The Woman Destroyed (La Femme Rompue) by Simone de Beauvoir, 1968

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by Simone de Beauvoir, 1968

Though Simone de Beauvoir has no doubt made her most lasting contribution to modern thought with her very influential study of the female condition, The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe), and with her sequence of brilliant autobiographical writings, she also has to her credit a number of novels and short stories. These are all to some extent reflections of both her own experience and her philosophical attitudes. "The Woman Destroyed," "The Age of Discretion," and "The Monologue" were first published in La Femme rompue in 1968.

It is clear from the differences in narrative style between the three stories that Beauvoir is to some degree experimenting with different fictional modes in an attempt to persuade us to see her three heroines' predicaments from different angles. "The Age of Discretion" takes the form of a first-person narrative by the heroine; "The Monologue" is presented as a transcript of the thoughts rushing through Murielle's head; "The Woman Destroyed" is in diary form. "The Woman Destroyed," the collection's title story, seems at first to be a straightforward and reliable account of Monique's experiences, but we soon realize this is not the case. As the heroine herself puts it, "What an odd thing a diary is: the things you omit are more important that those you put in."

Monique's life has largely been one of self-deceit, and the diary narrative is a fine expression of her essential egocentricity. This also explains why the other characters in the story are seen only from her viewpoint and remain somewhat one-dimensional. There are critics who complain about the sketchiness of the portrayal of some of the minor figures in the story, but they overlook the fact that this is a valid expression of Monique's relationships with them.

Ostensibly all has been going well. More than 20 years before Monique had, as a young medical student, made a good marriage to Maurice, who had gone on to become a research consultant of some eminence. Now their two daughters are grown. At the start of the story Maurice has just flown off to a scientific congress, and Monique is rather self-consciously preparing for a spell on her own. Almost at once we see a certain temperamental weakness in her as she sets about constructing relationships to spare her the agony of confrontation with herself alone; she is worried when her daughter Colette falls ill, but she subconsciously welcomes the opportunity this offers for forging anew some family links. She also takes up the cause of a female juvenile delinquent with an eagerness that is slightly alarming. Plainly she is already in a vulnerable position when Maurice tells her that he has fallen in love with another woman, Noëllie Guérard, a successful lawyer and a divorcee with a 14-year-old daughter.

The account Monique gives of the relationship between Maurice and Noëllie—and her efforts to disrupt it and thus salvage a certain amount of self-respect—offers us marvelous insights into the lifestyle of the intelligentsia in postwar Paris. If the perspective is a bit warped by her distaste for the manners and style of her rival, it only adds piquancy. At first Monique tries to give direction to her existence by struggling to regain Maurice's affections, but in this, despite the advice of her worldly wise acquaintances, she fails. The fall in her self-respect is painful to behold, with physical decline mirroring her mental collapse. Gradually Monique comes to understand that she must stop looking for solutions to her personal problems with other people, whether they are her friends and her children or whether she sees them as her enemies. She reflects on her position and begins to see that she must take some responsibility for the past, the present, and the future.

The conclusion is anything but a conventional happy one. At the end of the story, in a state of loneliness that frightens her, Monique has at last come to an awareness of what Beauvoir understands to be the true nature of human life with each individual answerable for his or her own destiny. In this way the story is transformed from being simply a cleverly related and closely observed account of the marital misfortunes of a woman belonging to the Parisian bourgeoisie, which Beauvoir knew so well, and becomes an expression of existentialism.

—Christopher Smith

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The Woman Destroyed (La Femme Rompue) by Simone de Beauvoir, 1968

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