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French Essays – French Society

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

‘Les liaisons dangereuses’ and the position of women in eighteenth-century french society.

 Abstract

This research analyses in depth Les Liaison Dangereuses by Pierre Ambrose Choderlos de Laclos, paying a particular attention to the emancipatory subtext of the novel in regard to the position of women in eighteenth-century French society. The received results reveal that Laclos rises against the subordinate position of women and considers that it is crucial to provide women with freedom. However, the writer demonstrates that freedom without appropriate education and true morality can result in many negative consequences. Applying to different characters and different liaisons, Laclos reflects the conflicts between two opposite sexes that occur because of the wish of both males and females to occupy superior positions in French society. In this regard, some findings of this research are consistent with the results received in earlier studies and critical analyses on Laclos’ novel, while other findings oppose to them.   

1 Statement of the problem

Eighteenth-century France experienced rather complex gender tensions, as, on the one hand, the period of Enlightenment and the French Revolution gave rise to the ideas of liberty and equality between men and women, but, on the other hand, women were still associated with the position of a mother and a wife, restricting their participation in other spheres of social and political life. However, despite such stereotypic vision on females, some philosophers and writers of that era opposed to this perception of women, applying to a certain emancipatory subtext in their literary works. Pierre Ambrose Choderlos de Laclos belongs to such French writers; in his well-known novel Les Liaison Dangereuses he criticises education of women in eighteenth-century France and uncovers the inferior position of women in those times. Laclos is one of the first authors who manage to express his views on the failed social system that inspires the conflicts between two opposite sexes.

2 Introduction

Pierre Ambrose Choderlos de Laclos (1741 – 1803), a general of Napoleon and the secretary of the Duc d’Orleans, was born in a rather noble family and devoted his life to a military career. However, at the age of forty, Laclos became a revolutionary and feminist writer, having written only two literary works that were both admired and criticised in his times. He met his future wife Marie-Soulange Duperré in 1783 and soon married her. Laclos became the member of the Club of the Jacobins in 1790 and was even imprisoned for his political activity. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was greatly influenced by the works of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, especially by his epistolary novel Nouvelle Héloise; and this influence is obvious in both of Laclos’ works L’Education des Femmes and Les Liaison Dangereuses. But it was the novel Les Liaison Dangereuses that brought popularity to Laclos, as well as social rejection, because this literary work appeared to be “a portrait of an age whose tragedy lies in the waste of its great gifts”1.

The eighteenth century was the period of Libertinage in France, when some people rejected all social norms and struggled for free will. These libertines eliminated emotions and pointed at the necessity of intelligence. Libertinage was supported by the regent Philippe of Orleans who substituted religion and virtues for freedom and vice. However, this was also a period of female subordination, that’s why libertines were mainly males, because women, due to their poor education, were considered as unfit for any display of free will. They were regarded as inferior to men, because their intellectual abilities were reduced only to the domestic sphere. As a result, women were psychologically destroyed creatures that were controlled and manipulated by males in French patriarchal world. These females were deprived of any possibility to take part in political, military or cultural life of society. But Laclos destroys these stereotypes in his epistolary novel Les Liaison Dangereuses, demonstrating that not only males, but females as well may be libertines. The writer is not satisfied with the treatment of women in his times; thus his motives in writing L’Education des Femmes and Les Liaison Dangereuses can be explained by Laclos’ wish to protect women from men by means of female independence. However, Laclos considers that female freedom is both good and dangerous, because society, in which a woman lives, is too false and preoccupied with wrong stereotypes. Although the writer points at the necessity of education for a woman, he believes that good education will help her in her private life rather than inspire a female to utilise her freedom for any other activity.

The aim of this dissertation is to analyse the extent of the emancipatory subtext concerning the position of women in eighteenth-century French society in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaison Dangereuses. The research paper is divided into several sections. Chapter 1 reveals a statement of the problem that points at the problematic of the conducted analysis. Chapter 2 demonstrates a general overview of the issue, evaluating the social and political contexts and Laclos’ motivations for the utilisation of emancipatory elements in his literary works. Chapter 3 observes the opinions of various critics on Les Liaison Dangereuses.

Chapter 4 points at the theoretical research methods that are applied for the research. Chapter 5 provides a profound investigation of the emancipatory subtext in Laclos’ novel, paying a particular attention to women and their roles in French society. Briefly observing Laclos’ essays L’Education des Femmes, this chapter further analyses female characters of Les Liaison Dangereuses and their relations with male characters, uncovering gender tensions of the eighteenth century and the negative results of social inequality. Chapter 6 conducts the summarisation of the received findings, and Chapter 7 reveals the limitations of the research and provides some suggestions for further analysis of Laclos’ novel.    

3 Review of the literature

Les Liaison Dangereuses has raised hot debates among various critics since the time of its publication. Earlier criticism regards this novel as one of the first feminist literary works, but as Suellen Diaconoff claims, “in the past ten or fifteen years the assessment of Choderlos de Laclos’ treatment of women has undergone significant revision”2. Some contemporary critics point at a misogynist context of the novel in addition to the emancipatory subtext, while other researchers consider that Les Liaison Dangereuses uncovers female weakness and male dominance. Such contradictory viewpoints reflect the ambiguous vision of women’s roles in Laclos’ narration, as the writer provides his female characters with the power to resist and the power to withdraw. According to Martin Turnell, Les Liaison Dangereuses “has been called the most impersonal novel in the French language and certainly the author is not to be found in it”3. The major criticism of the work in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries regards its moral side; many critics considered Les Liaison Dangereuses to be a threat to readers, as the novel provided a new vision on the issue of virtue and was “morally dangerous or historically fanciful”4. Although Baudelaire praised Laclos’ epistolary novel, the spread of Romanticism depreciated this praising, regarding the work as a literary piece, where “reason and cold analysis triumph”5.

However, by the middle of the nineteenth century the researchers began to take a particular interest in Les Liaison Dangereuses, analysing the writer’s realism and the characters’ psychology. In particular, Byrne points at a profound morality of the novel, claiming that the book provides “a ‘correct’ moral viewpoint which only a churl would find fault with”6. Other critics reveal pessimistic aspects in the described sentimentality of the eighteenth-century fiction, in particular, John Mullan considers that French novelists “were able to concede that habits of sociability were limited or exceptional, only just surviving in a world in which fellow-feeling was rare and malevolence prevailed”7. This is especially true in regard to Laclos who demonstrates these pessimistic aspects throughout the narration. Peter Conroy analyses a close connection between two males in Les Liaison Dangereuses, revealing that such bonding results in female destruction, for instance, when Valmont provides Danceny with the letters to destroy Mme de Merteuil8. The researcher considers that male bonding reflects one of the crucial aspects of female oppression in French society. Thus, despite the novel’s criticism and rejection in the eighteenth century, Les Liaison Dangereuses is considered to be one of the most popular epistolary works.

4 Research methodology

This dissertation applies to three theoretical research methods – a social constructionist approach, a discourse analytical approach and a feminist approach. With the help of these methods the paper investigates the discussed issue from various perspectives and provides valid explanation to the emancipatory subtext of Laclos’ novel Les Liaison Dangereuses. As an appropriate tool for investigation, the social constructionist approach regards people as the products of society that defines particular roles for them. In this regard, this approach is especially important for analysing the position of women in eighteenth-century French society and the reflection of this vision in a particular epistolary work.

The discourse analytical approach provides an opportunity to discuss the emancipatory subtext of the novel in its close connection with social and political conditions of France. It allows to evaluate the consequences of the dominant position of males over females and to uncover the inequality of both genders before the French Revolution. The feminist approach reveals the impact of certain social stereotypes on the portrayal of females in French literature, exposing the negative consequences of these ideologies on women of the eighteenth century. This approach evaluates the roles and positions of women through the principal female characters of a literary work, simultaneously pointing at the differentiation between men and women.    

5 Discussion

5.1. ‘L’Education des Femmes’

Before the publication of his epistolary novel Les Liaison Dangereuses, Laclos wrote three essays on female education that were compiled together under the name L’Education des Femmes. In the era of Enlightenment this issue became especially crucial in France and was of particular interest to Laclos. As Turnell puts it, Laclos “only discusses those feelings which interest other people as well as himself”9. In his essays Laclos depicts his own vision on the position of women in French society and the ways to improve their conditions. The ideas presented in L’Education des Femmes are implicitly reflected in Laclos’ novel, that’s why it is crucial to observe these essays for better understanding of the emancipatory subtext of Les Liaison Dangereuses. In the first essay the writer points at the fact that an advanced education won’t make the lives of women better, instead he claims that it is necessary to introduce social changes that will improve a female position10. Laclos considers that women do not have enough freedom and are usually treated as slaves by males; they prefer to adhere to social standards rather than to oppose them. Although Laclos proclaims the necessity of freedom for women, he slightly transforms this viewpoint in the second and the third essays.

In particular, he claims that a woman should be protected, but not liberated. Despite such ambiguous vision, L’Education des Femmes reveals the truth about the position of females in Laclos’ times and simultaneously uncovers the contradictions that emerged in France in that period. These contradictions were a direct result of the emerged liberty and the preservation of the older social stereotypes. On the one hand, Laclos rises against the limitation of female freedom, but, on the other hand, he doesn’t really reveal the ways to free a woman. Laclos reveals that in the struggle for dominance, men and women destroy each other: males treat females as their slaves, while women utilise their sexuality to prove their own superiority. As females are deprived of equality with men in social and political spheres, they start to manipulate males with the help of sex. According to Laclos, this constant sex war greatly depends on the ability of a woman to diversify sexual relations. However, as Laclos demonstrates further, there is a danger that such manipulation will turn against women. Laclos implicitly shows that enslavement of women by men is inspired by this particular manipulation. As a woman starts to depend on her sexuality, she reduces herself to a position of a slave. Thus, though the writer criticises the dominance of French males over women in the eighteenth century, he doesn’t provide an actual proposal for changes that will improve female positions. The same approach is maintained by Laclos in his novel Les Liaison Dangereuses.

5.2. The emancipatory subtext of ‘Les Liaison Dangereuses’

In Les Liaison Dangereuses Pierre Choderlos de Laclos creates the characters that belong to the French aristocracy and that apply to cruelty and deceit to disgrace other people. Although this novel received unusual population after its publication in 1782, the writer was immediately criticised and rejected by the members of the upper class society. According to Turnell, “The Liaisons was read by everyone and discussed in all the salons, but the people who read him with most passion shut their doors in his face”11. Such attitude can be explained by the fact that Laclos reveals the truth about French aristocracy, the truth that people could no longer avoid.

On the example of such characters as Cécile de Volanges and Mme de Volanges the writer demonstrates the negative consequences of poor female education and the superior position of men over women. On the other hand, introducing such female characters as the Marquise de Merteuil and the Présidente de Tourvel, Laclos simultaneously implements the emancipatory subtext into his narration. Throughout the novel Mme de Merteuil tries to achieve a dominant position over other people, including the Vicomte de Valmont, her former lover. Discussing the relations between Mme de Merteuil and Valmont, Turnell claims that “they are both so determined to dominate, so impatient of any restraint, that Mme de Merteuil cannot make up her mind to return permanently to Valmont”12. It is this female character that involves Valmont into her intrigues and further induces his death. Mme de Merteuil’s wit and determination make her superior to men. Since the very beginning Mme de Merteuil makes constant attempts to manipulate Valmont. As a result, Laclos’ epistolary work dispels a prolonged illusion created by the majority of French novels that were primarily “a smoke-screen that concealed the exploits of the aristocracy from the rest of the world”13.

Characterising his characters through their letters, the writer uncovers the inner degradation of aristocracy before the French Revolution. As Emile Dard puts it, “people recognised their portraits in them and the likeness was so good that they could not turn their horrified gaze from this new image of themselves”14. According to the discourse analytical approach, it is possible to evaluate people through their expressed ideas15, thus Laclos applies to the characters’ letters to uncover people’s essence and reveal his own vision on both males and females. According to Laclos, a French woman is greatly controlled by a social machine that allows men to take possession over women. As Turnell states, “The role of the female is to be ‘defeated’ by the predatory male… Yet the defeated woman is not so much victim as an accomplice”16. In other words, as a woman marries a man and is defeated by him, she becomes a part of him, because “the engagement does not end in ‘victory’ for one party and ‘defeat’ for the other. It is a combination of the two, victory-and-defeat”17.

However, in the case of Mme de Merteuil, the situation is quite different, because this female character is not “restrained by any inhibition, by any feeling of guilt or shame”18. Letter 81 reveals Mme de Merteuil’s personal explanation of her behaviour and actions. In particular, Mme de Merteuil points out that she greatly differs from other females of her social class, as she possesses strong principles that are not based on some established rules, but instead are created by her in the process of deep reflection. Even the first sexual intercourse of this character with her husband is regarded by her as the possibility to experience both pain and pleasure, to explore something new and utilise new experience for her own benefits. In this letter Mme de Merteuil puts herself in a superior position over others, even over politicians, and reveals that she is able to get pleasure from various things, not only from love. On the contrary, she eliminates love, because it prevents her from intrigues. As the feminist approach reveals, such behaviour of a woman is understandable, because under constant social oppression from the side of men, some females begin to act similar to men, acquiring male features and rejecting excessive emotionality19.

In this regard, Laclos’ novel differs from the novels of the seventeenth century, as Turnell puts it, “there is no interior conflict in the minds of Laclos’ two principal characters because the elements of conflict – love as well as duty – have been removed”20. Instead, the writer introduces an exterior conflict between Mme de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, that is, the conflict between a male and female that uncovers the emancipatory subtext of the narration. Demonstrating the relations between two opposite sexes, Laclos reveals not the tensions between individuals, but the conflicts that emerge when old stereotypes collide with the attempts to oppose to this social system. Laclos divides his characters into two parties: on the one side, there are Mme de Volanges and Cécile de Volanges with their traditional moral values, but, on the other side, there are Valmont and Mme de Merteuil who oppose to any conventions and involve other people into their intrigues. On the basis of this division Laclos reflects three kinds of relations.

Mme de Merteuil and Valmont are engaged in the relations that are characteristic for the eighteenth century, that is, they eliminate any emotions, proving that sexual pleasure doesn’t depend on desires and feelings. The relations between the Chevalier de Dancery and Cécile de Volanges are of different nature, they are based on sentimental emotions. The relations between Mme de Merteuil and Dancery, Valmont and Cécile, Valmont and the Présidente reflect the wish of Valmont and Mme de Merteuil to take revenge on their enemies, but, on the other hand, they reflect their desire “to get at conventional morality”21. They involve such young and naïve girl as Cécile into their intrigues, fully ignoring the feelings of this female. Cécile who is regarded as a child by everyone around her feels uncertainty and fear, when she starts to interact with other members of society. She is a beautiful female, but she lacks both intellect and free will, and her principles reflect the social norms that existed in France in the eighteenth century. Thus, Cécile de Volanges is a stereotypic female, a product of French society that regards her as a toy; such characters may be easily involved in any intrigues and be destroyed. As Cécile claims to her friend, “What made me most uneasy was that I did not know what they thought about me. I think I heard two or three times the word ‘pretty’, but I very distinctly heard ‘awkward’22. According to the feminist approach, such behaviour of a woman is a direct result of female subjugation that develops weakness and excessive emotionality in her23.

As a result of this constant subordination, Cécile greatly depends on social opinion, but Mme de Merteuil doesn’t want to understand the weakness of Cécile, instead she utilises this naivety for her own benefits. The same regards Mme de Volanges, a mother of Cecile; pretending to be her close friend, Mme de Merteuil assigns a certain role for Mme de Volanges. But, adhering to traditional morality, Mme de Volanges decides to tell the truth about Valmont to the Présidente, thus “play[ing] the Male game in leading the anti-Merteuil party”24. But Laclos reveals that new morality of Mme de Merteuil is based on evil and thus, results in many negative consequences. Substituting one morality for another, Mme de Merteuil wants to prove her freedom and her superiority over other people.

However, in this sex battle Mme de Merteuil destroys herself. Although this female character manages to convey her emancipatory behaviour, Laclos shows that wrong upbringing and poor education of Mme de Merteuil deprive her of the possibility to utilise her intelligence for better things than revenge. On the other hand, the writer introduces such female characters as Mme de Rosamonde and the Présidente de Tourvel who embody true virtue in contrast to both traditional virtue and the virtue of Mme de Merteuil. As a result, Mme de Merteuil realises that these female characters, especially the Présidente, are dangerous for her. The Présidente is not only a sincere woman, but she also has a great impact on Valmont, making him “forget his famous principles”25. Mme de Merteuil understands that the Présidente is a threat to her relations with Valmont and her intrigues, thus she makes Valmont eliminate this female, simultaneously eliminating true virtue. Mme de Merteuil exceeds Valmont and other characters of the narration, because she possesses powerful intelligence and inexorability. She stresses on the fact that by the time she was fifteen, she had more talents than any politician; such viewpoint is “the measure of her powers and of her tragedy”26.

Contrary to Mme de Merteuil, Valmont embodies a weakness, because he possesses sentimentality that brings him to destruction. The eighteenth-century was preoccupied with the principles of rationalism that rejected any display of sentimentality. Mme de Merteuil manages to get rid of this sentimental shortcoming, while Valmont preserves it, although he doesn’t want to admit this truth. As a result, Mme de Merteuil constantly criticises Valmont, considering that the opposite sex has no virtues and abilities. Mme de Merteuil is superior to Valmont, because she has an unusual gift for understanding inner worlds of other people, while Valmont’s ‘principles’ do not allow him to develop a deep insight of the world and people around him. Mme de Merteuil and Valmont are engaged in the struggle against each other, reflecting their desires to achieve dominance. In this struggle love and hatred coexist together, revealing the essence of relations between men and women in eighteenth century France.

When Mme de Merteuil involves Valmont into her intrigues and makes him establish relations with other women, she still wants to possess Valmont; she doesn’t want to admit that another female may substitute her. As Fellows and Razack puts it, “Women challenged about their domination by calling attention to their own subordination… If a woman is subordinate herself, she cannot then be implicated in the subordination of others”27. However, this is not the case with Mme de Merteuil who rejects subordination of men over her, but is involved in subordination of both males and females. Comparing herself with Dalila, Mme de Merteuil reveals that as “for the man each conquest is a victory for his sex; for the woman it is equally a victory for hers, because in allowing herself to be seduced, she dominates the male and deprives him of his strength”28. Mme de Merteuil considers that in the process of seduction both sexes achieve victory, but males fail to realise that women change them into slaves. Such female viewpoint reflects the core of the emancipatory subtext of the novel, but simultaneously it uncovers the conflict between sexes. According to Jean Giraudoux, “the battle begins the moment that each sex regards the other as its accomplice”29. As Valmont starts to compare Mme de Merteuil with other females, with the whole female sex, she starts to experience hatred and anger towards her former lover, aggravating the tensions between them.

Valmont’s death is the end of this sex battle, and, by killing Valmont, the representative of the male sex, Laclos reveals females’ superiority, proving that a woman may be more intelligent than a man. On the other hand, the writer reduces Mme de Merteuil’s victory by depriving this female character of all things that are valuable to her, especially appearance and reputation. Such failure can be explained by the fact that, despite her intelligence and power, Mme de Merteuil remains a weak woman because of her jealousy and wish to dominate over other members of society. This character doesn’t want to accept the victory of the opposite sex, because in this case she will be forced to admit her own weakness. But in her pursuit to prove her superior position, Mme de Merteuil destroys not only her lover, but she also ruins her own life.

According to Turnell, “Laclos’ theme is the tragedy of the Rational Man, the man who was carefully conditioned through the removal of all moral scruples and the sense of guilt”30. This is true in regard to Mme de Merteuil who maintains the principles of rational thinking and eliminates any display of sentimentality from her relations with people in order to prove her own superiority over others. However, she masterfully utilises her own sexuality to manipulate men and make them act as she wishes. According to the social constructionist approach, such sexual behaviour of a woman is developed by society, in which she lives; it is not an inherent feature, but rather a direct consequence of social pressure31. Laclos doesn’t state that a female is unable to experience pleasure; on the contrary, the writer reveals female ability for sexual desires. He presents a woman as an active partner in sexual relations, but he also considers that sexuality may destroy a woman, if she allows sexuality to take control over her life and interfere with love, as is just the case with Mme de Tourvel.

As for Mme de Merteuil, her sexuality also destroys her, because she hopes to prove her superiority with the help of sex, but finally she appears to be trapped in self-delusion. Mme de Merteuil’s attempt to achieve an equal position with males is rather courageous and feminist, but she chooses a wrong approach for attaining her goal. This female character rises against individual people, failing to realise that it is the existing social system that should be transformed. Destroying some persons, Mme de Merteuil doesn’t eliminate the system that puts women into inferior positions. On the other hand, Laclos reveals that Mme de Merteuil is a true libertine. She fails to succeed at the end of the narration, but her way of life demonstrates the greatness of this female. She lives in patriarchal world, where women are prohibited any freedom, but she manages to overcome these stereotypes and act in accordance with her desires. Mme de Merteuil ignores morality of French society, creating her own morality and trying to eliminate all powerful emotions. She experiences pleasure when she demonstrates her superiority over others and she easily manipulates men with the help of her sexuality and intelligence.

Such behaviour is unusual for a woman of the eighteenth century, but, creating such female character as Mme de Merteuil, Laclos wants to prove that in reality there is no difference between a man and a woman. In fact, Mme de Merteuil is similar to Valmont, and even superior to him, as the writer reveals in the denouement. Valmont might achieve success in politics or in any other field, but instead he is involved in intrigues. In his relations with women Valmont plays a role of a noble man, deceiving both Cécile de Volanges, when he claims that “I detest everything that savours of deception: that, in brief, is my character”32, and the Présidente de Tourvel, when he asks her “who was ever more respectful and more submissive than I?”33 In his relations with the Présidente he seeks to subjugate her and destroy her true virtues. Valmont feels admiration for this female and he considers her as “the enemy worthy of me”34. But, similar to Mme de Merteuil, the Présidente de Tourvel appears superior to Valmont. His seduction of the Présidente de Tourvel gradually is transformed into love, because he is strongly affected by her kind heart. As Valmont claims, “I left her arms only to fall at her feet and swear eternal love; and to tell the whole truth, I meant what I said”35.

Valmont falls in love for the first time, but Mme de Merteuil makes him destroy the Présidente de Tourvel. When Valmont makes an attempt to return her, Mme de Merteuil forbids him to do so, stating that “It would suit you very well to take the credit for breaking with her without loosing the pleasure of enjoying her”36. These words reveal the negative aspect of Libertinage; although Valmont rises against social morality, society continues to influence him and shape his behaviour. Maintaining the principles of Libertinage, he is not able to act against these principles, thus Valmont’s freedom appears to be a delusion, because he simply changes one rules for other norms. The same regards the principal female character of the novel Mme de Merteuil who is also trapped in her principles and new morality that finally bring her to destruction. Despite their close relations with each other, Mme de Merteuil prefers to destroy Valmont and his love to the Présidente de Tourvel, and Valmont destroys Mme de Merteuil as a revenge.

In this regard, Laclos creates two powerful female characters in his novel – Mme de Merteuil and the Présidente de Tourvel, through which he uncovers his emancipatory subtext; however, the writer, drawing a parallel between these women, reveals their differences. Mme de Merteuil is a woman who uses her sexuality and intelligence to transform men into “the toy of my caprices, or my fantasies”37, as she claims in Letter 81. Mme de Merteuil directs her principles and education towards the only purpose to “avenge my sex and to dominate yours”38. Love can’t bring happiness to this woman, as she deprives herself of any emotions. Mme de Merteuil mocks at those females “who cannot see their future enemy in their present lover”39, reducing the relations between a male and woman to a simple sex battle. As Mme de Merteuil considers herself superior to others, she doesn’t admit any equality between two opposite sexes, that’s why she claims that “no one should be further from my confidence than my husband”40. She doesn’t want to love a man, instead she wants to control him. Mme de Merteuil deprives herself of any passion and she believes that such ability to suppress powerful feelings makes her better than other women.

But Laclos reveals that such viewpoint is wrong by contrasting Mme de Merteuil with the Présidente de Tourvel who possesses those virtues that Mme de Merteuil lacks. From the beginning of Valmont’s relations with the Présidente de Tourvel, she realises that this woman has something that allows her to attract men, and thus Mme de Merteuil tries to depreciate the virtues of the Présidente de Tourvel. Mme de Merteuil calls her “a poor creature”41 that is obsessed with her religion. However, Mme


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