The Sadeian Woman is a feminist reading of the Marquis de Sade, who is seen as a "moral pornographer" putting pornography into the service of women, or at least creating room within it for "an ideology not inimical to women". Though Carter provides some biographical background, her focus is on three of Sade's novels. In Justine the eponymous heroine suffers repeated rape, torture, humiliation, and degradation, forever escaping from one abuser only to fall into the hands of another. She is acted on rather than acts, feels rather than reasons, and is the perfect victim. Carter sees her as a spiritual ancestor of film stars such as Marilyn Monroe. Her career is a "desecration of the Temple", an inversion of the unnatural reverence accorded to women as Mothers and Wives.
Juliette, Justine's sister, is her antithesis. She is rational, scheming, predatory, vicious, and always in control, exploiting her sexuality to obtain power and moving from city to city one step ahead of retribution. An astute businesswoman, her career exhibits the virtues of bourgeois individualism — self-reliance and self-help — and the consequences of the emancipation of women, carried to their logical extremes. And in Philosophy in the Boudoir the fifteen year old Eugénie receives an education in depravity, in a series of lessons in transgression culminating in her rape and mutilation of her mother.
Carter has her own agenda, laid out in an opening chapter with the title "Polemical Preface", but her interpretations and analysis are presented in such a way that one can separate them from her summary of the novels. (A separation sorely mangled in my summary above.) It is not necessary to have read any Sade to follow The Sadeian Woman: this is important because he is quite unbelievably tedious (I confess I never managed to read more than a hundred pages of 120 Days of Sodom and small portions of Justine). Carter uses more Freudian psychoanalysis than I usually have time for, but it does seem unusually appropriate when it comes to Sade. She also has a tendency to make a lot of small points — much is made, for example, of the fact that Eugenie's mother faints rather than orgasms when raped.
While The Sadeian Woman offers a one-sided view of Sade — his political ideas are only touched upon — it has the advantage of brevity over most books on him. It will be an accessible introduction to Sade for many who would otherwise know him only as a popular bogeyman; it certainly inspired me more than the rather staid biography I read a decade ago.