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Cover of a French edition of Histoire d'O featuring Corinne Cléry
Cover of a French edition of Histoire d'O featuring Corinne Cléry
Desclos did not reveal herself as the author for forty years after the initial publication. Desclos claims she wrote the novel as a series of love letters to her lover Jean Paulhan, who had admired the work of the Marquis de Sade. The novel shares with the latter themes such as love, dominance and submission.
Published in French by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Story of O is a tale of female submission about a beautiful Parisian fashion photographer named O, who is taught to be constantly available for oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse, offering her orifices to any male she encounters, unless her master directs otherwise. She is regularly stripped, blindfolded, chained and whipped; her anus is widened by increasingly large plugs; her labium is pierced and her buttocks are branded.
The story begins when O's lover, René, brings her to the château of Roissy, where she is trained to serve the members of an elite club. After this initial training, as a demonstration of their bond and his generosity, René hands O to his elder stepbrother Sir Stephen, a more dominant master. René wants O to learn to serve someone whom she does not love, and someone who does not love her. Over the course of this training, O falls in love with Sir Stephen and believes him to be in love with her as well. During the summer, Sir Stephen sends O to Samois, an old mansion solely inhabited by women for advanced training and body modifications related to submission. There she agrees to receive permanent marks of Sir Stephen's ownership, in the form of a brand and a steel tag hanging from a labia piercing.
Meanwhile René has encouraged O to seduce Jacqueline, a vain fashion model, and lure her to Roissy. Jacqueline is repulsed when she first sees O's chains and scars, but O herself is proud of her condition as a willing slave. Curious, Jacqueline hesitantly agrees to visit Roissy, "only to see what it's like"; it is implied that Jacqueline later comes to Roissy and is forcibly enslaved in turn.
At the climax, O is presented as a sexual slave, nude but for an owl-like mask and a leash attached to her piercing, before a large party of guests who treat her solely as an object. She enjoys pleasing René in this way.
An epilogue notes that O was then abandoned by Sir Stephen and asked his permission to die, which was granted.
In February 1955, Story of O won the French literature prize Prix des Deux Magots, although this did not prevent the French authorities from bringing obscenity charges against the publisher. The charges were rejected by the courts, but a publicity ban was imposed for a number of years.
A sequel, Retour à Roissy (Return to Roissy, but often translated as Return to the Chateau, Continuing the Story of O), was published in 1969 in French, again with Jean-Jacques Pauvert, éditeur. It was published again in English by Grove Press, Inc., in 1971. It is not known whether this work is by the same author as the original.
A critical view of the novel is that it is about, and derives its erotic power from, the ultimate objectification of a woman. The heroine of the novel has the shortest possible name, consisting solely of the letter O. Although this is in fact a shortening of the name Odile, it could also stand for "object" or "orifice", an O being a symbolic representation of any "hole". The novel was strongly criticised by many feminists, who felt it glorified the abuse of women.
When the film of The Story of O was released, L'Express magazine ran a feature on the novel and film. This resulted in L'Express being picketed by feminists from the group Mouvement de libération des femmes, who found the novel and film objectionable. Journalist François Chalais also criticized Story of O, claiming the novel glorified violence; he described the novel as "bringing the Gestapo into the boudoir".
The author used a pen name, then later revealed herself under another pen name, before finally, prior to her death, revealing her true identity. Her lover Jean Paulhan wrote the preface as if the author were unknown to him.
According to an article by Geraldine Bedell, published in The Observer on Sunday 24 July 2004, "Pauline Réage, the author, was a pseudonym, and many people thought that the book could only have been written by a man. The writer's true identity was not revealed until 10 years ago, when, in an interview with John de St Jorre, a British journalist and some-time foreign correspondent of The Observer, an impeccably dressed 86-year-old intellectual called Dominique Aury acknowledged that the fantasies of castles, masks and debauchery were hers."
According to several other sources, however, Dominique Aury was itself a pseudonym of Anne Cécile Desclos, born 23 September 1907 in Rochefort-sur-Mer, France, and deceased 26 April 1998 (at age 90) in Paris, France.
Jean Paulhan, who was the author's lover and the person to whom she wrote Story of O in the form of love letters, wrote the preface, "Happiness in Slavery". Paulhan admired the Marquis de Sade's writing and told Desclos that a woman could not write in a similar fashion. Desclos interpreted this as a challenge and wrote the book. Paulhan was so impressed that he sent it to a publisher. Interestingly, in the preface, Paulhan goes out of his way to appear as if he does not know who wrote the book. In one part he says, "But from the beginning to end, the story of O is managed rather like some brilliant feat. It reminds you more of a speech than of a mere effusion; of a letter rather than a secret diary. But to whom is the letter addressed? Whom is the speech trying to convince? Whom can we ask? I don't even know who you are. That you are a woman I have little doubt." Paulhan also explains his own belief that the themes in the book depict the true nature of women. At times, the preface (when read with the knowledge of the relationship between Paulhan and the author), seems to be a continuation of the conversation between them.
Discussing the ending, Paulhan states, "I too was surprised by the end. And nothing you can say will convince me that it is the real end. That in reality (so to speak) your heroine convinces Sir Stephen to consent to her death."
One critic has seen Paulhan's essay as consistent with other themes in his work, including Paulhan's interest in erotica, his "mystification" of love and sexual relationships, and a view of women that is arguably sexist.
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot wanted to adapt the novel to film for many years, which was eventually done by director Just Jaeckin in 1975 as Histoire d'O (Story of O), starring Corinne Cléry and Udo Kier. The film met with far less acclaim than the book. It was banned in the United Kingdom by the British Board of Film Censors until February 2000.
In 1975, American director Gerard Damiano, well known for Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) created the movie The Story of Joanna, highly influenced by the Story of O, by combining the motifs from one of the book's chapters and from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
In 1979, Danish director Lars von Trier made the short movie entitled Menthe – la bienheureuse, as an homage to Story of O. His 2005 film Manderlay was also inspired by the book, particularly Paulhan's introduction.
Five years later, in 1984, actress Sandra Wey starred as "O" in The Story of O: Part 2.
In 2002, another version of O was released, called The Story of O: Untold Pleasures, with Danielle Ciardi playing the title character.
Writer of O, a 2004 documentary film by Pola Rapaport, mixed interviews with re-enactments of certain scenes from the book. In the documentary, the real author of Histoire d'O, Dominique Aury (also a pen name), talks about the book A Girl in Love. This book was written about how Story of O was written.
A documentary was also made for BBC Radio 4 entitled The Story of O: The Vice Francaise, presented by Rowan Pelling, former editor of the Erotic Review, which looked at the history of the book and Pauline Réage.
Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality, a documentary by filmmaker Maya Gallus, featured the final interview with 90-year-old Dominique Aury before she died. In the film, she recounts the extraordinary love story behind "Histoire d'O" and marvels that she has reached such a grand age.
The comic book character Orlando is a blend of several fictional characters with the name Orlando as well as being known during the mid-sixties as O while engaged in sexual games with the descendants of the Silling Castle survivors, according to Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.
In the 2014 movie That Awkward Moment, characters Jason and Ellie mention the Story of O in one scene.
In Season 2, Episode 3 of Hemlock Grove (TV Series) a secretarial assistant can be seen reading the Story of O.