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Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), a French writer, first articulated what has since become the basis of the modern feminist movement. She was the author of novels, autobiographies, and non-fiction analysis dealing with women's position in a male-dominated world.

Simone de Beauvoir set out to live her life as an example to her contemporaries and chronicled that life for those who followed. Fiercely independent, an ardent feminist before there was such a movement, her life was her legacy and her work was to memorialize that life.

"I was born at four o'clock in the morning on the ninth of January 1908, in a room fitted with white-enameled furniture and overlooking the Boulevard Raspail." Thus begins the first of four memoirs written by de Beauvoir. It is through these autobiographies that de Beauvoir's readers best know her, and it is in her book The Second Sex, an early feminist manifesto, that de Beauvoir synthesized that life into the context of the historical condition of women.

The first child of a vaguely noble couple, de Beauvoir was a willful girl, prone to temper tantrums. Her sister, Poupette, was born when de Beauvoir was two and a half, and the two had a warm relationship. After World War I her father never fully recovered his financial security and the family moved to a more modest home; the daughters were told they had lost their dowries. Forced to choose a profession, de Beauvoir entered the Sorbonne and began to take courses in philosophy to become a teacher. She also began keeping a journal—which became a lifetime habit—and writing some stories.

Link with Sartre

When de Beauvoir was 21 she joined a group of philosophy students including Jean-Paul Sartre. Her relationship with Sartre—intellectually, emotionally, and romantically—was to continue throughout most of their lives. Sartre, the father of existentialism—a school of thought that holds man is on his own, "condemned to be free," as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness —was the single most important influence on de Beauvoir's life.

In 1929 Sartre suggested that, rather than be married, the two sign a conjugal pact which could be renewed or cancelled after two years. When the pact came due, Sartre was offered a job teaching philosophy in Le Havre and de Beauvoir was offered a similar job in Marseilles. He suggested they get married, but they both rejected the idea for fear of forcing their free relationship into the confines of an outer-defined bond. It is indeed ironic that de Beauvoir, whose independence marked her life at every juncture, was perhaps best known as Sartre's lover.

The first installment of de Beauvoir's autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is the story of the author's rejection of the bourgeois values of her parents' lives. The second volume, The Prime of Life, covers the years 1929 through 1944. Written in the postwar years, she separated the events taking place in Europe that led to the war from her own, isolated life. By 1939, however, the two strands were inseparable. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre were teaching in Paris when the war broke out. Earlier she had written two novels that she never submitted for publication and one collection of short stories that was rejected for publication. She was, she said, too happy to write.

That happiness ended in the 1940s with the outbreak of World War II and the interruption of her relationship with Sartre. The introduction of another woman into Sartre's life, and then the anxiety and loneliness de Beauvoir felt while Sartre was a prisoner for more than a year led to her first significant novel, She Came to Stay, published in 1943. She Came to Stay is a study of the effects of love and jealousy. In the next four years she published The Blood of Others, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, Les Bouches Inutiles, and All Men are Mortal.

America Day By Day a chronicle of de Beauvoir's 1947 trip to the United States, and the third installment of her autobiography, Force of Circumstances, cover the period during which the author was formulating and writing The Second Sex, her feminist tract.

The Second Sex

Written in 1949, The Second Sex is blunt and inelegant like her other writing. Its power comes from its content. Her themes and method of attack in The Second Sex are also the reoccurring issues of her work. The book rests on two theses: that man, who views himself as the essential being, has made woman into the inessential being, "the Other," and that femininity as a trait is an artificial posture. Both theses derive from Sartre's existentialism.

The Second Sex was perhaps the most important treatise on women's rights through the 1980s. When it first appeared, however, the reception was less than overwhelming. The lesson of her own life—that womanhood is not a condition one is born to but rather a posture one takes on—was fully realized here. De Beauvoir's personal frustrations were placed in terms of the general, dependent condition of women. Historical, psychological, sociological, and philosophical, The Second Sex does not offer any concrete solutions except "that men and women rise above their natural differentiation and unequivocally affirm their brotherhood."

If The Second Sex bemoans the female condition, de Beauvoir's portrayal of her own life revealed the possibilities available to the woman who can escape enslavement. Hers was a life of equality, yet de Beauvoir remained a voice and a model for those women whose lives were not liberated.

The fourth installment of her autobiography, All Said And Done, was written when de Beauvoir was 63. It portrays a person who has always been secure in an imperfect world. She writes: "Since I was 21, I have never been lonely. The opportunities granted to me at the beginning helped me not only to lead a happy life but to be happy in the life I led. I have been aware of my shortcomings and my limits, but I have made the best of them. When I was tormented by what was happening in the world, it was the world I wanted to change, not my place in it."

De Beauvoir died of a circulatory ailment in a Parisian hospital April 14, 1986. Sartre had died six years earlier.

Further Reading

The most complete biographies of Simone de Beauvoir are her four autobiographies, Memoires of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstances (1963), and All Said And Done (1972). Carol Ascher wrote an almost reverential analysis of the author's work, Simone de Beauvoir—A Life of Freedom (1981), which illustrates her effect on feminist thought. Simone de Beauvoir by Konrad Bieber (1979) and Simone de Beauvoir by Robert Cottrell (1975) both offer more critical analysis. □

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Beauvoir, Simone de

Simone de Beauvoir

Born: January 9, 1908
Paris, France
Died: April 14, 1986
Paris, France

French author and writer

The work of Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, became the basis of the modern women's movement. Her writing dealt with the struggles of women in a male-controlled world.

Early years

The first of two daughters of Georges and Francoise de Beauvoir, a middle-class couple, Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, on January 9, 1908. Her father was a lawyer and had no religious beliefs; her mother was a strong believer in Catholicism. Simone was educated at a strict Catholic school for girls. After World War I (191418), her father suffered money problems, and the family moved to a smaller home. Beauvoir entered the Sorbonne and began to take courses in philosophy (the search for an understanding of the world and man's place in it) to become a teacher. By this time she no longer believed all she had been taught in Catholic school. She also began keeping a journalwhich became a lifetime habitand writing some stories.

Link with Sartre

When Beauvoir was twenty-one she joined a group of philosophy students including Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980). Her relationship with Sartre was to continue throughout most of their lives. Sartre was the father of existentialisma belief that man is on his own, "condemned to be free," as Sartre said in Being and Nothingness. He was also the single most important influence on Beauvoir's life. In 1929 he suggested that, rather than be married, the two sign a contract that could be renewed or cancelled after two years. When the agreement ended, Sartre was offered a job teaching philosophy in Le Havre, France, and Beauvoir was offered a similar job in Marseilles, France. He suggested they get married, but after some thought they both rejected the idea.

The first installment of Beauvoir's autobiography (the story of her life), Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, describes her rejection of her parents' middle-class lives. The second volume, The Prime of Life, covers the years 1929 through 1944, a time when she and Sartre were both teaching in Paris and she was, she said, too happy to write. That happiness ended with the beginning of World War II (193945) and problems in her relationship with Sartre, who became involved with another woman and was also imprisoned for more than a year. During this unhappy time Beauvoir composed her first major novel, She Came to Stay (1943), a study of the effects of love and jealousy. In the next four years she published The Blood of Others, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, Les Bouches Inutiles, and All Men are Mortal. America Day By Day, a chronicle of Beauvoir's 1947 trip to the United States, and the third part of her autobiography, Force of Circumstances, cover the period during which the author was writing The Second Sex.

The Second Sex

Written in 1949, The Second Sex had two main ideas: that man, who views himself as the essential being, has made woman into the inessential being, "the Other," and that femininity as a trait is an artificial posture. Sartre influenced both of these ideas. The Second Sex was perhaps the most important writing on women's rights through the 1980s. When it first appeared, however, it was not very popular. The Second Sex does not offer any real solutions to the problems of women except the hope "that men and women rise above their natural differentiation (differences) and unequivocally (firmly) affirm their brotherhood." The description of Beauvoir's own life revealed the possibilities available to the woman who found ways to escape her situation. Hers was a life of equality, and she remained a voice and a model for those women not living free lives.

The fourth installment of her autobiography, All Said And Done, was written when Beauvoir was sixty-three. In it she describes herself as a person who has always been secure in an imperfect world: "Since I was 21, I have never been lonely. The opportunities granted to me at the beginning helped me not only to lead a happy life but to be happy in the life I led. I have been aware of my shortcomings and my limits, but I have made the best of them. When I was tormented by what was happening in the world, it was the world I wanted to change, not my place in it." On April 14, 1986, Simone de Beauvoir died in a Paris hospital. Sartre had died six years earlier.

For More Information

Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, 1990.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Prime of Life. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1962. Reprint, New York: Paragon House, 1992.

Keefe, Terry. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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de Beauvoir, Simone

de Beauvoir, Simone (1908–86) A Parisian-born philosopher and novelist who graduated from the élite École Normale Supérieure. She is most celebrated for her two-volume The Second Sex (1949) which has been grossly translated and truncated in its English-language version. This was a wide ranging analysis of the subordination of women, examining biological, historical, and ethnographic aspects. ‘Woman is made not born’, she argued. Literature and belief systems revealed that women were always seen as the ‘other’ to man as subject. Women, she concluded, are seen as nature while man is seen as culture. Such claims rest sometimes on Eurocentric ideological assumptions disguised as universals. Many descriptions of women's existence were in effect vivid details from de Beauvoir's first-hand experience and observations of mid-century Paris and gave authenticity to her text. The book inspired thousands of women readers. She answered a post-war unease, when the question of women's subordination had disappeared. Since the more recent growth of feminist perspectives in many specialisms, there have been few such multi-disciplined studies.

De Beauvoir also wrote novels, her earliest being She Came to Stay (1943). The Mandarins (1954) received the Prix Goncourt. An existentialist philosopher, she explored moral and political dilemmas in essays and plays. There were also autobiographical volumes; for example Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), and accounts of both her mother's death (A Very Easy Death, 1964) and that of her long-term companion Jean-Paul Sartre (Adieux, 1981).

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Beauvoir, Simone de

Simone de Beauvoir (sēmôn´ də bōvwär´), 1908–86, French author. A leading exponent of existentialism, she is closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she had a life-long relationship. Beauvoir taught philosophy at several colleges until 1943, after which she devoted herself to writing. Her novels All Men Are Mortal (1946, tr. 1955), The Blood of Others (1946, tr. 1948), and The Mandarins (1955, tr. 1956) are interpretations of the existential dilemma. Among her most celebrated works is the profound analysis of the status of women, The Second Sex (1949–50, tr. 1953). This pivotal text was cut by some 15 percent when first translated; an unabridged English translation was finally published in 2010. Beauvoir's study The Marquis de Sade (tr. 1953) is a brilliant, perceptive portrait. Her monumental treatise The Coming of Age (1970, tr. 1972) is an exhaustive historical consideration of the social treatment of the aged in many cultures. Beauvoir's autobiographical writings include Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958, tr. 1959), The Prime of Life (tr. 1962), Force of Circumstance (1963, tr. 1964), A Very Easy Death (1964, tr. 1966), and All Said and Done (tr. 1974). She also edited Sartre's letters to her (tr. 1994).

See biography by D. Bair (1990); S. de Beauvoir, ed., Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940–1963 (1994); studies by E. Marks (1973), L. Appignanesi (1988), R. Winegarten (1988), K. and E. Fullbrook (1994), and H. Rowley (2005).

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Beauvoir, Simone de

Beauvoir, Simone de (1908–86) French novelist, essayist, and critic. Her novels She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954) are portraits of the existentialist intellectual circle of which she and her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, were members. Her best-known work is the feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949). Other significant works include The Prime of Life (1960), A Very Easy Death (1964), and Old Age (1970). See also existentialism

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de Beauvoir, Simone

de Beauvoir, Simone See Beauvoir

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