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Literature / Venus in Furs

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Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz) is a book, published in 1870, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that largely led to him lending his name to the term Masochism. It deals with his fantasies of a pale skinned woman wearing furs (hence the name) and dominating him. It was supposed to be part of a larger series of novellas, covering all of human life. Sacher-Masoch never finished the series, and what he did write apart from Venus is pretty much forgotten.

The plot: Severin, a young nobleman, falls in love with the beautiful Wanda, whom he calls his "Venus in Fur." He tells her about his fantasy of her whipping and dominating him as her slave. She tells him that's not her thing but agrees to give it a try if it will make him happy, so they start living as mistress and slave (they even sign a contract, explicitly stating this). Shortly after Severin begins to feel that Wanda's taking things a little too far, she falls in love with Alexis, a dominant Greek guy, whom she allows to brutally whip the narrator. Later, after the Greek has died, she tells her (now ex-)slave that she might have married him... if only he hadn't been that perverted and insisted on being her slave — women can only respect men who are strong, not submissive.

What did Severin learn from his experience? He tells us:

"Woman, as nature has created her and as man at present is 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."

Velvet Underground wrote a well-known song based on it, and there have obviously been several film adaptations. Some even attempt to be artsy!

It has its counterparts in: the works of Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, most notably Justine, Juliette and The 120 Days of Sodom; The Story of O by Pauline Reage; the romantic B-plot of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; and Fifty Shades of Grey.

This book provides examples of:

  • At the Opera Tonight: When Wanda learns that Alexis (whom she has only just met) will be attending the Nicolini Theater, she sends Severin to reserve a box. According Severin, she and Alexis ignore the performance and spend the whole evening making eyes at each other:
    I saw her in her box dressed in blue moire, with a huge ermine cloak about her bare shoulders; he sat opposite. I saw them devour each other with their eyes. For both of them the stage, Goldoni's Pamela, Salvini, Marini, the public, even the entire world, were non-existant to-night.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: Severin relays an anecdote about Alexis disguising himself as a woman while in Paris and having crowds of desperate male admirers.
  • Erotic Literature: A famous example, but downplayed. There are no actual sex scenes; the erotic appeal is in the story's premise getting played out.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Overlaps with Attractive Bent-Gender for Alexis Papadopolis. When Severin first encounters Alexis, he's equally distressed by Wanda's infatuation and empathetic to her attraction to the man:
    I now understand the masculine Eros, and I marvel at Socrates for having remained virtuous in view of an Alcibiades like this.
  • Evil Feels Good: Wanda is weirded out by Severin's fantasies, at first, but after she gives it a few tries, she realizes... she likes it!
  • Fetish: A book focused about it.
  • Fiery Redhead:
    • Wanda herself is a Significant Green-Eyed Redhead, and Severin pushes her to take the role of an overbearing dominatrix.
      How abundant her red hair-it is red, not blonde or golden- yellow—how diabolically and yet tenderly it plays around her neck! Now her eyes meet mine like green lightnings—they are green, these eyes of hers, whose power is so indescribable—green, but as are precious stones, or deep unfathomable mountain lakes.
    • While signing the contract, Severin notes that the ceiling is painted with a scene of Samson and Delilah where Delilah is depicted with "flaming red hair."
      I looked upward for a moment. It occurred to me that the painting on the ceiling, like many of those of the Italian and Dutch schools, was utterly unhistorical, but this very fact gave it a strange mood which had an almost uncanny effect on me. Delilah, an opulent woman with flaming red hair, lay extended, half-disrobed, in a dark fur-cloak, upon a red ottoman, and bent smiling over Samson who had been overthrown and bound by the Philistines. Her smile in its mocking coquetry was full of a diabolical cruelty; her eyes, half- closed, met Samson's, and his with a last look of insane passion cling to hers, for already one of his enemies is kneeling on his breast with the red-hot iron to blind him.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Severin wants to shape Wanda into his ideal dominatrix. He succeeds... but in the process she comes to despise him for the simpering submissive he is and walks out.
  • Gorgeous Greek: Alexis Papadopolis, with whom Wanda becomes infatuated, is described as incredibly handsome even by the jealous Severin.
    For he is, indeed, a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion's lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face—
    Apollo flaying Marsyas.
    He wears high black boots, closely fitting breeches of white leather, short fur coat of black cloth, of the kind worn by Italian cavalry officers, trimmed with astrakhan and many rich loops; on his black locks is a red fez.
  • Hemoerotic: Being flogged until you bleed is arousing.
  • I Kiss Your Foot: Severin kisses Wanda's feet on several occasions.
    "Come over here, Gregor."
    I approached the beautiful woman. Never did she seem more seductive to me than to-day in spite of all her cruelty and contempt.
    "One step further," Wanda commanded. "Now kneel down, and kiss my foot."
    She extended her foot beyond the hem of white satin, and I, the supersensual fool, pressed my lips upon it.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Severin argues he can only love a woman he can respect, and, of course, you can only respect someone who's strong and powerful. The problem, however, as Wanda explains, is that she can only love a strong man she can respect, too...
  • Irony: Unsurprisingly, Severin — the masochist who wants to be whipped and treated like a slave — is the one calling all the shots in the relationship, always telling Wanda what to do and how to behave, writing the script and directing the action, and she obediently follows his instructions and gives him the fantasy he demands. Once she becomes less reluctant and starts taking real charge of things, it's no fun for him anymore but terrifying.
  • Naked in Mink: Wanda does wear some furs with nothing else — as does Venus herself in the Frame Story.
  • Never My Fault: When Severin gets angry at how seriously Wanda begins taking their fantasy, she reminds him she's only giving him exactly what he always wanted.
  • Pretty in Mink: This Venus does wear lovely furs.
  • Reclining Venus: Severin is so struck by the image he sees in the mirror of Wanda (wrapped only in a velvet and sable cloak after a bath) in repose and himself waiting dutifully at her feet that he convinces her to commission a painter for a double portrait. When Wanda has suitably ensnared the painter by sitting for a Madonna they recreate the earlier scene, with Wanda "dressed in nothing but the sable fur" and "stretched out on the velvet cushions as on the former occasion." This is the picture that so interests the narrator in the Frame Story.
    ...she rested on the cushions in her large velvet cloak. The lithe sables nestled desirously against her cold marble-like body. Her left arm on which she supported herself lay like a sleeping swan in the dark fur of the sleeve, while her left hand played carelessly with the whip.
  • Shout-Out: The song "Venus in Furs" by Velvet Underground from their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico is based on this novel. The Electric Wizard song "Venus in Furs" nods to it as well.
  • Spoof Aesop: The Do Not Do This Cool Thing final note. Shame — wouldn't exactly have been a bad anvil to drop at that point in history...
  • Stop, or I Shoot Myself!:
    • Severin relays that when Alexis Papadopolis disguised himself as a woman in Paris, a singer fell so desperately in love with him that he threatened to kill himself if the "beautiful woman" refused his advances.
      In Paris he appeared first in woman's dress, and the men assailed him with love-letters. An Italian singer, famous equally for his art and his passionate intensity, even invaded his home, and lying on his knees before him threatened to commit suicide if he wouldn't be his.
      "I am sorry," he replied, smiling, "I should like to do you the favor, but you will have to carry out your threat, for I am a man."
    • When Wanda begins to take an interest in Alexis, Severin can feel her pulling away from him. He goes to her chambers and desperately pleads for her not to dismiss him. Wanda continues to treat him as a plaything, just as he had requested, and is entirely unimpressed when he takes her dagger and threatens to kill himself if she doesn't return his affections:
      "Mercy," I implored. "Do not drive me away. No man, no one, will love you as I do."
      "Let me go to sleep,"—she turned her back to me again.
      I leaped up, and snatched the poinard, which hung beside her bed, from its sheath, and placed its point against my breast.
      "I shall kill myself here before your eyes," I murmured dully.
      "Do what you please," Wanda replied with complete indifference. "But let me go to sleep." She yawned aloud. "I am very sleepy."
      For a moment I stood as if petrified. Then I began to laugh and cry at the same time. Finally I placed the poinard in my belt, and again fell on my knees before her.
      "Wanda, listen to me, only for a few moments," I begged.
  • Trope Namer: Not a trope on this site, but "Masochism" was named an Eponym for the author because of this book.
  • Whip of Dominance: Played With. The core of Severin and Wanda's S&M is her whipping him. But he the one that's being dominant and pushed Wanda to do it, and she's not very comfortable with it... at first. Eventually, she does turn into a Dominatrix of the very Sadist kind, and her whipping sessions actually start really hurting Severin, and he starts having second thoughts.