Simone de Beauvoir
De Beauvoir, Simone
BORN: 1908, Paris, France
DIED: 1986, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
She Came To Stay (1943)
The Second Sex (1949)
The Mandarins (1954)
Simone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, and among the best-known female writers of all time. Her study of the oppression of women throughout history, The Second Sex (1949), is a founding text of modern feminism. De Beauvoir was prominent in the circle of left-wing Parisian intellectuals associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Interest in her long-term relationship with Sartre and controversies around The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of de Beauvoir's fiction. Yet she was an acclaimed and popular novelist; The Mandarins (1954) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. De Beau-voir was a perceptive witness to the twentieth century whose works span from her childhood days before World War I to the world of the 1980s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Diarist Simone de Beauvoir was born in the fourteenth arrondissement, or district, of Paris in 1908, and lived there most of her life. Her mother was a devout Catholic; her father, a lawyer, was agnostic. Despite a comfortable childhood, she rebelled against
her parents' values at an early age, declaring that she would never become a housewife or mother. She also began to write when young, penning her first story at age eight and keeping a diary that would evolve into four published volumes of memoirs, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).
Alliance with Sartre In 1925, she began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later she met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning an intimate personal and intellectual relationship that would continue until his death in 1980. They studied together and passed the agrégation de philosophie in 1929, placing first and second on the exam that provided their teaching credentials. At twenty-one, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to receive this prestigious degree. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy at secondary schools in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and developed an unwavering partnership, but they never lived together. They rejected the institution of marriage, and neither wanted children. Furthermore, they did not exclude what
they called “contingent” affairs, some of which became important in their lives. In 1933, the pair attempted a ménage à trois with one of Sartre's students, Olga Kosakiewicz. This experiment, and the anguish it caused, became the basis for de Beauvoir's first novel, She Came to Stay (1943). The novel captures the hothouse atmosphere generated by the trio as the indolent intruder Xaviére slowly destroys everything that surrounds her.
In the 1930s, de Beauvoir's life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Sartre was drafted to fight in the French army during World War II, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, he and de Beauvoir determined to become more involved in public life during the German occupation of France. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism. De Beauvoir provides one of the most vivid accounts of life in France during the war in her memoir The Prime of Life (1960).
Existentialism and Responsibility The war was also central to her second novel, written during the German occupation. The Blood of Others (1945) alternates between the point of view of Jean Blomart, an active member of the Resistance fighting against the Nazis, and Helene Bertrand, who is shaken out of complacency when she sees the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police, snatch a Jewish child from her mother. After the death of a young friend he inspired to participate in a political demonstration, Jean wrestles with his responsibility for the deaths of others.
The theme of responsibility is a crucial element of the existentialist philosophy developed by Sartre. De Beauvoir agrees with Sartre that human beings are free, without a God to give meaning or purpose to their lives, in a world without preordained values. This freedom leads to anguish, because people can rely only on themselves and are thus responsible for everything that happens to them. De Beauvoir attempted to explain and popularize existentialism in several essays, including The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and Existentialism and the Wisdom of the Ages (1948). The simplicity of her writing style makes these texts more accessible than the abstruse, sometimes impenetrable prose of Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
The Second Sex and The Mandarins When de Beauvoir set out to begin her autobiography, she realized that she first needed to understand the extent to which being born female had influenced her life. She spent hours in the library seeking documentation for each section of the book that was to become the foundation of her international reputation. The Second Sex examines the historical, biological, and sociological origins of the oppression of women. The opening statement of the section on childhood, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” has become familiar throughout the world. The book advises women to pursue meaningful careers and to avoid the status of “relative beings”—implicit, in de Beauvoir's view, in marriage and motherhood.
When The Second Sex appeared in 1949, reactions ranged from the horrified gasps of conservative readers to the impassioned gratitude of millions of women who had never before encountered such a frank discussion of their condition. Reactions to the sections discussing the female anatomy and homosexuality were especially hostile. Nevertheless, the book was widely translated and served as a battle cry of feminism in the 1960s and afterward.
De Beauvoir's best-received novel, The Mandarins, returns to the subject of the Nazi occupation of France. It presents the euphoria of Liberation Day in Paris as German troops were driven out, and the subsequent disillusionment of French intellectuals who found themselves dividing into factions as the glow of Resistance companionship and victory over the Nazis dimmed. De Beauvoir always denied that The Mandarins was a roman à clef, or a thinly-veiled memoir offered as fiction, with Robert Dubreuilh, Henri Perron, and Anne Dubreuilh representing Sartre, Albert Camus, and herself. Nonetheless, echoes of the developing rift between Sartre and Camus, and of the concern of French intellectuals over the Soviet work camps, are clearly audible throughout the novel.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
De Beauvoir's famous contemporaries include:
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980): French philosopher, novelist, and dramatist.
Nelson Algren (1909–1981): American author of The Man with the Golden Arm and lover of Simone de Beauvoir.
Anaïs Nin (1903–1977): French-Cuban author famous for her voluminous diaries and relationship with Henry Miller.
Marguerite Duras (1914–1996): French author of experimental fiction.
Her Life and Deaths Most of the writing de Beauvoir produced after The Mandarins was nonfiction, beginning with her remarkable series of memoirs, invaluable documents for following the development of her career. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter examines her early years and growing rebellion against bourgeois tradition. The Prime of Life treats the continuing dialogue between
de Beauvoir and Sartre from 1929 to 1944, including the development of the existentialist movement. The Force of Circumstance (1963), focuses on the postwar years and reflects the author's political awareness; it is written with anguish over the French military involvement in Algeria.
The Force of Circumstance reveals its maturing author's concerns with aging and death. In the year of its publication, 1963, de Beauvoir's mother died from cancer. In the moving pages of A Very Easy Death (1964), the author recaptures the warmth of her childhood relationship with her mother, and shares with her readers the anxiety of knowing more about her mother's condition than she could reveal to her, as well as the pain of helplessly watching a life ebb away. Sartre considered A Very Easy Death de Beauvoir's best work. De Beauvoir also published an important study of the social conditions of aging, entitled Old Age (1970).
Seventeen years after the passing of de Beauvoir's mother, Jean-Paul Sartre died. De Beauvoir wrote Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981), a companion piece to A Very Easy Death, to cope with the anguish of watching age and illness take their toll on her companion of fifty years. De Beauvoir notes that Adieux differs from her previous work in that Sartre did not read it before its publication.
Simone de Beauvoir died in a Paris hospital on April 14, 1986. She was buried in the same grave as were Sartre's ashes. Five thousand people attended the funeral, and flowers sent by women's organizations around the world attested to the renown of this beloved woman of letters.
Works in Literary Context
As de Beauvoir recounts in her autobiography, she was a precocious writer and avid reader of female authors such as George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott. In her adolescence, a cousin introduced her to French authors such as André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Alain-Fournier. Her mother, scandalized by such literature, pinned together pages of books she did not want her daughters to read. De Beauvoir later acknowledged the influence of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway on her novelistic techniques.
Obviously, her intellectual partner Sartre provided a shaping influence on all her published prose. The pair wrote about the same ideas, and reflected on their shared experiences. For example, it is tempting to compare de Beauvoir's first novel, She Came to Stay (1943), and Sartre's famous play No Exit (1944). Both texts were written in the wake of the couple's liaison with Olga Kosakiewicz. Both have three main characters, two women and a man, and both convey the fundamental theme that hell is the way other people would have us see ourselves.
Philosophy in Fiction De Beauvoir's fiction illustrates in concrete terms the major themes of her philosophical essays, although her fiction is more ambiguous and its tone less authoritative. Her characters are determined neither by heredity nor by childhood experiences. They are free at each moment to choose their destiny. But they must recognize that they are free. Rather than offering a psychological explanation of their acts, de Beauvoir gives them an existential dimension.
Freedom and Bad Faith For readers familiar with de Beauvoir's memoirs, several of her characters are more or less transparent versions of the author herself, such as Francoise in She Came to Stay. Another character present in each of the novels is the unloved woman who would abdicate her freedom to possess the man she loves: Helene in The Blood of Others, who is in love with Jean; and Paule in The Mandarins, who loves Henri. These characters represent, in de Beauvoir's fictional world, those members of the “second sex” who accept the image imposed on them by society, and suffer as a consequence. They portray the existentialist notion of bad faith because they deny their freedom to stray from conventional female roles.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Second Sex has a prominent place in the literature of women's liberation. Here are a few other landmark texts of modern feminism.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a treatise by Mary Wollstonecraft. A passionate argument in favor of granting educational opportunities to women.
A Room of One's Own (1929), an essay by Virginia Woolf. For a woman to write creatively, this famous novelist argues, she needs only two things: money and a room of her own.
The Feminine Mystique (1963), a nonfiction work by Betty Friedan. This influential American book from the 1960s encourages women to look beyond homemaking and childrearing in search of their real identity and potential.
In a Different Voice (1982), a nonfiction work by Carol Gilligan. A psychologist questions the relationship between gender and ethical reasoning.
An Icon of Women's Liberation Although the novels of Simone de Beauvoir successfully dramatize the main ideas of her thinking, it is The Second Sex that has had the most profound influence. This pioneering work of scholarship has touched the lives of millions of women, setting the terms for the explosion of feminist theory and activism since the 1960s. Most of the leading advocates for women's rights in the West have heralded her leadership. Gloria Steinem, for example, remarked in the New York Times that “More than any other single human being, she's responsible for the current international women's movement.”
Works in Critical Context
De Beauvoir's literary career was very successful. Her first two novels, and most of her subsequent books, were critically and commercially well received. The Blood of Others, published in 1945, is remembered as the first French novel to speak openly about the Resistance movement. Critical examinations of de Beauvoir's novels, however, often focus more on their autobiographical details rather than on their literary merits, because of de Beau-voir's status as a historic figure of the twentieth century, and the many illustrious contemporaries who pepper the pages of her novels and memoirs.
Since 1973, when de Beauvoir publicly declared herself to be a feminist, her novels have tended to receive less critical attention than her nonfiction and, to a lesser extent, her memoirs. Most scholarly commentary has been directed at The Second Sex. If the novels have been examined, it is to analyze the ways female characters were represented. An interest in de Beauvoir's feminism seems to have overshadowed concern for her existentialism.
The Second Sex Several critics have taken de Beauvoir to task for her apparently negative presentation of women and their values. Jean Leighton perceives an antifeminine bias in The Second Sex that extends to the portrayal of femininity in de Beauvoir's novels. Biographer Carol Ascher speaks of her subject's “grim view of women's condition.” More incisively, Mary Evans perceives in de Beauvoir an assumption that “traditionally male activities (the exercise of rationality, independent action, and so on) are in some sense superior, and are instances almost of a higher form of civilization than those concerns—such as childcare and the maintenance of daily life—that have traditionally been the preserve of women.” Conversely, others have argued that de Beauvoir's depiction of women reveals anger at their circumstances, not their inherent inferiority. Regardless of this criticism, de Beauvoir is considered one of the most important champions of women's rights, and one of the century's foremost intellects.
Responses to Literature
- Explain de Beauvoir's argument, in the introduction toThe Second Sex, that “woman is the Other.” What does that mean and how is that concept manifested in everyday life?
- Write about de Beauvoir's insights on the subject of death, citing two or more of her works. Can this insight be traced throughout de Beauvoir's works? Can you put this perspective into a succinct phrase that summarizes de Beauvoir's thoughts?
- Simone de Beauvoir wrote extensively about her life, in four volumes of memoirs. The events and characters of her life story also show up, thinly disguised, in her novels. Locate one or two pivotal events in her life, and contrast how she portrays them in her fiction and in her autobiography.
- Write about the variety of women characters in de Beauvoir's fiction. Collectively, what do they indicate about her perspective on women's experience? Select two that have made an impact on you; describe them and explain what makes them unique.
Ascher, Carol. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.
Barnes, Hazel E. The Literature of Possibility. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959.
Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. London: Tavistock, 1985.
Fullbrook, Kate and Edward. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Leighton, Jean. Simone de Beauvoir on Woman. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975.
Madsen, Axel. Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. New York: Morrow, 1977.
Marks, Elaine. Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973.
Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1994.
Okley, Judith. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Simons, Margaret A. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Whitmarsh, Anne. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment. London & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
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.
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. □
Beauvoir, Simone de
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.
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 (1914–18), 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 journal—which became a lifetime habit—and writing some stories.
Link with Sartre
When Beauvoir was twenty-one she joined a group of philosophy students including Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Her relationship with Sartre was to continue throughout most of their lives. Sartre was the father of existentialism—a 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 (1939–45) 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
Keefe, Terry. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
de Beauvoir, Simone
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).
Beauvoir, Simone de
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
(1908 - 1986)
(Full name Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir) French philosopher, novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, and playwright.SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: INTRODUCTION
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: PRINCIPAL WORKS
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: PRIMARY SOURCES
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: GENERAL COMMENTARY
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: TITLE COMMENTARY
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: FURTHER READING