Les Liaisons dangereuses is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782.
It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents. It has been claimed to depict the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, it has also been described as an amoral story.
As an epistolary novel, the book is composed entirely of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise drive the plot, with those of their victims and other characters serving as contrasting figures to give the story its depth. It is often claimed to be the source of the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, a paraphrased translation of “La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid” (more literally, “Revenge is a dish that is eaten cold”). However, the expression does not actually occur in the original novel in any form.
In a well-known essay on Les Liaisons dangereuses, which has often been used as a preface to French editions of the novel, André Malraux argues that, despite its debt to the libertine tradition, Les Liaisons dangereuses is more significant as the introduction of a new kind of character in French fiction. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, Malraux writes, are creations “without precedent”. They are “the first [in European literature] whose acts are determined by an ideology”.
In a manner, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a literary counterthesis to the epistolary novel as executed with Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Whereas Richardson uses the technique of letters to provide the reader with a feeling of knowing the protagonist’s true and intimate thoughts, Laclos’ use of this literary device is exactly opposite: by presenting the reader with grossly conflicting views from the same writer when addressing different recipients, it is left to the reader to reconcile story, intentions and characters behind the letters. The use of duplicitous characters with one virtuous face can be viewed as a complex criticism of the immensively popular naïve moral epistolary novel.