Beauvoir, Simone de: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. "The Female Body and the Male Mind: Reconsidering Simone de Beauvoir." Dissent, no. 1 (summer 1987): 351-58.

In the following essay, Baruch analyzes Beauvoir's feminist philosophy in the context of contemporary feminist theory, much of which opposes many of Beauvoir's suppositions.

Forty years ago Simone de Beauvoir sat in front of a blank sheet of paper at the Café des Deux Magots, on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, wanting to write about herself:

I realized that the first question to come up was: What has it meant to me to be a woman. At first I thought I could dispose of that pretty quickly. I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me: "You think that way because you're a woman"; my femininity had never been irksome to me in any way. "For me," I said to Sartre, "you might almost say it just hasn't counted." "All the same, you weren't brought up in the same way as a boy would have been; you should look into it further!"

And so her book The Second Sex was born. It was, in a sense, Jean-Paul Sartre's baby. But when published in France, it was viewed as illegitimate. The public was not pleased by Beauvoir's discovery that "this world was a masculine world," and that her "childhood had been nourished by myths forged by men." She was labeled "unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted," as she tells us in her autobiographical Force of Circumstance.

I was a poor, neurotic girl, repressed, frustrated, and cheated by life, a virago, a woman who'd never been made love to properly, envious, embittered, and bursting with inferiority complexes with regard to men, while with regard to women I was eaten to the bone by resentment.

Her friend Albert Camus threw the book across the floor, saying it made men look ridiculous. Not surprisingly, considering its attack on religion and the traditional family, the Pope banned it.

The American edition of The Second Sex is not quite the whole story. The translator, H. M. Parshley, omitted large chunks—mainly those having to do with women in history, the drudgery of housework, and the nineteenth-century feminist movement. Still, there is enough. In English the paperback runs to some seven hundred pages, a marvelous source of literary criticism, analysis of myth, physiological, psychological, economic, and social commentary on women.

Nonetheless, The Second Sex is a child of its times. It is pervaded by the hierarchical dualism that has marked most of the thinking of Western male culture, which has placed mind above body, man above woman, and culture above nature, a dualism that current feminists are attacking. It's not just the hierarchy of the terms that they are questioning but the concept of dualism itself. Still, The Second Sex remains an extraordinary achievement for that necessary phase of feminism which holds that women can—and should—do everything that men do. Beauvoir's life too revealed a dramatic fissure—between the theory of sexual equality and the practice of an eroticized subordination in her relation with Sartre. It is some of the complexities in her work and her life that I would like to explore here.

As a member of the existentialist movement that grew up around Sartre in the 1940s, Beauvoir was nurtured on such heady concepts as engagement, freedom, transcendence. Existentialism posits a philosophical division between Subject and Other, similar in some ways to Hegel's paradigm of master-slave. Whereas Sartre felt that all people could be the Other in relation to others, Beauvoir's brilliance lay in showing that these were divisions that actually marked relations between the two sexes. In relation to men, she said, all women are the Other. Unlike men, who represent consciousness and activity in the world (what Beauvoir calls transcendence or the pour-soi, for-itself), women represent being (immanence or the en-soi, in-itself) and are therefore aligned with nature.

Yet there is nothing natural in this opposition, according to Beauvoir. "One is not born but rather one becomes a woman.… It is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch." A problem that Beauvoir did not confront, given her dualistic system, is who will be the Other once women have equality. Will the relation between men and women then be reversed, or will the Other be drawn from a category other than sex? What she does do in The Second Sex is try to account for women's position as Other through theories of biology, psychoanalysis, and economics. Despite her weighty evidence, it is comforting that she finds none of these sufficient.

Discerning "Truth" Through Biology

Her first and arguably most prominent chapter is "The Data of Biology." It appears in volume one, entitled "Facts and Myths": significantly, Beauvoir places biology in the category of facts, unlike some feminist scientists today who see traditional biology itself, at least the branch that treats of sexual differences, as part of patriarchal mythology. Although science has been remarkably successful in discovering empirical "truths" that do not threaten the power structure, such as the presence of abnormal cells, it has been far less so in dealing with those parts of the body that have symbolic value. "Truth," Michel Foucault has argued, "is produced through discourse, and its production is imbued with relations of power." In a sense Beauvoir's recognition that this is "a masculine world" exposes a similar "truth."

Beauvoir's historical overview of the respective functions of the two sexes in reproduction notes many of the follies of the past, such as the Aristotelian notion that the fetus is produced by the union of sperm and menstrual blood. One might think that her awareness of such past distortions would make her skeptical of male-oriented descriptions of biology1; but as with her male contemporaries, echoes of Victorian courtship sound in Beauvoir's description of the romance between the "wholly alive" sperm and the "stationary" egg which "passively awaits fertilization." Beauvoir argues that the ways of a society cannot be deduced from biology, but what she doesn't recognize sufficiently is that biological "facts" can be deduced from the ways of a society.

Unlike feminists of the 1970s who would seek to minimize biological differences, Beauvoir sees them as crucial. Perhaps because The Second Sex was written before the legalization of contraception and abortion in France (brought about in large measure through her efforts in such organizations as Choisir—Choice), she sees women's "enslavement by reproduction" as the main sexual differentiator: "the individuality of the female is opposed by the interest of the species; it is as if she were possessed by foreign forces—alienated." In contrast, the male body does not impede movement towards transcendence, for it does not have to be "sacrificed" to the species in pregnancy and childbirth. But man is not happy with his body either, according to Beauvoir, since it too is subject to change and death.

Nonetheless, it is the female body, particularly the mother's body, that Beauvoir (and dualists, in general) sees as particularly loathsome. Beauvoir's description (in a later chapter) of how pregnancy transforms—indeed distorts—the body could scarcely be outdone by the most virulent misogynist and is one reason why the current generation of feminists does not always find her sympathetic:

Ensnared by nature, the pregnant woman is plant and animal, a stock-pile of colloids, an incubator, an egg; she scares children proud of their young, straight bodies and makes young people titter contemptuously because she is a human being, a conscious and free individual, who has become life's passive instrument.

Notwithstanding Beauvoir's male-identified biology and value system—what is human is male—we must still call her conclusions feminist, an ascription she did not accept until decades later. For despite what she sees as the hindrances of female biology, she urges women to struggle for transcendence, for a place in the public world. The frailties of biology are handicaps that must be overcome—like congenital asthma, I suppose (or perhaps like what Sartre calls the facticity of situation). They cannot be used in "bad faith" as excuses to avoid freedom.2

Toward a Feminist Psychoanalysis

Many critics claim that in The Second Sex Beauvoir rejects psychoanalysis in her treatment of the woman as Other. Even though she herself might agree, I do not think this is true. What she does reject is the traditional reading of Freud; but she also points ahead in some startling ways to a revisionist psychoanalysis that might be called feminist.

Within a few pages, she forcibly illustrates the distinctions between the penis as vulnerable biological organ and what Jacques Lacan and his disciples would refer to as the phallus, the always erect symbol of male privilege within the patriarchal order. It is the latter that women envy. Not anatomy but culture confers privilege—or denies it. So Beauvoir insists despite her negative view of female biology.

Unlike Freud but rather like Melanie Klein, Beauvoir recognizes the strength of the pre-Oedipal period, which is only now receiving widespread attention. She describes lucidly the difficulties that little boys face in having to turn away from the mother as the first object of identification. But unlike contemporary theorists, she does not go on to connect this forced separation with the masculine formation of a dualistic world-view that reduces women to objects. She does, however, anticipate the new geography of female sexuality that dismisses Freud's phallocentric view of the little girl as an homme manqué with a stunted penis, and that grants her organs of her own.3

Still, Beauvoir does deny one of the central credos of psychoanalysis, whether traditional or revisionist—the importance of the unconscious—because she feels that such a concept limits choice. Here she sounds very much like the American feminists of the 1970s. In contrast, some feminist theorists are now turning to psychoanalysis to show how the body influences the mind and how what appears to be rational is in fact fueled by desire that is often repressed. But Beauvoir is not interested in this mediation. It is not feeling or body but mind and intellect that she exalts.

Also, her denial of the unconscious sometimes causes Beauvoir to see the myths of women, for example, those of the Virgin Mary and the temptress, as mere mystifications and devices for control. But such myths reveal the place of woman in the imagination even more than in social reality.

They will not go away unless attention is paid to their invisible dwelling place. They may not go away even then, but we will understand them better. We can agree with Beauvoir that there is no fixed human nature—actually what she believes is that there is no fixed woman's nature—and still question her conclusion that "perhaps the myth of woman will some day be extinguished." The myths may change or diminish in force as men share in child-rearing tasks and as women enter the public world. They might conceivably even disappear if reproduction is ever taken out of the body. But as long as women bear children and there is an incest barrier, women will remain objects of mystery for men and to some extent for women as well.

Despite her dislike, Beauvoir's picture of myth is so rich, so subtle compared with later ideological attacks on sexual "stereotypes," that one wonders if her conscious denial of unconscious sources should be taken seriously. As a professed socialist, Beauvoir perhaps saw an emphasis on fantasy and feeling as bourgeois or regressive, "a way of returning women to their subordinate ideological place within the dominant culture," as Cora Kaplan puts it in another context. Part of the new feminism, however, would like a merger of social and psychoanalytic theory to explain women's placement—or displacement—in the world.

Supply and Demand

Given Beauvoir's socialist ideals, her account of economic explanations for women as Other is probably the weakest section in The Second Sex. "As for the content," she later wrote in Force of Circumstance, "I should take a more materialist position today in the first volume. I should base the notion of woman as other and the Manichean argument it entails not on an idealistic and a priori struggle of consciences, but on the facts of supply anddemand.…"

Current feminist theoreticians believe that the examination of women's lives, with their invisible and unpaid labor, both in the household and as reproducers of the work force, brings one to deeper insights into materiality than Marx's analysis of the (male) proletariat. Beauvoir does not consider these aspects in either The Second Sex or her later work. In the materialism section, however, she does temper her negativism on women's biology: if a woman "procreates voluntarily and if society comes to her aid during pregnancy and is concerned with child welfare, the burdens of maternity are light and can be easily offset by suitable adjustments in working conditions." These are ideas that some Scandinavian countries have tried to introduce into policy, with varying degrees of success.

When she wrote The Second Sex, Beauvoir believed that socialism would end the inequality of women. She later gave up her hopes for worldwide revolution, urging women to fight for their rights independently. Only in the early 1970s did she proclaim herself a feminist, a quarter of a century after writing The Second Sex.

It was in the 1970s also that Beauvoir would argue that she was less fearful of maternity than of marriage and the family as enslaving institutions. For this reason, she was opposed to Betty Friedan's idea of wages for housework. Unlike the so-called material feminists early in this century and Dolores Hayden today, whose architectural plans seek to eliminate the split between home and work, Beauvoir wanted women out of the house altogether and in public life. She does not consider domestic labor to be work, nor does she recognize the fact that most men work—outside the home—in alienating jobs, which indeed is the case today with most women.

Brilliant as The Second Sex is in its description of women's position in a phallocratic world, it may now also be seen as bound by the ropes of white, Western, middle-class culture. We might go further and say that Beauvoir is a prisoner of gender also—masculine gender. For her, culture is unrelievedly male. And although The Second Sex is doubtless the germinal book for what is called liberal feminism, Beauvoir never accepted any other form. One strong current of feminism that Beauvoir dismisses is sometimes called cultural feminism. This feminism stresses sexual difference but transvaluates it, attributing positive values to traditionally female feelings and behavior (what had been disparaged by the general culture before). In France writers such as Hélène Cixous advocate an écriture féminine, a style of writing that cultivates difference, as if to capture the fluidity of the female body, with its experience of blood, milk, and cycles. The journal Questions Féministes, founded in the late 1970s under the general editorship of Beauvoir, has condemned this approach, seeing it as a tool for patriarchy rather than liberation.

There is a third and perhaps major direction in feminism that Beauvoir was also unsympathetic to at the end of her life, one which seeks to transcend dualist oppositions altogether. Many feminists now see as liberating what Beauvoir saw as oppressive: motherhood, for example, the nurturing of life as a conscious act that involves risk and choice—and growth. Precisely what Beauvoir saw as the major barrier keeping women from full participation in humanity, this third group of feminists sees as a bridge to a greater humanity. They feel that bearing and nurturing a child can help to eliminate the split between nature and culture, body and mind, feeling and action, change and stasis. In this last sense, men can mother also, and are doing so increasingly.

"… [I]t is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills," wrote Beauvoir in the 1940s, expressing a world-view that she never substantially changed. It is significant that she doesn't see the risk of life in childbirth as a transcendent act. Nor does she question the male valorization of hunting and war. But by now it is not only women who reject this view.

The Second Sex, never seeing relatedness, community, and cooperation as positive values, presents individual achievement as the supreme goal of human existence. Beauvoir's contribution to humanism and feminism was to urge upon women such achievement rather than self-sacrifice. What contemporary feminism wants is achievement and intersubjectivity—a blend Beauvoir tried to have in her own life.

The problem that forerunners, the avant-garde, face is that they are always criticized later for not having been avant enough. Because they go so far, we are angry that they are not gods. Beauvoir presents a clearly defined world of supposed reason, truth, and objectivity as one side of her polarized view and insists that women engage in it and gain all the rewards that men have had previously. She is eons away from the current attempt to transcend binary polarization. It remains for a new theorist of Beauvoir's stature to explore the place of women in this new world, and to point the way to further crossings of the gender line into new landscapes of the human.

Although it is primarily for The Second Sex that Beauvoir will be remembered, her accomplishments as a novelist are also noteworthy. Her dualism appears there as well. In 1954, Beauvoir received the Prix Goncourt for her novel The Mandarins, an extraordinary evocation of the life of postwar intellectuals of the left in France and to some extent a roman à clef. The book received highly mixed reviews in this country, in part for its anti-Americanism, also revealed in Beauvoir's travel journal Day by Day. (In any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, Beauvoir opted for the latter, even after she became aware of and denounced the Stalinist labor camps. This is one of her major blind spots.) Yet The Mandarins is remarkably powerful with intensely alive if humorless characters, a lyrical rendering of nature, and a fascinating experiment with point of view. Most of the book is written in the third person, except for the treatment of Anne, in some ways the character closest to Beauvoir. Anne speaks in the first person, and is, perhaps revealingly, a psychoanalyst. Despite these surprises, the novel remains rooted in the bourgeois rather than an avant-garde tradition. The politicized figures are all men, the apolitical ones—women. Should we fault Beauvoir for this split? Perhaps, considering the engagement of her own life, at least after World War II. But the choice was deliberate. Beauvoir saw the novel as a public, rather than as an experimental, genre that aims at credibility, unlike autobiography, where one can be singular, eccentric. As a theoretician, Beauvoir took great risks. As a novelist, she didn't. In her life, she took (or thought she took) the greatest risks of all.

Life with Sartre

Even people who have not read Beauvoir know of her involvement with Sartre. Like Héloïse and Abelard, theirs was one of the great academic romances. Books brought them together at the Sorbonne, where they both took advanced degrees in philosophy. Sartre, who fantasized himself as the "writer-knight" in his autobiography, Les Mots, became Beauvoir's rescuer. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, her autobiographical Bildungsroman, she describes him as fulfilling her adolescent fantasy: "Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen: he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence." Sartre, only a little less than Abelard, was the tutor/lover. And like Héloïse and Abelard in the Middle Ages, Beauvoir and Sartre epitomize our own age's ambivalent attitudes toward sex and love.

Bourgeois as much as bohemian, soulmates who lived apart, they speak to the modern desire for primacy of the couple and multiple sexual experience at the same time. It was Sartre who set the terms of their nonmarriage pact, which included "perfect honesty about everything," an honesty that he perhaps desired as much for exhibitionistic gratification as for a means of control. In what may be the most intellectual euphemism for infidelity on record, the two pledged an "essential love" to each other but allowed for "contingent" loves with others. Did Beauvoir accept these conditions because she was the essential one? Perhaps. But they hardly fit the romantic or even existential definition of love, which posits an absolute love that allows room for no other. (In all fairness to Sartre, he did not think such a love could exist.) Interestingly enough, in The Second Sex, Beauvoir claimed that an authentic love should assume "the contingence of the other," should recognize his lacks and limitations, and not be idolatrous. Neither could practice what they theorized.

Beauvoir had refused Sartre's early offer of marriage: "I chose what was the hardest course for me at that moment in order to safeguard the future.… I knew Sartre did not want marriage. I could not want it all by myself." It is doubtful that she wanted it either. Yet she suffers all kinds of somatic ailments over his affairs and laments the signs of age in her mirror more than the most despondent hausfrau—although it is perhaps unfair to attribute this disgust to sexual vulnerability alone: "I loathe my appearance now: the eyebrows slipping down toward the eyes, the bags underneath, the excessive fullness of the cheeks, and that air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring." Because of her university training and her great gifts, however, she is able to transform her hurts into metaphysical despair over death, political outrage—or into fiction. Perhaps because of her rejection of the unconscious, she never fully recognizes that her obsession with death might stem from her anger turned inwards on the self.

She too had other lovers, chosen perhaps more in retaliation than in freedom: Nelson Algren, the author of The Man With the Golden Arm, who figures in The Mandarins, and the journalist Claude Lanzmann.

For myself, I needed some sort of distance if I were to give my heart sincerely, for there could be no question of trying to duplicate the understanding I had with Sartre. Algren belonged to another continent, Lanzmann to another generation; this too was a foreignness that kept a balance in our relationship.

It does not seem that Sartre was so careful about his balancing act. In the end, he adopted a young woman, Arlette Elkahim. Beauvoir too had adopted Sylvie le Bon in what she described as a freely chosen relationship. But Sartre had wanted to marry Arlette, one of his mistresses; here Beauvoir prevailed. Still it was the incestuous daughter who inherited all of Sartre's unpublished papers while Beauvoir, Sartre's "one special reader" for whom he wrote, had no access to them.

Ambiguity may be the one clear mark of Beauvoir's thought and feeling at the end. Her picture of Sartre's last years in Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre is problematic at best. Though some critics have praised the book for its truthfulness, it is less a depiction of the vulnerabilities of a great man in old age than a quiet revenge. The conversations and particularly the commentary present the male in all his Otherness (a theme taken up in a different way in her book The Coming of Age ). No longer the transcendent being, he is man crumbling.

Divested of all his strength and even shame, the philosopher has mental lapses, he overturns his soup, fouls his clothes. One wonders why all the painful details are necessary. Beauvoir would probably plead honesty. One suspects that it is more her sense of betrayal that he is no longer a hero. "A fallen god is not a man; he is a fraud," she had written in The Second Sex. Actually Sartre seems to bear all his physical limitations with a stoic's calm, but Beauvoir does not admire him for this. At one time he could make her feel as secure as the idea of God did when she was a child, but at the end of his life he suffers a de-idealization and de-idolization at Beauvoir's pen, in part at least because the body has taken over the mind. Still, she writes with some unconscious irony: "It is in itself splendid that we were able to live our lives in harmony for so long."

Like Sartre, Beauvoir sought to create herself. She succeeded in making her life an exemplum but not always in the way she would have liked. She is as much an illustration of the "woman in love" described in The Second Sex as a representative of freedom. In that sense she bears some similarity to Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft too had argued that women were constructed by the social order, but in relation to her lover Gilbert Imlay if not to her later husband, William Godwin, Wollstonecraft was a romantic victim, subject to betrayal by her feelings. Perhaps Beauvoir writes so well about this subject because in some sense she was betrayed too. Autobiography objectified becomes theory.

But if Beauvoir in The Second Sex asked in effect, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?", Sartre, at least at the end of his life, was asking, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" There is an extraordinary statement by Sartre in the Adieux on his sexuality. I treat it here because I think it affected his philosophy and in turn that of Beauvoir. Sartre confesses that he didn't attach a great deal of importance to intercourse—he simply engaged in it because it was expected. (He too was a prisoner of gender.) "I was more a masturbator of women than a copulator.…I should have been quite happy naked in bed with a naked woman, caressing and kissing her, but without going as far as the sexual act." This admission, which implies a fear of women's sexual demands or at least of female sexuality, throws new light on Sartre's emphasis on holes and viscosity in his descriptions of the female sex organ in his earlier work, descriptions that Beauvoir often echoes. "The amorous act is the castration of the man; but this is above all because sex is a hole," he had written. In existential psychoanalysis, unlike Freud's, things possess objective qualities of being. Holes are bad; viscosity is bad. Ironically, considering Beauvoir's criticism, it is Freud's theory that is more emancipating for women than Sartre's. For what Sartre sees as literal truth, Freud sees as metaphor. And metaphor can perhaps be changed whereas fact cannot. It is for Sartre, at least in his earlier work, that anatomy is destiny.

"In herself woman appeals to a flesh which is to transform her into a fullness of being by penetration and dissolution," writes Sartre in Being and Nothingness, a statement which assumes that a man is complete in himself and that he has no envy of the specifically feminine jouissance or orgasm. Yet in the Adieux he reveals that he dislikes the term "adult male" because it distinguishes between the sexes in an odious, comic fashion. "The male is the one with a little tube between his legs." It is the experience of the total body that Sartre now seeks—that which women are supposed to experience. While some of these passages might bear witness that Sartre lacked mature genitality, they also reveal a desire for androgyny—a desire for transcendence of dualism perhaps.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir spoke at length of women as economic parasites, forced to live vicariously. What Sartre reveals in Adieux is men's emotional parasitism. Because of their overvaluation of intellect, he says, men constantly look to different women to replenish their emotional resources. This is not, he implies, a good division. Had Sartre come to these conclusions sooner, his (and Beauvoir's) existential psychoanalysis might have been quite different.

But I don't think that it is simply Sartre's influence that causes Beauvoir in The Second Sex to describe the female sex organ as "carnivorous plant," "bog," "suction, humus, pitch and glue … insinuating and viscous." Nor is it merely centuries of Catholic repulsion for things of the flesh. The reasons are complex and overdeter-mined, and I can only suggest some of them. Perhaps because of her anti-psychoanalytical bias, Beauvoir doesn't refer to a major reason for female as well as male disgust at the female body that is now being treated at length by such French women analysts as Julia Kristeva: the fear of being engulfed, swallowed up by the "primitive" mother, that dangerous, powerful, overwhelming figure of our infancy. The fear, of course, is also a wish even less acknowledged.

Beauvoir's relation to her mother was particularly ambivalent. (Her great guilt is revealed in her account of her mother's last days, A Very Easy Death. ) She loved her for her nurturing, but hated her repression of Simone the child. She was constantly watched, as was Sartre, though he with greater indulgence. For Beauvoir in her early emancipation from her family, when she went off to the university, happiness meant a closed door. Like Sartre, she always wanted another's gaze on her—neither ever escaped the need for a mirror.

The need for others to mirror one's activity in order to give it meaning is a principle of existentialist thought. But Beauvoir and Sartre never connect the roots of this idea to the psychoanalytical account of the mirror stage of development, in which the infant starts responding to the mother's face. What Beauvoir and Sartre refuse to acknowledge is the value of the body. The mind, for them, is paramount. For all her professed atheism, Beauvoir's early Catholic teaching survives. It's simply that in her writings soul has been transformed into mind.

Yet in examining Sartre and Beauvoir's dualisms, one is struck by the primacy in their metaphors of things and ultimately of bodies. John Donne in the seventeenth century said, "The body makes the mind." In large part, Sartre and Beauvoir's physical experiences influenced their philosophy. In bondage to the mother, it is her body they both reject. Confined by their body in childhood, they seek to escape it through thought. They reject the body in general, but the mother's above all.

The primacy of the physical is something that transcends sex. In the physical deterioration of both Sartre and Beauvoir at the end of their lives, they reveal what Donne also implies: That far more important than sexual difference are the vulnerabilities that all of us share as part of the human condition.

But if sexual difference isn't all-determining for women, there is another category that is—or has been. Though she doesn't use the term, Beauvoir might have said, "Gender is destiny." By gender, I mean here what society does with sexual difference. "You girls will never marry. You have no dowries," Beauvoir's father kept saying to his daughters. "You'll have to work for a living." Though proud of her intellect, he viewed Beauvoir's life of hard study as a punishment, necessary because she was doomed to be alone. Sartre's sisterlike mother, in contrast, promised her son that his reward for the same activity would be the adulation of women. No wonder he needed so many of them. In some way he turned Beauvoir into the mother—and the sister. They did not need children. They were so busy shaping them-selves—and others.

Their lives seized the imagination of an age, whether as role models for modernism or as unofficial political and intellectual ambassadors in their travels around the world. Seeking utopia in such countries as Russia, Cuba, China, they were repeatedly disillusioned. But however naïve their expectations, they always supported the downtrodden, whether in colonies far away or the working classes at home.

Beauvoir's greatness as a theorist was to show us the anatomy of sexism, to expose with relentless precision the oppression of women in a "masculine world," thereby implying that with equality women could do whatever men could. Despite her talk of autonomy, she does not escape her dependence on the patriarchal order, and never suggests a system to replace it. She made herself a satellite, not because she was a woman, she said, but because of Sartre's philosophical and political superiority.

If the symbolic nature of funerals is any evidence, the public agreed. Sartre's was a huge affair. Thousands upon thousands attended. It was so crowded, people were pushed onto the grave site. In contrast, Beauvoir's was a quiet affair, so quiet, I've been told, that her loyal feminist following was at one point locked outside the cemetery gates. But it may well be that Simone de Beauvoir made the greater contribution. Those who cannot imagine this do not comprehend feminism as a philosophical and political movement. Yet it is—perhaps the greatest of our time.


  1. As skeptical as Ruth Herschberger was in this country, in a delightful book called Adam's Rib (New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1948).
  2. Recent scientific developments cast ironic light on Beauvoir's idea of reproduction as forced labor. The new reproductive technology with its use of in vitro fertilization (fertilization in a petri dish) and surrogate mothers (women who contribute their ova and/or their uterine environment for the creation and gestation of fetuses meant to be reared by others after birth) would seem to offer women greater choice and control over having children. Such technology even points ahead to the possibility of removing reproduction from the body altogether, a prospect that would no doubt have been welcomed by Beauvoir. Not only would reproduction ex utero release women from their "enslavement" to the species, it would also modify if not eliminate the entire mythology of women to which Beauvoir is so opposed. (It is primarily because they are biological mothers that women are alternately exalted and degraded.) But while Beauvoir viewed science and technology as potential liberators of women, these new techniques may lead to some new "enslavements," such as the exploitation of poor, minority, and Third-World women for surrogacy. Many feminist scientists today, such as Ruth Hubbard, fear that male-dominated technology will soon deprive women of the right to conceive in the natural way at all. Should reproduction ex utero ever become a reality, it would be potentially liberating only in a nonpatriarchal society.
  3. Perhaps new is the wrong word since debates about this issue had been going on in the 1920s and 1930s, but certainly Beauvoir is in the vanguard of current thinking on it.


SOURCE: Yanay, Niza. "Authenticity of Self-Expression: Reinterpretation of Female Independence through the Writings of Simone de Beauvoir." Women's Studies 17 (1990): 219-33.

In the following essay, Yanay uses the work of Beauvoir to examine the psychological notions of dependence and independence in women.

This paper aims to reopen discussion of the meaning of "dependence" and "independence" as they reflect the experiences of women. This desire to reexamine and revise accepted concepts and terms in light of principles of female experience is prompted by the work of feminist scholars, who have suggested the adoption of a new language with which to conceptualize accepted values.

Psychology treats the concept of "dependency" as a tendency to rely on and seek attention, care, or help from close others. Thus, dependence is often equated with affiliation (McClain, 1978) or with the need for affection, reassurance and approval (Heathers, 1955). Along these same lines, the concept of "autonomy" or "independence" is often associated with self-reliance and needing no one else—accomplishing things on the basis of one's own efforts in response to one's own interests and in an attempt to reach self-fulfillment.

This conception of autonomy has only recently been challenged by feminist scholars who explore the masculine attributes of the very nature of scientific thought (Keller, 1985). Miller (1976), Gilligan (1982), Keller (1985) and others have pointed out that the prevailing meaning of autonomy is alienating to women because it excludes passion, love, and desire, the very dynamics of interpersonal relations, which, as Kerenberg (1974) argued, require the crossing of ego boundaries. Miller (1976), for example, claims that the concept "autonomy" derives from male development, as it bears the implication that "one should be able to give up affiliations in order to become a separate and self-directed individual" (p. 94). Similarly, Gilligan (1982) believes that the word "autonomy" has become so closely associated with separation that "separation itself becomes the model and the measure of growth" (p. 98). Keller (1985) points to the correlation between the accepted meaning of autonomy and masculinity in Western culture, which she attributes to certain paradigmatic changes in the nature of scientific thinking. She claims that the transition from hermetic science, characterized by metaphors of sexual unity with nature, to a mechanical science, characterized by masculine metaphors of power and domination of nature, has shaped a concept of autonomy separate from desire and dominated by images of impersonality. At the same time, feminist scholarship in psychology (Miller, 1976; Gilligan, 1982) has demonstrated the different values around which women's selves emerge and the importance of inclusiveness and affiliation to their self-concept and identity.

My own contribution to this argument is to explore the concepts of dependency and independence as they are reflected in the autobiographical writings of Simone de Beauvoir.1 Not only are these works of recognized literary and intellectual merit, but they deal with "a relatively large number of lines of experience, giving a picture of variety, roundness and inter-relatedness in the life from which the structure of life as a whole emerges" (Allport, 1951, p. 77). Moreover—and perhaps most importantly—they mirror a substantial portion of the author's experiences of emotional dependency, and these stand in sharp contrast to the woman herself, who has become a symbol of independence and strength in her own lifetime: "She is a woman who refuses to accept her role passively, who has taken a stand, flouting all convention and opposition" (Schwarzer, 1985, p. 22). While accepting her femininity, de Beauvoir has never used her womanhood as an alibi and, moreover, she recognizes emotional dependency on men as "a curse that weighs upon most women" and a condition she has had to struggle with and to defend herself against through most of her youth and adult life. Her autobiographical works are a testimony to an unresolved struggle to reconcile her longing for independence with the love that drove her "impetuously toward another person."

However, though de Beauvoir perceives her struggle as a conflict between unity with another and separatedness—a perception based on the conventional interpretation of "dependence"—it seems that in actuality it revolved around the need to maintain a very close relationship without being false to her innermost needs and feelings.2 Thus, by drawing out the themes of dependency and independence of de Beauvoir's writings and interpreting them in terms of the development of the feminine self-identity, feminine values, and feminine conceptions of relationships, we challenge accepted definitions of independence and dependency in Western society, particularly the culturally perceived contradiction between love and independence. In this new light, the accepted distinction between emotional "symbiosis" or unity and individual autonomy appears conceptual and culture-bound rather than onthological and absolute. The reflexive reading of de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings through the prism of feminist conceptualizations of autonomy, with the aim of uncovering the author's most inner feelings as a woman, lends new meaning to the concepts of dependency and independence.

Setting the Stage for Reinterpretation

Simone de Beauvoir perceives the struggle for independence as the core experience in a woman's life. In her four-volume autobiography—Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter (MDD ) (1958), The Prime of Life (PL ) (1960), Force of Circumstance (FC ) (1963), and All Said and Done (ASD ) (1972)—and her first autobiographical novel, She Came to Stay (1943), she consciously and subconsciously reveals an ongoing struggle to escape "women's doomed destiny of dependent existence" and to reconcile independence and intimacy, a struggle which is also characteristic of her fictional characters (Ann in The Mandarins, Francoise in She Came to Stay, and the heroine of her short story The Woman Destroyed ).

The earliest signs of this inner conflict appear in her childhood memories. Even as a little girl, de Beauvoir rejected traditional feminine values (but not her own womanhood3): "When we played games, I accepted the role of the mother only if I were allowed to disregard its nursing aspects. Despising other girls who played with their dolls in what seemed to us a silly way, my sister and I had our own particular way of treating our dolls" (MDD, p. 56). The young de Beauvoir felt that femininity limited a woman's existence, establishing her position as "other," while masculinity offered endless possibilities of intellectual excitement and freedom. Her male teachers were, in her opinion, clever, even brilliant, but the women who taught her were "comical old church hens." Even though the majority of boys she knew seemed of limited intelligence, she recognized intuitively that "they belonged to a privileged category." The world of men appeared to her as free, imaginative, and full of adventure. As an adolescent, de Beauvoir believed that men were the great writers, the finest thinkers, and that women were tied to family conventions, salon smiles, and to small talk. "My education, my culture, and the present state of society all conspired to convince me that women belonged to an inferior cast" (MDD, p. 145).

De Beauvoir's adolescent years were marked by the contradictory expectations of her father, who projected onto his first-born daughter (he had hoped for a son) not only his pride and bourgeoise aspirations, but also his economic and social failure:

The war had ruined him, sweeping away all his dreams, destroying his myths, his self-justifications, and his hopes. I was wrong to think he had resigned himself to the situation: he never stopped protesting against his condition … he was trying to show, by his aggressive exhibitionism, that he belonged to a superior class … I was not just another burden to be borne: I was growing up to be the living incarnation of his own failure.

(MDD, pp. 176-177)

At the same time, though he "liked intelligent and witty women and … was of the opinion that a woman should be well read and a good conversationalist," and though he was pleased by de Beauvoir's early scholastic success, he also believed in the myth of femininity and the cult of the family: "When I entered the 'difficult age,' he was disappointed in me: he appreciated elegance and beauty in women. Not only did he fail to conceal his disillusionment from me but he began showing more interest than before in my sister, who was still a pretty girl" (MDD, p. 107). So while praising his daughter for her academic achievements, he was exasperated by what he considered her childish scribblings.

Notwithstanding her father's ambivalence toward her, the adolescent de Beauvoir adored and idolized him. "I could not imagine a more intelligent man than my father … As long as he approved of me, I could be sure of myself". At times her love for him seems incestuous: "But my real rival was my mother. I dreamed of having a more intimate relationship with my father. But even on the rare occasions when we found ourselves alone together we talked as if she was there with us" (MDD, p. 107).

De Beauvoir's mother was a traditional woman; religious, with a strong sense of duty, she remained in the background, moderating her desires, making no demands on life, and teaching her children austerity and unselfishness. She treated her daughter with tenderness, care and understanding and gave her the acceptance that she sought and needed. "I wanted to be noticed: but fundamentally I needed to be accepted for what I was, with all the deficiencies of my age; my mother's tenderness assured me that this wish was a justifiable one … Without striving to imitate her, I was conditioned by her" (MDD, p. 41).

Exposed to her father's "individualism and pagan ethical standards" on the one hand, and her mother's "rigid moral conventionalism" on the other, and torn between dependency on her mother and admiration for her father, the young de Beauvoir struggled to reconcile her intellectual life with her growing female sensibility. In this imbalanced atmosphere "I grew accustomed to the idea that my intellectual life—embodied by my father—and my spiritual life—expressed by my mother—were two radically heterogeneous fields of experience which had absolutely nothing in common" (MDD, p. 41).

De Beauvoir's high esteem for the independent masculine mind and her disparagement of femininity were rooted thus in rebellion, as well as submission, to the image she had of her parents. She internalized their contradictory expectations of herself, particularly her father's ambivalent attitude: "I was obeying his wishes to the letter, and that seemed to anger him: he had destined me to a life of study, and yet I was being reproached with having my nose in a book all the time … I kept wondering what I have done wrong" (MDD, p. 179). It was by her father's rules—and against them—that de Beauvoir the child seems to have set her ideals and developed her aspirations for freedom. It was also from those early contradictory experiences of affection, idealization and unexpressed inner resentment towards her parents that her conflict between dependency and independence emerged.

Although she idealized her father and was influenced by his literary preferences and intellectual aspirations, she was deeply wounded by his attitude towards the "fair sex" in general and toward her own femininity in particular. Similarly, although needful of her mother's acceptance, she disparaged her religiosity and traditional femininity. As an adolescent de Beauvoir was caught between the world of her parents and that of herself, and though she was developing her own sense of self and identity, she was unable to express it. She therefore remained the "dutiful daughter," being false to her true self:

I accepted their verdict while at the same time I looked upon myself with other eyes than theirs. My essential self still belonged to them as much as to me: but paradoxically the self they knew could only be a decoy now; it could be false. There was only one way of preventing this strange confusion: I would have to cover up superficial appearances, which were deceptive.

(MDD, p. 108)

Even while preparing herself for graduation from school, a few years later, her outward behavior did not change: "I still didn't dare disobey or tell any outright lies. I still used to tell my mother what my plans were for the day; in the evening I had to give her a full account of how I had passed my time. I gave in. But I was choking with fury and vexation" (MDD, p. 211). Hence, de Beauvoir silenced her inner fury and suppressed her true needs. The gap between her real feelings, needs and wishes, on the one hand, and the de Beauvoir she showed to the outside world on the other, seems to signify a pattern of dependency on others, a pattern which continued into her adult life.

By outward appearances the adult de Beauvoir was strong-willed and independent, determined to establish her place in the world: "My own particular enterprise was the development of my life, which I believed lay in my own hands" (PL, p. 286). Throughout her adult life she was economically independent and never suffered the constraints of marriage or of motherhood (McCall, 1979). She often took long trips by herself to places "no living soul would ever pass through." She was also daring and unconventional in her teaching, standing unsupported against the values and beliefs of the provincial middle-class community in which she worked. Risking her position, she sacrificed neither her freedom of ideas nor her ideals.

Yet, despite this outward appearance of autonomy, it seems that de Beauvoir was continuously striving for emotional independence, struggling against her imperious need for others: "The existence of otherness maintained a danger for me, one which I could not bring myself to face openly" (PL, p. 105). Describing Francoise, the heroine of She Came to Stay, she writes: "Now another danger threatened her, one which I myself had been endeavouring to exorcise ever since my adolescence. Other people could not only steal the world from her, but also invade her personality and bewitch it" (PL, p. 270). This threat is particularly salient in de Beauvoir's desire and need for absolute emotional and physical unity with her friend and lover, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ascher (1981), following the normative assumption that separatedness, individualism, self-contentment and self-reliance constitute the essence of independence, sees this relation as evidence of an unresolved dependency. In this spirit she has claimed that de Beauvoir's usage of the pronoun "we" in her memoire indicates an unsettled tension between her developing individuated self and developing intimate relationships: "With a relationship to God ended absolutely, a major theme in The Prime of Life is the tension between de Beauvoir's sense of herself as an 'I' and as part of a 'we,' that is, the working out of her autonomy and aloneness within the context of her strong ties to Sartre" (Ascher, 1981, p. 22).

It seems, however, that these "we relations" (which she had not only with Sartre, but also with others, male and female alike, whom she loved dearly) did not necessarily threaten her self-identity and autonomy. The story of her relation with Zaza is a case in point.

At the age of ten, de Beauvoir experienced the emotion of love for the first time. Elizabeth Mabille, or Zaza as she called her, was a small, dark, thin-faced girl, who was seated next to the young de Beauvoir in their fourth grade. With Zaza she talked about books, schoolwork, their teachers, and their friends. "She at once seemed to me a very finished person" and "everything she had to say was either interesting or amusing." Zaza appeared to her a fascinating person and de Beauvoir's attitude toward her, as later to Sartre, was one of admiration and total devotion. De Beauvoir was drawn to Zaza's courage and spirit of independence, as well as to her originality and talent, characteristics which attracted her also to Sartre. A simple word of praise from Zaza overwhelmed her with joy and a sarcastic smile would cause her terrible torment; her happiness, indeed her very existence, lay in Zaza's power. "Zaza didn't suspect how much I idolized her, nor that I had adjusted my pride in her favor," reflects de Beauvoir (MDD, p. 119). Nonetheless, her all-encompassing feeling toward Zaza did not prevent her from recognizing their individual places in the world, and her sense of "we" in this case did not compromise her recognition and acceptance of their differences. "If it had been suggested that I should be Zaza, I would have refused" (MDD, p. 114).

With Sartre, the "we identity" was somewhat different. De Beauvoir, like Sartre, perceived their relationship as a single unity: "I settled the anomaly of Sartre by telling myself that we formed a single entity placed together at the world's center" (PL, p. 105). Indeed, feeling one with Sartre was most essential to her inner harmony. However, this oneness of identity represented a value and an ideal to de Beauvoir, not a "problem" as is often suggested by her critics.

The strong feelings of closeness and affiliation that de Beauvoir shared with Zaza and later with Sartre should not be confused with dependence upon them. It is true that the accepted definition of dependency includes affiliation with another—as opposed to separatedness—as a major component, and indeed psychology as yet lacks the terminology to distinguish between connectedness and purely negative aspects of dependence, such as experience of inequality (Miller, 1976). Yet the positive and negative aspects of dependency need to be separated. Miller (1976), Stiver (1984) and others have pointed to the positive elements of dependency, such as its providing conditions for growth and enrichment. Along similar lines, Memmi (1984) considers dependency an onthological need: "On the whole, dependence is one of the basic elements of the bond that ties one member of a society to another" (p. 154), and the fear of dependency is a fear of others.

In an attempt to focus only on the negative aspects of dependency, the present paper pursues a new interpretation of the concept which isolates those components that reflect inequality and that have been inhibiting to women's expression of self. Underlying this quest is the assumption that women are governed by different rules of psychological development than men (Gilligan, 1983).

Authenticity of Expressed Feelings as Reflecting Independence

Simone de Beauvoir's admitted need to hide her true feelings in order to be a dutiful daughter has already been discussed, this need seems to have persisted into her adult life and to have been highly salient in her relationship with Sartre. Indeed, her tendency to mask her actual feelings is even apparent in her autobiographical works, where an inner voice seems to express feelings which are quite different from, and even contradictory to, her explicit statements. It is around this striving for authentic expression of her feelings and beliefs—rather than for separateness from others—that the true struggle for independence seems to revolve.

One clue in her autobiographical works to this struggle for authenticity of expression is the sharp contrast between the stated conception of freedom and autonomy proferred by de Beauvoir the philosopher and the intellectual and that which may be inferred from the voice of de Beauvoir the woman. The first voice advocates a conception of freedom in keeping with Sartre's existentialism. Like him, she believes that autonomy has to be attained through one's own actions, and, going further, that any woman can escape her destiny of dependence through her own efforts. Shifting one's responsibilities onto another, she feels, is immoral, and, what is more, in the absence of a God, it is a flight from freedom. According to this existential moral ontology, one transcends animal nature by a continuous affirmation of self. The voice of de Beauvoir the woman, however, suggests a different interpretation of independence, one which is closely linked to authenticity of feelings and needs.

The nature of de Beauvoir's struggle for independence is gleaned from a specific example of the way in which she coped with a triadic love arrangement involving herself, Sartre, and Olga, a young student of hers with whom she became intimate friends. Early on in their relationship, Sartre had explained to de Beauvoir his "philosophy" of attachments: "What we have is an essential love, but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs … We reflected on this problem a good deal [says de Beauvoir] during our walks together" (PL, p. 24). Despite her ostensibly neutral intellectual tone, de Beauvoir's inner voice seems to project jealousy of the lovers and doubts as to her own worth. At the same time "the need to agree with Sartre on all subjects outweighed the desire to see Olga through eyes other than his" (PL, p. 195). Unable to bear the anxiety, but worse, unable to even consider diverging from Sartre's ideals, de Beauvoir chooses to glorify the trio and foster its well-being: "From now on we could be a trio rather than a couple. We believed that human relationships are a matter of constant fresh discovery" (PL, p. 195). Nevertheless, she admits to feelings of anger: "I was vexed with Sartre for having created this situation and with Olga for taking advantage of it."

Eventually, as is clear from her remarks in The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir deals with this love triangle by giving indirect expression to her feelings of jealousy and anger in her first autobiographical novel, She Came to Stay : "I exposed myself so dangerously [in that novel] that at times the gap between my emotions and the words to express them seemed insurmountable" (PL, p. 271). The novel portrays a love triangle between Francoise the heroine "whom I endowed with my own experiences" (PL, p. 269), her lover Pierre and a young woman Xavierre. Slowly, before the reader's eyes, Francoise is transformed from "a position of absolute and all-embracing authority" to "an utterly transparent creature without features of individuality" who betrays her own truth. With no more than a faded image of herself, Francoise becomes obsessively involved in Xavierre's affections, hatreds, and caprices, and with Pierre's desire for Xavierre. She conceals her true feelings and allows Pierre to dictate her desires because she feels lonely experiencing needs different from his. Hence, she permits herself to express only sympathy for Pierre and understanding of the triangular relationship. Even when she clearly sees Pierre as "a man fighting desperately for his masculine triumph" (p. 203), she sacrifices her emotional harmony for the sake of his freedom. Hurting herself is less threatening, easier, clearer, more acceptable. But her support is equivocal and not without conflict; she despises her role of benevolence. In times of "weakness" she challenges her own behavior: "She had always disregarded her dreams and her desire … why would she not make up her mind to will what she hoped for?" (p. 364). After all, "she need only say one word to herself, she need only say 'it is I.' But she would have to believe in that word; she would have to know to choose herself" (p. 293). Yet, Francoise continues to attribute her (unexpressed) anger, anxiety, and confusion to her own mistrust, and to her inability to transcend human pettiness. She is incapable of validating her feelings of jealousy and anger in the face of Pierre's higher, more noble emotions.

In the final analysis, however, Francoise chooses to be true to her own feelings and so to achieve the "ultimate" freedom: "Her own image became so loathsome to Francoise that she was faced with two alternatives: A lifetime of self-disgust, or to shatter the spell by destroying her who cast it. This latter course she took, and thus remained, triumphantly, true to herself" (PL, p. 270). And it is this fictional murder of Xavierre that gains de Beauvoir her freedom; killing Olga on paper "purged every twinge of irritation and resentment I had previously felt toward her and cleansed our relationship …" (PL, p. 271). Moreover, destroying Olga in a projected literary act was more than a cathartic experience. It was also a means of extracting and displaying her innermost feelings "By releasing Francoise, through the agency of crime, from the dependent position in which her love for Pierre kept her, I gained my own personal autonomy" (PL, p. 271).

The act of crime represents in de Beauvoir's writing the epitome of both individualism and immersing oneself into the whole of society. It is one means albeit an admittedly extreme one, of achieving independence. Indeed, in discussing her feelings of dependence upon Sartre, de Beauvoir makes an explicit connection between crime and personal autonomy:

The only solution would have been to accomplish some deed for which I alone, and no one else, must bear the consequences. But this would have meant society as a whole taking charge of the matter, since otherwise Sartre would have shared the responsibility with me. Nothing, in fact, short of an aggravated crime could bring me true independence. I often amused myself by a more or less close interweaving of these related themes.

(PL, p. 252)

Perhaps that is why the metaphysical aspects of crime have always fascinated de Beauvoir and captured her imagination: "… crime figured regularly as an element in my dreams and fantasies. I saw myself in the dock, facing judge, prosecutor, jury, and a crowd of spectators, bearing the consequences of an act which I recognized as my handiwork, and bearing it alone" (PL, p. 252). As de Beauvoir could not actually commit a crime—"Francoise, as I have depicted her, is just as incapable of murder as I am" (PL, p. 27)—she gained her freedom through a literary projection. The philosophical and onthological ties between the primordial state of "being true to oneself" and the act of murder has long historical roots. The connotative meaning of the Greek "authento" simultaneously reflects the virtue of power over someone or something and the act of committing a murder (Trilling, 1972). Similarly, "Miller (1973) traces the 'politics of the true self' back to the poet William Blake and shows that violence is conceived of as the ultimate form of self-expression and self-discovery in the writings of Fanon and Sartre" (in Turner, 1976, p. 998).

Much like Raskolikov's murder of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, which was a psychological assertion of his freedom and authenticity, even if momentary, so was de Beauvoir's literary solution of killing Xavierre. This was not merely a philosophical stand, but rather a means of recovering her autonomy and reaching a very deep emotional and psychological resolution. Francoise's real crime, then, was having refused to accept responsibility for her inner needs. Indeed, by justifying, rationalizing and suppressing her emotions, and thereby relinquishing her independence, she had been untrue to herself. Ironically, she purges herself of this sin with an act of extreme violence:

Francoise has given up looking for an ethical solution to the problem of coexistence. She endures the Other as an inevitable burden and then defends herself against this invasion by accomplishing an equally brutal and irrational act herself: murder. The rights and wrongs of her individual case do not concern me.

(PL, p. 270)

This should not be construed to mean that any expression of needs and emotions short of crime lacks authenticity. On the contrary, the ultimate solution of murdering Xavierre is employed by de Beauvoir to depict an act of psychological inversion, to indicate how unnecessary the act would have been if only Francoise had accepted and expressed her true emotions and needs. Authentic expression of needs and emotions through language is, according to de Beauvoir, a viable substitute for violence directed toward the self or the other. "The paradoxical thing is that [gaining my autonomy] did not require an unpardonable action on my part, but merely the description of such an action in a book" (PL, p. 271).

Interesting enough, the more accepted solution (by social standards) of having Francoise leave Pierre does not seem adequate to de Beauvoir, although it would have relieved her of an "awk-ward" ending, which has been frequently criticized by her readers, and which she herself recognized to be "beyond any doubt the weakest aspect of the book" (PL, p. 270). Yet she insists on this conclusion, as it conveys a personal truth which she desperately needed to express.

In de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings the need for another person (excessive as it may be) is distinct from dependency. Her ardent need for unity with Sartre is congruent with her desire for an absolute and essential existence. Similarly, it was not Francoise's need for unity with Pierre which condemned her to a life of servitude. What drove Francoise from her independent self was the lack of spontaneity and authenticity of her emotions and needs.

In summary, the re-reading of de Beauvoir's autobiography in a new light of feminist criticism, reveals a concept of dependency different from the need to rely on, receive help from, and be influenced by another. When one examines the meanings of dependency and independence through the female language of connectedness and women's values of care and involvement, the essential meaning of dependency shifts from lack of self-reliance to suppression of self-expression, and from struggles with separation to struggles with one's own truth and authenticity with respect to relations with others.

It may not be surprising, within de Beauvoir's philosophical framework of the onthological opposition between self and other, that spontaneity of desire and authenticity of expression are the intrinsic values of a dignified human existence, as well as those qualities which distinguish otherness and alterity from autonomous existence. This is not to say that de Beauvoir did not attach an utter importance to the economic and material condition of women. She continuously argued that a woman can achieve true autonomy only through the practice of an independent profession. However, authentic expression of needs is a necessary mediation between love and autonomy.

With all its philosophical connotations, the connection between authentic self-expression and independence ring intimate and psychologically close. It reveals an unspoken dimension of human experience which needs to be further explored and understood.

Whether inhibited self-expression indeed captures the core of women's inner experience of dependency in our society is an empirical question for another study. Nonetheless, de Beauvoir's autobiography does demand our reconsideration of the concept of independence defined as self-reliance and dependency defined as its lack, and calls our attention to the themes of spontaneity and authenticity of expression both in our interpersonal relations and in our sense of independence.


  1. I shall not enter here into the discussion of whether autobiography is or is not a genre of introspective text. However, there are a number of good works which discuss the issue of self in autobiography. For example, see Estelle, J. (ed.), Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, (London: Indiana University Press, 1980). Weintraub, K. J., The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978). Olney, J., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980). Gunn, V. J., Autobiography: Toward a Poetic of Experience, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). In this paper I adopt Gunn's claims that modern autobiography is a text exposing a displayed self, temporal, historical, and within language. The legitimacy of reading de Beauvoir's autobiography for purposes of learning about women's experiences of dependency and independence is based upon the following reasons: (a) autobiography is an activity within life; (b) autobiography refers to a world which it claims to express; (c) this world is at least partially available to another; and (d) autobiography is an effort of discourse and a system of exchange between the autobiographer and the reader.
  2. Even de Beauvoir herself indicates an awareness of the importance of unrepressed feelings. In an interview which took place in Rome in 1978, she told Alice Schwarzer (1984) that "Brecht's 'undignified old lady' was a woman who repressed her desire all her life and really let it rip." In contrast, testifying about herself, de Beauvoir said: "I have always spoken my mind as far as I have been able. I have always followed my desire and my impulses; in other words, I didn't suppress anything" (p. 84).
  3. De Beauvoir distinguishes between femininity, which is a "condition brought about by society, on the basis of certain physiological characteristics," and womanhood, which is an existential condition (PL, p. 291).


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Beauvoir, Simone de: General Commentary

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