An absolute classic of 19th-century thought and passions, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” is much more than a footnote in literary history and the origin of the word “masochism.” Although Sacher-Masoch is not nearly as recognizable a name as the Marquis de Sade–especially because the latter was a much more prolific writer in his day–one can easily see from this novella why his name has essentially become mythologized. The characterization of the protagonist, Severin, who asks to be dominated by a lovely noblewoman, is starkly and boldly told in the first person. Every submissive and tragic thought in Severin’s mind is laid bare before the reader, and as he grows to despise both himself and the woman to whom he is a slave–Wanda von Dunajew–our intense feelings grow as well.
It is hard to read “Venus in Furs” impartially. For every reader, there is a wrenching personal scar or previous harm that is brought into the novella, and Sacher-Masoch manipulates these innate human emotions masterfully. Every embarrassment wrought upon Severin is wrought upon us as well, and the empathy runs freely. Because Severin is also narrating these events for a diegetic listener, he is able to provide commentary and advice along the way; this sly narrative device adds an extra layer of meaning, and of contemplation, to his humiliating and traumatic experience. Because the protagonist has mulled over his shameful and hateful past, he is able to aid the reader in thinking it over ourselves. How would we react in such a situation? How far would we go for someone we love? How much emotional damage can we endure? How much pain is pleasurable?
While Sacher-Masoch’s name is now synonymous with an overly simplified sexual stereotype–deriving pleasure from pain–there is a highly sophisticated and heart-wrenching emotional core to “Venus in Furs.” The author challenges each reader to look within themselves for the answer to timeless questions about love, pain, loss, humiliation, and the necessity to have, or not have, meaningful human relationships. For Severin, and for Sacher-Masoch himself, there are no easy answers.