A crash course to Venus in Furs
Updated: Jan 28
Please note: Readers discretion advised. Images included from the original book, in this blog, may upset
As promised, dear reader, I am writing this “crash course to Venus In Furs” after having finished reading the novel.
It left me in deep thought about many things. I have realised I know nothing of the psychology behind sadomasochism nor its practice in History. Even more, I was surprised to find themes such as feminism and racism. As the play inspired from it, the book is a treasure of ideas and kept me at the edge of my seat, especially concerning the intentions of Wanda, the love interest of the narrator, Severin.
Even until the end, I still do not know for sure if she is a pure hearted woman or a mischievous manipulating demon. And neither does Severin! Before continuing, let me introduce the novel to you, and you may understand my thoughts. So here goes, reader, find a seat and enjoy the read.
Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (written in 1870) is in itself a masterpiece. The novel is infamous for its depiction of sadomasochism and female dominance yet it contains no explicit sexual content.
We witness Severin and Wanda change dramatically throughout the story. When they meet, he compares her beauty and pureness to a statue in the garden they are walking, the Goddess of love Venus. As Venus is a God and Severin is a mere mortal, he immediately places himself as an inferior to her. As they grow more infatuated with each other, he confides that as a child he had been whipped by his fur-wearing aunt so cruelly that he never forgot the incident and even became obsessed in it, to the point that he sees physical pain as pleasurable and calls himself a “supersensual being”. He begs her to be her slave, until she agrees (or not) to be his wife, encouraging her cruelty by saying that “suffering has a peculiar attraction for [him]. Nothing can intensify [his] passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman”.
At first reluctant to behave so, she then slowly starts to like the dominant position she has and becomes more and more sadistic and cruel towards him, torturing him physically and mentally, as she toys with his feelings and humiliates him repeatedly. His love and adoration unwavering, he however becomes fearful of her and of what she might do next, until she crosses the line when she threatens to have Severin whipped by his own rival, a cruel Greek prince, whom she plans on marrying and that she would enjoy his degradation and pain. Severin begs for the roleplay to cease, as he cannot bear for her to be unfaithful to him, but it seems whenever she becomes herself again, it is actually just a ruse to torture him further, until she has him whipped by the prince and leaves him.
Instead of intimacy and connection, Wanda and Severin expose their full personalities through BDSM.
When Wanda leaves Severin, she does so by enslaving herself to another man, one who just imposed his dominance upon Severin. This seems like the ultimate betrayal, but it could also be seen as part of the BDSM aspect of their relationship, as the betrayal might not be a betrayal of their game but a fulfillment of it. Three years later, he receives a letter from her explaining that she knew from the moment he became her slave they would never marry and had been so cruel to “cure” him of his “illness”.
With the back-and-forth of Wanda's true intentions, I kept on wondering where the line was. If her crossing it was for his benefit or hers, as she had treated a very dangerous game, playing with his life (bringing him to the verge of suicide) as well as her own (angering him to the point of him threatening her life if she went through with marrying another man).
In any case, at the end of the book, a sentence in particular struck me, which upon rereading the novel, made me see a secondary conclusion to the story, which was hinted all along, the theme of feminism. In the aftermath of Wanda cuckolding him, Severin realizes that the power struggle that they have been depicting in their sexuality has led him to a new idea:
“The woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.”
From that point on, the women started to think for themselves and to stand up against abuse. Education is seen as having played an extremely important role in the emancipation of the woman in modern society. Because of this, education is seen here as a metaphor for independence. Making the novel an advocate for gender equality.
Wanda, despite her cruelty, has done nothing that was not asked of her. She even says that she had always been honest with him, that she warned him against giving her, or anyone, this kind of power over himself. She continues on accusing him of having made of her what she is now. This brings us back to their first encounters where she says that she, as a woman, is expected certain behaviours and duties in their society, to find a good husband and submit to him. She has behaved differently to what society would dictate, but has now been pushed to become what he, Severin, had wanted her to become. In this, he could not fault her or blame her, and should turn inwards instead.
The end of the story comes when Severin's emotional embarrassment causes him to realize that he did it to himself by forcing their relationship into a battle of power. Ultimately, the book is an argument for sex positivity and female empowerment.
It is really a book to read with much insight of life as well as sexuality in the 19th century. Its many layers and themes will keep my brain satiated for now, but it has also opened a new interest on the issues. I will want to read further into sadomasochism, as to be a bit more educated on the subject, and will continue on reading my array of feminist studies. Up until I have read mainly modern feminist books, but with this new found taste for it, I will dig a bit deeper in the library to find books written in the past.
Anyways, I will leave you to ponder, as I have been, dear reader, and shall write again soon. This time to introduce to you the play by David Ives and its interpretation by Nathan Schulz.
To purchase tickets to Venus in Fur written by David Ives click here