The Fur and the Fury: Fetishism and Masochism in "Venus in Furs"
Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: In 2017 I read Venus in Furs for a comparative literature course. Here's a short essay I wrote on the text which is rich in BDSM themes so reader beware...
Venus in Furs provides a puzzling conflict as Severin subjects himself to Wanda’s brutal whip, handing over power in a patriarchal society to someone who traditionally wields no power. As Severin eventually learns, “At present we have only the choice of being hammer or anvil…” (Sacher-Masoch 144) and he chooses to be the anvil (albeit only for a time). What is interesting is the dynamic between fur and fury. To paraphrase the idiom, Severin prefers to be dominated by “An iron hammer in a velvet glove,” Severin allows Wanda to wield a whip while adorned in fur, the combination going hand in hand (no pun intended) for Severin to achieve his desire. The question becomes, what is it about the fur that proves so enticing? A review of the text suggests the supersensual Severin finds fur enticing because of its association with power; both intellectual and authoritarian. Severin identifies himself as supersensual. He recounts the encounter with his aunt that unlocked his love of the combination of pain and fur. “In her fur-jacket she seemed to me like a wrathful queen, and from then on my aunt became the most desirable woman on God's earth” (36). When his aunt dominates and whips him, Severin finds he enjoys the behavior, linking it to fur.
This correlation between furs and women of power develops over time, first by reading stories of “cruelty.” "Possibly. But let me go on. I developed a perfect passion for reading stories in which the extremest cruelties were described.” (41). Next, he finds stimulation from imagery. “I loved especially to look at pictures and prints which represented them” (41). Masoch cleverly describes how Severin develops a fur fetish, connecting it with his fondness for domination and masochism by certain types of women:
All the sanguinary tyrants that ever occupied a throne; the inquisitors who had the heretics tortured, roasted, and butchered; all the woman whom the pages of history have recorded as lustful, beautiful, and violent women like Libussa, Lucretia Borgia, Agnes of Hungary, Queen Margot, Isabeau, the Sultana Roxolane, the Russian Czarinas of last century—all these I saw in furs or in robes bordered with ermine. (41)
Severin’s list of women reads like a “Who’s Who” of strong, cruel women. When he finds Wanda, she personifies the strong, beautiful, dominant, and fur-clad woman to dominate him and whip him. If one believes Severin’s masochist tendencies derive from his mind’s desire, it is easy to find another explanation for his fondness for furs. Severin connects furs with the intellect, saying furs “have a stimulating effect on all highly-organized natures” (39). Severin mentions the scientific connection between fur-covered cats and men of intellect:
This is the reason why the presence of cats exercises such a magic influence upon highly-organized men of intellect. This is why these long-tailed Graces of the animal kingdom, these adorable, scintillating electric batteries have been the favorite animal of a Mahommed, Cardinal Richelieu, Crebillon, Rousseau, Wieland. (39)
It can be argued that the furs Wanda wears stimulate Severin’s mind, making his sexual desire for her (and more importantly, to be dominated) stronger. A textual analysis suggests Severin’s desire to be dominated by a woman and subject to punishment derives from his encounter with his aunt, his fondness of reading of torture, looking at visual imagery of torture, the link between furs and women and power, and the intellectual stimulation of furs (suggested by intellectuals’ affiliation with cats). Masoch’s novel is an intriguing analysis of one man’s fascination with female dominance, masochism, and the power of a fetish (in this case, furs).
Von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. Venus in Furs. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.