-tables, as she informs Sophie in Letter III. She overhears one gentleman whispering to another, "Il faut laissez mûrir cela," ("That one needs to be left to ripen") in reference to her.
In Letter IV, Valmont accepts Merteuil's suggestion with reluctance. He predicts that Cécile will succumb to his manly charms without putting up much of a fight. A more worthy adversary, he suggests, would be the Présidente de Tourvel, a highly religious gentlewoman whose husband is out of town. It will be a great coup indeed if the notorious Valmont can trick Tourvel into bed.
The cute nuances of Tourvel's conservative clothes and prayer routines are lost on Merteuil. In Letter V, she mocks Valmont for pursuing a nun and warns him that if he does not go to work on Cécile right away, the girl's music teacher, the Chevalier Danceny, will do the job for him.
Valmont responds to Merteuil's insults in Letter VI, with a lengthy catalogue of Tourvel's subtle charms. He notes that her nervous behavior around him may mean that she already has less than pious feelings for him. Perhaps she can be convinced to try to convert Valmont from his wicked ways.
In letter VII Cécile informs Sophie that she has a very nice new singing and harp teacher, the Chevalier Danceny.
Tourvel writes to Madame Volanges in letter VIII to wish Cécile luck on her upcoming marriage, about which Cécile is still ignorant. She also mentions that she has met Valmont, and that the regretful confessions he makes to her do not correspond with his reputation as an unrepentant, oversexed scoundrel.
Volanges's response, Letter IX, contains a strong warning about Valmont's true, naughty nature. Tourvel should not let herself be deceived. Volanges also announces that Cécile's marriage will be postponed, since her husband-to- be has been called away to war.
Read on their own, letters one through nine already provide a full portrait of the aggressive and disingenuous nature of 18th-century French society. Cécile is seen as fresh prey even as she is seen as a fresh young girl. It is not just the Marquise de Merteuil, but also all of society, who inspects her to see if she is ready to be picked like a fruit (Letter III) or caught in a trap.
Language is often the means of entrapment. Cécile's letters reveal her innocence and ignorance, and they are also extremely boring. Style clearly has its place in this novel: both as entertainment and as a kind of snare. Though we know that the projects motivating them are not particularly admirable, the most interesting, well-written, and pleasurable letters are composed by the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. The double meanings and puns contained in these missives are second in their craftiness only to the overstatement (hyperbole) and understatement (litotes) for effect, in which the Marquise and Vicomte indulge. Letter V, Merteuil's insult-register against Tourvel, for example, is full of this sort of creative self-expression. But Merteuil and Valmont are clearly willing to go beyond puns to get what they want. Whether they are lying to each other in their letters, they seem to deceive others quite frequently in their daily lives. The best example of this sort of deception is Valmont's practice of confessing to the Présidente de Tourvel to win her trust. But then again, another question one might ask is whether he may truly be confessing to Tourvel and, in fact, deceiving Merteuil and himself when he claims to be lying.
The first nine letters also provide a glimpse of the love-as-war theme that will be played out in the rest of the novel. "What a delight to be at the same time the object and the conqueror of her remorse!" ("Quel délice d'être tour à tour l'objet et le vainqueur de ses remords!" letter VI) exclaims Valmont in reference to the Présidente de Tourvel. With a war going on in the distance that summons various men to fight (the Président de Tourvel, the Comte de Gercourt), one expects to find peace at home. However, even in the bedroom, conquests are being made.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Dangerous Liaisons!